If making games was as easy as playing them, we’d all be developers, there’d be millions more games on the market and most of them would suck. One need only look as far as YouTube to prove this theory; yes, you’ll find the occasional talented amateur effort (alongside ripped TV shows and commercials) but the vast majority of “user” made content blows chunks.
Modding games is no different. For every amateur developer capable of turning out a Hexen or Counter-Strike, there are countless more whose names will go unpublished, whose levels will go un-played and whose efforts, tireless and dedicated they may be, will go unrecognized. The fact is, making games isn’t as easy as playing them, and although a considerable number of PC games now ship with a generous pack of dev tools and most people (with a little effort) can learn to use them, making a game with them isn’t as easy as playing one – not even close – although this fact certainly hasn’t stopped many modders from trying.
Enter: Long Nguyen.
“I’m a huge fan of all things horror, but I especially love zombies and the ‘zombie take-over’ scenario,” says the 27-year-old Nguyen, creator of the much anticipated Out of Hell mod for Unreal Tournament. “Before I started on Out of Hell I was really obsessed with the Resident Evil, Doom and Silent Hill games, and as a result I wrote some short stories about a zombie apocalypse.”
Nguyen, like an Umbrella Corporation of one, took the seemingly dead Unreal Tournament and, riding the current cultural obsession with all things recently-deceased-and-yet-still-living, molded it into a horrific creation of his own, then added in a few demons “for the sake of the story,” he told ModDB.
“I’ve loved videogames ever since I was 10 and had always wanted to create a game one day,” Nguyen recently told The Escapist. “With the release of modern games and their tools and editors, something I had only previously dreamt about became a possibility. Because I’d always vented creativity in one way or another, whether it was painting, writing stories, drawing comics or making boardgames, this became the next step in that whole process because it’s all of the above rolled into one!”
And twice as complicated, as Nguyen immediately discovered. Like many would-be game designers, he had absolutely no idea how to build one when he started, aside from a general understanding of how to make computer-generated graphics. What he did have, however, was a vivid imagination and time.
“A lot of my time … was spent self-teaching,” he says, “reading tutorials and building things from scratch. Because I began to develop better techniques for doing things and my art improved, I couldn’t help but go back and overhaul what I had done previously, a habit that eventually attributed to the delays.”
And by delays, Long means “years.” Four of them, to be precise. Over that time the game has gone through several iterations and acquired something of a cult following, with over 9,000 registered users at the mod’s official web forum and over 25,000 downloads of the game’s demo, representing tens of thousands of fans all clamoring, like the undead at the door, to know when they can get their hands on the product of Nguyen’s brains. If Nguyen has anything to say about it, they won’t be waiting for long.
“I hope to release it this summer so that I can begin branching out and pursuing other projects,” he says. But delays and unsatisfied fans aren’t all Nguyen has accumulated over the years. He’s also zombified an employee of sorts (unpaid) in the form of composer Justin Lassen, whose credits include a stint as a remixer for such artists as Madonna, Robert Miles, Lenny Kravitz and NIN; he’s also a former employee at Interplay.
“[Out of Hell] had everything that I love about games,” says Lassen. “Atmosphere, texture, moodiness, rust, decay, blood, resonance, subtle details and not so subtle details. I’m a huge fan of the post-apocalyptic genre. Plus, I was floored by the fact that it was created by one person. The mod community unfortunately suffers from its share of big, bulky teams, and Long is a breath of fresh air.”
Mods, it would seem, ironically suffer from many of the same issues plaguing commercial game design, such as feature creep, group think and unreasonable egos stifling creativity. As humans, we bring our horrors with us whether we’re being paid or not. Long, although his project ultimately suffered from many of the above-described ills in spite of his sparse development team, wanted to avoid all that.
“I wanted to learn as much as I could in all aspects of making a small game,” he said in a recent interview with ModDB. “I also liked having the control over the direction of the content while avoiding some of the problems that could arise with disagreements in a mod-team setting.
“The disadvantages (and there are many) are that it takes way longer to create. As opposed to being only a texture artist or a prop modeler and making only those things and then giving them to the mapper to put together, I’d have to do every single thing myself.”
He tells The Escapist that through the experience, he’s “gained a more appreciative attitude toward games/mods and the people that make them. It’s a lot of hard work, a totally alien concept that I just didn’t have before because ‘hey, it’s making and testing games, and that’s easy!’ So I would play a game and just label it as being good or crappy, go on a rant, and think nothing else of it. Now I know that a game that didn’t turn out the way the developers wanted was still the result of a lot of hard work and dedicated individuals had to go through stress, late nights and crunch-time, despite what I thought about it. It definitely casts a new light on my approach to games and outlook on people [making them].”
This isn’t news to Justin Lassen, who’s worked on his share of mod projects.
“I have always supported the independent game development scene,” he told The Escapist. “I’ve modded and worked in teams doing various roles for just about every engine. … I tend to act as a creative producer in mod projects, part biz, part design. Out of Hell is one of those rare gems where I didn’t have to do either. Long’s totally got his act together. This let me focus on composing, and it was really refreshing.
“I got one of my favorite collaborative experiences with Out of Hell, where the music and art end up influencing each other in a kind of dance. For instance, I was initially inspired by the screenshots, but then I started adding ambient effects in the tracks that gave Long ideas about what might be causing those sounds, and that influenced the game design. I love that back-and-forth.”
But back and forth takes time, especially when your development team consists of one full time programmer/producer/artist/coder/mapper …
“Out of Hell has gone through numerous overhauls throughout the years and ended up taking much longer than I had anticipated,” says Nguyen. “Though there were many factors involved, I believe the biggest issue was just that I was never happy or content with what I had created. Because it was all a learning process, each time I found a better way of doing something, I would decide to go back and bring everything else up to par with the current work.
“[But] the visuals weren’t the only aspects that I kept overhauling. … Initially, Out of Hell played very much like a standard FPS in that it was a straight-through, linear presentation. … I’ve recently implemented a new idea where the game will follow a set story arc, with other maps that you could choose to play in-between in order to replenish supplies. Though this has gone back to a more linear presentation as was originally intended, I hoped the decision would add just a bit more variety than the standard method, and I’m happy to say that it all finally works.”
Which should mean it’s time to kick the baby out of the nest, right? Not so fast. Out of Hell is, after all, a labor of love, and Nguyen still has a lot of love to give it. After four years, three story arcs, two engines, a professional score and a brutal course in the school of hard knocks game design, Long Nguyen has paid his dues by any accounting, but will the game be any good? Only time will tell, but even if it plays like Daikatana and looks like ass, Nguyen will be satisfied that he at least did his best and had a great time doing it.
“I kept thinking to myself, ‘Alright, enough is enough, people won’t wait forever so let’s just release it and release fixes and improvements with patches over time,'” he says. “But despite this and the friendly prodding of many people who wanted to see this project come to fruition, I always came back to the same conclusion that kept me from just letting it go.
“I have to make sure … the full version justifies the long wait and is as memorable an experience as possible. … Though I’ve committed a lot of time and resources to Out of Hell, I have no regrets on what has gone into the project because I’ve loved (almost) every minute of it. It’s an investment in that I hope it will make a strong enough portfolio piece (this is the sort of work that I eventually want to get into) to get my foot in the door, but it will only be a huge bonus because I just like doing this kind of thing for fun anyway!”
Russ Pitts is an Associate Editor for The Escapist. He has written and produced for television, theatre and film, has been writing on the web since it was invented and claims to have played every console ever made. His blog can be found at www.falsegravity.com.