These titles are fantastic for creation and experimentation
If you’re a gamer, it’s likely that you’ve played custom levels. But have you ever tried making one yourself? Making custom content is a challenge, especially for the uninitiated. For puzzle games, levels should be tricky but not too convoluted. For RPGs, you need to spawn enough enemy waves to get the player’s pulse up, but not make them endure endless grinds. It’s all about balance. Most games give players the option to thumbs-up or thumbs-down custom levels, so it’s a little scary to put yourself out there, only to see your ratings plummet. You knew shouldn’t have placed so many spike traps, dangit!
Though you may risk sleepless nights and self-esteem, making your own maps can be very rewarding. And if you’re harboring a secret dream to work as a game designer someday, it’s a good way to expand your portfolio. So we’ve compiled a list of games that have cool editing software for customization. Hopefully this will provide some inspiration for those of you who have wanted to create a new map or level, but haven’t been able to take the plunge. Who knows? Maybe the next Defense of the Ancients is inside you right now, yearning to be free.
Gran Turismo 6
Gran Turismo 6 has an interesting approach to customizable game play. PlayStation created an app available for iOS and Android tablets called the GT6 Track Path Editor. But despite the dual support, it still won’t load on many devices. And even if it does load, there is a chance it will freeze any time you try to do, well, anything. But given the reviews on Google’s Play Store and Apple’s App Store, positive experiences overwhelm the negative ones.
The app is fairly straightforward, dividing the creation process into six steps. You begin by choosing one of four themes to determine the environment. Then you create the layout of your track with a simple drag-and-drop interface. If you’re using the flat theme, you can upload an image file that you can use to trace your track. So you can model your track on the Nürburgring, for example, without any Geschwindigkeitsbegrenzungen—that’s the actual German word for “speed limit,” by the way. I’m beginning to think Germans have double the lung capacity of the average human being.
Once your road is set, you can place trees, shrubs and Gran Turismo signage to your heart’s content. Depending on your theme, you can add curbing as well. Finally, you can upload your track and take it for a test drive. If you’re happy with the results, you can save the track and share it with the community. Yes, there is room for improvement. It would be nice to be able to adjust banking in degrees (for some, the “extreme” setting just may not be extreme enough), or have more options for terrain. But ultimately this is a user-friendly tool that any tablet-owning GT6 fans should check out.
On to Portal: everyone’s favorite dystopian first-person platform puzzler. As with other narrative-driven games, the lore can help guide your design principles. Each test chamber you build has a mandatory observation window, because this isn’t about fun, it’s about science—the kind of science that gives Aperture’s investors the best return. Although you can technically build a chamber with infinite companion cubes, it will probably make for a better level if you only allow for one companion, as with the original game. This is not only for the sake of elegance, but also for the sake of psychological torture. If you really want, you can design a level with a dozen fake-outs and pits of death goo at every turn, but this is wasteful—think of all the new test subjects Aperture will have to find! It goes without saying that players should never be forced to restart the level, but in this case the rule is especially apt. In the world of Aperture Science, restarts are not an option. If the tester starves to death because she can’t complete a puzzle, that’s her own damn fault, not the engineer’s. It rare for smart design and backstory to work so well together, so now is the time to take advantage of it.
Portal’s puzzle editor has an intuitive interface and is perfect for beginners. Drag and drop the chamber’s tiles to expand a wall, collapse a wall, and create a column or a passageway. Select items to place them in your chamber, and right click to see all the available actions. A helpful blue line shows you which items trigger which. If two elements are in conflict they will turn red, alerting you to the problem. And if you want to get fancy with aesthetics you can export your map into Valve’s Hammer editor, but you don’t need Hammer to create an awesome Portal map. The puzzle editor has all the tools you need.
You can probably beat Broforce’s campaign in about four hours, which may initially seem disappointing. Fortunately, you can easily spend another four hours in sidescrolling action mayhem by playing custom levels, or by making one of your own! Be warned: a lot of Broforce’s features make level design tricky. For example, almost every object is destructible, so even a simple level can become unplayable when an innocent explosion disintegrates the only path to completion. The varied abilities of the Bros might make the same level a breeze for one character but impossible for another. In Broforce, there’s always a myriad of ways to skin the cat. (It is not a philosophical game; if the cat is both alive and dead you have failed, because “dead” is the only acceptable state for anything that is not a Bro.)
The level editor has a robust toolset. There are parallax objects available to add depth to your environment. You can adjust the probability at which different kinds of Mooks (enemies) will spawn. You can set explosive triggers and adjust the damage of the explosion. Though Broforce is normally a straightforward beat-‘em-up, triggers can also be used to add in a few surprise puzzle elements.
Some of the best custom levels restrict you to playing as one type of Bro so as to test the limits of his or her abilities. For example, an Indiana Brones-only level may necessitate swinging from his whip to get from one area to another. This level editor gives you many different options to customize both gameplay and environment. So feel free to channel Martha Stewart by tastefully placing “Pure Evil Décor” where it can be both noticed and appreciated.
Forge is unique in that it’s not only an editor, but also a gameplay mode unto itself. Players can shift between editing the map and battling on it in real time. In this way, players can collaborate to transform new maps. If the other players don’t like your contributions, then they can let you know by killing you. Simple and effective.
Over the years there have been a lot of complaints about Forge (like, “where’s the undo button?!?”), but in fairness, it wasn’t originally intended to be a fully-fledged editor. The limitations of Forge might even be helpful to people who have never designed maps from scratch. By tweaking existing maps, what works and what doesn’t quickly become apparent through trial-and-error. Later versions of Forge give you more room to experiment with new object types, object physics and spawn sites. In Halo 4, Forge got a serious usability upgrade with a new D-pad menu system, which is tailored to the object currently targeted by the player. Furthermore, structure pieces became “magnetized” so they can conveniently snap into place. One cool Forge feature is the ability to create Player Trait Zones on maps that can adjust attributes or even make a player immune to headshots, but sadly Trait Zones can’t be edited in Halo 4. As they say…Microsoft Studios giveth, and Microsoft Studios taketh away.
It would be unacceptable for me to omit Aurora from this list, since it is the toolset that other toolsets should aspire to be. Typically, toolsets are either user-friendly at the expense of customization, or sophisticated at the expense of the user. Aurora is about as user-friendly as it could be given its vast array of options. It requires dedication to become skilled with it, as it is the same toolset that BioWare used to create official campaigns as well as the sequel, Neverwinter Nights 2. It should be noted that Aurora is not available for Mac users, much to their dismay.
All that said, Aurora was designed to be intuitive, and scripting is not required in order to create modules. When you open up the program, the Area Wizard will help you create your first area (which isn’t necessarily the starting area). Terrains, dungeons, buildings and scores of other game objects can be quickly created using tile paintbrushes. Once your area is set, use the encounter palette to select hostile creatures and a spawn point. You’ll also need to create your cast of characters, add in a quest or two and some lively conversation. Look, no one said the life of a module designer was easy! If you’re passionate about RPGs, the Aurora toolset is the toolset for you.
Melissa M. Parker is a writer, educator and native New Yorker. Find her on Twitter @starkravingmel or at the Chinatown Arcade.