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Alan Wilson, vice president of Tripwire Interactive, tells me his studio probably wouldn’t exist without the Make Something Unreal Tournament that Nvidia and Epic Games hosted in the early 2000s. "I’d say it’s 99 percent certain," he says.In 2003 he and his roughly 60-person team were the rock stars of the Unreal Tournament modding scene, having successfully and breathtakingly transformed sci-fi arena shooter Unreal Tournament 2003 into Red Orchestra, the brutally realistic shooter set in World War II’s Eastern Front. Is it possible everyone involved could have used the experience to launch individual careers at big game studios? Of course. It happens with mods all the time. But only Epic Games’ support—and the award of a then-outrageously expensive Unreal game engine license—could have transformed the whole team into the studio we now know for Killing Floor, Red Orchestra 2, and Rising Storm 2.
You’ve probably heard this story before. Hell, we’ve told it ourselves. But the lesser known backstory is that Tripwire was only one of the successful indie studios that grew out of the Unreal Tournament modding scene and the the Make Something Unreal competition. Compared to the more familiar tale of major studios or publishers buying the rights to a mod and then turning it into DotA 2, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, or PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, the Unreal Tournament modding scene stands out for having created fully fledged studios. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say the indie scene we know today wouldn't be the same without it.
Notably, Tripwire’s other hit Killing Floor grew out of the modding scene for Unreal Tournament 2004. But beyond Tripwire, there’s Coffee Stain Studios, best known for the oddball Goat Simulator—itself a creation of the Unreal Engine—but who also created the stunning first-person tower defense game Sanctum as a mod for UT3. There’s Sjoerd De Jong’s Teotl Studios, known for The Ball and The Solus Project, and New Zealand’s Digital Confectioners, who successfully launched shark survival game Depth, itself once an Unreal Tournament mod, on Steam.
Still others followed the "adoption" model like DotA and Counter-Strike, including the team behind Alien Swarm, an Unreal Tournament 2004 mod that was picked up by Valve and released as a new game in 2010. Psyonix didn't directly emerge from the Unreal Tournament modding scene, but as Gamasutra reported in 2015, its hit Rocket League ultimately has its roots in a mod founder Dave Hagewood made for UT2003.With a list like that, it’s tempting to wonder if many moderns games don’t allow extensive modding out of fear it could create too much competition. Epic, though, has long encouraged this kind of creativity. Unreal Tournament led to the founding of so many studios in part because Epic allowed its modders almost total freedom with its Unreal Engine in an age when "modding" often meant swapping weapon skins and making theme levels. Combining active support and encouragement from Epic itself with a large, enthusiastic modding community centered around a single popular series where it was relatively easy to make a name for oneself, the scene created a perfect storm we haven’t really seen since.
Hearing early Unreal Tournament modders talk about the freedom of the Unreal Engine sounds almost like hearing tales of religious conversion. More than a decade later, there’s still a note of reverence in the words of Sjoerd De Jong, founder of Teotl Studios (and, these days, the European evangelist for the Unreal Engine), as he speaks about his first experiences with Unreal. "It was 'What You See Is What You Get' in 1998, and way ahead of other tools when it came out," he says. "It was a revolution in terms of game dev tools. Unreal (and consequently Unreal Tournament I) was the first game that was able to blend different light colors together, it was able to display lighting directly in the viewport in the editor, it had a procedural texture generator and editor, it had volumetric fog, it had superb reflective surface support, it had dynamic lighting. And so on."
Anton Westbergh of Coffee Stain Studios had the same thoughts about it years later in 2009 when he was working on the original mod form of Sanctum. "Sanctum was a first-person shooter and a tower defense game, so we had to find an engine that allowed our team to get cranking quickly and since we were very visually driven, the potential and power of the Unreal Engine was appealing," he says. "It was easy to get up and going, and make something that looked great."
The team that would become Tripwire was among the converted. Early in the 2000s, they dabbled in the mysteries of the engines used by Medal of Honor: Allied Assault and Battlefield 1942 for their ambitious project, but cast them aside once they discovered Unreal.
"In terms of graphics, the Unreal engine is one of the best on the market," modder Antarian said in an interview with IGN at the time. "Its ability to support massive maps and models with huge poly counts and texture sizes allows us to make some truly stunning environments."
So liberating was Unreal Tournament 2003 as a modding platform that there’s barely a trace of it in the original Red Orchestra mod. Here instead was a game with "real-world" iron sights rather than crosshairs and grenades that damage from a distance, all set in the bleak eastern front of World War II where Nazis clashed with Russians amid ruins held up more by luck than gravity.Red Orchestra transcended modding. Gaming had really seen nothing like it until then, and elements of it made their way into shooters that followed. The effort made Tripwire a proper studio almost by default. But Sjoerd De Jong discovered the Unreal Tournament modding scene came with other benefits besides providing a blank canvas. The business of promoting his mods, he notes, translated into the business of running a studio.
"Modding taught me a whole number of things that I otherwise wouldn't have easily mastered, I think," he says, describing his process of envisioning, developing, testing, and marketing his more than 50 popular maps and seeking out reviewers for them. "It taught me to deliver and get stuff done. It taught me to work with what I have (the game), and then be creative with those building blocks. It taught me about limitations in general, because modding is all about working within an existing game."
But at the heart of it all was always the accessibility of the Unreal Engine. "Like, buy a $10 copy of UT2K, and you're creating real games stuff," Wilson tells me. "Now you have the whole Unreal Engine (and others) completely free to use. We give talks at schools and colleges and always hammer home this point: this stuff is completely free to you to pick up."Epic’s commitment to this type of creative freedom was so potent that in 2004 it partnered with Nvidia to kick off the first Make Something Unreal contest, which was aimed at granting $1 million to modders who produced the best work so they could advance their careers in game development. Few projects like it had been seen before or even since.That first year, Tripwire’s Red Orchestra won the award for "Best First-Person Shooter" handily. As it turned out though, the $1 million prize really amounted to around $50,000, as most of the prize money was wrapped up in licensing. But it opened many doors that would have been closed otherwise. "It gave us exposure, publicity, feedback, experience, and an engine license we couldn't have afforded on our own at that time," Wilson says of Tripwire’s win.
Anton Westbergh’s team won fourth place in both the Best FPS Mod and Educational categories with Sanctum in the 2009 MSU competition, and he discovered cash prizes weren't the only benefit of winning. "It gave the team a big morale boost," Westbergh says. "Without the success in the competition, I'm not sure Coffee Stain would have been around."
Four Make Something Unreal competitions were held in all, but there hasn’t been one since 2013. That’s partly because in 2015 Epic simply started giving out grants to anyone who created something with the Unreal engine that impressed them.
Yet Tripwire, for its part, hasn’t forgotten the role the contest played in its own creation, and to that end it’s currently hosting its own contest to encourage modding for its game Rising Storm 2: Vietnam, which it’s running in partnership with Antimatter Games. On January 15 of next year, the lucky first-place winner will receive a $27,500 top prize. "Anything that helps focus the creativity of all these community content creators is worthwhile," he tells me.
So why haven’t we seen another wave of successful indie studios growing out of a specific game’s modding community? In De Jong’s view, the conditions are no longer the same. "People looking for a career tend to be more focused on going with indie game dev than with modding nowadays," he says. "A shame, I think."
He points out that fewer games support modding, and that there’s now a larger focus on business models like free-to-play that don’t play as nicely with mods. For that matter, he says, modding is simply less prestigious. There’s less demand, and great mods aren’t as frequently in the news.
"I remember when I was making levels back in the days we had lots of community sites, and each of them had a Level of the Week, Level of the Month, and so forth section on their front page," he says. "The content was pushed forward, and most gamers too within the Half-Life/Quake/Unreal communities back then played custom levels and mods very often. Nowadays that isn't the case anymore."
Wilson scoffs at the idea, saying that "the floodgates opened a decade ago and it hasn’t really slowed up yet." He points to other games that started out as mods like DayZ and PUBG, and reminds me that Tripwire's own Killing Floor and the Red Orchestra franchise allow for content creation.
Epic, fittingly enough, played a major role in this shift to indie game creation when it opened Unreal Engine 4 to everyone—license-free—in 2015. All Epic asked was a 5 percent royalty on gross revenue after the first $3,000 per product, per quarter. You don’t have to look far to find the fruits of this development, which extend to everything from blockbusters like Gears of War 4 to the quiet Myst-like Obduction or the long-awaited Shenmue 3.
All the same, though, the associated freedom makes the fight to the top so much harder. Modding communities in the busy early days gave hopeful developers an already-large and enthusiastic community. Standing out was comparatively easy, thanks in part to the developer attention De Jong described.
Nowadays, though you may be starting with the Unreal engine at your command, you’re starting from scratch with everything else. That means not only does your game have to be good, it also has to rise through cluttered spaces like YouTube, Reddit, and Twitter, all while wrestling with the Kickstarters and Patreons and other precarious means of gaining funding. Compared to the glory days of Unreal Tournament modding, it’s work that’s done in comparative isolation.
Were the old days better? That’s not an easy claim to make, considering that we’re smack in the middle of a golden age of indie gaming.But I do believe the path from mod to studio was slightly better then, bolstered as it was by well-meaning publishers and developers, a gaming community that loved mods more and was more tightly focused on specific games, and competitions hosted by big-name manufacturers and studios that gave modders high-profile venues to showcase their greatness. Fittingly, it was a bit like a tournament, and one that unfolded in an arena where fans could cheer on the favorites they’d come to love.The modern approach feels more like shouting in a crowd, hoping your voice will be heard among the hundreds of thousands around you. Compared to the wonderful alchemy allowed by Unreal Tournament and Epic in the last decade, success in those conditions feels almost unreal.
The WW2 Pacific Theater FPS action of Red Orchestra spin-off Rising Storm [official site] is yours to grab for free right now. The Humble Store are giving the game away to celebrate the impending end of their spring sale. Tim Stone will tell you that Rising Storm is one of the best simulation games and Alec will add that it’s one of the best FPSs, which seems a strong pair of endorsements for a free game. Rising Storm 2 will launch in only a few days, on the 30th, so do come see what the series is about. … [visit site to read more]
Achievement hunting on Steam is serious business. While Valve's storefront might not have Xbox's Gamerscore or PlayStation's Trophies, there are still plenty of PC gamers who appreciate the way Steam achievements challenge them to play games in new and interesting ways. Then there's the satisfaction of knowing you're one of just a small percentage of players who've explored every nook and cranny, maxed out every stat, or earned every gold medal a game has to offer.
The thing is, a lot of Steam achievements are kind of boring. Kill 10,000 enemies, hit level 99 in every class, finish the game on Ultra Nightmare Hardcore difficulty—most of the objectives feel like they've fallen straight out of a free-to-play MMO's quest log. Even the rarest achievements are often little more than tedious grind fests, requiring you to play 500 online matches in a multiplayer game with no active player base, or fight alongside a game's developer when that developer has long ago moved onto their next project.
These achievements aren't particularly fun to earn, let alone read about. But buried in Steam's massive catalog of games are some truly obscure, brutally difficult achievements that less than 0.1 percent of players have managed to accomplish. These are achievements worthy of the name. Most of us will never earn them, but we can dream.
Devil Dagger - Survive 500 secondsTotal Owners: 236,000 Completion Percentage: 0.1
For something you could complete in the downtime between Dota matches, frantic FPS Devil Dagger's one and only achievement has managed to defy 99.9 percent of players for well over a year now. That might seem odd given how simple its requirement sounds: all you have to do is survive for 500 seconds. I mean, I do that all the time. See. That last 500 seconds? I just survived that.
But yeah. Surviving Devil Daggers is a wee bit tougher than running out the clock in real life. Despite the game selling for a mere fiver, just 0.1 percent of players have managed to avoid croaking for the 8 minutes and 20 seconds necessary to snag the 'Devil Dagger' achievement. Watching replays of those runs is equal parts mesmerizing and depressing, making it painfully clear just how amateur my own skills are. I could probably spend the next year playing nothing but Devil Daggers and still not come close to the graceful death-dealing of players like the world-record-smashing bowsr. When the apocalypse hits and the whole world goes to hell, I'll be the redshirt incinerated in the first ten seconds.
Not so Bad - Survive the End Times Total Owners: 1.4 million Completion Percentage: 0.1
Crusader Kings 2, champion of the grand strategy genre, is full of intricate, multi-layered achievements few players have managed to unlock. From installing a female ruler in the five baronies of the Orthodox Pentarchy, to trampling the Pope with a horde of elephants, over a dozen eclectic achievements are currently sitting at a completion rate of less than 0.1 percent.
The one I want to shout out, though, is the 'Not so Bad' achievement awarded for surviving the End Times. Ostensibly, you unlock this achievement by surviving the rise of the Prophet of Doom and the Black Death he's convinced will destroy humanity. A Crusader Kings player going by the username Xolotl123 on Reddit, however, inadvertently earned themselves the achievement due to their investment in high-quality hospital care and their imprisonment of the Prophet for disturbing the peace. The Prophet then hanged himself, but not before sending the player a letter that read: 'If you are reading this letter, I am with God, or with Lucifer..., if so, then you were right. If not, then I was right.'
I've not had the time to play Crusader Kings 2, but after reading this story, I think I'm going to have to clear my schedule. Any game where you can avert the End Times through hygiene is a winner in my book.
Bringing a sword to a sword fight – As an American soldier kill an Axis soldier wielding a Katana, with a Katana. Stick it to Tojo – As an Allied soldier, kill 100 Axis soldiers with a bayonet. Total Owners: 2.7 million (unreliable due to free weekend) Completion percentage: 0.1 - 0.2
Rising Storm's focus on historically authentic, asymmetrical WWII combat means that, naturally, American soldiers do not spawn into the battlefield with katanas. In order to get one, you have to defeat a Japanese soldier who's carrying one. And in order to get the "Bringing a sword..." achievement, you then have to pick up their katana, find another Japanese soldier with a katana, and then defeat them with the weapon of their ancestors. It's a hard scenario to concoct in an FPS where rifles and grenades are the preferred way to fight.
MEAT.BOY SMELLS - Get a perfect in 1-1 using only a game pad.Total Owners: 311,00Achievement percentage: 1.6
Heresy! An achievement that requires ditching the holy mouse and keyboard for a filthy gamepad? What does BIT.TRIP BEAT take us for, console players? Everyone knows a good M+K combo is the only way to play. Sure, it makes driving games a bit twitchy, and performing combos in third-person action games can be tricky without analogue sticks, and fighting games don't always work so great, and stealth sequences tend to be a little wonky with WASD…
Okay. So maybe gamepads aren't that bad. Still, locking an achievement to a specific piece of hardware is a surefire way to tick off achievement hunters. The BIT.TRIP devs found that out the hard way with the game's, which required players to beat a level using Razer's short-lived Sixense motion controller. to 'SIXTH.SENSE' drove the devs to delete the achievement from Steam completely, which technically makes it one of the rarest achievements out there. Not quite as rare as a game with motion controls that don't feel like total garbage, but still…
Games are meant to be played—we usually take that much for granted. It's a little odd, then, when a game actively encourages you not to play it. Odd, however, is what The Stanley Parable's all about. I mean, one of the game's endings involves running back and forth between two buttons for four hours. And that's not to mention the pointed commentary on the nature of free will and the human tendency towards obeisance. Like I said, odd.
The Stanley Parable's weirdest elements, however, are definitely its achievements. In addition to an achievement simply entitled 'Unachievable' (paradoxically earned by 3.9 percent of players), there's the 'Go outside' achievement that tasks players with not playing the game for five years straight. Since The Stanley Parable released in October 2013, no one can legitimately earn this achievement until October next year. Of course, that hasn't stopped some unscrupulous Steam users from setting their computer clocks forward to unlock the achievement early.
Cheating to not play a game? I guess some people will do anything for their sweet cheevos.
You can do a lot of things in the 8760 hours that make up a single year. You could play 105,120 matches of Rocket League. You could marathon the entire current run of The Simpsons—all 617 episodes—38 times over. You could hitch a ride on a rocket and fly to Mars, with enough time left over to plant the seeds of an interplanetary rebellion.
You could also spend every one of those 8760 hours playing Garry's Mod in order to unlock the 'Addict' achievement. And when I say playing, I don't just mean booting up the game and letting it idle in the menu. You have to be connected to an active server for your time to count. Unsurprisingly, the hefty investment involved has kept the achievement's completion percentage at just 1.8 percent, even with achievement hunters over at AStats devising strategies for minimizing the resources used by Garry's Mod so you can leave it running in the background while you tend to other tasks.
I have to wonder, though, how many people left their computers on while they were working or sleeping solely to unlock this achievement? At a modest estimate, 8760 hours' worth of electricity would cost roughly $210 USD, which is a whole lot of money for a single achievement. Kind of puts all those pesky microtransactions to shame, doesn't it?
DLC scenarios Total Owners: 995,000 Completion percentage: 0
Speaking of money, Train Simulator boasts some of the rarest achievements on Steam, but that's not because they're brutally difficult or stubbornly obscure. Heck, the achievement descriptions make it pretty obvious what you've got to do: the 'It Works For Dogs!' achievement reads 'Awarded for completing scenario [RailfanMode] Barking. It's not like the game's unpopular either, with nearly a million owners on Steam and a median playtime of a respectable 7.5 hours.
No, what makes Train Simulator's achievements so rare is that fiendish friend of ours: DLC. Train Simulator is notorious for having the most expensive DLC on Steam, with its total value currently sitting at $6254.43 USD. Worse, Train Simulator ties many of its achievements to its DLC, leading to a wealth of 0 percent and 0.1 percent completion rates across the board.
But that $6254.43? I'd want a real honest-to-god train if I was forking over that much cash. If it was anything like Train Simulator, though, it'd probably lock out the train whistle as premium DLC. Steam whistle: only $0.99 per toot!
Artifact Archaeologist – You personally retrieved all Eight Artifacts! Total Owners: 4.7 million Completion Percentage: 0.2
A whole lot of people play ARK: Survival Evolved, and yet even the most common of its seven achievements has been earned by less than 5 percent of players. But while 95 percent of ARK players haven't defeated the game's first Ultimate Life Form, 99.8 percent remain vexed by its toughest achievement: 'Artifact Archaeologist', rewarded for retrieving every Artifact in the game. It sounds simple enough, but this is where ARK's nature as an Early Access game comes back to bite it on the rump.
According to the achievement description, there are only eight artifacts in ARK: Survival Evolved. This isn't true. There are 14 artifacts in total, 10 of which can be obtained through normal play, 3 which are locked to the Scorched Earth DLC, and one which can only be spawned through a console command. For a game that has already seen its fair share of controversy, ARK has left quite a few achievement hunters pretty disappointed. Still, at least they can take solace in the giant bees that have just been added to the game. That's something, right?
Dragonrider - Tame and ride 5 dragons Total Owners: 11 million (unreliable due to free weekend) Completion percentage: 0.8
I'm going to go out on a limb here and assume you've played Skyrim, or at least heard enough about it to understand the game's premise. You're the dragonborn, you need to save the world from an evil dragon, yada yada yada. In short, the game basically revolves around dragons.
How, then, is the achievement for riding dragons so rare? Only 0.8 percent of the millions of Skyrim players have tamed five or more of the mythical creatures and taken to the skies, which makes exactly zero sense to me. Who wouldn't want a dragon as their personal chauffeur? It's not like you'd have to worry about anyone jacking your scaly pal; any thief foolish enough to try would be charred to a crisp before they could shout Fus Ro Dah. I guess Skyrim players are just too busy getting busy and fighting Macho Man Randy Savage to spend their time becoming certified dragon pilots.
Rare Specimen – Send the Hidden Hat to Xen. Total Owners: 500,000 Completion percentage: 2.1 percent
Hats are all the rage these days. I have it on good authority from my stock broker that the hat economy is only going to go up—and that's coming from a man who wears a top hat, so you know it's legit. My wardrobe is already full of baseball caps, bowler hats, fezes, and beanies, just waiting for the day when my fabric fortune will be ready to claim. The only thing I don't quite understand is why my broker keeps mentioning Dota. Eh, never mind. I'm sure it's nothing.
Video games, it turns out, are just as keen to cash in on the hat craze. Black Mesa, the fan-made recreation of the original Half-Life, adds in the 'Rare Specimen' achievement that tasks good old Gordon Freeman with locating a hidden purple top hat and lugging it all the way from the Black Mesa Research Facility on Earth to the alien dimension of Xen. It might not sound that tricky, but apparently Gordon's more interested in trivial things like saving the world instead of securing his future in the hat economy--only 2.1 percent of players have carried the top hat all the way to its new interdimensional marketplace.
Wait, that gives me an idea. What if I started selling digital hats instead of physical ones? Ooh, I think I'm onto something here. I better stop typing before someone beats me to the punch…