By Rich "Beaker" Wyckoff
I've been designing games professionally for three years and thinking about designing them for most of my life (when not playing them). I tend to present strong opinions, but I want to make it clear that these are only opinions, and I don't want to come off like some of the famous names in the industry who seem to think that selling a lot of copies of a game and getting attention from the press makes them an expert on everything about making games. My tenet is that if you claim to know everything, you're missing out on the fact that there's always something new to learn, some other opinion which is worth considering, some experience you are still lacking...
n the last Bent, I described a game expansion scheme that is quite a bit different from the current industry standard. This scheme was intended to have great benefits for consumers and publishers alike, increasing the market life of even moderately successful games while generating more add-ons than we currently see. Some of you expressed concern that while such a scheme might benefit the customer and the publisher, it could hurt the mod scene, its authors, and even developers like myself.
The essence of the plan I described is for developers to combine the example of homebrew game modification makers with the product-line extension schemes of paper game publishers like Games Workshop. This would result in publishers making a large number of cheap game expansions available for purchase and download directly from their website in order to extend the lifespan of all of their games in a way currently impossible for all but the yearís biggest blockbusters. It is clear that the worst scenario would be that if a large, greedy publisher decided to start selling products similar to current homebrew mods they might also decide to eliminate all competition to their official expansions by blocking any fan add-ons altogether. However, our industry has not yet been completely ruined by this type of corporate greed, and I believe that, properly handled, an increase in the number of game expansions should actually promote homebrew development rather than kill it.
Step back and take a dispassionate look at the mod scene for a moment: readers of loonygames are some of the most hardcore fans and developers of games, and to us, homebrew development seems like an omnipresent and powerful force. However, there are actually very few games out there which really allow and generate a lot of user modification - half or less of the small number of games each year which hit blockbuster status. To the less hardcore game players and makers, homebrew development seems like a nearly-ignorable portion of the already small diehard gamer market - small compared to the huge number of potential game buyers, anyway. Furthermore, the homebrew community is mostly centered on first-person shooters, but only because it was Doom which set the model for homebrew expansion and not a game in some other genre. So although the homebrew community is very vocal, it is by no means as widespread or variegated as it could be.
Yet as small as it is, this community already serves as a source of talent for the game industry. In the worst cases their work is exploited by being conglomerated into cheap third-party level packs, and in the best they are hired on as designers, programmers or artists by developers who have seen what they can do. There isnít exactly a surplus of competent game developers, amateur or professional, and in order to increase the number of games which get expansions in any year from a dozen or so to a hundred or more is going to require a lot of new employees. Having an active user community who are already familiar with publicly distributed tools is one of the best way to find these new employees, especially for specialties like level building for which there is no formal education available. I think that rather than stifling the current scene, professional mod development would actually lead to growth in homebrew mods.
I believe that professional mod development would not only increase the number of people making mods, but also lend more legitimacy and sophistication to the products of the mod scene itself. As fans of homebrew mods, we are currently used to getting them for free from various websites, or even on the CDs of game magazines. Yet because they are free, we also accept many more bugs, installation difficulties, and rough edges. These are perfectly acceptable in a piece of free software, and I would expect free add-ons to continue to exist in pretty much the same form they have now, but to be salable, published mods would necessarily need the extra amount of polish which we expect from a game product with a price tag, such as high-quality art and menu screens, pre-bound keys, and playtested and play-balanced content.
However, even if the professional add-ons are of a higher quality than most of the free ones, that doesnít mean that the homebrew scene has to die. Even with a bit of slicking up, there are entire classes of mods which would probably never be worth paying money for - like the many silly patches to do things like change projectiles to dogs or cows. And, of course, the popular copyright-violating mods like player skins from movies or other games would also not be publishable, for obvious reasons. Yet the desire for these sorts of patches will not go away, and mod authors could still have a field day churning out tons of them just for the fun of it, or as "portfolio work" to help in getting a job making the professional mods.
Another positive side-effect of the development of professional mods would be an increase in the quality of the tools and support for making mods. Many people, even many hardcore gamers, really donít want to have to make batch files, alter config files, or compile code just to try out a game enhancement. For mods to be sold professionally, they must be made easier to use. This would include changes to the structure of games themselves, such as point-and-click facilities within the main program for tracking, loading, enabling, and disabling mods, replacing todayís arcane command-line sequences. Furthermore, the tools for making add-ons - level editors, model converters, and the like - would have to become more common, easier to use, and better documented, a direction I feel any forward-looking company should be going regardless of how they feel about internet mod publishing.
|Credits: Beaker's Bent logo illustrated by and is © 1998 Dan Zalkus. Beaker's Bent is © 1998 Rich Wyckoff. All other content is © 1998 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited, so don't do it. We have ways of making you talk.|