Game Design, Programming and running a one-man games business…

Game tools and why they arent always released

Have you ever thought it weird that a lot of game developers do not release the tools they use to the modding community?

You might be tempted, in these cynical ‘game devs are bastards’ times, to suspect that this is a deliberate move by evil game devs to make modding harder, so they can sell more DLC and expansion packs. I guess that it might be true in some cases, but I think that the history of PC gaming would suggest quite clearly that a well served and popular modding community is a sales booster for a game.

I have my own theory, and its simply that professional game developers tools are crap.

I’ve always been amazed at how good the tools are that modders put together. Someone even did an editor for some aspect of Democracy that was better than any tools I had. I am notoriously crap at doing tools, and often hack things together using Excel and notepad. It’s really quite tragic.

The reasoning for why the actual developers on a game produce such poor quality tools may include the following

  • Working on tools sucks, and isn’t as much fun as the game engine or gameplay, so the least experienced coders tend  to get assigned to it, as a way of ‘paying dues’.
  • Sometimes devs are quickly hacking the tools together so they can get back to doing the important stuff on the actual game.
  • The game design is always changing, so you are quickly hacking in systems on a temporary basis, and never get time to tidy them up at the end of the project.
  • Producers and money-men dont always schedule time and budget for tools, as they don’t understand their importance, thus they are rushed.
  • An attitude persists that tools will not ship, and are not mission critical, so its ok for them to be buggy, ugly and difficult to use.

And of course this is all applicable to big budget games. With small one man companies like me, the situation is far worse. Literally every minute I spend on tools is time not on the core game. Also tools effectiveness scales with the size of the game. A tool that speeds up 400 hours of level design is worth more up-front effort than one which might save 20 hours work.

My tools do actually exist (as special hidden modes of the main game) but they are very, very basic, hacky and bad. Don’t be surprised if they aren’t released on the same day as the game :D

8 thoughts on Game tools and why they arent always released

  1. Sounds like a good time to bring up Wolfire, who are starting their development with tools (made available to preordering peoples) and build the game from there. I really like that approach.

  2. the running joke I’ve come to realize is that “companies that license their technologies are professional modders”, as apposed to game developers.

    From the few companies I’ve worked with? Unreal is the modding developer tool of choice… simply because most artists see it as “the easiest”, with most programmers wanting to run like hell.

  3. I often don’t release tools because although the work for me, and I understand how to use them, I realize that I’ll have to polish them, and document them.

    I actually enjoy making the tools I write, but by the time I get to the polish and document phase the flame is sputtering or out completely.

  4. I’m generally more impressed when developers DO release quality tools; I don’t think that I expect them in most games, and I’m inexperienced enough that unless they’re very easy to use, I usually steer clear entirely.

  5. Seems to be a good place to repeat the story of Will Wright who had so much fun using his editors in ‘Raid on Bungeling Bay,’ that he made SimCity.

    Which is probably why I will never be Will Wright as I too hate making the tools that make the game. Feels like lateral development.

  6. I can’t really talk from any kind of professional perspective but I’m currently making a (very basic, text based) game in Java and for that I needed tools to create the world map with, the NPCs with and the conversations you can have with them.

    I didn’t spend very long on my initial bunch of tools but when I actually got around to using them for what they’re supposed to be for I found some aspects of them so annoying that I spent a while improving them.

    They’re still pretty rubbish (loads of unhandled exceptions) but, as I found, tools do generally have a minimum threshold for quality past which actually using them becomes impractical :p

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