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Let's Talk Business PDF Print E-mail
Written by Doc_Brown   
Friday, 03 March 2006 18:00

 

 

Go anywhere on the Internet and you can find all kinds of advice on mod design: step-by-step guides on how to program artificial intelligence, animation advice from a Hollywood professional, a plethora of mapping and modeling how-to's… you name it, someone has written something about it. How to lead one of these projects, though, you won’t find much on. With increasingly sophisticated gaming technology, the requirements placed on mod designers have become more daunting as well. It takes large teams to tackle these projects, and unless helmed by a leader who knows and means business, these projects will fail.


"I wouldn't be lying if I said that ninety percent—if not ninety-eight percent—of mods never get finished," says Chris Blane, project coordinator of the ambitious but now deceased Half-Life modification DarkTruths. This grimly accurate analysis will continue to grow bleaker as game engines become more complex and teams necessarily grow larger. The arduous task of directing the efforts of all these people falls squarely on the shoulders of the project coordinators, and a mod's fate ultimately rests with them. Ironically enough, in the fun-filled world of gaming, business strategies hold the keys to success. Welcome to your first seminar. 

Lesson 1

 

• Cost. Project coordinators rarely take into account how much dedication the mod will ask of them. Anticipate a development period of at least one year from conception to completion on a project that goes smoothly, and conceivably much longer on one that does not. If that level of commitment seems beyond your means, let someone else take the reigns to the project. You'll do everyone a favor, especially yourself.

• Corporations. Nothing will rip a team apart faster than a cease-and-desist letter. If you base your project on copyrighted material, check with the license holder's legal department—long before you begin production—to find out their stance on mods. If they refuse to let you proceed, come up with your own original approach to the material. Companies notorious for "foxing" productions include the source of the term, Fox Broadcasting Co., Lucasfilm Ltd., and Universal Studios, Inc.

• Comprehension. Once committed to a project you can legally proceed with, you'll need to figure out which engine best accommodates your vision. Take the time to learn the basic capabilities of your options, and make the best overall choice when the time comes. For instance, if you want an engine with particle effects and a good draw distance, but no one engine has both, can you easily program the missing element in, or should you rethink your idea? Base a good deal of your project's design on what you learn at this point, long before you actually take a crack at the creation process. 

Lesson 2

 

• The Plan. Smart project coordinators create design documents for their mods, breaking down every single aspect of production into its basic components. Tedious as it may seem, you'll save yourself a great deal of time later on. Having in-depth knowledge of your progress and priorities helps keep production organized and efficient. Consider that a simple in-game opponent consists of a model, skin, animations, sound effects, and artificial intelligence, and you quickly see how much work you might otherwise overlook.

• The Players. When it comes time to recruit team members, ads posted on high traffic sites will bring in less talent than you'd think. Your best bet rests on asking people for help specifically. To this end, make yourself well known to them beforehand. Never forget that these people will work for you without pay. Keep them happy, but don't put their interests before the mod itself. Prepare for some tough decisions, such as whether or not to keep a talented member who upsets the rest of your team.

• The Public. Also keep in mind that you need to keep your fans happy. Listen to what they have to say, and maintain an open dialogue with them. Establish confidence in them so they trust you to lead the production to completion, and never alienate them. One of their friends could become a valuable member of your team. They will have a tendency to forget the volunteer nature of the project, so do not overreact when they presume to make demands. 

Lesson 3

 

• Friends. If you base your mod on a somewhat general subject, don’t be surprised when you find another team producing something similar. Never make the assumption that they stole your idea and pick a fight over it. Establish contact with the other team and compare your projects. You may find yourself making a valuable ally that you can turn to later on, and may even wind up merging the two projects together to complement each other's strengths and weaknesses.

• Foes. On the other hand, if you do find yourself in a mod war, do everything in your power to extricate yourself from that situation. While friendly rivalry can benefit a mod's production, unfriendly rivalry will hinder your progress. If necessary, make some changes in your own design to differentiate the two projects enough to eliminate the conflict. You may not want to yield, but you must put the mod’s needs over your pride.

• Failure. The hardest lesson for a project coordinator to learn involves falling into that ninety-odd percentile. In spite of all your hard efforts, sometimes a mod just dies. Maybe new software makes your mod obsolete—as many Half-Life developers had to consider with the sequel's release—or maybe a crucial team member quits for personal reasons (marriage, kids, employment, accident, etc). Learn from these experiences, and apply that knowledge to your next project. Move on, but move on a bit wiser. 

•••••••••••

While we can give no guarantees in a volunteer industry with such ambitious goals, your odds of a successful release greatly increase if you keep these lessons in mind. Remember, though, that we've given business advice, and business still means work. "A mod is a huge personal commitment," says Chris, "easily as time consuming as maintaining a relationship with a partner." An apt metaphor for these labors of love we sacrifice so much for. But if you make it a labor of business as well, you've got a much better chance of the relationship working out.

Note: Originally posted at Hangar16.com on 11/26/02

 

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