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Thursday, April 03, 2008

Here We Go Again: Make Something Unreal

Apparently Epic and Intel will pony up a total of a million smackers to push modding for the Unreal engine.

Firstly, a quick preface. Despite how the tone of this post might sound, I think is Epic is kickass game company run by the virtually equivalent of ninjas. And I know their heart is in the right place and I know that I have never, ever, corresponded with anyone employed with the company who didn't honestly love modding, modders and the whole idea of embracing modding. Heck, half of them are modders themselves.

Now that the lovefest is out of the way, though, let's look at the results.

Every generation of the Unreal engine has resulted in a mod community which is smaller and more closeted than one before it. What was one a diverse group of people who openly shared ideas on a cornucopia of projects is essentially now a series of teams varying in size with little contact to each other and punctuated by a few lucky developers who have the resources to either a) code and map or b) code and model or c) both a & b. Other than that and it's mostly either quasi-professional people or people pushing into the quasi-professional realm and their main interest isn't necessarily to push the envelope of game design but in all honesty to get a damn job.

And if you think I'm being melodramatic, well, I look at the past 500 changes to the Unreal wiki and I kinda want to cry a bit (at least, of course, at the time of this writing). I mean, there was a time I used the recent changes pages to track new code that would come into the wiki and keep an eye out for new development - but those days seem to be dying.

Let's face it - modding games is a withering vine. Thankfully it's being replaced by indie game development in ways, but doesn't make it less a bitter fruit. Last year's Make Something Unreal winner was "Red Orchestra" a big rotating door of developers that honestly didn't have a lot of communication with the community and in the ned, from how I hear it, turned into a licensing deal and a nightmare of knots determining who was owed what. The Next Gen article for the next MSUC refers to it as "criticially acclaimed" and let's face it - that's being somewhat kind. If anyone on the team thought they were making the next Counter-Strike, I can assume reality has been added to their coffee now.

There is no next Counter-Strike. It will not happen. Counter-Strike was as much of a product of the times as of the code and those times have been gone for some time. I'm not saying that a plucky group of developers can't make a hit - I'm just saying you aren't going to do it by trying to appease a much larger company whose sole interest is adding value to an already published product.

And for the record, if you're the much larger company and you're reading this ... the same goes for you.

The problem with these contests is that they put a lot of resources into producing market pressured products. Even if someone gets a little attention for being creative - it's get lost into the ebb and tide of what is essentially a microscopic version of the annual Game Of The Year debate for which the whole industry flogs itself. A mod like Air Buccaneers (ever heard of it?) might catch the eye of a few seriously enthralled by the process - but will never get allocated the kind of love and attention to actually survive.

Course it is a lot harder to get resources to do the kinds of things that would be needed to really revive the mod community - like foster intercommunication, testing and feedback. But you might actually get something into the gaming gene pool other than another World War II shooter which would be quickly eclipsed by a handful of other, even more professional, offerings.

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