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Much like the single flame that consumed his carefully constructed creation, a video of a builder accidentally burning down his Minecraft estate quickly spread across the Internet late last year. During that time, I finally decided to get into Minecraft — I'd heard it talked about repeatedly in various indie circles but never really saw the appeal.
Witnessing the fire so beautifully and completely devour that building set my imagination similarly aflame as I looked deeper at what was possible within Minecraft. The things you could construct! The clever systems in place that lay under its casual veneer! The sheer simple brilliance of it all: like Lego but without having to buy bricks!
Within a few weeks, I was hooked. I talked to a tech-minded friend, and he set up a private server for us to mess around on. Over the course of a month or so, we built a small kingdom, with towers that reached the top of the world and a castle floating in a sea of lava. I started thinking of new things to build and ways to get creative with the engine and to make something that people would really enjoy. I even crafted some narrative to explain the world I was attempting to build.
Fast forward to mid-January. Anticipating an impending (and likely permanent) layoff from my quality-assurance position, I started to panic a little. With this door closed to me, what could I do to make myself more marketable and employable within the industry? What could I do to further my goal of becoming a game and narrative designer? I finally started to understand how hard it is to get a job writing for games without a design degree and some hard skills. Some very talented people have accomplished the feat, but it wasn’t (and still isn’t) an option that I could bank on realistically.
One popular way to get into the field is to learn a tool set, such as a studio’s proprietary software, and try to get a junior level-designer position.
I briefly considered just building some environments within Minecraft to show my design sensibilities and fulfill my need to create, but I decided that I should probably focus my energies elsewhere. For all its emergent, creative possibilities, Minecraft is still limited from a world-builder standpoint, and having to mine for resources (while cathartic) took time away from actually creating. I wanted more control. Levels built in Minecraft wouldn’t “wow” an employer. I needed something relevant to the job — something I could use to transition into an actual career by showing off my creative potential.
Ten minutes later, an entry in my RSS feed announced that the January beta of the Unreal Development Kit (UDK) was now available.
Having had a great deal of difficulty suffering through some poor ActionScript and Game Maker tutorials in the past, I was a little reticent to dive in. But everybody I talked to swore up and down that even a monkey could learn how to use UDK at a basic level.
Fairly confident in my genetics, I gave in and downloaded the installer along with two gigs of slightly outdated video tutorials. I expected to spend 20 minutes fiddling with UDK (the first 20 minutes with any new tool are always the hardest) followed by frustration and maybe some light swearing before I outright deleted it. Thankfully, it’s still on my hard drive, and I’m still booting it up daily to work on my tutorials.
UDK is, at its most basic, an editor for designing 3D game levels. It runs off of Unreal Engine 3, the same engine powering franchises like Gears of War, Bioshock, and Mass Effect. The free download gives amateur and indie developers access to the same suite of tools that professionals use, with a $99 USD fee and 25 percent of all revenues over $50,000 paid to Epic if UDK-designed creations end up going commercial.
But more importantly, it’s the easiest tool I’ve ever used.
I started with the basic tutorials and learned the ins and outs of the daunting user interface, which almost scared me away as it does most first-time UDK users. Once I understood how to make additive shapes (polygons with the most basic texture), I started building simple block structures — much like I had done in Minecraft. I then started to wonder how games like Gears of War get made with simple polygons. Maybe they had some amazing skill that I didn’t; maybe I needed to be a 3D artist to get any use out of this program.
Keeping with the tutorials, I soon learned that I could create just about any shape I wanted by changing the settings of the builder brush. From there, I learned about subtractive shapes, which are used to carve pieces out of existing shapes. Next, I discovered static meshes and textures, which I could simply drag and drop to produce an effect. With a little bit of adjustment made possible by several orthographic viewports, everything began to look more natural. Slowly, my tutorial level started to take shape. I deviated wherever possible from the videos to let whatever idea I had at the time run free on its own. I surprised myself.
What I discovered is that to be a level designer, you don’t necessarily have to be a 3D artist. You’re taking the assets provided to you — much like the way you take the building materials provided in Minecraft — and letting your imagination take over.
See that static mesh for a health pack? Turn it sideways, scale it, and place it inside the wall. Now it’s a switch when properly rigged. That pillar, alien building topper, and piece of piping? Put them all together with some treads and deco pieces, and you just built a tank. And with the ability to import new assets easily from other programs, a 3D artist could keep a level designer busy indefinitely with new toys to play with.
Although I had played with Legos up through my teenage years, I never considered myself much of an architect. Minecraft showed me that (given a full complement of resources) I could accomplish much more than I previously thought I could. And now as I continue to learn UDK, I’m discovering that when the resources I have at my disposal can be bent, shaped, recolored, broken, and rotated to suit my needs, there are no limits any longer.
And to think all of this started by punching some trees and placing wood blocks to build a little Minecraft cabin.
Now I see the appeal of designing levels. What was once a clever way for me to get further into the industry is quickly becoming a new, untapped passion. I’m still interested in narrative design, and I would love to work as a game designer. But now, I have a genuine interest in actually building exciting and carefully laid-out worlds for players to experience and not just the narratives that take place within those worlds.
It’s difficult sometimes; after only a month and a half, I’ve had more than my share of hair-pulling frustration over some aspects of the UDK experience. But if it weren’t for Notch’s emergent sandbox, I never would have discovered this part of myself — this passion for creating spaces where great stories and action can take place. It’s that passion that’s kept me going, and hopefully, it will continue into the foreseeable future.
Last night, I built my first functional lift. Appearing to lead nowhere, it stretches up into a Tron-esque grid. I prefer to think that it leads everywhere.