Modding for Design Experience

Feb 27, 2010

Q: I recently made a simple 80’s-style arcade game. In the past I got partway into a retro RPG but it has been on hold for a while. Professionally, my background and current work is programming intensive. I’ve also done some tinkering with OpenGL. Any suggestions on what to take on next?

A: Since you’re comfortable with game programming end-to-end, but have less experience in the purely design side (level/puzzle design, unit balancing, compulsion loops, difficulty progression, etc.) – would you be open to beginning by modding a game or two? This would be my recommended direction, since it would help balance your experience, and would give a structural foundation for considering design problems apart from their relationship to programming.

If there is a commercial game with mod tools easily available, I’d be open to helping get some traction there. I used to mod Doom, Command & Conquer, Descent, and Quake, but newer FPS and RTS games come with better, official tools. If no commercial game that has mod tools readily available piques your interest, there are dozens of freeware games I’ve made that I could hand over the source and assets for as part of exercises relating to puzzle, level, and unit design. There are also countless little puzzle and racing games all over the internet that support user-generated levels, character tweaks, or other modifications.

Engines that are a couple of generations older, or making levels and tweaks for smaller homebrew games, offer a very important advantage: the lower fidelity of assets makes it more plausible to all be done by one person, in a reasonable period of time. Older engines can also be a good springboard toward more modern tech, where a lot of the same concepts are at work as fundamentals beneath a newer layer of technology and design thinking. This isn’t to say, of course, that you should feel the need to change course from programming to being a level designer – I’m only suggesting that having some applied experience on the other side of the spectrum will likely unlock your existing programming ability to develop and act on new kinds of ideas in the future.

(Originally posted as part of Vol. 11)

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