Over the past several months, a very encouraging trend has emerged in the world of gaming. It seems that many of the most highly anticipated releases of this past year have had one thing in common. A very powerful world editor.
World editors are not anything new. The ability to create new scenarios is a very old thing in gaming. Who has not played around with the map makers in StarCraft, or the Civilization series, or Age of Empires 2? Virtually anyone can pop open the program and spend a happy hour or ten making really nifty landscapes, huge cities, and the occasional legitimately playable map. So far, this is mostly a feature of strategy games, and it is a rare person that has opened up the editor of a first person shooter (if the game even had one). I am told that Unreal Tournament 2003 is changing this, but in the past making a level in a first person shooter was perhaps the single most difficult thing in gaming.
In the past year, however, the editors shipping with new games are exponentially more powerful than anything previously released. In many cases, these editors allow everything to be changed except for the very game engine itself. If that underling code, the stuff on which any game is built, allows an action to be done, then the editor has the option for that action. In Warcraft III, for instance, you can create a thousand foot tall Orc grunt who can cast blizzard and is immortal, even though in the game such a thing never occurs. Making such a critter actually takes about as much effort as making a real orc grunt in the real game. I have high hopes that good, 3D, first person point-of-view world editors will become as complete and as easy to use as the strategy editors. If it has not happened yet, but I do not think it will take long.
Even while admitting that this feature of new games is now a standard and expected feature, I think this is a fairly strange development. These new editors allow the gamer to do just about everything the game creators did to start with. Some of these toolsets are even being advertised as the very same tools that were used to create the game they ship with. By giving to the gamer, and by extension to the people who make a hobby of creating mods and maps, the gaming houses are more or less handing over the keys to their kingdom. They are giving away with their games the ability to create games that are every bit as good.
I am not for a minute suggesting that all of the millions of people who own WarCraft III are busy making mods, but there is more than one well known and fairly respectable project in the works. With such mods soon to be available, does there need to be an expansion pack? Why would Blizzard spend the time and effort developing something new that uses the same game engine as WarCraft III when there is a wealth of people privately doing that very thing? Unless new features can be added into the code of the engine itself, there is not much point. Certainly potential revenue could be a big enough of an incentive, but adding the programmers who would be working on an expansion to another project (like Diablo III!) could result in that project, and its much larger revenues, arriving on the market much sooner. The same question could be asked about several of this past year?s more popular releases. Only time will tell if these new high-powered toolsets will make a difference in the number expansion packs we see.
The impact of this new wave of editors that give the gamer almost total control over all aspects of the game will extend past a potential lack of expansion packs. The competition between companies is now to develop better game engines. In the past, a good engine could be recycled over and over again by numerous companies, and the only the thing that changed was the gameplay. Good engines, like the Quake 3 engine, the Unreal engine, or the Age of Empires 2 engine, would be basis for several games. Now, those engines are being placed in the hands of the gamers. No doubt the best of the engines will still have more than one game on them. However, any company that leases an engine for a new game will be in competition with not only the other gaming houses, but with every independent gamer who has an idea, and now has the tools to make that idea a reality. As a result, I think we will see more innovation in the engines themselves. I am not going to speculate today on what that innovation will look like, but I have little doubt that the result will be very good for all gamers.
With happy thoughts of what next year may bring bouncing in my head, I noticed that Blizzard even seems to be backtracking to put in the ability to edit more easily. In the long, long list of changes in the long awaited 1.10 patch to Diablo II, there is noted that the spreadsheets containing all the information that makes the game go are being expanded and made easier to read and use. This is wonderful news for anyone who has ever tried to make a mod of Diablo II. I am not suggesting that Blizzard is planning on releasing a Diablo II world editor alongside 1.10, though I think it would be a nice addition to the game, but it does seem that, in the same spirit as the new line of super-editors, Blizzard is making an effort to make its product more friendly to the modding community. And as with this new trend in the editing toolsets, I cannot see that particular change bringing us loyal gamers anything but good.
Disclaimer: Salem’s Fire was written by Luke Blaize and hosted by diabloii.net. The opinions expressed in these columns are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Diii.net.