Growing From (and Surviving) Mod Teams
Breaking into the game industry can be a long and rocky road -- where does one even begin? There are many avenues to take on the journey to making games, and the best path is different for each person. For those looking to jump right in and start making games, I propose to you this: join a mod team! But what exactly is a mod team and how do you find one that's right for you? Let's figure that out...
What Is Modding?
Modding has been around since the first game enthusiasts peeked inside their favorite games and started modifiying little things about them for their own amusement.
Some modders make tiny tweaks, while others make entirely new gaming experiences out of existing games. These more ambitious teams can make new products by overhauling the core game systems, art, and UI. Some of the most popular franchises of all time started in the homes of ambitious modders: Team Fortress, Counter Strike, DotA, the Tower Defense genre, and many more all started as mods for mainstream games!
Team Fortress began as a mod for ID's Quake engine (shown here)...
...before moving on to Valve's Source engine.
Mods can be cosmetic additions for artists, scripts and statistical adjustments for budding designers, engine tweaks for programmers, or a combination of all the above. Mod teams also vary greatly in both scope and work practice: while some are formal, having tangible aspirations for product release, branding their game and looking to make a full fledged product, others take a more laid-back approach, working solely for the joy of making their gaming visions a reality. Successful mods have been born of all types of design practices, but for those just starting out it's best not to take things too seriously. Dream big and just have fun with it.
TF2 is now a flagship title for Valve's Steam service, and remains at the forefront of gaming innovation.
Why Join a Mod Team?
Joining mod teams isn't just about making cool stuff, it's also about growing as a game developer and paving roads into the industry. Most of all, you're getting a chance to work with a team on a game that someone is passionate about. This is living the dream and making games -- okay, you may not be making a living off it yourself, but it is an investment towards your future.
You'll be networking, meeting like-minded developers and hopefully creating long lasting professional connections. You're also developing “soft skills” and a work ethic: learning to meet deadlines, how to communicate and use group software like Excel spreadsheets and file sharing systems. If you're lucky, you may even get your name on a finished product that you can put on your resume or CV. If you hit the mod jackpot, you may even be part of the next big gaming phenomenon and go down in gaming history.
Finding a Mod Team
So how does one find a mod team? It's a jungle out there, but most mods can be found in gaming hubs across the internet. A good place to start is by finding games that are popular and very moddable and poke around their forums and fan sites.
DotA emerged from Warcraft 3's mod community, but its roots can be traced back to prior mods in the StarCraft editor.
StarCraft 2 is a hugely popular game with an incredibly powerful editor that's relatively easy to pick up for newcomers to modding and has a helpful and welcoming community at SC2Mapster. Whether you want to test the waters solo or look for a team there's a little something for everyone working with the StarCraft 2 editor, Galaxy. It also features automated scripting that can be a great foundation to learning to script and program if you want to take your design skills in this direction.
The flexible Unity Engine also has forums for all manner of game related activities. For those looking to dive into programming, GameDev.net is an incredible resource for C#, C++, Java, and much more, and Mod DB is a central hub for countless mods. You can even find sub sections on larger community sites dedicated to this stuff - for example, reddit's /r/gameDevClassifieds. Snoop around these sites and get a feel for what these communities are all about.
Keep an eye out for others in your position contributing to these sites and learn from their questions before spamming boards with things they've heard time and again. There are often helpful sticky posts at the top of boards that are written precisely for those in your position and hold a wealth of knowledge about how newcomers can make the most of the given community.
Most importantly, make your online presence someone that people want to work with and help, don't be overeager, and keep in mind that no one out there owes you anything, any help you receive should be met with great appreciation! Those who make it furthest are often those who best learn to help themselves. Online communities are great for learning various disciplines and finding mod teams, but so is a Google search.
Before You Jump In...
So you've found some communities, looked over some forum posts and even found some teams that are looking for help. Which teams should you offer your services to?
This will vary greatly based on what you can offer to a team. For those with little to no experience, you may not want to get involved just yet -- be a fly on the wall and see what's out there. In the meantime you can choose to do some play testing, report bugs, and give general feedback on unreleased mods while getting in direct contact with developers, but don't expect this to earn you a high spot on a team.
You're going to have to pick up relevant skills and software that allows you to contribute assets to a mod, be it art, sounds, design docs, or gameplay systems. Much like mods, communities exist around specific disciplines for game development, and Google searches will find you resources for learning such disciplines. You may also want to look into nearby community colleges or buy tutorial DVDs in the areas of your choosing. Having a firm base knowledge of a core toolset is vital to being a productive member of a team.
Many mod teams will need an experienced 3D modeller.
For those who possess tangible skills relevant to the industry such as concept art, pixel art, 3D art, animation, programming, scripting, sound, music, etc. You're going to want to find a team comparable to your skill level. If you're new to your discipline and -- let's say -- just picked up how to rig and animate 3D characters, you're going to want to find a team looking for an animator whose art assets are on par with your animation skills.
If you have the luxury of narrowing your search further, find a team that's working on something that interests you and takes things as seriously as you would like to. Are you doing this for fun, or are you serious about putting out a mod that will one day ship and find a user base? Find a team that shares your level of commitment.
It's Dangerous to Go Alone....
...take this advice! Zelda references aside, one can't be too careful when picking a mod team; they can be massive investments of time and faith and it's not uncommon to be used by those who would take advantage of the bright-eyed enthusiasm of budding game developers. It's happened to countless modders, including myself.
The most important outside element to your enjoyment and growth in a mod team is going to be how the leading members of the team manage the project. Be wary of control freaks, con artists looking for free assets, and those who jump quickly from project to project. Ask the other members of the team how things are going. Google is still your friend: check the background of the team members (via their nicknames and real names). Ask what prior games the team has worked on and look into the history of said projects.
This is especially important if the talk of pay ever comes up during development. Most mods are for fun and pay isn't an issue, but if it becomes one and you start feeling uncomfortable about not getting your fair share or that you're being exploited, sort things out sooner rather than later so you don't get burned.
Don't Assume Success
Now, before we get ahead of ourselves worrying about being on a mod team that's about to release the next mega hit and wrestling with the mod lead to get our name in the credits, lets try to set some realistic expectations.
Successful mods are like epic loot: rare. For every popular mod out there, there are countless unmentionables littering the battlefield unnoticed and unplayed. Odds are, if you join a team, a fully fledged mod will not come of it -- heck, you'll be lucky to finish the thing, that's the reality of modding -- but don't let this stop you from pursuing and growing in a team environment.
Minecraft has an active mod community!
You also can't expect the other members to hold your hand and teach you everything you need to be an important part of the team. Again, it falls on you to find outside resources to help you help yourself. The mod team is there to give you a focus while motivating you to work on a group project that's probably more fun and has a broader scope than what you can accomplish on your own.
Generally, not everyone on the team is going to be dependable either. No one's getting paid here and developers come in all types. Most teams keep a revolving door open for a reason; team members come and go, sometimes on their own accord, sometimes not.
Above all, expect the unexpected. This industry is changing all the time, the people, the pipelines, and the modability of games themselves is in a constant state of flux. No two mod teams will ever be the same, nor two game engines. Learn to roll with the punches and you just may go far.
Make the Most of It!
After you've made contact with a team, exchanged pleasantries and figured out what it is exactly you're going to do, it's time to make the most of it.
Be proactive if others aren't assigning you work. Find things you can do on your own that are easily put in the game. Are you an artist? Make some cool art assets you know will fit the mod and can easily be placed. Programmer or scripter? Create some side systems or tweaks that can easily be implemented and aren't vital to the core aspects of the game. This is a nice opportunity to do something you personally think might do well for the mod for your own satisfaction.
Be sure to communicate! Don't be annoying, but if others on the team have skills to impart its best for the team as a whole that everyone develops as the game does. Do your share and help others as necessary. Everyone wins when the team develops new skills and becomes more efficient. Skype is a free and powerful tool to communicate ideas and skills. You can use it to share your desktop and directly tutor each other in new toolsets.
Not all aspects of making games are fun and glamorous. Well sorted to-do lists are vital to producing games and mods.
For everyone to make the most of their abilities you guys are also going to have to get organized as well. Use spreadsheets to assign work, develop milestones, keep tabs on who's dependable and who isn't. Learn your team's strengths and weaknesses while tuning your game plan around this. Google offers powerful and free web apps to help with this.
As the mod progresses you're going to realize things don't always go according to even the best laid plans -- so be dynamic. Few things should ever be set in stone; it is vital to your mod's success that you learn what works for your team and you work within these limits to make the best project possible. You may start a mod thinking you're going to make a whole new game and in the end the game systems fall apart, so maybe your team just releases a new art package. That's fine! Even when things don't come together, everyone on the team has picked up skills that they can use on their next project. Success comes from many failures.
Now for a very ambiguous question: when can you get paid?
The cold truth is if you're reading this tutorial, it's probably not going to be for a while. You haven't developed the skills quite yet to earn a paycheck. If this is what you're after, you're going to have to hunker down and start working at your discipline of choice before you're emailing mod leads your bank account information.
The best way to gauge if you're ready to pursue payment is to compare your work to what's being paid for. You can check out the Unity Store and various other distribution sites to see what sells in regards to your discipline.
To further expand upon the issue of payment...
- If your work doesn't match the quality of work in the games you play, don't expect to be paid.
- If you want creative freedom and your own hours, don't expect to be paid.
- If you didn't properly vet your team, and the head of the mod was a con artist, don't expect to be paid.
- If the lead of the mod is legitimate and has expressed interest in paying for quality content, your fellow developers seem content and have told you they've been paid, you have discussed payments and deadlines with the team lead, and your work meets these deadlines up to the quality level expected, there is a very real chance you will be paid! Hooray, you've made it, you are now officially a professional maker of games!
Your own personal industrious nature will also play a very large part in your ability to find pay in this very tremulous industry.
But enough about pay! It's good to have a benchmark of where you need to be one day to make a living developing games, but it shouldn't be too great a concern for those new to the journey (unless of course your rent is past due, in which case you probably want to put your aspirations of making games on hold just a bit and find a more reliable and chronologically closer source of income).
Not worried about being thrown out on the streets? That's a relief, we can move forward. So much about making games is about having protection from the weather and a constant supply of power, something we often take for granted. Games aren't made with good intentions alone, you know? And that brings us to the next question: when is it time to leave a mod team?
Sometimes this is obvious, teams can simply fall apart when interest fades across the team. Are you being shunned? Not being given work even when you're being proactive and doing neat stuff the best you can? This probably isn't the team for you -- pack things up and find a team that will value your contributions.
Are you simply better than everyone on your team? Well, why didn't you find a team of comparable skill in the first place!? Find a team that deserves your quality of work!
Finally, are you growing as a developer? Have you made strides but most everyone else on the team is content to stay at their current level? It's up to you at this point whether or not you stay. If you find what you're doing fulfilling (and acceptable as a hobby), stay around and fulfill your passion, but if you want to become a full fledged contributor to gaming you're going to need to push yourself and put yourself in environments where you're challenged to grow. Find a new team, one where you can develop.
Mod teams can be fantastic stepping stones to full-fledged industry jobs. They are exciting experiences full of growth, self realization, and teamwork.
It's an absolute thrill to see your hard work mix with that of others to create experiences that can reach people the world over. Will you create the next DotA? The next Counter Strike? Or will your efforts be lost to the sea of broken dreams of game development? Whatever happens enjoy the ride and should you fail, respawn, respawn, and try again!