Take Me To Tinker Town

It’s 2am in the morning; the world is pitch black except for the faint glow of light being produced by my monitors. A feeling of frustration overwhelming my body, I turn to the TV for some entertainment only to find nothing but poker and home shopping, even Twitter has abandoned me – I’m on my own.

Taking a break I return to my desk, fuelled by a late night bacon themed snack, with the only thoughts in my head being that of “I should have had the Nando’s sauce not brown”. The game editor is open once again and things are now starting to happen. The frustration is gone and the creativity is now flowing, the latest Starcraft II map is being created and soon it will go from concept to digital battlefield where three factions are hell bent on maiming one another.

In the deepest recesses of my mind cogs start to turn and figurative light bulbs switch on one after the other, the break worked (bacon probably helped), I was back in a creative mind-set. It’s a familiar scene that I’ve experienced numerous times in the past, and one that I’ll no doubt indulge in again in the future; I’m building worlds, creating storylines and designing battlefields, to name but a few.

Sitting back in my chair I glance towards a wall behind my desk that I’ve affectionately dubbed, ‘The Cloud’. Scattered across it is a menagerie of paper, post it notes, photos and, I believe, there’s also a receipt from a service station somewhere along the M1 with something hastily scribbled on the back of it.  It’s been a while now since I started keeping all my ideas together; it’s far too easy for bits of paper to go walkabouts, lost in the void for all eternity to one day, presumably, get turned into an Argos catalogue. I eventually find what I’m looking for – a sketch of some sort detailing a landmass. I’ve no idea how long ago it was I drew this, where the idea came from or anything else about it in all honesty. All that mattered to me now was that I had my starting block, my blueprint if you will.

The ultimate late night snack...

It’s a common element I’ve found whenever I’m doing anything remotely creative, the end product always turns out better if you have some sort of guide in place along the way. You may have a fantastic idea in your head and, towards the start of the production process, it may be looking fantastic, but along the way things will at some point begin to dip, and you’ll end up with a bit of a roller coaster creation ranging from very good (top of the hill) to not so good (bottom of the hill).

Even at its most basic, a visual guide can assist you greatly. Ideas are always changing and, as I’ve often found, something you create at the beginning will likely have an effect on something later on – but you won’t know that until you actually experience it for yourself.  I find that a good idea just comes to you, usually at the most impromptu times, but a great idea is one that is developed over time.

So I set about creating the landmass, which within the Starcraft II editor isn’t the most difficult of tasks with its paint brush style application. The first phase sees the original design created as closely as possible, even if I can tell instantly that a certain area will have to be changed for gameplay reasons (far too narrow for example) it’s ignored until the first draft is completed in its entirety. Being able to look at it fully completed you quickly get an idea where things need changed, so with the engine tools at hand, I once again dive back into landscaping. This goes on for a few hours until I’m as close to 100% satisfied as I’ll get. Once the land shaping is complete it’ll then be time to begin playing with materials and textures.

Creating a map’s landmass that isn’t designed well – for example, an organic setting in which the mass features heavily square corners, with little to no natural curves – can be overcome, but a poor job on the textures and materials and it falls to pieces. It’s like having a lobster meal prepared for you and then asking for the ketchup (brown, not red, you do have to have some class), things don’t generally end well. Even a lush green field will likely have more than just grass in it so painting it just green won’t work; it’s the little details that make the big difference.

Just like DNA, the editor helps create the building blocks of life.

Painting your materials is likely one of the major points in the development process, it’s the first time you can realistically sit back and think “this is coming to life now”. With the paintbrush equipped, the first base layer gets thrown down – in this case, a green jungle-style floor. The base layer is just that – the foundations of what will eventually be the completed design. Layer after layer is added to the look, paying close attention to the geometry of the map; cliff edges get a nice, dusty rocky outline while frequently travelled areas get a make-shift path in the form of a dirt track, giving the impression the grass has been trodden flat. Every layer is nothing on its own, but all together they help form your world, turning it from an emotionless rock into a life breathing planet… unless you happen to be creating an emotionless rock – but even they need a bit of life.

My trusty Wallace and Gromit clock informs me that it’s now 8:00am, the outside world is devoid of any sunshine, Twitter is starting to come to life and Facebook begins to be filled with the daily status updates of “I hate mornings, woe is me”. My second life is coming to an end and, as I remove myself from my desk, eyes straining to stay awake, I pack up my things and head to University for the day where I’ll be, ironically, learning how to make games. I may not be the person fidgeting and fussing over the smallest of details as I had been a few hours earlier, but as I sit in the lecture room, my notepad isn’t taking notes, but designing bits and pieces for the evening’s activities – this is how to not spend your tuition fees folks.

These events will keep repeating themselves over the course of a few weeks until finally the project is complete. It’d be prudent to think that’s it though, no magic dusting of hands and things being filed away for future use, far from it.

Endemic Map Overview

The finished battlefield, symmetry being the key to a good SC2 map.

With the map now complete, a beta tag is lashed onto it and it’s sent out into the big bad internet for people to rip it apart, only for them to come back to you with a list as long as your arm about how bad it is and why it sucks. That’s just the thing, you spend so much time creating a world, making it feel real, full of life and character, but you forget about the all-important gameplay. There’s no use having a beautiful world if you can’t do anything in it other than admire the fauna and perfectly shaped cliff face.

Of course gameplay does feature in the early design concepts – it has to, even if it’s just subliminal, it’s always there in one way or another. Now though it’s time for the real painstaking process to begin: all of the minor gameplay tweaks that need corrected; pathways may need to be made wider or more narrow, even as far as creating brand new areas to house enough resources for matches to last a decent set of time and not fizzle out within a few minutes.  To be fair, even when that’s done you’re up against a never ending battle of tweaking, but that all comes part of the package when you’re creating worlds.

It’s a strange scenario as, despite gaming being a hobby that has swallowed a lot of time in my past, these days I seem to be doing less and less. This is all of course in relation to actually playing games, as the majority of my day to day schedule is gaming orientated. I’m either in University learning about games, at home doing work related to what I’m learning or doing my own little side projects. But even so, too much is never a bad thing or at least it hasn’t reached that point yet. I still love playing games, solo or multiplayer, MMO or racing. The passion is still there, the fires are still burning and, even now, I imagine there are goblins of some sort throwing kindling onto the flames, which are now furiously growing and hardly decreasing.

Playing games is one thing, but now my real passion lies elsewhere; I don’t just want to play games anymore I want to make them. I want to give life to characters, I want the player hanging on tenterhooks as they reach a critical level of the story and I want to create living, breathing worlds free from the confines of our own reality.

When I was eight years old I was asked by a Fireman who was visiting my school what I wanted to be when I was older, presumably thinking I was going to choose Fireman. He was a bit taken back when I said I wanted to make games. Fast forward to the age of fifteen, I’m about to leave school and venture into the big wide world. The school’s career adviser, doing her annual end of year interview, asked the same question, the response was similar: “I want to make games.”  She looked on in disbelief at the sheer horror escaping from my teenage maw. I went for my college interview and told them the same; Incidentally I chose not to go to College due to their attitude towards it, choosing instead to teach myself bits and pieces before landing a job in the industry. Not to break a habit of what seems a lifetime now, my University application said the exact same thing.

So here I am sat at my desk, Wallace and Gromit are happily informing me it’s 4am… I’m sat here making games, creating worlds.




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9 Comments

  1. Edward says:

    I’ve never been one for being able to make custom levels in a game and tinker about with anything like that. I’ve tried before and failed miserably, with my only real success creating Advance Wars maps on my game boy, or really shit ones on Red Alert. Since then I’ve taken up a mantra that I’d rather be the one to play the games rather than be the one to create them, deeming myself not to have the skill with computers or having that kind of a mind to be able to create those ideas yet as well formed as I’d like them to be. Admittedly, the idea of one day helping to write videogames would be an amazing experience and one I’d relish, but doing what you do? I couldn’t do that, and it’s a reason I’m envious that you’re able to do so. One day you’re going to be making games that I’ll get to play and enjoy and see your name in the credits, and I’ll point the name out to the person next to me (I’m assuming someone will willingly/unwillingly be next to me in the future, it’s a big leap, but let’s see how it goes) and go “I know that guy. He’s awesome, and he’s just help make this game that little bit more special to play”.
    Or, you end up making Call of Duty sequels until you can only communicate in gunshots and consider the No Russian level foreplay. Swings and roundabouts.

    In any case, great article Ben :D

  2. Knikitta says:

    Fantastic article as always – at least now I have an insight into your night time routine when I was positive I could smell bacon and you kept denying it! (jk)

    I was knocked back by teachers and lecturers during school and college as well for my desire to work in the Games industry. I was more than happy to throw it all back in their faces when I became a TV Presenter for a Games publishing company, and again when I saw the publishing of a further two games with another company.

    Can you get a fireman’s’ uniform anyway.. you know… in case you change your mind? ;)

  3. MarkuzR says:

    That was awesome dood! I’m perhaps a little biased as you’re talking about all the things that I expected to be doing with my evenings but have just never got around to for one reason or another (read: GL). I’ve opened the Command And Conquer “World Builder” god knows how many times, pressed some buttons, read through some dropdown lists, placed a couple of walls or structures and ended up going back to work. Same goes for the Elder Scrolls Construction Set and the Fallout 3 GECK… all of these have found their way on to my PC but never beyond a cursory “oooh that looks nice… I must go back to that tomorrow!”.

    Alas, tomorrow never comes. Maybe there’s not enough foreplay?

    The ONLY time I ever stuck with any sort of level editor was with Trials HD when I became utterly addicted to making the most hellbastardly awkward tracks I could to make all my friends happy. Some tracks literally took days to build as every obstacle would end up being moved just a few pixels further from the previous to make it as “pixel perfect” as possible to reach each subsequent checkpoint. I fell in love with the level editor more than I did the game, to be honest. I reckon the same would happen with C&C, Elder Scrolls and Fallout 3… and that’s both good and bad.

    I loved this article though, not just because of the scene setting, but because it was a genuine glimpse inside your head for a while and a chance to find out about “The Cloud” and how dedicated you are to your craft. Top job dood!!

  4. Lorna says:

    I really enjoyed this because we rarely get insight into this part of the gaming world and it is a fascinating one. I remember very much enjoying tinkering around with the Dungeon Keeper level editor and making my own maps, but I don’t think I ever got to play any of them as the actual process of creation itself was more absorbing! I’ve always been in awe of the people who tinker around in the Elder Scrolls Construction kits and produce some stunning stuff. I always feel like I am missing out, so perhaps when Skyrim hits and the dust settles, I may step up and give it a go – I’m sure there will be a mod kit or set of construction tools for it.

    As for planning stuff out, couldn’t agree more. All my best creative ideas have grown and developed from small ones that have been tweaked and changed and altered. Allowing an idea to grow organically creates some very incredible things and they tend to be far deeper and more solid.

  5. rich says:

    I’ve not really got the patience for user-generated content (making or playing) but if done well it can be spectacular.

    I really ought to play Starcraft 2 at some point. Mrs Blucey has it I think.

    Good article, Ben. Spectacularly niche as well!

  6. stu says:

    I’ve really enjoyed reading this and may have to steal that cloud idea in order to try and lock down a few of my meandering thoughts that actually make it onto paper.

    I’m envious of the fact that you have the patience and skill to create anything game related. Too many times have I glanced wistfully over the XNA website, a level editor or some other game creation device only to realise that I don’t have the perseverance to learn a programming language like C# nor the patience to go into detail on a world editor. The idea I can create games drops to the back of my mind for a while only to resurface when I play a particularly poor game or someone on twitter announces a game creation competition.

    Nice article and interesting to read a bit about the creative processes of a ‘creator of worlds’. =D

  7. Kat says:

    Interesting read Ben! I… ummm… created some mini levels on Tenchu 2 :/

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  9. Adam says:

    Any game I’ve ever bought, if had an editor I’ve had a tinker with it. Never to the extent you have mind, I always just wanted to test out theories, push the game to the max and see what happens.

    I love Trackmania. A forerunner of the LBP empire whereby users created tracks and that formed the entire basis for the games Multiplayer. Around 60 racers all buzzing around the track trying to set the fastest times (no collisions) and then after 10 minutes or so it would cycle around to the next. It was brilliant to see the creatitvity involved, the precise calculations that were in for PFTS (Push Forward to Start) levels where you literally just had to push forward to navigate the first obstacle and trust you bouncing off 3 walls before flying off a cliff face where you can’t see the road beneath would result in you landing perfectly on all 4 wheels. The effort involved alone in creating all of that was phenomenal let alone the rest of the track.

    I think the only thing I ever did was play with turbo pads and ramps mind you…

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