Gamers, as individuals, can be very creative game designers and often come up with all sorts of new ideas. Of course, so few people ever act on those ideas. Once you hear the rumors about how competitive the field of videogame development is it’s easy to get discouraged. It’s almost enough to make you give up and let the existing professionals handle things.

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But what if I told you that there was a way in? An easier way; one that wouldn’t cost you a thing? That’s right; if you’re looking to break into videogame development, there’s a way right at your fingertips.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the art of modding.

Mods have been around for years, though console gamers may not be as familiar with them as they are mostly found on PC. Basically, mods are free content that are published by members of the gaming community and, though they can range from purely aesthetic to completely game-altering, none are absolutely necessary to gameplay. (Except maybe in the case of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, but we’ll get to that later.)

“Now wait just a minute,” you may be saying. “That’s all well and good, but how does modding get me into the videogame industry?”

I’m glad you asked.

Who developed the last game you played? Was it Valve? BioWare? Epic Games? Whoever it was, the preconceived notion is that your game must have been developed by trained professionals with years of experience. By and large, of course, this is true, but not all of those developers started with big fancy degrees. In fact, some of them started just like you and me, toying with ideas that they wanted to implement in their favorite games.

Look at Minecraft, the videogame industry’s latest wunderkind. This is a deceptively simple game, yet it has become a worldwide phenomenon. The lead developer of Minecraft, Markus Persson, announced late in April 2011 that Minecraft would implement official mod support, meaning players could sign up as “mod developers,” which would give them a licensing deal with Mojang, including access to Minecraft‘s source code. These mod developers could then have their creations entered as part of the full version of Minecraft, with an in-game certificate attached to the mod so that everyone would know who designed it. Though the very nature of this proposed API (application programming interface, or how the game would implement mods) has yet to be solidified or even implemented, it has gotten the Minecraft community talking. Being given credit – and possibly being paid – for contributions to Minecraft puts once humble modders just one step away from breaking into the industry. In a way, what Mojang has proposed is a request for freelance development on their game.

Admittedly, Mojang isn’t a blockbuster studio, but how about Bethesda Softworks, the company behind award-winning games like Fallout 3? Their community has a huge following of modders, no game moreso than the aforementioned Oblivion. Oblivion‘s community had so many complaints regarding the game’s design that players decided to take it upon themselves to rectify the problems. This led to a veritable plethora of Oblivion mods that “fixed” things that gamers thought were broken. (For reference, The Elder Scrolls Nexus, a compendium of mods for Elder Scrolls games, lists 25,235 files in their database. That’s a lot of mods!)

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One mod in particular, Oscuro’s Oblivion Overhaul, was incredibly ambitious and basically redesigned Oblivion from the ground up. As the website states, “It affects almost all aspects of the original game: Quests, Environments, Dungeons, NPCs, Creatures …” The list goes on. This mod was so well-received that Jorge “Oscuro” Salgado became one of the developers on Fallout: New Vegas.

But maybe you’re not interested in modifying existing games. Maybe you want to create your own title to earn your way into the industry. Well, if that’s the case, you’re in luck, because there are plenty of opportunities to do just that.

Every few years, Epic Games puts on the Make Something Unreal competition. The premise of the contest is simple: Teams of modders utilize the current Unreal Engine to make total conversion mods (standalone original titles based off a game engine) that are judged by various professionals in the industry. To date, there have only been two Make Something Unreal competitions – one in 2004 and one in 2010 – yet the competition quickly gained quite a deal of publicity as a place for fledgling developers to make a name for themselves. The winning team earns a cash reward as well as a license for the current Unreal Engine. This amazing prize makes it possible for prospective developers to form their own studio.

The winners of the 2010 competition were an unnamed team and, according to their site, their project The Haunted is quickly on its way to a full release. Additionally, Tripwire Interactive, the first place winner of the 2004 competition, has already proven itself to be a successful studio. In 2006, they developed their award-winning mod Red Orchestra into a standalone release, followed by Killing Floor. Like Red Orchestra, both Killing Floor and The Ball (the second-place winner of the 2010 Make Something Unreal competition that was published by Tripwire), started as Unreal Engine mods before Tripwire released them as full titles.

But don’t think that the only way for total conversion modders to break into the industry is through a contest. Games like Counter-Strike, Day of Defeat and Team Fortress all started as mods but are now published by Valve. In fact, Valve Software has long been considered a benevolent studio and is routinely publicized for offering modders (as well as newly graduated students) an opportunity to work for them.

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Maybe this stuff doesn’t apply to you, because you would rather make machinima videos. You have a more directorial and cinematic mind but you still want to get into the videogame industry, whether by directing cutscenes or creating cinematic trailers. Wouldn’t you know it, there’s a place for you too!

Lit Fuse Films, for example, was a team of machinimists that garnered quite a bit of fame due to their ambitious films utilizing Valve’s Source Engine. They (along with the now-defunct PHWOnline) were behind the feature-length film War of the Servers, a machinima film based on War of the Worlds but updated to appeal to a younger (and more videogame-oriented) audience. Machinima feature films like this were practically unheard of and people took note of their accomplishment.

In January of 2010, Lit Fuse announced that Zachariah Scott, Robert Stoneman and James McVinnie had been hired by BioWare to be cinematic designers. Stoneman, in particular, is quite successfully employed; his biography page showcases the vast quantity of content that he has worked on, ranging from Mass Effect 2 to Hollywood film work, and yet he had no experience working in videogames before co-founding Lit Fuse.

So, to recap, we’ve looked at: total conversion modders who have started their own development studios or have been hired by existing studios; partial conversion modders who have modified existing titles and gotten employed for their efforts; and machinimists who were noticed for their videos and consequently hired.

What was that about the industry being hard to break into?

Nick Jewell is an aspiring videogame journalist with a penchant for croissant sandwiches and the occasional shot of vodka. You can see his work at his personal blog, Loading Checkpoint, as well as on Digitally Downloaded.

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