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"Release early and often" - we've heard it before but why does it so often fail? Why do players try an early release mod and never come back? This tutorial aims to address the difficulties associated with releasing early and outline a development strategy to protect your mod from failure.

Posted by Crispy on Mar 22nd, 2008 Page 1 of 8    
Intermediate Management.

The Modular Release Model

A tutorial on game design and mod management

by Stephen 'Crispy' Etheridge

crispy[dot]pie[at]gmail[dot]com


Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
    1. The state of modding today
    2. The modular release model
  2. Example Mod: Counter-Strike
    1. First release
    2. Two months, four updates
    3. Retrospective
  3. Example Mod: Pirates, Vikings and Knights II
    1. If at first you don't succeed...
    2. Who says sequels are never as good?
  4. Think small
    1. Facing facts
    2. Downscaling
  5. Example Mod: Prototyping a deathmatch racer
    1. The premise
    2. Identifying your core gameplay
    3. Simplifying art assets
    4. Simplifying player code
    5. Simplifying level design
    6. Simplified gameplay
    7. Identifying problematic areas of the core gameplay
  6. Modular releases for Single-Player
    1. Episodic gaming
    2. Anchoring gameplay features to release modules
    3. Weapon-enemy relationships: Quake
  7. Conclusion
    1. What the modular release model can do for you
    2. About the Author
    3. Extra Reading

Post comment Comments  (0 - 50 of 51)
Aeneas2020
Aeneas2020 Dec 1 2007, 11:15am says:

nice, maybe i should show this to some of my friends and they'd share my view on this subject :)...great work

+1 vote     reply to comment
BuZZeR
BuZZeR Dec 1 2007, 12:36pm says:

Cool stuff, I really enjoyed it!
I think the episodic testing for a big SP mods is really working. But I would like to notice one thing - some story details will be spoiled, that's why episode testing should be private.

+1 vote     reply to comment
naveh3
naveh3 Dec 1 2007, 1:08pm says:

a very smart and refreshing article, can take alot of it.

thanks alot and good work!

+1 vote     reply to comment
Crispy
Crispy Dec 1 2007, 1:42pm says:

Added a section on 'Weapon-enemy relationships' to the 'Modular releases for Single-Player' chapter.

+1 vote     reply to comment
Qu1f
Qu1f Dec 1 2007, 3:59pm says:

Im using that racing dm game. Only joking.

This has been a very usful article you have written, many will learn :).

+1 vote     reply to comment
konradbeerbaum
konradbeerbaum Dec 1 2007, 7:05pm replied:

You left out probably the biggest success for episodic gaming, the Sam & Max series. That is probably the best example of a company properly executing a business plan based on that model.

Other than that, great article. Modular releases seem like the best compromise between the various development models, and the one most fitting for mod development. Heck even the name matches!

+2 votes     reply to comment
StoneyDumples
StoneyDumples Aug 14 2008, 8:16am replied:

TellTale Games has pulled off the Sam & Max series quite well. They are now appplying the same episodic model to their game Strongbad's Cool Game For Attractive People. It's worked very well for them.

+1 vote     reply to comment
leilei
leilei Dec 2 2007, 12:13am says:

Yay for Quake kudos! About time that game is recognized for its brilliance, on a pro-Source site of all things

+1 vote     reply to comment
Halloween4
Halloween4 Dec 2 2007, 5:08am says:

Another reason why mods don't get released is that modders get sick of hearing the same question over & over again, i.e 'can you give us a release date'.

I've now got a stock reply, which is, 'some time before I die, I hope'.

Don't get me wrong, I do appreciate people taking an interest in my mod, & understand them getting impatient to play it, but the same people have to also understand that making a mod is not a five minute job & some Total Conversion mods take 2,3 or sometimes 4 years to produce, & hearing this same old question again & again can make modders feel pressurised into getting their work done quicker, which often leads to premature releases of half baked mods that are full of bugs that gamers soon complain about, little relising that they are probably to blame for the mod being release in such an buggy state in the first place.

Also:
This same question can make modders feel pressurised to the point of giving up on their mods all together, & many have in the past, & I should know, as I was nearly one of them untill I started not to pay attention & work at a pace that suites me.

+2 votes     reply to comment
Crispy
Crispy Dec 2 2007, 6:14am replied:

A mod is your creation, not theirs. Yes, there is pressure to release from followers, but if you break your mod into more managable modules the fans will be playing the mod sooner and won't have anything to complain about. The trick about deciding what to put in a module is to make sure it demonstrates your core gameplay and that it is simple enough that you can fix bugs very quickly after (and preferably before) release.

This is slightly off-topic, but one thing I have found works with the fans is to have an open-house development style, where you try to explain exactly which parts of the game you're working on at regular intervals. This educates the player so he or she has a better understanding of why it's taking so long. Once fans realise how much work goes into a mod they'll begin to understand how things can take a long time, and you'll get a little sympathy for your efforts.

+2 votes     reply to comment
Halloween4
Halloween4 Dec 2 2007, 7:58am replied:

I've seen other modders release their mods a bit at a time like this but personally don't like the idea.

Well I suppose releasing a mod in this manner wouldn't make much difference if you were making DMW or DEATHMATCH maps for a game, but I think that this kind of media release can spoil a mod that has got a strong story base, & players can also get annoyed with only being able to play such a mod up to a certain point in the story, especially if the mod maker decides to no longer continue the mod in question. Just think of how many unfinished mods litter the web, it's a sobering thought, & after all you wouldn't keep on going back into a games store to buy your game a bit at a time so that you could finish it would you, as this would be rather complete madness, to say the least ( the very least).

+1 vote     reply to comment
Crispy
Crispy Dec 2 2007, 11:10am replied:

1. This isn't about media releases, this is about playable releases.
2. Mods are not games. They are free entertainment.
3. If you've spent 6 months watching a mod, wouldn't you prefer an unfinished mod with a playable section than an unfinished mod that you could never play?
4. The point of this release model is that mods are more likely to release, and mods that release are less likely to die.

"you wouldn't keep on going back into a games store to buy your game a bit at a time so that you could finish it would you, as this would be rather complete madness, to say the least ( the very least)." - MINERVA mod released 4 separate single-player chapters over 3 releases over 2 years, and although each one on it's own was only 30-40 minutes play, it was still thoroughly enjoyable.

+2 votes     reply to comment
stenchy
stenchy Dec 10 2007, 4:20am replied:

Although I agree with most everything in this article, it is a lot tougher to maintain an modular/episodic release for a SP total conversion. Aside from the issues Halloween4 raised, you not only have to make new content assets but gameplay scripting, voiceovers that all factor into the continuing narrative.

Minerva had an (arguably) easier time of it because it uses HL2 content.

+1 vote     reply to comment
Halloween4
Halloween4 Dec 10 2007, 9:50am replied:

(1). I do know what this is about.

(2). This comment is just crazy, mods are still games weither they are free or not, unless they are just weapon mods or something like that, that dosen't change the story.

(3). I get fed up with playing parts of mods, never to see the end of the story, as it's a bit like getting into a movie, then never being able to see the end. so no is the answer to this question.

(4). I don't agree as I've seen tons of releases like this, only for the mod never to be heard of again, the truth of the matter is that it's realy down to individuals commitment & determination to their mods that secure a release or not, nothing else.

(5). I certainly wouldn't want to go & buy a game in the store, get it home & start playing it, only to find that the game was short of the ending, with a message saying part 2 comming soon, so why would I expect the same thing form a mod.
Also, there's something that I've notice over the years concerning partial mod releases, & that's it's often a indication that the modders are getting tired of working on the mods, i.e I might as well release the work that I've done upto now as I don't know weither I'm going to continue or not, but they don't say that of course, but 9 times out of 10 you never hear of any progress on the mod again.

+1 vote     reply to comment
mikejkelley
mikejkelley Jan 23 2008, 9:01am replied:

Yeah, it def depends on the type of mod your making. Modular is better suited for DM, but then again you could adapt it to all sorts to. A story based game could be released incrementally in "chapters" for example.

+1 vote     reply to comment
Crispy
Crispy Dec 9 2007, 10:36am says:

Updated:
- Expanded 'Think Small' section with a personal tip from experience
- Expanded 'Conclusion' section with an explanation of the benefits of locking down your design for a first release
- Minor fixes

+1 vote     reply to comment
Dragonlord
Dragonlord Dec 9 2007, 11:54am says:

Good article. Still the players changed a lot in the last couple of years. While releasing an unpolished proof of concept worked back then ( best example The Ship for HL ) you have a hard time nowadays. People expect finished mods and the bickering going on if you fail to do so is tremendous. Not that I'm in favor of such a stupid behavior but this all has to be watched in front of what happens today. Granted many projects aim very high so I am for a proof of concept release especially to get feedback from players if what you came up with in terms of gameplay really works out the way you planed. Many things look nice on paper but no more once implemented.

+1 vote     reply to comment
Varsity
Varsity Dec 9 2007, 12:57pm says:

Choosing your game wisely is another part of simplifying the development process. How much better would Empires be today if the same amount of development effort had gone into UT2004 instead of Source?

(The Empires team probably went with Source for its vast playerbase, but my point still stands.)

+2 votes     reply to comment
Wills
Wills Dec 10 2007, 4:51am says:

I an 100% on board with the release early and often process. I'm one of the developers for Jailbreak: Source (www.jailbreaksource.com), we started developing the mod 9 months ago, with just two of us, and are about to release our fourth version, still keeping to a small development team (4 now).

Each version we've released, we've doubled our player base, and assembled a community of amazingly friendly and helpful people.

The first version we released consisted of two maps, and the core gameplay. The second, four maps, tweaked core-gameplay, and two new weapons. The third, highly tweaked gameplay and a few new features. The fourth will have all new weapons (17 in total), four new maps, a new game mode, and LOADS of new features.

We really hope that the trend continues this time round, and again we double our player base.

+1 vote     reply to comment
Aeneas2020
Aeneas2020 Dec 10 2007, 10:47am says:

It does depend a lot on what community you are releasing for however. Source based games tend to be accepted in this manner readily by their community. Some UE2.0 mods seem to as well but when you start developing for more specific games like max payne etc the communities that will be playing your mod seem to be a lot more picky about whats in and where the future is going to be.

+1 vote     reply to comment
smurfbizkit
smurfbizkit Dec 10 2007, 11:25am says:

Great article.

However, I can't help but love the irony of seeing an article written about "release early and often" by a guy from the Nuclear Dawn team.

This a sort of "lessons learned from ND" thing?

+1 vote     reply to comment
Crispy
Crispy Dec 10 2007, 2:00pm replied:

Naturally this tutorial is based on personal experience, either from mods I've been involved with or from mods I've seen come and go in the past.

Nuclear Dawn started off with an overambitious design of epic proportions. I intend to do a retrospective article on Nuclear Dawn for a more detailed 'lessons learnt' perspective, but it would be premature to publish this piece while the mod is still being worked on.

+2 votes     reply to comment
STPDeveloping
STPDeveloping Dec 10 2007, 11:41am says:

Total Conversions are indeed a lot harder. Most people tend to expect something better from a "game", every time a new episode/sequel is released. Total conversions, if done correctly, can make the impression that they're an actual new game.

+1 vote     reply to comment
revility
revility Dec 10 2007, 12:00pm says:

Our team uses the modular format. We get the main features in there and then release the rest of the content in chunks depending on feedback. I also look at this as the sandbox method because your creating a majority of the assets and features from the start. From there its just picking out your toys, polishing them, and adding more when needed.

Thanks to this method, we've done 1 quake4 mod, and have 2 doom3 mods coming out in the next 4 months. Thats three mini mods done in the course of 2 1/2 years and a total of 20+ levels combined.

Its also easier to keep help interested when the original scale of the mod isn't as large. Modders do it for free and thus can get bored easy or walk away if things get too rough. Keeping your release in smaller chunks and taking it from there helps keep the good help around. Shooting for a 3-5 levels for an sp game is far more achievable than a 20+ level build from the start.

+1 vote     reply to comment
Deathy
Deathy Dec 10 2007, 1:00pm says:

Very nice article... *thumbsup*

+1 vote     reply to comment
Crispy
Crispy Dec 10 2007, 2:09pm says:

I would appreciate if whoever edited my article would send suggestions to me via email or via comment below. I will acknowledge contributions from others (and I will also check them for typos before they go in).

For this person's information I do intend to link to the advice given by Valve, but I actually wanted to find a valid link to Erik Johnson's advice that was given on ModHQ, which is far more detailed and in-depth (but now has an invalid link).

+1 vote     reply to comment
OOmiz
OOmiz Dec 10 2007, 4:29pm says:

Excellent article. Probably the best I've read on moddb in a very long time. Really interesting.

As Konradbeerbaum already stated: Sam & Max really has showed that episodic gaming with regular releases can work on a professional scale.

+2 votes     reply to comment
Lucífer
Lucífer Dec 10 2007, 11:24pm says:

mod teams sometimes are pressured into releasing mods because of a few people wanting a beta asap.
and when they dont get updates they claim a mod dead before the team does, making the team want to release their mod to keep people interested in it.

The Mod Team I can look up to ever is the Empires mod team.
They made their buggy beta release of V1 a long while ago, people didn't like it but they have carried on going, something to admire and look at their mod now!. :D

+1 vote     reply to comment
RammJaeger
RammJaeger Dec 11 2007, 5:52pm says:

An article with the Mantra "Release often, release early" should be entitled "How to kill your mod and ensure it never makes it anywhere". Seriously, releasing your mod "early" is the quickest way to kill it. The main reason that mods that release early and then quickly die is because teams release a mod that is too buggy, and the bugginess turns poeple off and they never try it again. In other words, you only get 1 chance to make a first impression. Blow that, and your mod is finished.

When we developed Red Orchestra the mod version, we took a different approach. We worked on the mod until we felt it was highly polished, and relatively bug free. The part I will agree with is release often. By that I mean update your mod often. Fans love updates to mods, and getting new content. The days of CS are long gone though, that was a different time. If CS came out today it wouldn't even make a dent in the mod scene. People expect a LOT more from a mod than they did back then. That doesn't mean you have to release a lot of content the first time around. But it does mean you should release at least a few maps, and make sure that it is REALLY polished before you let it out the door.

+2 votes     reply to comment
Varsity
Varsity Dec 12 2007, 12:25pm replied:

The entire point of this article is to suggest a modular development process, hence its title. There's no need for a quick release to be buggy if only a handful of key changes are introduced by it.

If you try to do everything at once then obviously it'll never work.

+1 vote     reply to comment
InterfaceLeader
InterfaceLeader Dec 11 2007, 8:14pm says:

Great article -- agree with it. As long as the intial release has enough in it to make it interesting, early and often is the best way to maintain interest.

+1 vote     reply to comment
Squeebo
Squeebo Dec 12 2007, 9:01pm says:

Good stuff! I just know that some people wouldn't play a game that had a good core gameplay if it was really ugly and lacked some cool extra features. Quite a few people, I bet. And PVK2 had good art in it's first release, I suppose... But it was good.

+1 vote     reply to comment
Varsity
Varsity Dec 13 2007, 2:50pm says:

Got some more extra reading:

Developer.valvesoftware.com

+1 vote     reply to comment
Crispy
Crispy Dec 15 2007, 7:34am replied:

Probably applies more to Wraiyth's post-mortem article, but I'll add it anyway.

+1 vote     reply to comment
Nuka5
Nuka5 Dec 15 2007, 1:18pm says:

This is a great article, and very true. A good example of a mod that released far too early was "Empires" for HL2. Laggy gameplay, terrible player models, more glitches, crashes and bugs than every windows release ever made put together (you could escape the map by rubbing the wall, fit three nukes and six railguns on a tank that's only supposed to have one of each, and even build tanks that GAVE you money for making them if you knew how)

thank goodness the team didn't give up, because the latest release (2.0) is awesome. no bugs, just fun. What i'm trying to say is: if your first release IS absolutely aweful, do not give up. keep working on it and you'll get to a bugless fun game to play at the end.

+2 votes     reply to comment
Crispy
Crispy Dec 15 2007, 3:08pm replied:

This is also very true. Perseverence can overcome most difficulties.

+2 votes     reply to comment
2d-chris
2d-chris Dec 20 2007, 5:40am says:

A good read Crispy!

+1 vote     reply to comment
BrotherLaz
BrotherLaz Dec 22 2007, 9:40am says:

Releasing early will leave a lasting negative impression if your release has significant problems - regardless of you fixing them in the very next patch. This includes beta releases.

You would be surprised how many people don't bother to give mods a second chance, even years later. Some people are still angry with me because my mod did not have very important feature XYZ (in 2006, and it has been implemented 10 patches ago).

Thankfully Diablo 2 is a fairly timeless engine and old wounds heal in time, but a mod project for a recent engine that needs to succeed immediately or face extinction could get buried if something like this happens.

+1 vote     reply to comment
Crispy
Crispy Dec 23 2007, 8:02am replied:

I think I need to write a chapter on what exact qualities your first release should be aiming for (e.g. a few basic, core features that are playtested to be relatively bug-free).

+1 vote     reply to comment
Crispy
Crispy Dec 23 2007, 8:05am replied:

Also, part of the early-release process is giving indications on what your future aims are. E.g. "Here is our first release, it focuses on one of our core features, 'X'. In our next major release we plan to incorporate features 'Y' and 'Z', now that the groundwork is in place."

+2 votes     reply to comment
masterofnone
masterofnone Dec 23 2007, 6:53pm says:

I'd like to testify to modular releases. It is something we decided upon a couple of years ago as The Fourth Age: Total War development team and has enabled us to get out a polished and playable product (currently the only Rome Total War Mod in the Top 100 at Moddb) which has been downloaded over 100,000 times. If it were not for this approach we would still be trying to get the "whole thing" to work to this day I am sure. I wish more mods would follow the advice in this article.

+2 votes     reply to comment
Crispy
Crispy Jan 22 2008, 6:45am says:

Updated:
- Completely reformatted tutorial into separate pages for improved reading
- Added table of contents (shamelessly copied from Koroshiya_Ichi's tutorial)
- Minor fixes

+1 vote     reply to comment
Forceflow
Forceflow Jan 22 2008, 5:45pm says:

Crisp knows what he's talking about. Great read, great write.

+2 votes     reply to comment
Crispy
Crispy Mar 22 2008, 3:43pm says:

Updated:
- Added 'Identifying problematic areas in the core gameplay' section to 'Example Mod: Prototyping a deathmatch racer' page.
- Minor fixes

+1 vote     reply to comment
Lumpengnom
Lumpengnom Mar 22 2008, 5:41pm says:

Excellent article. I esspecially like the part about focusing on getting core gameplay to work and concentrating on additional art assets later on.

+1 vote     reply to comment
Crispy
Crispy Apr 30 2008, 6:06am says:

Updated:
- Re-did all the broken pagebreak/header formatting from Intense's recent WYSIWYG editor re-vamp.

+2 votes     reply to comment
raxiv
raxiv Apr 30 2008, 11:33am says:

Remember that there is one game which succeeded with episodic gaming. Sam and Max anyone?

+1 vote     reply to comment
julz127
julz127 Jun 18 2008, 5:40am says:

Haven t read it all, but thanks for taking the time to write this.

+2 votes     reply to comment
Soulseker
Soulseker Aug 22 2008, 2:45pm says:

I would like to work as a proffesional playtester too :P

Probably one of the best jobs in the game industry :D

+1 vote     reply to comment
joey95
joey95 Nov 26 2008, 11:53am says:

ok

+1 vote     reply to comment
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