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I'll let you in on a secret: the best way to make games for a living is . . . to make them.

This is like saying that if you want to be a writer, you should write. If you want to be a singer, then sing. If you really want to be an artist, then paint or sculpt or just put a lump of driftwood on eBay and call yourself an "Outsider." If you want to try your hand at any endeavor, it makes perfect sense that you should just dig in, get dirty, and see how it suits you. Mucking around is fun; taking things apart to see how they work is an indispensable part of any craft.

But games are such complicated things. How far can one person go in a field in which, more and more, the hit games are products that take years, and teams of people, to create?

The answer is: farther than you might think.

While you won't necessarily be able to make the next Grand Theft Auto-killer singlehandedly, there is a great deal you can learn by getting into the guts of the games you love: dissecting them, naming the parts, playing Dr. Frankenstein or Moreau as you build new things out of bits and pieces of the old. Even if you don't have any desire to make games for a living, there is a great deal of fun to be had, and a lot you can learn, tinkering with the pieces. Not everyone who takes apart a watch wants to make Rolexes for a living; sometimes it's enough just to find out what makes those things tick.

When I was just starting out doing the thing I most wanted to do with my life—write fantasy, horror, and science fiction—I didn't know what to do other than imitate the stuff I loved. I wrote endless imitations of H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos tales and Fritz Leiber's adventures of Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser, trying to find my own way. I read my favorite stories over and over, hoping to see how they were put together, making my own versions in the desperate hope that eventually some of the magic would rub off on me. It was a humiliating way to proceed, but eventually it worked. The odd thing is, it works for lots and lots of writers. You start by copying, aping, the thing you love. You speak in borrowed accents while you learn to tell your own tales, and eventually, the mannerisms fall away, and you're speaking in your own voice. You go from reading pages to filling them. This is how fans become professionals. The field of fantastic literature feeds itself.

It is much the same, I have found, in the game industry. There is only the slightest separation between gamer and designer. It's all a matter of perspective, a mental shift, really. This is one of gaming's great strengths. In the case of PC games, the technology you use to play the game is indistinguishable from the tools used to build it. You have complete access to the whole mad scientist's laboratory, with the beakers bubbling and Tesla coils snapping and the crazy professor himself having just stepped away from the workbench for a few moments.

I still remember the first time I opened a Quake .pak file and got a glimpse of how the gory guts of that game were put together: sounds here, textures there, some mysterious terrifying programmer stuff over there, which, hm, sort of had its own kind of logic. A few lines specified what kind of sound to play whenever the attack dogs barked. Hm. And one line seemed to determine what kind of sound the pistol played when you fired it. And, hum, even though I am about the least technical person around, I am handy with a word processor. Even I could copy and paste a bit of code, switching the dog's bark with the gunshot. And behold, a gun that barked! A dog that gave out ringing shots!

I remember thinking, "You can do that?"

My next real game-hacker buzz came from a very feeble attempt to make a Quake level, using some 3D editing tools that were freely available on the net: a hollow cube, a couple of greenish boulders floating inexplicably in midair, bathed in eerie sourceless light. My first Quake map was a piece of crap, but I will never forget it. It still feels like a real place to me—a tiny world I made by hand, in less than an hour.

Of course, real world-building is not quite that easy. Not if you want to make a reality convincing and alluring enough to attract millions of gamers and keep them busy for hours and hours. But still, that little room of floating boulders was a start. I made bigger levels. They weren't much prettier, but they were more elaborate, more experimental. I mailed these maps to other people, and listened and learned from their comments. Amazing. They were playing my levels! People were actually able to enter the little worlds I had made. Every time I tinkered, every time I listened to the feedback of friends, I learned more.

One thing I learned was how the game community comes together. This was exactly how teams self-assembled to devise their own games. Like-minded tinkerers moved from independence and isolation to form small teams. These teams converted existing games, such as Quake, and came up with games of their own devising. Some were not even games—just odd experiments, hybrids that wouldn't have lasted long off Dr. Moreau's island.

One of my favorite experiments was a bizarre little Quake modification, or "mod," called "Club Shubb." It was a big echoey cave of a nightclub where a techno tune thudded endlessly, and shaggy Shamblers gathered to throw themselves off a stage into a churning pit of fellow monsters. Hilarious, weird, pointless. Um ... really? Hilarious, yes; weird, sure. But I would take exception with the pointless part. Its creators, Steve Bond and John Guthrie, used that little club as their resume, and were among the first employees at Valve Software.

There is a direct correlation between stage-diving Shamblers and the inventive scripted sequences and scenarios of Half-Life.

Reinventing the rules of the game is a legitimate first step toward discovering new types of gameplay.

"You can do that?"

Yes. In the words of six-year-old Amber Riller, explaining how she managed to kick my butt at Mario Kart: "You can do anything the game lets you do!"

Here's another open secret. When you have your own company, and you've developed your own cutting-edge technology, and you are finally making your own game for a world waiting in breathless anticipation, no one will be able to tell you what to do or how to do it. You will still be doing exactly what you did when you started out: hacking the game. It may be your own game, but you'll still be hacking away at it. You will still be switching out pieces, making guns bark, taking apart and reassembling your engine to see what it can do, and breaking down what doesn't work, and stripping it for parts. This process not only never stops, but it's an essential part of game design. This is why games like Counter-Strike and Team Fortress go through version after version, release after release, in pursuit of perfection. To make a good game, it helps to be a bit restless, to chafe at things the way they are. No game is ever done until it ships, and maybe even then . . .

Counter-Strike started as a mod. A handful of guys had some ideas for a game and weren't about to be stopped by the fact that they didn't have a corporate logo or a diploma from Game Design U.

Team Fortress started as a mod, an ongoing experiment in team-based game design by some inventive young Australians who worked out their ideas about games the best way possible—by actually putting them into practice, using technology that was freely available to them. Strangely enough, the experience of actually playing your game, instead of merely thinking about what it might be like to play your game, allows you to gradually turn it from a pipe dream into something worth playing.

I have talked mostly about games with their roots in Quake and Half-Life, because this is my own background. But there are Zelda hackers, Myst imitators, role-playing-game fans making their own RPGs with such cool tools as RPG Maker. Most of these passionate gamehackers are hobbyists, tinkerers, messing around in order to amuse themselves and their friends, enjoying the process of actively adding to the worlds they love. It's no wonder the game industry is thriving, when it offers such a creative outlet for its fans.

One of my favorite game worlds, the Thief series, continues to feed a large community of Fan Mission creators. Some of these missions are astonishing, on a par with levels that shipped in retail products. But first and foremost, they are labors of love. They are the work of passionate individuals so in love with gaming that they are plowing their passion back into the field from which those games grew.

To the extent the game industry encourages and rewards these passionate fans, by providing them with tools and advice and even the occasional cash infusion, the gaming community—by which I mean fans and professionals alike—can only benefit.

That's why whenever young wannabe designers ask me how to break into the industry, I always tell them the same thing: get some friends together, learn how to work as a team, and make a mod. An inventive mod, an innovative hack of an existing game, can tell a prospective employer more about you than a degree in game design from a prestigious university.

I know without a doubt that today's enthusiastic young gamer is tomorrow's seasoned game designer. So, whether you want to see if you have what it takes to make games for a living, or you just want to hack for the joy of hacking . . .

What are you waiting for?

Marc LaidlawWriter, Half-Life Series Valve Software

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