This is an article I posted a fair while ago on Campaign Creations that is essentially a "summary" of how I handled project production, largely focused on my ethics of managing Starcraft conversions of large scale. I make significant effort to provide explanations and tips where ever possible in a light-hearted and blunt manner so there is no confusion as to what is what.
I'll have edited it a bit to suit the TL audience a bit better. In particular I'll try to point out what the programs are that I'll be naming throughout the article and try to clarify terms and such.
Though this article is focused on Starcraft I'll be talking about many games, and what I'll be talking about can be applied to all walks of game design in general. I'll be creating a video series in the future based on my GEC's, a documentary if you will, which will go more in-depth than this article does and I will be doing my best to provide visualizations of my concepts through CGI and clips/gameplay footage.
Before we begin I am going to dispel a very common misconception; mods are not maps and vis versa.
A map environment contains a set of elements which are experienced only in the lone map. Python is a map, Outsider is a map. When you played DotA and then Echo Isles, you are experiencing two entirely different games. Maps are almost always restricted to arbitrary size limits that prevents much custom content from making its way inside.
A mod environment changes everything in the entire game. Blizzard games have always required external, third party tools to make mods happen, and more importantly to run them. A mod has no size limit on its content and can be grand or small. When you a run a mod, you'll experience changes on both Python and Outsider, and potentially DotA as well if the elements don't conflict.
In a AoS I made, I used an external mod exe for the map to load data from to backdoor the map size limit. However, the mod exe was still a mod - it had custom sounds that changed the sounds of standard Warcraft 3 unit weapon impacts across any map you played while the mod was active.
Mods typically involve far greater workload than any map, as the talent required to make a significant mod is much more varied and often much more difficult to get into.
Index - The Meskian Zen of Modding Starcraft - Part 1
By using Control F you can quickly navigate to which portions of the article that interest you most.
- Segment 1 - Conceptualizing a Life of Modding
- Segment 2 - Game Design - The Elements of Graphics and Gameplay United
- Segment 3 - The Power of Sound in Immersion
- Segment 4 - Centralization of Motion in Sound and Cinema
- Segment 5 - The Conundrum of AI
Frame of a scrapped render I was working on for unannounced cgi intro; BC model and texture by SgtHK, scene and effects by IskatuMesk.
In this mega article I am going to explain from top to bottom my thought processes on modding. I will cover everything everything from balancing techniques, testing strategies, AI design, to organization, workflow, and keeping motivated. This will be an absolute guide on how I used to mod. It will be blunt, it will be rude, and you'll feel as though you've just ingested a can of bear semen once you're done.
The Meskian Zen of Modding
Armageddon Onslaught, the last of my Starcraft mods.
Understand the methods to the madness of my decade of modding. I treat modding as an expression of the mind, not as a simple gimmick to give some guys a nightly yuck or two. Unless you are prepared to make sacrifices for your dreams your dreams will never breathe.
This is how I mod. This is how I treat modding. Other people have different approaches, sure, but this is what I think like, this is how I manage things, and it was worked flawlessly other than my own personal failures to which I can only blame myself of. I don't expect anyone to follow my methods to the letter, but rather for this guide to inspire thought and consideration of time-proven methods. Modding as a whole is in a great decline and I feel it is because people approach modding from a totally wrong perspective, and have very bad management and work ethics. I am totally retired, so I feel it's time to share this knowledge with people and let go of it at long last.
Segment 1 - Conceptualizing a Life of Modding
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I'm not particularly skilled at what I do, but I find that I have a talent of taking all of that eh stuff and fusing it together into something new and fresh that captivates my audience.
I didn't mod for a hobby. I didn't think of modding as "Oh, I'll just do this and worry about stuff later." If you treat modding as a hobby, or as some side project, here's a word of advice:
Stop. Just drop modding and never look back. All of those one-hit wonders who start a project and never complete it? That's you. Stop contributing to our pain.
The most important thing you can do to start your modding career is to treat it as a quest of the mind. It's not work; don't invest money into it. But it's not a hobby, either. If you treat it as some side dabble you will get nothing done and it will be totally pointless. If you have any hope of producing anything worthwhile or releasing public content, you have to be devoted and motivated. If you're just dabbling into modding for the lulz and not wanting to achieve anything, why are you reading this article? Also, don't treat modding as a gate to the industry. That won't work, either. Only in very rare circumstances will it get you into the industry, and unless you like your hopes and dreams to be repeatedly crushed you're better off not even worrying about it.
I create Total Conversions. They require significantly more work than most campaigns or minor modifications or individual maps. To start a project of this scale, you need to prepare yourself in body and soul. This may sound cheesy, but being ill-prepared and not having a foundation to work with can utterly crush your project no matter how devoted you are. Consider what it is you are about to ask of yourself. If you are frail of mind and weak of heart your conviction will falter and all of your work will be meaningless in the end. That is, of course, unless you treat a mod like I treated ITAS - I ventured into the mod knowing it would fail but I did it anyway just to test out my new rhino 3d models in Starcraft. Later I returned to it and perfected a method of putting 3ds max models into starcraft, so while the mod was never finished it served two important purposes and contributed to my skillset. To that end I rarely ever spoke about the mod and only released it long after it died out of randomness.
Know thy limits
When I first started SC modding, I didn't know jack shit about computers or modding or whatever. I started modding AI simply to create an ultimate opponent, and once I discovered Stardraft, that drew me into actual modding. Mostly dat (attribute) changes. Soon, I wanted custom graphics. That allured me into ICE (GUI animation editor).
Back in the day my hovel was not so much a hovel as it was a corner fit with all of life's needs. For all my life I have willingly remained secluded to such workstations. This is my workshop. This is my forge. This is my theater. This is where all things begin and end.
For the longest time I used Arsenal2-3 (extremely old data editors) and ICE. Even after I met HKS and we discovered that ICE and the Arsenals corrupted shit and broke it, I didn't want to use IceCC (text-based scripting) or Arsenal Zero (converted data to text files and back) because they weren't as simple to use. This unwillingness to adapt to better programs meant that most of my mods were corrupt and crashed a lot. Soon after that, I wanted my own graphics. So I had WarGiant teach me a bit of Rhino 3D. Let's face it, I'm a horrible modeler. Most of my early models were just glorified kitbashes of other models. They looked awful, but they were still a step ahead of traditional starcraft kitbashing. Then I wanted music, so I started learning Gigastudio and Cakewalk.
The very first rendition of the Undead Zeral`Motakk within Rhino 3d. Converted to polies this exceeds 1 million polygons. It is comprised of dozens of pieces of random models off of the internets and was created in early 2003.
Ultimately most of my ventures, like music composition and 3d modeling, were utter failures. But through attempting to learn these skills, I instead learned valuable lessons and little tricks that helped me out anyway. I can't make a character in 3ds max, but I can use Afterburn to create some pretty nice looking effects. I'm totally fucking clueless in photoshop and paint shop pro, but I can masterfully process existing graphics and create totally new stuff out of them, or remaster graphics for usage in starcraft and improve color depth from the palette conversion. These skills allowed me to create some of the dazzling effects you see in Armageddon Onslaught, as well as edit some existing graphics to produce higher-quality graphics or alternate versions (Red Drake -> Ghost Dragon).
The key to making your world breathe is being able to envision it in full life. To do this, I use music as a source of environmental energy. Sound is the greatest of all languages in my world. Sound can portray images to me words never could. Within this chaotic image, I see a lot of incomplete shit. With just the right tune, I see the Undead descending upon the Anahn in a glorious, chaotic brawl with hulls baked in searing radiation and space raked with blazing lances of blood-flame. Only once you have a vision can you begin the path to harnessing the power of your tools.
I started off fairly small, and worked my way up. From AI editing, to dat editing, to ICE, to evolving my skills and using IceCC. From MS Paint editing graphics to paint shop pro, I identified and used the best utilities available.
As Starcraft is now a very old game, it's very easy to establish the skills you need. Before starting a mod, you should recognize and acknowledge the skills that will be demanded of you. Never start a project expecting to rely on someone else for something, unless you know that someone very well. As a rule of thumb, never run a total conversion with a team larger than 3, including yourself. For Starcraft, it is vastly unnecessary to overcomplicate your work with so many unneeded people. Furthermore, these team members should exist only to create assets that you make use of.
Starting your project - establishing yourself and your role
Never, under any circumstances, start a project you cannot see through to the end on your own. Every team member you add introduces barriers, complications, and hoops for you to jump through. Counter-strike was first developed by just two College students. Garry's Mod was essentially run by a single guy. You do not need a team. Know your abilities. If your abilities are largely insufficient to run the project on a one-man show, or you don't have the time, do yourself a favor and just don't start.
Ideally, if you have a few people you know very well and can trust to keep dedicated to your project, your team organization should look like this;
You: Everything modding-related.
Them: Asset creation or external file management.
Example: Mucky did the strings in MFTGATRL. ASofT created the Space Tileset for ITAS. poiuy_qwert renamed files and such for AO. I ran the show on my own. I kept everything under the hood to myself. I didn't discuss my plans. I just gave general updates as I did things and worked in total solitude.
I follow a simple concept of team management. Other than mods like MFTGATRL where HKS directly participated in mod creation, I consulted people on an as-needed basis. This allowed them to do whatever the hell they want with their lives but under the knowledge that I would eventually call upon them for assistance. They are not a part of your "team" - they don't have to hang around waiting for you to give them something to do. This is all "outsourcing".
Often with outsourcing to other modders specifically I operated on a simple work ethic. Traditionally, I don't allow anyone to use any of the content I have created in their mods - unless they do something significant for me. I would propose a trade for something significant. For example, when ASofT did my space terrain, I allowed him to use a variety of old ship graphics I had lying around for Temptation. It's nice to have people who will work for nothing but don't become dependent on the concept. Think ahead; if you need graphics, but can't make graphics yourself, you're fucked. Modding is extremely competitive, even in small games - everyone with talent has their own thing they want to do or has their own commitments elsewhere. No, that guy posting shiny renders in the Media forum is most likely not going to help you with your amazing new killa campane, especially when you haven't proven you can do something decent on your own yet. No one wants to drag your project along for you. Bear the burden or find something less demanding to spend your time on.
Think about the people you know. Don't think about them as potential team members - humans by nature are extremely lazy. The prospect of someone saying, "Hey, a few days from now I might need you to make a short script to renumber some graphics" is a lot more inviting than "Hey, want to join my project and get a whole ton of work offloaded onto you?" Even if you mince words, that's ultimately what you're asking of them.
Establishing your abilities and goals
Putting World of Warcraft graphics into AoW2 was a seriously painful and long process to do. First you had to convert the graphics to the wc3 format, then you had to use the ancient mdl importer that only worked with max 5.1 (the wc3 community is extremely lazy) to import one animation at a time into 3ds max, and fix all of the major issues with alphas and lighting - I had to disable lighting entirely for many of them - and rig a large network of cameras and batch processes to spit out a series of frames. Then you had to rename all of the frames into a specific arrangement. Thousands of frames. Then, once everything is in the right format and all is said and done, can you finally convert the graphic and create a multi-megabyte ilb. Then you get to center it and sort out the frames in the AoW2 editor. Because I had already done this painful and difficult process previous to the work on Armageddon Onslaught I was able to complete 90% of the steps to getting a graphic into Starcraft - save lighting, that I needed SgtHK's help to fix.
If you're breaking into modding and aren't very skilled, take the time to brush up on the tools and techniques before starting your mega conversion. With Armageddon Onslaught, despite my previous experience, I worked off a previous tech demo I had created for an ill-fated campaign, and established a proof of concept with the AI training heroes before actually lunging full speed into the gates of hell.
The brilliance of the Age of Wonders 2: Shadow Magic editor lays in the fluidness of its user interface. A game can be hell to mod or an enjoyable experience, but either depends on the tools you use. The community remains small because the game's audience is small, but talented mappers still produce high-quality content to this day.
Neverwinter Nights 2's editor broke far away from the concepts of ease of use and fluid interface established by the first game's editor in addition to use the Granny model format which is extremely difficult for modders to deal with. Consequently the game's custom community was not nearly as large. Though this article focuses on Starcraft, the concepts employed by my words here can be applied to any game. Know your tools' capabilities and what the game can handle before you truly begin. It doesn't hurt to ask around.
The most important part of a new mod, especially in Starcraft, lays in graphics. 99% of modders rely on poorly-made kitbashed graphics, often the same graphics used by every other like-minded mod. It's important to make your mod stand out and be unique, unless you like looking like everyone else and being passed over by players because your graphics suck. Even if your gameplay is awesome most people, myself included, won't give your mod a second thought if you put no attention into the other aspects. Mods aren't just about gameplay. Campaigns and maps are about gameplay (usually). Make your decision of what you want to make before getting into this.
In a sprite-based game like Starcraft, it's perfectly acceptable to just rip graphics out of other sprite-based games. Even gifs off of websites can provide decent effects for you once processed properly. If you're looking into making a big mod, consult your memory of potential pools of resources. I have a 40gig SFX archive of games I have extracted sounds out of. Everything from lineage 2 to conquest: Frontier Wars. Whenever I encounter a game with good sounds, I spend some time researching how to get them out of it, and add them to my collection. As a result, I never need to look for sounds. Since I am skilled in sound editing I can either opt to create sounds from scratch, edit existing sounds and make something new, or just pluck something straight out of my library.
In the unlikely event you are skilled in 3d graphics, you are in for a treat. Starcraft is very easy to produce graphics for. You don't need to worry about poly counts, just your textures and how the palette is going to thoroughly destroy them once you convert them.
Datedit, firegraft, icecc, the Py suite and many others provide new users with a flawless array of tools that people like me never had the opportunity to use in the elder days. Back then we used terrible programs like Arsenal that would repeatedly and irreversably destroy files. If you so much as opened and saved images.dat in Arsenal 3 it would be immediately corrupted and cause major issues. Because SC is so easy to get into this lets you worry more about external asset creation than most games which require considerable time to get into even the most basic elements of modding.
Starcraft provides the opportunity to easily break into a number of important game creation fields including voice acting, sound engineering, balance design, graphics, and AI. Starcraft is a very limited game mod-wise, but because of the nature of its engine, it's very easy to put new content into it. Consider your first project the opportunity to learn a variety of skills that will serve you well in future endeavors, and don't be afraid to try something new like 3d graphics or iceCC scripting. You may find that you are very good at it. Laconius, who was petrified of IceCC, became rather skilled with it with just a few days of teaching on my behalf, and now he's one of the best scripters in the entire modding community, outperforming many of SEN's and CC's veterans. You can easily make such a transformation if you are willing to learn. Be prepared to dump a lot of time into this. It's an investment, just like anything else in life.
That said, some skills take time to master, and everyone is different. You must remain devoted and motivated, and that can be very hard. I know this well.
Putting WoW models into wc3 entails usage of a Russian utility called mdlvis. Although very powerful the editor has been abandoned by its creator for some time and the WoW formats have changed with Lick King and will probably change with Cataclysm as well. This is a tremendous loss to me personally. Back when I was still modding wc3 I made a tutorial of the conversion process because individuals were interested in helping me. I made the tutorial, an investment of several hours, and not a single person even attempted it.
So much to take in! How do we even get started?!
Establishing your Mod Concept
I am of the belief that if you're going to make a mod, the only good mod you can make is something totally original and totally true to an original dream. That is to say, if you're going to invest time in a mod, you're better going all the way and making a Total Conversion. 99% of mods out there lack custom sounds or voice acting, but still have the gall to call themselves Total Conversions. In my eyes, they're not TCs unless they change the entire experience of the game. Sounds, music, graphics, gameplay and all. They are simply toying with the concept but not investing any effort into becoming truly significant mods.
Many people fall back on the concept that gameplay is everything and other stuff doesn't matter. If that was true, no one would care about Crysis or Half-life 2 or Doom. But people still play those and it's because of the other elements they have. The truth is, sound is just as important as graphics, graphics are just as important as gameplay, and when making a new mod that presents a new universe, immersion, environment, and establishing your world is everything. Starcraft is the most popular RTS in the world despite being 640x480, being limited to 1650 or so units, and having only 8 players with no scripting engine. Why? Because it's easy to read. The voice acting and sound work are top notch and many recent titles don't touch them. It is a level of professionalism that fits so well together that it has endured over eleven years and STILL has more people playing it than any other RTS, and has also completely and totally dominated the E-sports scene. Yes, the gameplay is unrivaled in the RTS and RTT industries. But it has other aspects as well. Chances are you didn't get into Starcraft solely because Boxer's immortal marines gave you a hard on.
You don't need super top of the line graphics and multi-million Disney voice actors to make your mod attractive and complete. But what you do need is for your elements to fit together. It has to play well, yes, but if it looks like ass or the voice acting is horrible, the mood will be quite sour. Project Revolution has great models and textures, but their animations are horrible - easily offsetting the years of work put into the other elements. Treat every element in your mod as an equal. I will talk about each element later on in the article.
Spend some time conceptualizing the world in your head. Maybe you're not a writer or a dreamer and you just want to make some cheesy Star Wars clone. Please, don't do that. They suck. Sniped_Ash made an incredible mod called Open Rebellion with some of the best graphics in the entire Blizzard fanbase, but it's not exactly hugely played. Why? It's just Star Wars. There's a billion star wars games out there. Star Wars is done to death. What would have happened if he devoted his energy to something a little less mainstream? Remember Gundam Century? That's still one of the most hugely popular mods out there because there isn't a plethora of Gundam games infesting America. The gameplay sucks, but the graphics are amazing. Unfortunately, it falls short of being a true TC, and is mostly popular as an entry mod for new players just breaking into the mod community. There's a good reason for that, one you'd do well to take heed of.
The atmosphere of the two maps for the Loladins of Legend AoS I had been working on back in the day both presented what I felt to be intense atmospheric changes over traditional warcraft 3. Unfortunately the engine's major lighting limitations screwed me over in a lot of places.
The very first version of the revision of the AoS' terrain. When the lighting engine crashed my concepts for the ice map I went into a more radical design and had a fellow by the name of WarGiant whip me up some geometry to work with. This is what he sent me after I did some basic "sketching" with some portions.
When you build the design your mod in your head, start writing a document. This is called a Game Design document. Jot down your ideas, no matter how crude, that you feel are important to your mod. I do this for my absolute largest of projects, often on a forum for my fans to get an idea of what I'm doing. I typically only release info when I have significant work done, though; this falls into the "Public Image" category I'll talk about later. Be prepared to make major sacrifices in your design though, especially if you are new to modding. Games are often far more limited than you may first think.
Let's think about ITAS.
ITAS was a mod that started with a simple idea - expand my skills of Rhino 3d. I did not start the project with the intention of finishing it. I just wanted to build the concepts of my two major races in MFTG for fun. I also wanted to expand my skills in voice acting. But even though ITAS wasn't a serious mod, I put serious effort into designing the balance.
With ITAS, I also established my first ever organization. Previous to 2004, I just threw shit where ever and went with it. But ITAS was going to have a ton of totally original content created for it. I am not exactly an organized person, and my methods are pretty sloppy, but they work and require virtually no effort on the end user to maintain. But it still keeps your mod folder clean and keeps stuff where you want it.
The Organization of ITAS files - Mesk Trainwreck Organization System version 1.0
With ITAS, I didn't want to put effort into major organization because I was a lazy unimaginative fuck.
In The Admiral's Service was a project first launched in early 2004, and saw updates in 2008. Both extremely short production periods were exclusively driven by graphics production.
The primary ITAS folder contains a bunch of small folders with unprocessed data, such as portraits, 3d models, stuff like that. The RTS folder contains the actual mod data. The base RTS folder contains every piece of sound, music, and iceCC scripts named to a specific method.
"battleshipyes" ect sounds are for a Battleship unit, but since I haven't yet designated which unit will use them, they are just named battleship. Likewise, the explosion sound effects are unnamed from their original formats and just left there to rot until I eventually find a spot for them.
When I replace a unit and voice act it, I save the files in the directory according to the sounds they replace in Starcraft.
For unit graphics, I stick them into their own folders. UD_Spirestorm is obviously the Undead Spirestorm. This entire process is designed to streamline work activity to minimize the amount of time required to move through folders or find shit. I've almost totally memorized all of the sound files - I know exactly which units they are for, so I don't need to rename anything between making and saving files and then importing them. The graphics are in easy to locate folders so I can just pop into them with PSP when running a script, control+A everything, and be on my merry way.
I looked for a PSP image and this was the only one I could find on my 50+ page imageshack account. Paint Shop Pro is preferable over Photoshop for final processing of Starcraft images because it is far easier to apply the Starcraft-specific 256 color palette and put the frames into the proper bmp format.
The iscript files are a bit more of a problem in ITAS. Because of the lack of an established naming convention, I opted just to name them inane shit. Incidentally, when I started the ITAS 3.0 update, it turned into a disaster and I didn't know where anything was. Some people edit the iscript in one big chunk - I edit it by-unit. It's just easier to organize and easier to sort through. Plus, merged locals can be annoying. Incidentally, my programs were still littered in random areas and this got annoying.
It's overdoing it to invest in some titanically complex way of organization, unless you're modding a game like supreme commander where you need 20 different files just to change one effect. Seriously, that game is retarded.
With Armageddon Onslaught I invested into a little more efficient of a system.
The Organization of AO - Mesk Trainwreck Organization System 2.0
AO was a tremendously large project. It used the entirety of the zerg race and virtually every single neutral, unused, and installation/platform related objects in the game. As a result, it possessed a tremendous quantity of files. I split the sound files - mod-ready content was in the base folder, unprocessed stuff in directories. Portraits got their own directories. Iscript files were now labeled as unit/id_aoversion or graphic label.
ESTABLISHING THY RESOURCES
Here I will list a quantity of resources for you! This is a MUST-READ section for any modder!
Starcraft is a complex game. Modding it requires a degree of wisdom on behalf of the developer. Not just in how to use tools and utilities and bring content to life, but how to make that content live and breathe. He also needs work ethics and resources. A good forum search can yield better answers then what old, senile cocksuckers like me would offer to you, especially if it's some question that's been asked to death.
Simple, common sense must be applied. Search forums before you ask. When asking a question, ask thoroughly and thoughtfully. Use proper English and grammar. If you type like a retard, people like me are inclined to just laugh at you or troll you. Modding for any game is a harsh, extremely competitive atmosphere and you will find few friends. But if you establish yourself as an intelligent, worthwhile individual, just maybe people will invest into you. It's just like an important job. If you're a very poor strip dancer, your makeup is horrible, and talk in a constant slur with no seduction at all, why would the strip bar hire you? You need to appeal to your seniors just as you need to appeal to an audience of horny 24 year old virgins. Consider this a good opportunity to prepare yourself for your Public Image and Hype Generation, which we'll talk about later.
Here I will unveil several of my resources in categories. These are websites I utilize for information
Google is your greatest ally. When you are uncertain about some general concept, like the appearance of something, google it. If you have a question about 3ds max or photoshop, google it. If anything, google may direct you to a useful website. Whatever you do, don't google "Hairy Goldfish".
www.campaigncreations.org This is a "fairly" new forum, and doesn't contain a lot of SC stuff. Most of it is stuff I have created or answered over the years, including some of my game design articles and stuff. Feel free to ask questions if your searches have failed, though! There's still a few guys who can answer questions that post here.
www.samods.org <-- The site remains as dead as ever, and forum is very inactive, but there is a gold mine of old threads just waiting for you to unearth with the search function.
www.staredit.net <-- the most active of the modding sites, but has been abandoned by most veterans. Use the search function for massive returns. More oriented about beginner and intermediate modding.
www.staredit.net/maplantis <-- the Maplantis backup on SEN. Can't receive any new posts, but still serves as a repository
www.broodwarai.com <-- A site mostly geared to AI modding with a very mature and established, albeit small, userbase. Home of the PyMS modding suite and its creator. An excellent site.
http://corbobo.dyndns.org <-- Corbo's site contains a bunch of various resources and tutorials that you may find useful. Also a fair number of modders do lurk here.
www.modcrafters.com <-- A new site by Hercanic. Most of the veteran modders who still lurk forums go here, with the exception of myself. If you have an advanced or intermediate question, this is a good place to ask.
These websites represent the entire starcraft modding community. Treat them with respect, and it will be returned.
Segment 2 - Game Design - The Elements of Graphics and Gameplay United
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Forget what you were taught in your run of the mill college game design class. The best way to learn how to expand the elements of Starcraft, or any RTS for that matter, and establish a new playstyle is to first learn how Starcraft itself plays. Starcraft is the most complex and skill-demanding RTS in existence with a huge amount of depth in every aspect of strategical and tactical play. But understanding Starcraft, especially a high level, is an investment all in itself. Luckily, there's a website that provides the means to do just that.
www.teamliquid.net - the premiere professional Starcraft coverage site outside of Korea. Maintained and run by many people who actually live in Korea and communicate with progamers themselves, Teamliquid is a colossal website with a massive community. The forums are an absolute endless gold sack of information just waiting for you to plunder.
http://www.teamliquid.net/tlpd/games/index.php?only_vods=on&no_spoiler=on&action=Update - Team Liquid's VOD (Video On Demand) database. This are full games of Starcraft played by professional players. You can learn a great deal just by studying these games, but there is also often English battle reports and stuff linked on player pages on the game sections. To watch a VOD, click on the + next to the date. Most of them come with the standard Korean commentaries, but some foreign commentators like Moletrap, Klazart, and others have created English commentaries on youtube for your viewing pleasure.
http://www.teamliquid.net/forum/viewmessage.php?topic_id=104154 - Day Daily, run by Day. This fellow produces extensive high-level commentaries of games on a regular basis and many are available on demand. This is an absolutely excellent and immediate resources for learning the advanced mechanics of starcraft and how map design effect it. As most modders underestimate the significance of maps in their game design, this is a great place to look to see how Starcraft functions and, thus, how they can change or evolve that concept.
I've also written a few game design articles. I'll get more into balancing and stuff in a later part of the article.
If you need inspiration for your graphics, you can either google stuff, or try various art websites. There's a bunch out there but I forget their names.
www.deviantart.com - the biggest collection of amateur and professional artists with the most readily accessible interface. Often I go onto Deviantart to look at their incredible work and sulk in my own ineptitude.
www.campaigncreations.org - We have a number of highly experienced actors and sound editors willing to answer your questions. Just post in the appropriate forum, please.
http://voiceactingalliance.com/board/ - VAA, a site Magic recommended me. Either if you're trying to just find voice actors (I found a wonderful mistress to voice act the Fallen Hero in AO with this site) or learn how to commit to the art yourself, this is a great place to go to. They are more fansub and anime related than gaming, though, so be sure to apply your inexorable charm to good use and provide ample details to get their attention.
Starting Your Mod
I am always thinking. Always dreaming. My mind knows no rest.
Once I have my tools where I want them, the resources at my fingertips, and an idea of where I want to go, I must decide how I am going to make this mod work.
All of my mods start with a concept, usually a story from one of my handful of universes. Most mods of mine are based on MFTG, a few on Loladins of Legend, and the very rare one on my largest universe, the Lour Saga AKA Throne of Armageddon. I have two different work ethics that I act upon depending on the universe.
If I'm making a humorous mod, like ITAS or MFTGATRL, I am not bound to finish it, nor am I bound to do my absolute best. The goal of the mod is simply fun, because that's what the worlds are about. Totally unrealistic, totally ridiculous bullshit.
I attempted several NWN campaigns. All failed because I could not learn scripting.
But if I try to make a mod for the Lour Saga, I am bound to doing my absolute best and settling for nothing but perfection. My standards are far higher and these projects take much longer to conceptualize. No LS-related mod of mine has ever reached a reasonable degree of completion.
The Lour Saga, the universe containing my life's work - the novel Throne of Armageddon - is a tremendous world indeed. I do not believe there will ever be a game that can properly portray this world or its story. So it remains hidden in my writing and in random ventures that never find substance.
Once I have the story and setting I want, I work those factions into races. Zerg generally fits well with my evil races, like the Undead, because of creep. I can turn creep into the Scitor cellmesh crap, Undead/Armageddon magma, or, on another conceptual mod, mechanical circuitry sludge for a machine race. The Protoss would always fit the role of the most advanced race because of teleporting structures. In the case of ITAS, the least advanced race was given the Protoss slot and to justify the building concept, I just rolled over it with slave markets.
Think about how your races function, and work that into the gameplay. Zerg are a hive race, so they have lots of numbers. They also look and awful lot like Tyranids, because they are just ripped straight out of WH40k. So, may as well steal some more Tyranid ideas while we're at it; Overlords, Cerebrates, ect - y'know, synapse bullshit. These work into gameplay; the overlords are supply depots, so on so forth.
The Undead use this race well. Larva become portals to the Abyss where ships pop out of, so on. Undead have a very simple and economic way of producing stuff, so their tech tree is very simple; split into 7 tiers, where a building represents each tier.
You get the drill.
Unit Design & Balance
I am not sure if explaining the ideas behind my mods will help a lot, but shoot.
As I touched in the Fleet Mod article, unit design is very important. Avoid the concept of hard counters at all cost; they reduce the depth of gameplay dramatically and destroy your game.
In MFTGATRL I was using races very similar to those in ITAS. The Pants Legion, the Undead, and the Gallantry Crew (Unrelated to Desler's work ofc), which were basically a band of vegabond perverts roaming the galaxy stealing pie and eating it. Or they stowed it away in compartments and spent endless hours worshiping it until someone else ate it.
The Pants Legion were a race that wore pants on their heads. Their units were very silly. They had tanks that fly, very cheap and readily available carriers, battle droids and dragoon-like units called Leggers. The Pants concept was very simple; Pants everyone until they are adequately pantsed. They were a race of reckless fanatics, just like hicks. So their units were typically very cheap, did a high amount of damage, and were quite mobile. Their main caster unit, the Hack-Controller, had a spell called Firestorm that utterly raped units and buildings when spammed. The Pants replaced the Protoss.
The gameplay was the only thing in MFTGATRL that really made any remote sense.
The GC were a race based around defense and tactics. They had very few basic AoE units and focused largely on ranged combat, similar to Terrans. GC were quite an infantry-heavy race, complete with terrorists that self-destructed and fearsome sniper units. Their vehicles were tactical, often able to attack both air and land. They had two fighters: one based on anti-ground, one based on anti-air. Nukes were also readily available and quite cheap as silos were no longer addons. Unfortunately, their units were most often very squishy. They could produce a lot of firepower, but were very dependent on flanking and terrain control. This reflected upon their outlaw, guerrilla-like design.
The Undead followed the very typical Undead design. Mobile, high damage, lots of AoE, big superweapons. You get the idea.
With MFTGATRL, I aimed to create a sort of an alternate dimension to SC's existing gameplay, whereas traditionally my mods vary quite a bit. I wanted a more intense, faster paced game with more diverse unit selection and more bombastic battles. I ended up with a number of very powerful "super" units, including the Gelatinous Horror (I think that was the name, anyway), the Gunship Elite, the GC Battleship, and the Hack-Controller. These units underwent numerous balancing changes and I uncovered the secret to establishing a mod with a huge unit diversity but keeping everything unique and viable.
First off, infantry which were often relatively squishy, were very cheap. Just like fighters in ITAS, they benefited heavily from upgrades. Spider mines were turned into permanent gun turrets, like the gun traps in installation maps. These assisted the GC in holding territory, and could also be upgraded. With the GC, I wanted most of their basic units to feel frail, but not as expendable as Undead. This was an interesting crossroad, so Undead ended up becoming much more melee heavy in ground combat, making up with a very powerful air force. The GC relied heavily on ground troops for the majority of the game, while the Undead would gradually make a transition to air-oriented combat with ground thrown in. Which is unlike modern SC where TvZ, the zerg generally opt for an air opening (Muta harass) followed by a transition to ground (Lurker/defiler/ling).
In modern Starcraft, air power is only truly significant with standard gameplay in PvZ (Corsairs), PvT (Secret carriers, arbiters), TvZ (Vessels mostly, with the odd dropship and rare wratih rush... few times does the wraith rush work, though. There's also fantasy valks) and sometimes TvT (Dropships, wraith rushes, the odd time BC's ect) and absolutely fundamental in ZvZ. In MFTGATRL, I wanted air power to be fundamental all the time with Undead. They did have strong land units, including defilers that could utterly destroy small units and were permanently cloaked, but their true fighting power laid in air. This made Undead play in a reverse style to Starcraft vanilla by investing either in a very strong early game force and teching very late, investing in battle collectors, Gelatinous Monstrosities and Elites with an eventual transition to air, or a more traditional tech to mutalisks (Warships) and later high-end stuff and sticking exclusively with air. Eventually all of the races needed their air units to truly reach full potential.
The other races also played a little different. The intent was to avoid alienating Starcraft players, allowing them to jump into MFTGATRL and maintain a very natural Starcraft feel but with a play that flowed quite differently. I didn't want any of those units that you never use, like Valkyries and Battlecruisers. I wanted those units to play a role. MFTGATRL was oriented for 4v4 games and FFA's, and wasn't strictly balanced for 1v1.
Ultimately the mod actually ended up playing much longer in average than Starcraft vanilla. This was one of the major turning points in my design philosophy where I started learning more towards longer games with higher tech levels. Although I often tried to push for more energetic battles, battles often became longer with the higher tier units and I found this to be more enjoyable as it offered more room for creative play and more opportunity for tactical and strategic openings. Although several units in the mod possessed extremely powerful weapons, I played the mod exclusively on 256x256 maps as I have always preferred FFA and 4v4 over traditional gametypes. To this end all future mods were designed with these gametypes and map sizes in mind.
The Pants Legion generally got their carrier unit very quickly. This unit was relatively squishy but did a decent amount of damage. Their initial land units were not very strong defensively, but they eventually got Siege Leggers which were quite formidable. Their air power was a mishmash of high attack power units, but they lacked true defining heavy air that could directly compete with Undead heavy air upfront. Instead they relied on hit and run and flank tactics. The Pants Legion, as it is with most of my races that replaced protoss, were the most unfinished race. They had a lot of high-range air units, including the Combat Copter that could spray an area with low-damage projectiles from a distance about 5x that of a siege tank. A lot of those could be quite dangerous. These units were usually very cheap but very frail.
The GC were an interesting race to play. TvZ, bionic armies are typically very frail. They counter mutalisks, but mutalisks counter them as well; it depends on player skill and reaction. With the GC, it was even more paramount to invest into paying attention. The units did more damage, but were on average more frail, especially to top-tier units. Allowing the Undead to close into melee was typically very bad. Bunkers and missile turrets were much stronger, though. GC were intended to be a turtle-friendly race, where you often fortified important locations with buildings to supplement your units. Eventually they did get access to some heavy units, however - especially air units. The Battleship is the strongest unit in MFTGATRL, and its highly expensive Gamma Ray can level chunks of a base or destroy an army. These units attacked very slowly, though, so you had to support them. They were also quite expensive.
GC allowed the player to employ hilarious nuke tactics. Since silos were no longer addons, you could nuke at will and very cheaply. The first renditions of the new terran AI built something like 26 silos and nuked you every 5-10 seconds. Despite the AI's stupidity in ghost management, often it was quite lethal and relentlessly. You also had access to other crazy spells; the irradiate replacement was Chemical Storm which did huge concussive AoE damage.
MFTGATRL wasn't my most well thought-out mod, but it was amongst my most complete and I liked the way it played.
Unit Design Rules of Thumb & Thoughts
Factor in the potential value of a unit's abilities over direct value. Siege tanks are fucking expensive and need siege mode upgrade to do real damage, but they are incredibly powerful. A Dragoon may destroy a siege tank once inside its minimum radius, but if that tank is protected by vultures, it could kill many dragoons. Vultures are relatively frail, but can destroy economy, and with an upgrade, can make the map a nightmare to traverse.
Synergy is important. The Reaver and Shuttle are like Blade and Grip. Consider the importance of all of those unit combinations you see in Starcraft and think to yourself what you can do to make such combinations and, furthermore, what may happen when new unit compositions are made and how those unit's strengths will interact with each other. In ITAS, you can acquire the Enforcer II that fires a medium-ranged triple-blast of fairly damaging aoe in a small radius. The Battleship also did aoe at around the same range. Its consistent DPS was greater but the Enforcer did far more burst damage. A group of battleships and Enforcers complemented each other's strengths well - Enforcers did the most damage to big targets and Battleships dealt with smaller targets. Throw in some of the missile frigates with their wide-spread AoE to get rid of smaller targets and you have a fleet that can engage most enemy compositions fairly well.
A unit that can kite another unit very easily should be more expensive than that unit, or cost gas when the other one doesn't. The Blood Moon is super cheap in ITAS despite its incredible 2k+ damage and firing range, and that's because it has a super slow speed, slow firing rate, and massive minimum radius for engagement. It's helpless against anything a half-screen distance away.
Consider what might happen with multiple units. A single corsair is little threat, but a critical mass of 5-6 corsairs can kill scourge before they get close, demolish groups of mutalisks in seconds, and totally disable land units. However, they can't attack ground, and they are fairly expensive. Additionally, if you repeatedly lose Corsairs in the early game where they are most pivotal, it will significantly put you behind. Even worse, if your corsair play fails and the zerg gains air superiority, you are fucked.
Consider the roles your unit will play. In PvZ, the corsair is important to slow down zerg's growth and maintain map control for potential DT or Reaver play. Maybe you just want the zerg to produce anti-air while you switch to a totally ground-based army.
What happens if we change the corsair? Let's say we just let him attack ground, too. What would happen?
Zerg would get raped. Oh so badly. Imagine something that can fly into your base, ignore your spore colonies, and pick off your overlords in seconds. Oh well, at least my economy is safe. Oh wait, no it isn't! The corsairs vaporize your drones along with your overlords. You are dead.
Be very careful with fast units in general. And a unit that can attack fast. The only really ideal way for the zerg to counter large numbers of Corsairs is either to hide his overlords somewhere or, if the protoss really has a lot of them, get the super-expensive Devourer. But the Zerg doesn't want to get devourers; they're so fucking slow in attacking, it's very hard to get the corsairs to stick and fight.
The natural playstyle of zerg is to just expand like crazy. If the protoss goes reaver/sair, it's probably going to be very hard for you to hold those expansions, especially early on in an island map. Reavers absolutely rape ground units, especially with shuttle micro, but they're slow as fuck all to kill buildings. The protoss player has to sit there with all his corsairs and shuttles while his reavers slowly pound away your hatchery. Meanwhile, your other expansions are coming up and you're building lots of sunkens and spores.
No one will argue when you claim the reaver is one of the most powerful units in the game. But it still has its drawbacks. Dud scarabs, slowness, vulnerability and limitations of its attack. It's a unit that requires a lot of skill to maximize its potential and, more importantly, it requires synergy with the shuttle. PvP often drums down to reaver micro.
When you design your units, you want to consider what kind of a role they will play. It's easy to say that the Corsair with a land attack would totally fuck PvZ in the ass, but how would a similar change in a totally different conversion pan out? When I think about my ideas, I first start with a very basic concept.
Dudes are about to get wrecked.
I want the units to be fun. To have a fairly clear role and to adequately serve that role. Or, perhaps a multi-purpose unit with strange mechanics (XP Mothership in ITAS, it has a fast-firing low-damage anti-air but deals significant long-ranged damage against land. Yamato was changed into a long-ranged torpedo). But as I design my units for team games and FFA's, I also wanted units to have particular attributes or mechanics that functioned well across a very large map or added specific challenges. XP ships and KA ships in ITAS both had significantly long range with KA being the most superior, but Undead moved veery quickly. Since the mod was played exclusively on 256x256, the concept was to acquire intelligence and preferably vision of the enemy's fleet position so you could maneuver behind them to target their longest ranged ships, thereby eliminating their advantage. But what if they scouted you instead? It was a game of information warfare. This is exclusively from unit design - since ITAS is a fleet mod, terrain is not a factor.
Even the Carriers that Kaloth Industries (Abbreviated KA) could build had huge engagement zones. Their interceptors would fly a very long distance to attack. But this left the Carriers themselves vulnerable if flanked.
If you start adding critical attacks and stuff to your units, you need to be careful with those as well. Assuming you aren't building an AO-styled mod, you probably want them to be fairly balanced. In VE II (The mod for Laconius' campaign Vile Eggression, available at campaigncreations.org), Phoenixes were fairly weak on their own, but their Overload proc utterly raped air units. With just a few of them they could completely obliterate a zerg air force of any size. This prompted a justified nerf. With these attacks you have the added bonus of being able to determine proc %. Do note though that SC's randomizer is VERY prone to predictable "proc streaks". A good example is Mal`Ash in AO chaining his ~3% Eclipse over and over and over again, killing everything on the map or never using it at all across the entire game.
Keep your unit design close to your race's concepts. Are they a brutal, reckless race? They'll probably sacrifice defenses for more attack power. Are they a conserved, goody-two-shoes bunch of treehugging faggots? They probably don't want to get an axe in their face and want to avoid causing mass destruction to the land they live on. Are they sinister, violent, hellbent on killing everyone? They'd probably invest into big, explosive weaponry with dramatic results. Racial diversity is rare in most RTS games and mods; follow SC's example and try to keep your gameplay for each race unique. With a big mod and perhaps the assistance of new plugin technology, you can even make custom economic or macro setups for each race, or perhaps custom spell systems. That's a pretty advanced topic and is outside of my capabilities, though.
The majority of graphics for ITAS that I had created. Some were made/rendered in Rhino 3d, from the 2003 production line, and some from 3ds max, from the 2008 production line. Can you tell which ones?
Transparent palettes let you make some colorful attacks without worrying about black spots on your edges.
Once you've decided how your unit wants to work, now you need to decide how that unit wants to look and sound like. With AO, I pictured the concept of units in my mind and then recalled from my resources what I had available to fit those roles.
The Great Destroyer in Armageddon Onslaught is the most fearsome unit you will encounter in the mod. He lives up to his name with custom voice acting, sfx, and shiny graphics. He isn't just blowing up your shit, he's blowing up your shit in style. Unfortunately I wasn't able to find a suitable portrait for him before I decided to release the mod as-is.
I wanted a cheap, but dangerous unit with a high chance for criticals. The small defiler from Hellfire fit perfectly with this concept; he as very pointed, not particularly armored, and looked quite fast. For sounds, I opted for the Beholder sounds from NWN, because they were quite guttural and vicious sounding.
Although a unit may be very strong if it doesn't feel, sound, or look strong, it will come off as weak or uninteresting. A high-end battlecruiser that just looks like a normal battlecruiser and shoots a handful of valkyrie rockets is uninspired and very boring. People will get very tired of your mod very fast if the units bring nothing new to their imaginations.
What's more imposing in this image - the three Terran Battlecruisers, or the black demon battleship releasing hordes of spinning torpedoes and yamato blasts? Again, this ship also has totally custom SFX.
Don't be afraid to go insane on effects and detail. This applies mostly to other games, but the point remains. Mods are there to exceed the imagination and self-imposed limits people give themselves. Don't worry about low-end hardware. Hardware in general will have improved by the time a large project is finished.
But also know the limits of your engine.
Remember that it is the graphics that are conveying your gameplay. If your gameplay is grand but your graphics stale or confusing then your gameplay will be poisoned and crippled. They are of equal importance, always.
~ Sound Design
"Sound is the greatest language in my mind."
The Siege Tank produces a very satisfying THOOM when it fires. You know that's going to hurt. The Mutalisk's bouncing projectile produces a satisfying slicey noise and the Mutalisk itself produces an instantly recognizable and distinct noise when it attacks. Dragoon phase cannons, carrier interceptors, ect. they are all iconic sounds.
Your mod must have new sounds. I don't care if you've never touched sound editing before; it's very easy to learn. Even if you use awful programs like Audacity, you need to learn the art of processing sound. I recommend Goldwave for starters. I personally use Adobe Audition 1.5; Audition is the successor to the old tried-and-true cooledit. Very powerful, very easy to use.
Get into the habit of listening to sounds in games. The Siege Tank's THOOM in sc1 has been replaced by a very unsatisfying and uninteresting UMPHSH in SC2; and people have been bitching about it left and right. There is important things to note when you listen to sounds in games.
And that's their style.
The type of things attributed to style in sound effects;
Style itself, as in the prose of the sound effects. In a mod that uses sound effects largely from Lineage 2, for example (Like my Age of Wonders 2 mod) I generally want to keep sounds from other sources that sound relatively similar. In a mod where you use largely zappy-like noises for a race's weapons, it would sound odd to use a WW2 cannon shot for a similar weapon suddenly. The L2 sounds are very crisp and "sharp" as I like to describe it.
The sound effects should fit the event. A large-caliber weapon should produce a nice, beefy noise. A glock wouldn't produce a thunderous boom when fired. A massive beam weapon should be satisfyingly beamy and zappy. When establishing the sounds for races I try to maintain a theme to each race. The GC in MFTGATRL used very generic modernized weapon sounds, but the Undead used largely hand-made sounds with a kind of a flangey vibe to them.
The Scitor in The Black Sun had this mechanical-sounding effect to many of their sounds, Anahn were all large-bore thunderous cannon shots and other heavy metal stuff, while Undead again reflected with liquidy-like demeanor on their pew pew.
There is also quality. Not just sound quality, but also the environment in which the sound was recorded in or produced with that changes how it sounds. Footsteps in Warrior Kings: Battles are considerably louder and more crunchy than those in Lineage 2; mixing them makes units sound strange when they move on after another, unless those fainter footsteps are used on a unit that is slighter of stature. For example, Orcs used the big, heavy footsteps from WKB, and Human/Elven females used the lighter stuff from L2.
Quality is a big factor in Gun sounds as well. This is most prominent in the various Counterstrike sound packs that exist. Many sounds are from actual firing ranges and include a long reverb. These are quite realistic, but you have to make note of SC's 8 channel limit for sounds. Also, they don't typically sound very beefy, so they are often unsuitable for vehicles or the like. If you stick to more traditional gunshot noises, you'll find a massive variety in them. It may be difficult for you to separate quality differences and environmental differences, but they do exist. Playing the sounds after each other in quick succession, or even mixing them together to produce a long rapid burst, is a good way to guess how it'll sound inside Starcraft.
Opening your story to the world
Whether in a movie, or a campaign, or a mod, you're trying to tell your audience a story. Your graphics may be ultra flashy, and your gameplay designed by Boxer himself, but ultimately you're trying to tell a story. At least, that's what this section assumes.
I create Total Conversions. TC's aren't exactly the best thing to showcase a world as massive as mine are. So, I used voice acting, sounds, and music as my major instruments. The Undead were fucking evil, the Confederates exceptionally retarded, and guns went fucking bang when they went off.
Sounds convey the strength of your weapons firing often moreso than the damage they do in a game, at least from a conceptual and immersive perspective. If you have a desert eagle in Counterstrike, and it sounds like it does by default, I think "Eh." Because that sound is very cliche and I've heard it everywhere. Replace it with something meaty. Something beefy. More punch, less reverb.
Describing sound in text is difficult.
Anyways, what I mean is, for a weapon, it has to sound big. Sure, stuff inside SC is almost as small as your dick, but that doesn't mean they should sound small. A great example is the marine gauss rifle. It doesn't sound too small, but it doesn't exactly make you think of a rifle a guy in power armor would be using to blast apart 12 foot aliens with, either.
Check out that other HW2 video of mine. Compare it to what you traditionally hear in HW2. Big difference, huh? Here we have some traditional mass driver weapons, autocannons, ect. and then some Undead Deimos-based energy weapons. Virtually everything you're hearing here is totally new. When the Anahn Valkyrie lets loose its Quad-linked side autocannons and rains a volley of molten Tiran elemental slag into the Undead Hydra corvettes, you hear it.
Also I ended up using a ridiculously overused piece of music for that video lol and the worst thing is I knew that but used it anyway because I didn't have anything better off-hand at the time. That's how lazy I was when I did that stuff.
Another thing about sounds that is important is their quality. HW2 sounds have a notoriously bad sound quality. Not all of them are terrible, but most of the mass drivers sound really bad.
It doesn't take high kbps to make a good-sounding sound. Let's take my Age of Wonders 2 mod, Loladins of Legend: 2042. That game takes a maximum of 22,000khz for sounds, half of what you can easily throw inside starcraft. Yet all of my sounds jacked from lineage 2 and Warrior Kings: Battles sound just fine.
Variety. Everything should sound different. No two weapons should sound the same. It breaks the uniqueness.
Okay I'm just ranting now but at least I'm giving you good tips.
Sound is a topic I'll get more into in my video documentary of my Gameplay Elements Concept primary, something I'll be developing in the future. But upon personal request I will write out a portion of my music design process.
The Kaloth Battleship was not a superunit but had a very strong long-ranged medium-damaged laser cannon that had a significant AoE radius. In critical mass these became dangerous, like Corsairs, but their cooldown was immense and this made critical mass very difficult to achieve but allowed me to leave their burst damage relatively high, like the Reaver.
In many of mods the involved races can employ large and very powerful units. You also have Armageddon Onslaught, where Armageddon can summon extremely powerful units that cause massive destruction.
Maybe you want your races to be able to create very powerful units, but want to avoid making them too powerful.
With ITAS, every race had upper tiers dedicated exclusively to the super units. Despite the power of these units and their relatively ease of access, they were quite balanced and I pride myself in the (albeit incomplete) circle of balance I had achieved. To best demonstrate my methods of balancing superships, I'll just write out their descriptions.
The Undead superunits focused on exclusive key attributes or methods of attack. Undead units by nature are very simple and meant for specific tasks, and the superunits further entrenched this concept.
Spirestorm - This was the first super unit I put in ITAS. Its concept is very simple; it's big, slow, and hurts like hell. The Spirestorm is very durable and very short ranged, and has a chance to deal 4x damage on an already significantly damaging attack. It is great for sieges and works well to force enemies to move their units or get killed. It is a relatively cheap unit as well, so you can grab a few of them mid game to help protect your base.
Blood Moon - SENers loved to spam nothing but Blood Moons, a powerful artillery unit, without taking into consideration its major weaknesses. The Blood Moon is also quite slow, its damage is single-target, and it has a very large minimal radius. Although it is quite durable, it is virtually helpless to other ships, even small ones, in close combat.
Crusader - Crusaders are the frailest of Undead superships. However, they deal the most damage by a considerable amount in a single continual beam, they have scanner sweep, and are extremely fast. Crusaders are intended to flank enemy capitals and deal large damage to enemy superships.
Sorrow - The Sorrow Cruiser is a siege engine. It is very slow and quite durable, can cloak, and launches a very slow-moving projectile that deals significant AoE damage in ticks - and it has friendly fire. This weapon is most dangerous to units with low armor and without armor upgrades, and buildings. It's pretty easy to avoid the projectile, but the careless will be punished severely.
XP only had one usable Supership and another one about half-way finished but not implemented.
Omega: The Omega was basically a supersized variant of the Battleship. It fired in a much longer volley, where its major damage came at the end of the burst. It was critical to point the Omega at a target of importance; wasting its firepower on small units like fighters greatly devauled the unit as it was quite expensive to acquire. A large number of Omegas complemented each other nicely with fairly decently multi-purpose weaponry, but were vulnerable to units like the Blood Moon who would have a spotter.
Azaan: The Azaan was a conceptualized anti-fighter supership that fired multiple continual beams of energy that did nonstop AoE damage. It would fire wave-like beams in front of it, and it would be considerably less durable than the Omega. Obviously, dedicated anti-capitals would be very dangerous for this vessel.
It has become increasingly popular to seriously fuck with the Starcraft economy system. Which I feel is largely unnecessary, as most of the new economic systems fail to establish concepts already established by the existing one.
Is your economy system fun? Does it establish something new and interesting, or does it overcomplicate the gameplay? Players do not want to spend the entire game clicking through a billion different tech trees trying to figure out if their Anti-Matter generator costs too much Neutron emitters which you can't afford because the Proton emitters are on fire and producing at only 20% capacity because your Phase transistors had a critical meltdown when you built up too much energy.
Starcraft's system works. It has been proven time and time again when a slanty-eyed champion raises the next Golden Mouse and goes home with millions of won. Starcraft is, essentially, the perfect RTS, and the economic system plays a critical role into this. Before you start fucking with the economy, I highly advise you to read and watch into high-level starcraft play so you have a better understanding of what makes SC's economy what it is. Also, consider how tech and upgrades will factor into your economy.
I've considered several different economy systems for my mods but always decided against using them. Here's a few systems with my personal thoughts behind them.
Injection-based economy (waiting to acquire funds from provinces, for example, in a game like Diplomacy) is boring. The player is just spending half the time waiting for a timer. He is not directly interacting with the economy. This is also favors turtling. If you are building an extensive, 4X styled mod where you want the player to wait for injections, you need to make careful considerations of unit and building costs. It is much too easy to just sit back and wait for enough cash to buy Voltron and stomp over the other players who have feebly tried to penetrate your defenses with weaker units, and they have no way of achieving an economic advantage to compensate for your tech one.
Regional-based economy like that employed in STF will immediately demand your mod to be almost strictly ground-based. Regional control is best with clever and complicated map design; not the disastrous flat garbage seen in Dawn of War. Unit design in this will be even more critical and prone to tweaking. This means that you will have to invest in custom map design and carefully build the mod around these custom maps. Ideally you shouldn't make it too easy to defend or attack the buildings or whatever it is you are using to generate economy. This generally brings the game into more of a tactical standoff or harassment-based.
Control Point-based economy will turn Starcraft into an RTT and away from RTS completely. I would advise completely avoiding anything involving control points in a game as macro and combat intensive as Starcraft, especially when it's very hard to diverge from this gameplan in a mod. Dawn of War or Company of Heroes would be a better game to mod if you want this kind of a system.
Upgrades are very important. In my fleet combat article, I explained how upgrades change the gameplay considerably in both vanilla Starcraft and ITAS. With the advent of plugins, you can probably do a lot of crazy stuff with upgrades that was totally impossible during my days.
Upgrades are a way to evolve the gameplay. In ITAS, it was to turn fighters from scouts and harass units into high-DPS flanking swarms that rape capital ships.
With plugins, you could create upgrades that do neat stuff like firing rates. This adds a level of complication to balancing that I can't really foresee since I haven't ever been able to do that.
The best way to approach upgrades would be an approach accompanied with knowledge of the original game. Upgrades can dramatically change Starcraft gameplay; +1 for Zealots allow them to 2-shot zerglings instead of 3-shot. I think I heard that a certain number of upgrades (+2 I think) allow a Siege Tank to 2shot another tank in siege mode. Once you have an understanding of how upgrades can be applied, you can then employ a plan to your whim.
The Hydra's Plasma Glaive has a chance to do 3x critical damage when it hits or bounces. That means the upgrade damage is also being applied 3 times as well.
I usually made upgrades very significant in their bonuses, and more expensive than usual. This made taking upgrades become a significant choice instead of something to do when you have a little excess resources. Often taking upgrades would replace teching, since their bonuses made units (and defensive structures) considerably stronger. Some units would only achieve their full potential once upgraded.
This unit fired 5-6 projectiles per attack that dealt damage in a huge radius. It was most effective against small targets until you acquired a significant amount of upgrades that would then allow it to punch through higher armor.
I never delved much into tech trees, although in ITAS I wanted to totally revamp the two Confederate trees (Xenon Project and Kaloth Industries). In MFTGATRL I kept the tech trees very similar to existing ones with the addition of new units and new buildings and upgrades and stuff moved around a bit.
I really like the kind of tech business Bajadulce is doing in PEAI, though.
Okay, now you've got an idea of my thought processes behind making units and races and stuff. Now I'm going to talk about actually making it happen. My work flow, ethics, what have you.
Building your mod: managing new additions
Okay, how do I start a mod, exactly? I have a concept, I know what it is I want to do, where do I begin?
I always begin with graphics. In AO's case, it was the Pit Lord tech demo from Sarenubus Kaladonmus. In ITAS' case, it was about a dozen or so models from rhino 3d. I always begin with graphics. Graphics represent the mod, and it's rewarding to see your new content in SC, even if it doesn't work fully.
If you're anything even remotely like me, you're going to be juggling a vicious ballet of motivation, focus, and dedication. Even though many of my mod's production lives were very short (ITAS 1.0 was produced in like 2 weeks), it is very easy to burn out. So I balance my work flow in a way that keeps me motivated and rewards me bit by bit as I move on.
The most rewarding thing to me is just setting my shit in motion. I smile when the Great Destroyer obliterates a fleet of carriers, I laugh when my cluster of Xenon Battleships obliterate some poor Modnighter's mass of Blood Moons. It's my worlds. I've brought them to life. That is the greatest reward. I don't care about publicity, I don't care about making release dates or whatever. I just want to see my shit kill other shit.
So, I always start with a random unit, a unit I think would be awesome. I make the graphic, then I make it functional. I call these barebones units. AO had a ton of barebones units it didn't built when it was first released; Duriel, Zeus, Mal`Ash, ect. They "worked", but they had no attacks or sounds or anything. The drive to finish the units is created when I see them in motion for the first time. It is then often critical that I do the work related to finishing them quickly.
My exact process for AO's units was as follows;
Determine unit specs. "I want the Gatekeeper of Chaos to have a flamethrower and a fireball attack with a DoT inferno that lasts forever."
Convert graphic frames to bmps
Send off bmps to p_q for renaming
Get bmps for weapons and effects
Determine what to replace in Starcraft, find ids
Start scripting weapons
Convert weapon graphics
Receive bmps from p_q
Process bmps from p_q
Send bmps to HKS to resize if necessary
Receive bmps from HKS resize if necessary
Finish scripting weapons, start scripting main unit
Finish scripting main unit to barebones format
Datedit the necessary unit specs
Spawn unit in map, check it out ingame, work out any frame call goofups I made (I often do that a lot since these units can have up to 2k frames)
Go back to main script, apply attacks and add sounds to weapons
Go into datedit and give appropriate stats
Test again, tweak to specifications
Apply full sounds
Apply cast effects
And lastly, do strings
Test with AI
I can't make wireframes or icons, so I didn't worry about those. I made some decent icons for ITAS in some method I can't recall, but wireframes have always been a dark art I've just ignored. I never considered wireframes necessary for a Total Conversion, if only because I had never found anyone who could make any and considered it impossible unless done by hand which would take way too long and I suck at drawing anyway.
In a multi-race mod like ITAS, I usually make one race have some base units, then make the other race have a few base units. I often end up bouncing between these two races adding units randomly. This is why the third race (most often protoss) ends up with so few units; I generally save up content for them to finish in the last stretch. Which I never make it to because I run out of motivation much too easily.
With AO, I focused on a more organized tier-to-tier setup. First I made tier 1 units, then tier 2, then tier 3. With every tier, I invisioned how much crazier I can make the next guys. Then, with that tier, I aimed to one-up myself in the next one. Then I ended up with units that teleport across the map and vaporized 400 units in a touch.
Usually I voice acted appropriate units on the spot, but sometimes I also waited and did a whole bunch at once. For mods like ITAS, I always saved requirement strings and stuff until the very end of production. Since none of the mods besides AO and MFTGATRL reached that stage, most of my mods had only unit names. I didn't consider this that critical because if I did them earlier I might end up having to redo them again because I changed the tech tree. I always knew the tech trees, anyway, as I only played by myself or with HKS and comps.
Which brings us to our next portion.
There are three types of modders out there. And those three types can most often be associated with three behaviors as well.
- The first type builds his mod in secret and doesn't talk much about it. He releases it when it's finished. He often has a very high probability of finishing his project barring any major catastrophes or personal weaknesses.
- The second type builds his mod and talks a bit about it but doesn't release it until it's finished. He acquires beta testers. There is a small chance that this project may actually be finished. If he's done this before he's better off.
- The third type builds his mod totally under public scrutiny and makes regular public releases. Interest in his mod will usually die very fast and total completion is generally just a dream as motivation vanishes. Most new modders do this and it usually kills them pretty quickly. There are, as always, exceptions, but unless you know what you're getting yourself into NEVER take this route.
I'll say it right here.
Do not release demos of your project.
Demos kill projects. Previews kill projects. Demo videos, that's cool, just don't show everything. Video construction is something I'll talk about in a bit. But demos are like pulling a gun to your head. Your audience won't see the super amazing mod you've dreamed of, they'll see some half-finished buggy piece of shit and be thoroughly disappointed. It won't be up to spec with your standards, dur, it's incomplete. Under no circumstances should you ever make an unfinished project available to the public.
See the segment about leadership and team management to learn more about picking out beta testers.
Ideally, you should be the guy that never says a word about his project to anyone until it's finished. You can make reasonable balance decisions just with knowledge about Starcraft and computer opponents. That's how I worked, and my mods have always been very balanced despite their incompletion. However, for six or so years I became enthralled in the prospect of building hype for my project. It destroyed me not only as a modder but as a person.
The first rule about modding is you don't talk about your mod. You may give some ideas of features you'll present, but becoming engrossed in instilling a public image will force you into a mental obligation to work harder, to work to please your audience, and that will destroy you thoroughly. You'll find yourself making poor decisions on behalf of just trying to generate hype, you'll start cutting corners to make a release date, or in the absolute worst case scenario, you release a demo.
I've been down both roads. I've felt the burning euphoria of hype. But then I made the mistake of releasing early. My motivation plummeted, and while people would think this or that was cool, the ultimate goal of the mod wasn't reached. Interest is lost very easily. I grew too attached to what the public thought about me or my projects. That add more weight to my already heavily-burdened shoulders when I was working away on projects like MFTGATRL and UF. It is the single greatest mistake I have ever made.
I sometimes do get beta testers, though, such as for AO. In the article I linked above, I talk about keeping contact with your testers and so on. Now I'm gonna talk about providing for your testers.
Making for a Better Balance
Okay, so you've got a race and a bunch of units. You thought everything was pretty nice, but playtesters complain that X is too powerful and Y is totally fucking useless and they just wiped their ass with P because P doesn't even do anything useful.
What the fuck do we do?
Before you jump into your mod and start totally fucking with everything, here's a few observations I've made for you to consider.
Relic's games, when patched, often contain TREMENDOUS amounts of balance changes. Everything sees huge reductions or boosts.
World of Warcraft and Guild Wars follow the same way. Patches can change tons of skills and nerf the living shit out of things or massively boost others.
There's some key consistencies to note.
First off, these games have been patching forever. Yes, two of them are MMO's, but they often end up returning to the same skills and make reversed changes, sometimes in the totally opposite direction. The Relic games never achieve any kind of harmony and remain horribly badly balanced. Every review I see of Dawn of War 2 speaks about the awful balancing. "So, this patch is the Ork's time to rape everyone... oh, now it's the Elder's time."
There are few key reasons why these companies can bumble around fucking with things and fail to achieve anything useful.
First off, avoid making huge dramatic changes unless it's absolutely necessary. If your Elven Archer does 20 damage and you find she consistently kills Orcish Grunts a little too fast, you might be tempted to drop the damage down to 10. That is a huge drop. Try 15 instead. Make gentle, gradual changes, and test them thoroughly. If you follow the ethics of Relic and Blizzard and make gigantic swings through things, you'll not only come off as completely retarded to your testers who will just facepalm when you make half the units useless and the other half insanely strong. It's why Blizzard is having such a ridiculously hard time balancing WoW PvP (in addition to trying to cater to PvE content); huge changes completely gimp certain classes or overpower others.
Make gradual changes. When balancing AO's units, especially the AoE's, I had to be very careful. These units did a lot of damage, but not quite enough. So I very gently up the damages. Some of the damages ended up being double their original forms, anyway.
Obviously if the unit is totally harmless it will need dramatic changes, but when you are just dealing with specific units being a bit too strong, avoid big, dramatic changes.
Again, take into account the potential of the unit. It may not do a lot of damage just standing there, but if it can kite units, it can put out a lot more damage than its stats may lead you to believe.
Avoid making too many changes at once. If you end up completely overhauling the stats of an entire race, it will end up playing nothing like it did previously. Your efforts to rebalance them have suddenly made them completely different. Focus on problematic situations and then expand outwards from there. Also, consider unit synergies. Maybe my Orc Grunt can't kill the archer alone, but when my Orc Shaman spams Ensnare they are quite fucked. Ensnare, although rarely used, can be quite hilarious in TvZ when the ball of death tries to escape lurkers and just gets ensnared and dies instead.
Ignore them. No, don't ever set a release date. You won't make it. And if you did, you fucking cut corners. It'll be ready when it's ready. No sooner, no later. Period. Get the concept of a work place with schedules outside of your head. This isn't a hobby, but it isn't the office, either. Setting a deadline will hurt you more than you think. You're going to needlessly feel stress and worry about making it. You'll start to drop stuff or cut content or not devote enough time to testing.
Ignore the pitiful pleading of your sheep. The wait will make it all the sweeter; just don't blatantly hype up everything and then waste time like PR did and make everyone lose interest. Poor Heart of Storms.
Hype is a double-edged blade. Avoid wielding it too carelessly, or it will bite you in the ass.
When your mod has barely been started on, don't whisper a word about its existence. No one will care, anyway. I did the exact opposite with AO - I kept very public about it. But I also very carefully controlled information. Plus, I used it as a learning experience for other modders. I did a lot of things no one had even attempted, so I felt it was worth it to bite the bullet.
Information control. Keep those words in mind.
Hype is when you generate interest in your mod and receive the desire to play it from your audience. When you release information and you've got some attention, you might be tempted to release more and keep the excitement going. This is generally a very bad idea. For starters, it can backfire; you will suddenly run out of new stuff to show. Suddenly your mod isn't so new and exciting anymore. "Well, I already know the Klingons have 5 ships total. Great." You may also achieve what you wanted - even more hype, but this is also a bad thing. Hype has a habit of biting you in the ass when it spills over the pot. Think about SC2 - when it was first announced, everyone was super pumped. But then updates slowed and it has been delayed so much that almost all of the hype has burned out and left a lot of people bitter. Sure, they'll still probably enjoy SC2 when it's release, but that's not a mod. Mods do not have the same benefits as a full-fledged game with a 30-mission campaign featuring cinematics made by an incredibly impressive art division and a whole new engine/editor to play with and the future of Esports riding on its shoulders.
Once you have reached a reasonable state, release info very slowly. I like to use video media. A properly-made trailer can really generate the kind of hype you're looking for - the sense of desire to know more, the mystery, and the unveiled epic that awaits in the future. Building your trailer properly is hugely important.
Consider movie trailers for a moment. The trailer generally starts off slow with a few words to accompany players to the main character or plot. Then you get glimpses of various scenes - this is called building energy. Energy is directly related to interest and excitement. Through emotional and stirring imagery, sounds, and content you must aim to captivate the audience. Then you present the goods. Action scenes, plot, what have you. No scene stays for too long, the video never stays on one part for very long.
Releasing the energy through action scenes or large events is what will really generate interest for your project. Through hopefully brief but fluent imagery you can portray some of your mechanics and units in action. AA's trailer starts with some big battles, and then drones out to a several-minute slowfest of dudes just flying around, then goes back into battles again. If he had reversed it, started with dudes flying around and some beauty shots, then moved into action, the effect would have been far more pronounced. Additionally, he showed way too much battle footage. AA's unit design is very weak, and the battles are very simple. This doesn't make for very great action footage. The trailer is almost 5 minutes long; a 1 minute trailer would have been less work to make and much more effective as a trailer. AA's focus is on economic gameplay and other mechanics than battles, so he should have demonstrated some of those first and finished off with a bit exploding finale.
Also, my AO release trailer was wretched. I had wanted to do a lot more with it, but eventually I ended up with a confusing and pointless show of spinning glowy that achieved nothing besides building up energy and then doing nothing with it.
There should always be structure to your video. It may just be a series of explosions and guys shooting each other, but it should flow some kind of hidden script.
There are robots.
*cue robot faces*
There are other robots.
*cue angry robot faces*
They fucking hate each other
*cue robot kung-foo*
Immersion is a key element provided by your trailer. Ideally, this trailer is the first time anyone will see your project in motion. You want the quality of the trailer to reflect the quality of your project. If the trailer is as half-assed as cinicraft's was, few people will find interest in it. They might like some the content, but the trailer will have ultimately failed to achieve what it set out to do. You will have fallen short of achieving the dramatic impact of "Wow, holy shit!" and are left with "that marine looks pretty cool" or "omg sc in 3d".
Only show fully completed stuff in your mod with your trailer. Unless it's something like my AO documentary demonstrations, it's usually unwise to show incomplete stuff. Just like with releasing a demo, you end up failing to reach the expectations raised through time or, in the case of a trailer, since when it started.
Study movie trailers intensely. Understand why they entrance you. Then watch horrible trailers, like those for Dragon Age. Why are they awful? Do they have a point to them? Is there any energy behind the events or is it just a mishmash of unrelated scenes?
Speaking of documentaries, they can be pretty cool. A commentated game by the author showing and playing his work and explaining it is extremely rare if not non-existent other than my AO videos. Baja produced some non-commentated demonstrations of his PEAI units; I think that if he commentated them they would be ten times as awesome. However, I kept my games few and far inbetween so major changes had taken place between videos, acting as a kind of a chronological boundary between versions. It's always fun to look at the old videos when you're done and think "holy shit, I didn't even have the Oblivion in when this was recorded!" It was exciting to watch my first AO gameplay video when I released version 3.0. This is mostly just for personal amusement, though. But a lot of people did like my gameplay videos, if only because I am hilarious.
Here are examples of what I feel to be a good trailer, made by Voyager. Unfortunately he didn't zoom into the footage to remove the console, so you can see he staged everything, but he did a pretty good job otherwise. It's simple, straight to the point, but effective.
Here's a trailer for Gundam Century. I like it; it's simple, to the point, shows off some of the Gundam units in action. It doesn't have much structure to it, but it doesn't stay at one spot and hangs around for you to get bored with it.
Here's the very first AO trailer. It was the first mod trailer I had ever made.
As we draw to the conclusion of this article, I'd like to talk a bit about my testing schemes. With AO especially, complicated units can be difficult to properly balance and test.
My greatest tool in testing is computers. There's no reason your mod should lack custom AI, so get into it early and it will provide you with endless hours of entertaining in your own mod. It's great for testing out unit combos, specific situations, ect. Obviously the computers can't micro, but you can, and this can help you exploit strong units and help determine how to balance them.
With AO, I had two testing phases.
My first phase involved the included Lewl map with command centers. A bunch of maps exist with every unit in the game placed on them, but since they don't have turrets or stuff placed on them they had little use to me. Plus, I was lazy and didn't make the neutral buildings/creeps/whatever functional after I hijacked their graphics slots, so they'd just crash.
Playing around with the unit is important. Interrupt it during attacks, during casting, spin it around wildly, attack and stop, you want to make absolutely sure your iscript threads don't cause problems during specific transitions - that's the easiest and sometimes most difficult to spot way of crashing with the iscript.
Once the unit functions to my specifications, I give it to the AI and I throw a big fucking showdown of ultimate destiny with 7 Armageddon in an FFA. I make the AI spam the unit like crazy in the beginning and watch the fireworks. Generally if it doesn't crash in 15 minutes I give the unit the go-ahead and work it into the AIscript normally.
Computer AI's are often more valuable than actual people. They're always there, they always do what you want (relatively speaking of course) and you can endure hours-long testing sessions without relent.
Plus, let's face it. The chances of you finding 7 dedicated players to test nightly with you are astronomically unlikely.
Once you've made your final release, it's your duty to update any crashes to the mod. Even though I abandoned most of my mods after I released their incomplete forms, I always kept an eye out for any crash reports. Usually I didn't get any, though.
Minor imbalances or oddities can often be overlooked, but actual crashes should always be fixed.
Unfortunately the crashes in AO and ITAS 2.0 were unsolvable.
~ Segment 3 - The Power of Sound in Immersion
+ Show Spoiler +
Before we begin I'd like to establish some of my concepts for you.
Energy - A conscious and subconscious emotional attachment given by powerful sounds, imagery, and other forms of sensation, or a combination. Energy is related to Interest and helps define Mood.
Mood - Mood is what you are attempting to achieve through the conduction of sensation. Fear, excitement, suspense, ect.
Action - Fast-paced movement. Usually related to the "release" of energy.
Flow - The way a sensation travels and how this translates to the motion of Energy.
In all things modding, movie, and media related in general, the key to establishing interest is through immersion. A good speech will set the foundation for a critical topic, instill its listeners with an intended emotion, and ultimately direct their thoughts towards specific subjects or, in more extreme cases, even elevate actions from its audience.
Many games have powerful ambiance but weak elements elsewhere, such as Dead Space with its strong sound design and ambient effects, Avatar with its graphical battering ram, and 300 with energy of intensity. To understand what it is that makes these elements what they and, most importantly, how to forge and wield them, we must first step back and understand the beast that we are trying to harness.
Take pause for a moment and remember the old days, when you were but a child playing your favorite Classic. For me, that's Starcraft. Your memories are fond, but why? You were too young to be a competitive gamer, too young to understand the finer elements of the story, and too naive to know the painful future that awaited you. But still, this title drew you in. Perhaps it wasn't a game. Perhaps it was a movie, or it was a TV show.
The point is, is that whatever this fantasy world was, it drew you in and captivated you. The elements were so powerful, so inspiring, they immersed you. Engulfed you.
Immersion, The Concept
Making or breaking the foundation for your world, your story, your words and wisdom
Immersion is the most powerful element of any kind of media. To captivate the user and, much more challenging, to draw him in and hold him.
Immersion is generated by the overall effectiveness of media elements. Sound, visual, and with games, interaction (to a degree). When I was young, Starcraft and Diablo were the most immersive environments. Shooters felt too linear, but the art and sound direction of these games drew me in very well.
In Starcraft, it was the fog of war and the unknown nature of the Zerg. You were the Terrans, fighting for survival against an unknown alien enemy that, at the time, was fairly unique for me. But when the Dominion zerg experimentation projects came along, it "detoothed" the threat of the zerg for me, and the immersion was broken. This illustrates to me a very careful balance I have tried to achieve in all of my writing and productions to date.
Immersion. Immersion is to captivate the audience and keep their attention.
Modern movies fail to immerse you because their elements are mismatched. For example, most modern movies are now using Hans Zimmer-ripoff soundtracks bastardized with metal elements where they don't fit. Sound is so incredibly important for a movie or a game to immerse the audience, but in the last few years it has been abandoned by all but a few companies.
Lair, a PS3 launch title, has one of the greatest soundtracks ever created. The composer, John Debney, was unleashed by the game crew to make a massive soundtrack spanning several hours. The result is what I would personally describe as the best soundtrack of any kind of game ever produced. Close rivals include the infinity-engine games.
The infinity-engine games. Produced by Black Isle before it was destroyed forever and the good name of "RPG" tarnished in the later future with total garbage like NWN2, this engine contains a series of games widely considered to be the best of the best, a legacy whose shoes can never be filled. But what made these games for me, out of the little bit I've been able to play, other than the incredibly well-done graphics is the amazing soundtracks.
What makes these soundtracks so unique is not just their compositions themselves, but how they sound. They are strong, but soft. They surround you, and fill you, while soundtracks like that for 300 just kind of blasts at you with cliche metal forced into an orchestra.
Where 300 is bold, it is also forceful. It forces its sound upon you, instead of drawing you into it. It is a difficult concept to describe, but the soundtrack really broke the immersion of 300 for me. 300 aimed to establish a sense of constant energy by continually unleashing action scenes in heavily stylized post-processing. I felt the effect would have been far more pronounced if the soundtrack had been different. For example, near the end of the movie there is a Hungarian folk song that is played. If the entire soundtrack had been composed in such a style it would have had far greater impact in my mind. But metal has been forced into too many soundtracks for the majority of 300's music to be at all unique. Composers seem to be under the impression that having electric guitars automatically makes their composition "cool" and "hip". Instead they are missing the entire point of music.
The concept of immersion is that the combination of elements provided in either a movie, a story, a game, or any kind of media trying to deliver a story of some kind, draw in the audience and grant them a believable, tangible world. Any kind of element can break this immersion. The bad placement of a piece of music, bad-looking graphics, out of character actions. Ect...
I will make my point all at once.
I am certain that it was someone on TL who linked this video in the first place, and that is how I discovered it. I spent a great deal of time hunting down the soundtrack until I was finally able to locate it.
The two most difficult forms of mood to create are as I see them;
- Believability of Intensity - a formation of energy that gives the user tension and distills belief that what is happening is real enough that they are detached from the world around them and are consumed by what they currently see. This is a most powerful form of action that capitalizes upon existing energy and establishes imagery, sound, and emotion that leaves them in a state of excitement for some time.
- Silence - a mood of stillness and peace yet still emotional, often sad or in a state of "dull nerves". An immense sensation that overcomes the audience's overarching thought processes (thoughts about work, their friends, what they're going to eat today, ect.) and completely and totally consumes them in a single emotion of "silence". That is what this above video is capable of doing.
Although I have just posted a video example, what I'll be talking about largely in this particular article is music itself, and how it relates to productions. In my GEC documentary I will cover every angle of the subject, but it would be far too much to try to visualize in writing and would take me much too long to write it out. I apologize for this, but the subject is amongst the largest in all of my mod production and design processes, for I consider immersion the greatest thing any production can achieve.
By watching my trailers, you probably wouldn't expect me to be a major fan of death and gothic metal. I enjoy bands like Sirenia, Battlelore, Farmer Boys, Machinae Supremacy and Sabaton. But I very rarely, if ever, use any of these tracks in my videos. Why? Copyright? Pah.
No, I don't use these tracks in the videos because my trailers aren't about my taste in music. They're about my worlds. My dreams. My creations. Indeed, I am a fan of orchestral, folk and classical, but I always choose what suits my world best. For the Lour Saga, this is choral, hungarian and oriental-styled music. Hard to find, and harder to make video adhere to, but that's what theme is that fits it. Every one of my worlds has a unique sound, and everyone of them is represented by that sound. I have searched for all my years on the internets to find this kind of music. It is a grand quest that never ends.
This is not my best of video editing. That's why I released it unfinished when the mod died. But I'm going to use it for another example I have.
Here we have some deep, sad music. Influenced by hungarian folk music, Joseph LoDuca composed a fantastic soundtrack for Xena and Hercules, where this track comes from.
But why am I showing this track against the backdrop of a fleet battle? Doesn't this go against everything I've just said about keeping the flow of the environment stable?
Nay. In fact, this fits better than an action piece. Why?
This is a play upon the mood and emotion the trailer was supposed to set in place. The Lour Saga is a very sad universe, and Throne of Armageddon is ultimately a very dark and terrible world with no sanctuary untouched by war and bloodshed. Both the races shown in the first part of this cinematic are well-known instruments of death and destruction - the Anahn and the Xy`Kranasha. These names alone, if you are familiar with the universe, will make you nod your head in acknowledgment of what I'm trying to say. Locked in blood feuds, the darker souls of the world vie for supremacy in an unending cycle of carnage.
There's more at work than just backstory, though. The voice is that of Xul`Amon, the current central mind of the Xy`Kranasha. He looks upon the world and its creatures as you might look at a passing fly while you drive down the highway in your unmarked white van. You have other destinations in mind, and this fly is just an insignificant distraction in your journey. Xul`Amon has no regard for life, or even for existence as a whole. To him, existence is merely a fleeting moment in the flow of energy that he has become part of, known as the Eternal Dream. A state where all things become one, where all flows become pure and singular. It's not unlike how the Vyru see the world, but Xul`Amon is not content to stand by and simply watch the fly permeate the loli in the back of his van with aids.
The battle depicted in the video is overlaid by the music and Xul`Amon's voice, intended to give the perspective of Xul`Amon himself. While the music sets the mood of a depressing world and the battle tells the audience what's going on, Xul`Amon's voice itself is truly setting the stage here. As the video reachings its end, you get a glimpse of the Undead, and suddenly the mood changes.
Xul`Amon's section and the section that was intended before it was quite simply a buildup of energy. In order for events in your production to really deliver impact and thought to the audience, they must have energy. The objective of immersion is to build this energy. The energy in turn sparks interest and, thus, hype. A very well done video will be much more effective than this half-assed clip I showed you, but surely enough to get the idea.
The segment with the Undead is supposed to release this energy. Suddenly we're not looking from Xul`Amon's perspective anymore. Suddenly we don't know what's going on. It's a huge goddamn Undead fleet, and they're hellbent on killing every last thing in every universe in existence. Why would they want to do this? No real reason. They just hate you and your little white dog, too. The transition plays upon the music and the slow overshadow of the Undead vessel, but I was unable to get the footage I really wanted for this scene before I discontinued the project. Ideally, you'd see the entire Undead ship by the time the choral section in the music finished, and then it'd transfer over. But the collision models inside homeworld 2 totally fucked with the camera and what I wanted simply wasn't doable.
If you check my account on youtube (mancatcher), you'll see several such videos. Some simple, some complex. Most of the homeworld 2 stuff was produced for a small audience on the fly as gameplay demonstrations. No serious work was put into them.
But they created immersion nonetheless.
Going back to music itself, I'll link you some pieces that I personally composed myself back in circa 2001-2005. I'll explain what I was attempting to achieve and why I failed horribly. This'll be kind of a unique, alternate viewpoint from a composer on his own (terrible) stuff. Might be insightful, might not be. Whatevs.
We'll start with the extremely old stuff back in 2001ish. I made this stuff in Modplug Tracker. By some stroke of luck, or curse, I was able to load gigafonts into modplug. Without going into major details, I could only load one sample at a time, and only the pitch changed with the various notes. But it still sounded a lot better than midi. The bigger problem was that modplug tracker is really difficult to use and I am about as braindead as you can get with complicated programs, much less trying to compose music without having any idea what a note even is much less "music theory".
So what did I do?
I hammered keys until it sounded good.
First I will talk about my pieces, what they were intended to represent, and why they are wrong. Then I will talk about a piece that I feel is fairly close to what I really wanted to achieve.
Note - I haven't finished the modplug tracker section yet, this is all cakewalk/gigastudio stuff.
Wrong - TOA Silence Emotion
One of my very first cakewalk/gigastudio pieces. Revision of the one above.
This was a critical piece in establishing what it was I wanted my novel's music to sound like. It was with this and later pieces that I formulated a sound in my head - much different than what I could actually compose. When I realized what it was I really wanted the universe to sound like I discovered I could not progress my abilities no matter how hard I tried. The closest I ever came was with my attempt at the main character's theme - the theme of Mauu.
The theme of Mauu starts off with something very similar to the Dark Empire Theme, obviously because Mauu is a part of the Zegredark. Though she is not Templar (the warrior order, 95% of Zegredark are Templar and the Zegredark are largely just called "Templar", as they are all servants of their God, Ascherzon, and all considered warriors in one way or another. A bit much to summarize), she is surrounded by the Templar, and was raised a warrior (specifically a Psionicist, something on the level that would make Protoss run and hide at the slightest breath). However, as the horns dull out, we are brought back into a world of peace and the oriental melodies start up again.
This piece in particular sought to visualize Mauu's perspective of life in the first chapter of TOA, where she lives mostly by herself on relatively peaceful worlds. Though she is working on a project for Ascherzon that will inevitably involve conflict, she is at peace, for she finds peace in silence. Thus, this piece symbolizes Silence as a whole in all of Throne of Armageddon, and is intended to be recited several times in later pieces throughout the novel's visualization.
However, this piece remains far too simple to properly reflect upon Mauu's inner turmoil and the complex series of emotions that begin to emerge from her character as the novel begins.
Another exceptionally old piece from cakewalk.
This was a theme largely devoid of TOA-specific styling but still a part of the novel's visualization. Rather it was attempt at an overarching theme instead of a character or perspective-centric theme (like Mauu's and the two Fury tracks). This theme is more peaceful and is mostly envisioned as an ambient piece all the way up until 4:00 which is where it begins turning more towards the Templar-style again, though more subtly than the strongly oriental-inspired tracks posted above.
Right - TOA Silence Emotion
This is a piece that properly establishes what it is I was trying to say with what I composed when I made Mauu's theme.
This starts off differently than Mauu's theme so clearly it wouldn't fit in the exact same context. However, it is suitable in the primary context of Mauu's theme as a whole, establishing the peaceful and slow nature of her world and her mind, but remaining active at the same time. There is a hint of sophistication as the piece begins, hinting to her calm, yet potent, intellect.
At around 3:30 we start going into the major emotions I wanted to set up in the very beginning of the novel. This doesn't work to the extent of turmoil that I wanted, but having a second piece for that is just as good if not better.
I feel that the emotion of the sound and the flow of energy within this track accurately portrays TOA within the second segment (the novel is divided into four segments, each about 600-700 pages estimated when completed). This is for reasons I can't say for obvious reasons, but believe me. If you hear this like I hear it then nothing needs to be said that hasn't already been said.
Analysis - TOA Silence
Throne of Armageddon is a deeply emotional world. In the writing I seek to strike as many chords with modern reality - my reality at least - to connect characters and events to the readers, even though these characters and events are far beyond the scale and science of humans.
Silence - a mood of stillness and peace yet still emotional, often sad or in a state of "dull nerves".
This is not something I can easily put in words, so I can only hope you are able to see and feel the music as I see and feel it. I do not believe that to be readily possible to visualize without you having actually read (what's written) of the novel. Regardless, this is important to know, and this is the only way I can immediately introduce you to the subject.
I made many efforts to create battle music and energetic music in particular for TOA and like-minded mod projects. These were far weaker attempts than the Silence tracks.
There are all sorts of ways to establish tension and excitement. You can go the 300 route and try to pull out metal and be "cool" 8)! and all that but that method is used by nearly every single movie and game in the past ten years. No, there are much better, fresher ways to obtain that feeling of true power.
For every person music is a relative subject. Every person has their own taste in music. That people will see your music in your project that much differently is also true, and this must be accounted for. Thus it's a good idea to try to detach yourself from your own personal thoughts and think independently from a neutral standpoint. I have been accustomed to doing this for many years, for reasons other than modding, so for me it's easy. But for others it's usually impossible.
Many mods, campaigns, or gameplay videos, or really any user-made media, are too dependent on "mainstream" music. This isn't referencing to metal but rather several sources of music I feel are the best to use as examples of what to totally avoid in your productions.
- Major Final Fantasy series music, specifically the OST's. There's a lot of live concert recordings and stuff that people don't even know about, those can be used and still provide a fresh sound.
- Trailer music. That means Immediate Music, Two Steps From Hell, X-Ray Dog, ect. Once these got leaked everyone started using them. 90% of WoW gameplay videos have this music in this. Using trailer music has the added risk of major copyright trouble. Most companies are too lazy and uncaring to do anything about you using their ip in your mere mod, if they ever even know, but trailer music was never intended to be publicly available in the first place. I try to avoid using it whenever possible. Besides, there's much better sounding stuff out there.
- OST's from mainstream movies. Transformers, The Rock, Batman Begins, ect. Most Zimmer-style stuff should be avoided, although Zimmer has made several decent soundtracks recently that seem to be overlooked as far as mod/trailer production material is concerned - including Modern Warfare 2.
Action pieces in particular are a difficult subject. It's easy to say that the Bulgarian folk I posted will be effective because it's a really niche piece and chances are most people have never heard it before. This alone will captivate them. For action it's far, far more difficult to achieve that same "wow" effective that really catches your viewers and pulls them in. Even harder is for a total conversion to provide gameplay music that will fit correctly at any time during gameplay!
Wait, most games use ambient music in gameplay, don't they? So why am I talking about that in the Action section?
I largely use action music in my mods, opting to use ambient in specific situations. Unlike most game companies I don't force myself to adhere to any style or prose just because of where it's being used. I use something where I feel personally that it will do well in, and there is a great deal of reasoning behind that. Again, this is a big subject I'll be covering in my huge video documentary complete with visuals, but for the moment I'll do the best I can to make it fairly brief as this is already going to be a very big article.
Okay, so what the hell does all of this mean, exactly?
The key to getting your energy to flow the way you want is to ease the mind into it, and not try to force the energy. The reason these movies and games continually use electric guitars and synths is try as hard as possible to make "awesome". In reality most people will be like "lol cheesy". Surely if you are a big music buff, especially in orchestral, you'll know what I'm getting at.
This is what I personally consider to be one of the greatest action pieces I've ever heard, especially from a material for mod production standpoint. And this is why.
This piece flows between high intensity and flow very evenly all the way until the very end. It doesn't slow down or lose energy as it travels, rather it goes from emotion to emotion. This is very important for background music and is largely why movie soundtracks don't work well for mods; they're composed to fit to a scene, not for general usage. There are many exceptions, but that's generally what you will find. Of course, you can always mold the scene to the music piece, especially if it's a part of a cinematic or a timed series of events, but in general what you're looking for is stuff like this.
The Flow in the music is important. As it changes melodies and instruments it also subtly changes the emotion the music gives. I used this piece in one of my homeworld 2 videos, and though very basic, I think it will provide a general demonstration of what I am talking about.
I tried to construct the video, despite the limitations of my recordings, to the flow and emotion of the music. Everything from which parts of the battle I showed to how often the camera changed views.
Though subtle and not a mod-related video, I used two separate music tracks from Kameo: Elements of Power to help portray the emotion behind the ships. It intensifies gradually as the classification of ships and complexity intensifies. Through this there is unification in the motion of both visuals and music, which is what you are trying to achieve.
Likewise, high-intensity music will not with light-intensity action.
Voice Acting is a tough business. 99% of games that employ voice acting have bad actors. Out of the 1% that have good actors, many have terrible editing. I'm not going to teach you how to voice act, and Maglok has already made a topic for microphones, so I'll jump right to editing and decision-making.
Acting is very important, as is voice acting. Your flagship leading a fleet across the galaxy to squash those fracking toasters should probably be commanded by an experienced veteran Admiral who shows his years through his voice and speech. Voice acting and speech in units is a pivotal way to express your universe in a Total Conversion where you do not have a campaign to express it for you. Thus, a TC without any new sounds or voices is missing a massive portion of what makes a TC whole - immersion of character.
Each unit should have specific character to it. The Undead are all fucking psychos, but each unit has its own little specific taste of insanity.
Most people would probably employ the "Weaker unit = less impressive voice" route with this kind of a race. With the Undead, all of them are basically demons that stab people. Instead of going with the weaker unit = less impressive voice, I opted to make the weaker units more insane, and the stronger units more sinister and calculated, thus implying a caste-like system where the weak are just too insane to do anything but fight, and the more intelligent and clever demons rise in power and rank.
When using editing, take special note of style once more. The style of your edits will be quite odd of the editing of one protoss sounds totally different from the other. Point in case - SC1 Protoss and SC2 protoss. All of my Undead use variations of the same flange setup with some chorus additions here and there, plus a specific set of reverbs.
In most MFTG non-Undead units, I gave each unit something specific to bitch about or be involved in doing. Be it pie, obnoxious alarms, complicated computers, or people sticking themselves into inappropriate locations, every Confed/GC unit allowed the player a fleeting yet terrifying glimpse of their world.
Hopefully that gives you some food for thought.
~ Segment 4 - Centralization of Motion in Sound and Cinema
+ Show Spoiler +
Centralization; The Concept of Energy in Motion
If it is true that sound and music empower the mind and thus the body, then one must make note how to best convey his sound, and what sound is thus best conveyed. To enter this subject I shall tell you a personal bit about myself.
Amongst my only memories I have of my years in the past, back when I was still in the hellish nightmare that was school, was the endless sleepless nights in drought of extreme heat (Canada gets fucking hot dude don't let the igloos fool you, here in Abbotsford we easily hit 100f in spring and winter), I would spend countless hours in total darkness listening to one or two specific things;
The late-night radio shows.
For many years after I dropped out of school and left the physical portion of that nightmare behind forever, I was left with an abundance of shattered memories and depressive flashbacks. But these memories in particular, these endless nights, they always stuck with me for some reason. Long I pondered why they were so powerful to have endured my endless attempts to purge my memories, until I forged a concept to explain the energy behind them.
The reason they are powerful is really a combination of factors.
- The environment, the darkness, is where I am most mentally active. Light naturally subdues and dulls my ability to think and makes me extremely tired.
- The heat dulls out my senses even further and instills a sense of weightless "motion" of anxiety that is tempered by total stillness.
- Through these two events my mind is slowed to the point that cohesive thought is possibly (generally my thoughts are racing non-stop from my brain damage and I can't control it). My physical discomfort and mental equilibrium have unified into a curious state of mind that is drawn to one presence - a single sound or thought.
In the case of the fan, this instills a sense of Silence, of true stillness where the mind loses all sense of time and motion in the world and is locked in eternal nothingness. Only at these times am I ever at peace.
In the case of the Radio, I am consumed by the late-night radio shows (The Shadow was one of the big ones, plus Triffids). Even the nature of low-quality radio audio played an extremely unique role in this immersive environment.
Since then I have long conceived of ways to bring about this kind of centralization to my projects and even my writing. This is, again, where I put myself through immense physical stress by forcing myself to stay up for extended periods of time to try to attain that level of exhaustion and mental crossover where I could try to achieve a state of centralization and study its effects. Those were times I was able to model or write coherently. It most certainly has a profound effect!
This can even be applied to cinema, and it's then I realize I had merely rediscovered, through a different path, a key form of cinematography used in many Asian films and anime. The classics always seem to involve Samurai at some kind of stand-off, calm before the storm, or general "silence in drama" moment. I've also noted that although Western counterparts have attempted this form of filmplay on many occassions the majority of them are total failures (lol hollowwood), something key I make note of is the differences between the two and why I see them as failures.
The mechanics between emotional impacts and immersive environments are difficult to pick apart in a sense that can be brought into words. The easiest way of saying it is that Westerners are too heavy-handed and try to force emotion when emotion cannot be forced. Transformers is a good example of this, as well as Avatar. When something is forced it has no impact and you can see it from a mile away. These movies are just CGI masturbation and nothing more, but even then they often fail in achieving what can be done with graphics alone. People will say, "oooh, shiny!" but real, lasting impact is not made.
I like to try to gun for the sophisticated mind, the one that is extremely difficult to please. Because only the sophisticated mind will be able to truly understand what it is I am trying to say at all. If I can access him, I can access everyone. So I studied these CGI-intensive movies with forced immersion repeatedly and tried to discern what made them tick from a perspective without any kind of training about cinematography at all - the best kind.
But there are also Asian movies who travel a route of high-intensity motion in an effort to strike that upper level of intensity. Their methods are different, however, than American ones. I have tried to reason this in my mind before but I lack the words to describe my anologies. I shall try, though.
Hero, a recent martial arts film, represents a portion of the cinematography I envision for Throne of Armageddon itself.
This movie has a great deal of personality in it, intentionally placed into it as though to reflect upon its ancestory and heritage in films. The grand nature of several events and the personalities of the characters are all key in the overall prose of the movie. At around 1:45 is a transition from energy to stillness. But this scene was not intended to enter full Silence (a state of total still motion) but rather to slow the mind for the upcoming "foresight" scene."
This is a really unique collection of images.
Plus I also love the music and that has special meaning to me, too.
In most Western movies, they often go out of their way to demonstrate a character's power if he is powerful (especially in The Matrix), but in this scene those effects are fairly subtle. The choreography is still there, but the "bling" is fairly minimal. However, the impact remains just as significant if not better.
A problem that can afflict movies from both sources, however, is choreography that is too "perfect". In the new Star Wars movies, for example, The Matrix, ect. This brings us to the second part of Motion...
Although the concept of energy in action is fairly basic, and the battles within your mods/campaigns/videos are just battles, consider the events that can add unexpectedness to what is happening, if even minor. Collateral destruction from explosions, ect. Events never happen out exactly as planned. But don't try to force twists into the motion, either, or they'll come out as terribly as they did for most movies.
The key aspect of centralization is minimalization of distraction. Since it is the concept of drawing the focus into a single event or motion, while you are trying to establish a level of unfamiliar freshness you also cannot stray from the concept that it is you are trying to employ. Something most artists will already be familiar with.
In a mod, though, this typically relates to the way you employ audio, especially in a campaign or transition of some kind. Even the lack of music and instead the presence of a small number of ambient sounds can have a better effect than something much more extravegant. Less is more, in some cases. This can give the mind time to recover from an intense action moment or prepare the mind for one. Western movies always try to have that calm before the storm moment but they usually ruin it with cheesy predictable bullshit. This is also, incidentally, a huge issue with western movie music as well.
But do not think of the concept of Centralization as a door into voiding your world of detail. It is rather the opposite. So hard to describe, mang. My weary mind tires of this. This is so hard to put into hard.
In much the same way there should be focus in cinematography, there should also be consistency and focus in your mod's graphics and sounds. They should flow together well, and transition evenly. If you're going to be using one ambient music piece for your Zerg's soundtrack, you should probably make the rest of the music sound similar in style. If you choose the route of going metal, having a classical piece in the mix will sound strange.
See Centralization as a gate to the impact of Silence in particular, for that is how I envision both concepts. It can be used for high energy as well, but this is more difficult to do, especially in a game.
Starcraft did this very well for me in the elder days. That was in part due to my severely damaged psyche.
The overall goal of Centralization and Energy is to instill the suspense of belief and draw the mind into your world. For a mod this is difficult to achieve but it is doable. See Armageddon Onslaught.
The reason AO works is because the Diablo and Infinity Engine graphics I used already resembled Starcraft graphics in a way, so they fix fairly naturally into the game. Plus, they all have unique sounds. The mod also has a build-up of energy over time as Armageddon ascends its tiers, and it summons a massive variety of units; it takes nearly an hour for Armageddon to exhaust its entire tech tree, by then you are usually dead. But I also heavily employed custom sounds and effect graphics, aiming to make Armageddon as feral, boisterous, and vicious as possible.
I avoided using vocal dialogue for all units besides a handful of Legendaries, and reason for this was also to instill a suspension of belief. Although The Great Destroyer's voice is one of my better voices and it is true I could make unique voices for many units, the impact of each voice is lessened somewhat as you hear evil voice after evil voices. So, I had voices only for very specific units. Other than The Great Destroyer, the voices of the Fallen Hero, Prince of Pain, and Zeus played randomly throughout their attacks and not all the time. I had magic voice the Lord of Terror but he didn't make actual attack sounds like I had asked (people seem to misunderstand; I want grunts aka exertions for attack sounds but most VA's are not skilled enough to make good ones. It's something I am practicing over and over again these days to acquire the skill.). So, as it is, he plays his sounds too oftens and that's one of the things I wanted to fix but didn't get around to.
The sudden appearance of a unit with vocals, particularly The Great Destroyer, is profound. His deep, forbidding voice will immediately draw and centralize attention on him. This achieves the concept of Centralization within Armageddon Onslaught and completes the circle of the mod's overarching prose when he finally appears at the end of the game.
Segment 5 - The Conundrum of AI
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In an RTS especially, having functional computer opponents is absolutely critical to everything you do as a modder or campaign creator. Immediately from the start put research into the game's computer players and see how you can work with them and how they can work for you.
In all of my Starcraft mods I made the decision to avoid changing certain things, like spells, because the AI could not take advantage of these changes. I am a firm believer that you should make the AI all it can be, and significant spell changes in any of my mods would have crippled the AI and provided too great of an advantage against them. In some instances I compensated - in MFTGATRL, the AI can use the GC Eco-Rapist for Gamma Ray, an extremely powerful AoE weapon, but players have to use the more expensive Battleship.
Face facts - you're not going to have a huge testerbase/fanbase from the start, and you're largely building your mod for yourself. The only way you will truly enjoy your work is if you can play it whenever the hell you want as you want. The only way to achieve this is by having AI opponents that function in the mod environment.
Depending on the game this can be easy or difficult, but in either event you should always put energy into researching how the AI functions to, at the very least, make sure the AI can take your changes. The AI in Age of Wonders 2 is totally hardcoded, but I managed to get them to build towns, wizard towers, teleportation gates, and upgrade their towns more often by providing an incentive for their hardcoded algorithm - I gave Pioneers archery and fake attack stats, I let Teleportation gates and other structures give small income bonuses.
Age of Wonders 2's AI also greatly helps me in balancing. The hardcoded algorithms automatically seek out the most cost-effective unit. If I see the AI relentlessly spamming one unit too much, I know it's probably too good for its cost. With just this alone and no actual testing, I can balance out the cost-effectiveness of the units until the AI builds a reasonable number of them.
AI also provides a very stable testbed for unusual situations. By pitting two AI's vs each other you are eliminating the skill factor of two different players. But also note that this isn't always a perfect way of doing balancing unless you account for every factor; I discovered the Omega was too cheap when I 1v1'd mucky in ITAS and he powered straight up to an Omega. As Undead, I invested into harassment and low-tier units since medium and high tier are too expensive. An issue I was already aware of - Undead tier structures being too expensive - was brought fully out into the light by this match.
There are two critical points to most Starcraft modders - their mods are imbalanced and they rarely have custom AI. Because they don't have custom AI they can't regularly test their mods except with their friends and this gives them far less information to work with. Even if they don't have a very good game sense they would be able to get a better idea of how their project plays if they had functional computer players.
I got into modding overall by modding Starcraft computer AI. I always wanted an AI that built more units, particularly a Zerg that made more hatcheries. After that my ambition grew - what else could I do? Now, here we are today. I am sitting on what is quite possibly the most powerful Zerg AI ever made outside of BWAPI projects.
But make no mistake, modding AI is quite possibly one of the most time-intensive and test-intensive aspects of modding. Starcraft's AI is riddled with extreme hardcoded limitations and code that works for one race won't work at all for another. It's a temperamental child you must bend to your will with the iron fist of a catholic priest or it will drive you insane. Although many of the younger generation modders attempted AI late into their projects they lacked the devotion to make progress.
Computer AI most often has hardcoded issues you can never get past. Often, computer AI is totally hardcoded altogether - like that in Sins of a Solar Empire. Critical aspects of computer AI, like how they handle attack pathing and build placement, are almost always hardcoded. In some games, like sc2 and supreme commander, they are not - but these are extremely advanced subjects that I personally have not been able to break into due to my learning disabilities and inability to focus. That doesn't mean that I wouldn't be trying if I was modding either of these games, though.
For a campaign AI is even more important because it's an exclusively single-player experience. The AI MUST function and it MUST function correctly. AI is a reflection of personality. The bosses in boss fights must not be vulnerable to exploits, like those in warcraft 3 often are. For my Active Map concept functional AI is absolutely critical and paramount.
In my Gameplay Elements Concept's, there are four primary elements of a game I treat with equal value.
For they each form the overall prose and thus must be treated with equal value. Fail in one of these elements and the project as a whole suffers greatly.
Part 1 closing words
I have adequetly addressed several major topics and made an effort at explaining my concepts in sound and music. Though this article is brief given the significance of its subject matter I hope it has helped you learn something, or perhaps approach an existing idea from a different perspective. Treat these words not as a guideline or rails, but rather as a foundation for inspiration.
+ Show Spoiler +
In Starcraft, the clever usage of Player Color helps offset the extremely limiting 256 color unit palette and helps bring out the detail more than a highly detailed model itself.
My modern-day workstation.
Note - this article is not fully polished and I may return to it in the future to fix grammatical errors and use more politically-correct terms.
Looks like I hit some kind of bbcode tag limit.
/e I've made repeated attempts to fix the italics but I can't. I don't know what's wrong.
/e2 I think I fixed it.
/e3 Corrected some youtube tags from ported portions of the article.
/e4 Clarified that the modplug tracker portion is not in the article atm.
/e5 Fixed the damn youtube videos again when I thought I fixed them before.