A Special Feature for Fargo's Frontpage

Here at PlanetQuake, especially at the news desk, we hear a lot of stories about new "Total Conversions" that people are working on. It's often the same old song: A project leader has a great idea for a TC, and lists off a series of neato modifications: "New textures! New Models! New sounds! New Weapons! New Character Classes!" and so forth. Usually there's a web page devoid of content, followed by a plea for help and promises that this will be the best conversion of Quake ever.

I don't want to discourage such plans, since Quake modifications are one of the most exciting things about this great game. But I've seen lots of conversions come and go, so I thought I'd offer folks out there some advice on how to begin a project that is going to have some lasting value. Please take this information to heart as you begin your epic quest for the ultimate Quake add-on...

Advice for Creating Quake Modifications

  • Expect to Sacrifice. People code Quake full-time, and get paid to do it. Think about it. If you want to create a "professional" looking modification, you're going to have to cram two lifetimes into your schedule. Conversions of any great depth are a significant commitment of time. If you're a college student, you may have to give up weekends of partying, and your grades are probably going to drop. If you have a job, you'd better enjoy the work you put into the project, because every night you'll have to put in a couple of hours in order to see results. That means sacrificing television or sleep or just plain relaxing. Every Quake project of value is going to start out fun, but you can expect a lot of aggrivating problems and plain old fashioned work in order to see miracles. Don't let this stop you, just be aware of what it's going to take. If you're ready and willing to give up your recreational time and suffer through the periods of hardship, then you won't get discouraged when things get difficult. The important thing is to know what you're getting into, and when you commit, you should commit to stay or else not commit at all.

  • Offer Something of Value to the Project. I hate to say it, but cool conversion ideas are a dime a dozen. You might think that your idea rises above the pack, but you're never going to be able to find a team to support your endeavor unless you have something significant to offer the project. Perhaps you're a tremendous artist, and hope to create a series of funky skins and new textures for your world. Maybe you've got 3D modeling experience. Maybe you can code some awesome new teamplay modifications in Quake-C. So long as people see that you have skills of your own, and that you are working hard for the project, they'll be more likely to join your crusade and devote their own time to your baby. And with that in mind...

  • Start Small. Don't start to create a total conversion. A TC is a huuuuge step. Start by focusing on one element of your master plan, an element that you can develop single-handedly. Let's say you can code. Well, start by coding just one of the new weapons you'd like to see. Don't get distracted from your project, just work on one thing, plan it out, get it right, test it, debug it, then release it on the Internet or send it to some people you'd like to work with. "Here's code for a great new weapon -- do you think you could help me create a model for it?" you could ask. Once you've created this subset of your conversion, you will have accomplished several things:
    1. You'll have contributed something to the Quake community
    2. You'll have established your name as a source of talent who gets things done
    3. You'll have made contacts with other talented people and
    4. You'll have practiced your skills and have gained an understanding of the scope of your endeavor.
    I can't stress this enough. Don't dive into your project headfirst! Start small! If more people did this, we'd hear less hype and have more cool modifications to play with.

  • Assemble a Team. Most people try and do this step first, which ends up wasting everyone's time. Don't do this until you've already contributed something, until people can see what your work is like and understand that you're serious about what you're doing. Then, and only then, are you ready to find other people to help with your project. Some advice:
    1. Keep your team small. Large teams are harder to organize and increase the risk of people dropping out.
    2. Make sure you find dedicated people. Anyone can say they love an idea, but you should only work with people willing to make the same sacrifices as you are. Nothing will down a project faster than a key member dropping out because he or she just bought Diablo.
    3. Find the talent you need. Don't waste time with people who think your idea is cool but can't offer anything to the project. Make sure you find people just like yourself ... people who have already made interesting contributions to the Quake community and who demonstrate useful skills and a desire to work.
    4. Divide up the work. Make sure everyone who joins your team has a clear understanding of what his or her role in the project is going to be.
    Choose your team carefully. Don't accept contributions from anybody who wants to help. And be proactive ... a little classified somewhere isn't going to cut it. You've got to hang around on IRC and solicit the help from people whose work you've seen and enjoyed. Assembling a team may very well be the most difficult part of a conversion, but it's the one step that makes or breaks a project.

  • Plan. Plan. Plan. Well, okay, different people work differently. And, in fact, your project might benefit from a period of brainstorming where everybody shows off a bunch of cool graphics and patches and tries to figure out if they can be incorporated into the big scheme. But eventually you're all going to have to work hard, and hard work will be wasted if you don't firmly establish some goals. So design your game completely. Try and anticipate game balance problems, try to make sure that nobody is going to do work that will be thrown away before you're ready to release a beta. Then split up the work, set some deadlines, and get to business. Without a plan, you'll never get your TC off the ground. People won't be able to see what they're working toward, they won't have a grasp of the whole, and they'll start working on other stuff, instead. Try not to see a plan as a hinderence to creativity, look at it as part of the creative process. And make sure that every member gets to have a fair say in where the project goes, lest they lose interest.

  • Don't be an Ego. As part of the planning phase, it's important to realize that as long as you involve other people, you shouldn't expect complete creative control of the project. Especially since your work is probably going to be on a volunteer basis, you can't expect everyone to be a bunch of mindless droids determined to code your exact bidding. So be prepared to see your ideas change as others get involved. In the end, you'll probably see a better outcome. Believe me, I'm a writer, and I've collaborated on a lot of projects before ... it's hard not to call all of the shots, but it's worth it. There's something very satisfying about completing a project as a team.

  • Work toward milestones. It makes a large project more manageable. You can really create a sense of accomplishment if you lay out definite steps within the scope of the larger project, and you'll feel good as you meet each step.

  • Say "No" to Hype! I help to run the PlanetQuake News page. A lot of people start work on a Conversion, then expect Blue and Redwood and sCary and PlanetQuake to start spooging over it. No. If you're working on a conversion project, you're in a majority. There's nothing special about working on a project. But, news sites are interested if you offer something to the public. So here's a good rule of thumb. Don't make an announcement until you have something playable! Ideally some sort of demo, with functional code and graphics, will spark interest. Don't try and generate hype before you have something working. It just frustrates people, and news sites are sick of TC announcements filling their mailbox. Keep your project under wraps until you're sure you can impress people. Then you can maybe get away with a little hype, in order to spur the project forward. But you know what I'd love to see? The coolest of coolest patches just appearing out of nowhere, similar to the Airfist weapon. You don't need hype to succeed ... just talent, ambition, and work. Hype will fuel itself once you offer a fantastic project to the public.

  • Stay Organized. Keep your web-page updated, or create a mailing list for exchanges of status and ideas between the people involved. IRC meetings and phone calls are also good ways of staying on top. Your crew will begin to abandon the project if they feel the project has abandoned them. Also, if you're leading a project, I hope you've got some diplomatic skills. They'll come in handy.

  • Have Fun. Lastly, be sure to have fun with it. Chances are your project isn't going to be easy, and there are going to be difficult times ... maybe you'll have to spend a week chasing down a bug or finding a new artist after your old one discovers DaggerFall. And chances are you're not getting paid to do this. So the only motivation left is fun, and if you stop having fun, then you've got no reason to stick with the project. So take it easy. Make sure that you enjoy the work that you're doing, not just because the end results will be cool, but because you enjoy the process of creation. And that'll make the long haul not seem as long, after all.

Let's look at a couple succesful projects. When Dave "Zoid" Kirsch created the Capture the Flag modification, he didn't try and accomplish the whole thing at once. He used existing elements (the levels, runes, keys, and grappling hook) to create his game, focusing on the skills he knew best: Coding and Game Design. Only after he had an excellent product did he try and reach outside of his expertise -- that's when Whaleboy and others came aboard and we saw the new levels and models and textures. The result? One hell of a patch. It's so popular that other game companies are scrambling to add CTF modes into their games--Jedi Knight is just one example. That's what I'd call a successful conversion.

Here's a work in progress that demonstrates some excellent potential: Evolve. These guys made the airfist modification, and their artist, Christopher Bolin, is responsible for Some of the coolest skins ever made. Here's an organized team (they have their own news server for members), filled with talent and drive (members have proven that they can offer something through individual projects), who's ready to take on some ambitious modifications. They hope to offer a complete DeathMatch package, with new graphics, models, sounds, skins, and the works ... but they're starting with one complete element: the Airfist. There's a lesson here--take one thing at a time, and try to keep it simple. Go to their news page and read up on the latest news to see what I mean. They're concentrating on smaller projects right now, rather than the big thing in one lump. These guys are making a real contribution to the community, and I applaud their efforts. They're on the right track.

And one last note ... I realize I may have sounded discouraging, but remember that while any significant Quake conversion effort is going to cause a lot of headaches, it can also be extremely rewarding. If you're looking to find a job in the gaming industry, this is an ideal way to "show your stuff," so to speak. And if your conversion is really slick, you might even decide that it's commercially viable. An example of a conversion that's being sold right now is Shrak, which has all new weapons, monsters, levels, and utilities (like plastic explosives) to offer. It's a complete package, and it represents a great deal of effort. Of course, if you're considering a commercial release, you'll be entering into a very competitve market and you're going to have to go through all the troubles of finding a publisher and whatnot... more difficulties for an already difficult project. But if you think you've got the right stuff, far be it from me to tell you not to bite the bullet and go for it.

I hope this advice is helpful. If I've helped even just one conversion make it through the tough times, then I've done my job. Better yet, I've done my job if I stopped hundreds of Total Conversions from starting and fizzling out halfway through the endeavor. Good luck in everything you do, and keep on Quakin'!

Questions or comments are welcome! Email Fargo if you'd like to ask the professor something before next week's exam. The text and artwork of the above article are copyright (c)1997 by Dave Kosak. This piece was reprinted, with permission, for the Shrak CD. Permission to reproduce this essay for noncommercial use is granted provided this notice remains intact. Stop throwing spitballs! Thank you.