game, game. repeat.

System Shock 3

Tue 23 September 2003

Like everyone else in the game industry, I too have a pet game idea or two. Having read most of the production articles at Gamasutra and much of Sloperama I realize that like most software and unlike Athena, games do not spring forth from your head fully formed. So a few weeks ago I started looking into just what it would take to build a game myself.

Start With an Idea, Add Salt

I started with the conceptthe 5 minutes of inspiration that forms the easiest part of the process. I loved System Shock 2, it was one of the most engrossing games I’ve played and I had always hoped for a third installment in the series. A third game did not (and does not) appear forthcoming…I can only assume that the 2nd wasnt enough of a financial success to justify one (or that the IP is to much of a mess, but more on that latter). So I got to thinking about how cool it would be to have a sequel built in the Source engine of Half-Life 2 fame. There is a nice sized cult following for the series that could help buzz a good sequel, the HL2 engine looks spectacular and would attract some attention to the games that used it. I figured there was some commercial potential there.

What It Takes To Make a Game

Searching the web up and down, I came up with these numbers: AAA titles take about 100k-400k hours to develop and probably another 100% of that to bring to market. The last price I had heard for licensing the Quake engine was $1m up front plus royalties. Licensing the engine would cut down on development a lot, but I checked my bank account today, and nope, I dont have $1m in there yet. And if I can somehow manage to hold down a job while I build the game, working alone at 40 hrs a week it would take me 48 years to complete a 100k hour game. And that’s assuming I can produce as efficiently as a team of experienced specialists. Maybe after year 5.

Well I’m glad I took the couple hours to fully assemble that reality check. A triple-A title is like a blockbuster film, you have to have tons of money and an experienced team–no way around it. Since I’ve never enjoyed raising money that much and I’d have little chance of doing it in an industry that I have no contacts and experience in, I figured it was time to think about what it would take to make a low budget game, El Mariachi style. Maybe instead of building SS3, I’ll ‘port’ SS2 to the HL2 engine as a mod. Instead of doing it by myself, I’ll assemble a team of volunteers that are all interested in learning the skills needed to make a game while producing a product they can show off to potential employers. We’ll get to learn the skills we need and produce a demo that might someday lead to greater things. Maybe SS2 for HL would just be a demo to show off our skills, or maybe it would lead to a SS3 project, or maybe the mod itself would be saleable (or useable as a marketing tool to promote SS3 before it is released someday).

Ok, So How About a Mod?

What does it take to make a mod? I looked at Counter-Strike and Action Half-Life as examples of great mods that I’d like to emulate. Although I couldn’t come up with any definite numbers from anyone, my guess based on the published timelines and teams for these mods is that each took on the order of 4,000 hours. Now, if I assemble a team that averages 10 people averaging 10 hours a week, it would take a year to produce a mod, including the added overhead that a team of 10 would take over the typically smaller teams. Sweet. That’s within the realm of possibility.

But that doesn’t mean it would be easy. The posts I’ve read on modding have made a few things very clear. Less than 1% of mods that are started make it to the finish line (in fact, I’ve come across at least 3 aborted attempts at porting SS2 as mod to other engines in the past few years!). Of those, less that 1% are Counter-Strikes. Recruiting (a seriously hard problem itself) and keeping a team of 10 volunteers motivated on a mod project is going to be the Herculean task. Everyone, including me, is constantly barraged with alternative ways to spend their time and cool volunteer projects have a special challenge in keeping everyone motivated and engaged over the span of an entire year. Even with the best management there will be things that come up and turnover will need to be carefully managed to minimize lost momentum. We’ll be changing race car drivers and car parts at 200 mph throughout the project. It’s easy to understand why less than 1% of the mods make it–even if you have the forethought to focus on how the heck to keep a team like this running it would be hard.

Bite Sized Chunks

I figured I should split the project into smaller chunks before continuing:

1st project is porting the first couple levels of SS2 to the Source engine, with as little divergence from the original as possible. The major objectives are 1) build a team and tweak the organization to keep everyone motivated and complete a project with volunteers, 2) help everyone learn valuable game making skills in their particular area of interest, 3) learn how to reverse engineer and convert a game (since that’s another marketable skill), 4) complete a useable demo that we can use to show off our work, 5) lay the foundation for our next project.

2nd project is to take the 1st project and make improvements to take full advantage of the new engine while preserving the original sense of the game. This would produce a new demo, showing off more creative design skills as well as our ability with the engine.

3rd project would be to build SS3 as mod. We’d have a team with all the skills and an organization capable of dealing with the challenges of volunteer based game production, now we would add the complication of an original story and design.


Oh, and there is that tiny matter of IP, like, we don’t own the rights to SS2. I spoke with Mikhail Islam of Irrational, the developer on SS2, and he thinks EA owns the rights to the IP, though that maybe complicated by the demise of System Shock 1’s development team, if they had any residual IP rights. David Cornish runs the biggest fansite for the game and he pointed me to EA too. I emailed Scott Evans, a producer on SS2 who works at EA and he referred me to Linda Chaplin in EA strategic sales, but I haven’t been able to get a hold of her yet. I figure we can move forward and if they object, they’ll certainly let us know. While we’d like to be able to share what we make with the world, it doesn’t change its value to us much if they say we can’t and we just use it as a private demo. It becomes an issue with SS3, but if we can’t use the IP then we’ll just make a game in that genre and use a different back-story and look.

Your Mission, Should You Choose To Accept It

I began this process with a game idea and I’ve ended up with a new project–figuring out how to build a game with a team of volunteers in a replicable manner. If I can figure this one out, I’ll have a formula for making substantial independent games, building and training game dev teams from scratch, and doing both without outside investment.

Which brings us to today. I’ve been bouncing ideas off of Ben Durbin, a former CTO friend of mine. He’s part of the Pixel Corp where he’s joined some film industry veterans who are working on similar challenges in film. They are building and training teams of enthusiasts–turning them into digital video studios with competitive skills. This could get interesting. :)

Updated on September 29th, 2013

Some of the links were broken. I replaced them with working links to pages with the same or similar content as before.