By Rich "Beaker" Wyckoff
With better tools and game integration for add-ons, it would also become easier to sponsor homebrew contests on-line. It wonít be too many more years before most games, even single-player games, will have an Internet server. These servers will likely replace the homepages which nearly all games have right now, and will continue to provide the patches, bulletin boards, and news items which these home pages provide, but these servers will be directly tied in to the game itself. Every player will have an account, allowing them to store their characters on-line, register their high-scores, and pay for and download the professional mods. They will also be able to freely download and use expansions created by other players, and submit their own. Such a system makes it easy to implement systems allowing players to vote for their favorite add-ons each month, with prizes going to the authors of the winning mods. This lets homebrew authors get the maximum exposure for their work, lets publishers scout potential new employees even more easily, and provides a single central location for players to go for just about anything having to do with their favorite game.
Professional mod development seems like it would cause the mod scene to flourish and grow, and give amateur mod developers more respect and recognition, but what about its impact on professional developers? I pointed out in my last column that the fact that professional mods can be put together by individuals or tiny teams would benefit game company management by allowing tighter, shorter schedules and more use of contractors. This was one of the particularly worrying points to some readers, and anyone who has worked in the industry is aware of the fact that upper management rarely works in the best interests of "low-ranked" employees, despite the fact that in a creative field like computer games the real value of the company is the people who actually make the games, and not the game properties themselves. An industry move towards professional mods which promotes a large amount of development by small teams could very well lead to a worsening of the problem of resource shuffling.
There are no sure things when it comes to making computer games, but the theory that I have been developing in my time in the industry is that a great team will always make a great game. The difficulties are in defining what exactly a great team is, and thatís a subject for another column. All that is essential to know is that any good team will have a core group of perhaps two to five people, at least some of whom are team managers and can essentially lead the rest of the team. The rest of the team can come and go without dramatically affecting the teamís ability to make great games, as long as the core stays intact, and it is these small team cores you often read about leaving companies to form start-ups somewhere.
Unfortunately, standard practice in the industry is to shuffle people around at the drop of a hat while referring to them with the dehumanizing term "resources" like software development is some RTS game, even splitting team cores at times (this can happen if a team hasnít worked together for more than a project, as it is possible they havenít even figured out the dynamics of their own group). This temptation to treat the most important people to the success of a game as abstract units to be placed in slots would grow even larger if professional mod developing created a need for a bunch of single-person projects.
Some Hollywood-emulating computer game companies already hire employees on per-project contracts, and it has even become depressingly common for permanent employees to be laid off after their projects are finished if their company is having a hard time. It can be hard even for extremely talented people to hold jobs at companies between projects if they have been hired relatively recently. Add to this the fact that much of the industryís upper management donít actually personally know most of the people they are shuffling around as resources, have never made personally made games, and canít understand the concept of team cores, and you get a situation which really couldnít get a lot worse.
In a way, adding a lot of projects with single-resource allocations could help - it might give more options for people who suddenly find themselves on the top of the lay-off list due to their last projectís poor sales. As I mentioned last time this would also make it easier for people to get a start in the industry, especially as designers. Given the hope pinned on nearly every project to make the yearís biggest hit on the yearís smallest budget, most developers are extremely reluctant to hire on unproven talent even in a junior design role, since they really want every person to be able to do the work of two, and a newbie who might not even be able to match one resourceís work is just not desirable.
Even after further analysis, I believe that a shift towards enhancements which require professional homebrews would be a positive one for our industry. Unless the more raving capitalists out there decide to shut down homebrew development altogether in the name of profits, the mod scene should actually benefit from being a counterpoint to and training ground for professional mod development. The effects on the hiring and internal management practices of the industry could be negative, but given how largely screwed up this is at so many companies, itís going to take major efforts to fix anyway. Most of all, of course, internet-published professional mods would be good for gameplayers and this is why I developed the idea originally, since what I really want is to get more fun out of the games that I like.
- Rich "Beaker" Wyckoff is a game designer on the game Trespasser for DreamWorks Interactive.
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