Unreal. It’s a modding buzzword, and for good reason: since the advent of the original Unreal game, enthusiastic developers have been scrambling all over this series to generate awesome content and make The Next Big Thing In Modding™.

A lot of pretty cool things have emerged from the Unreal development community over the years: some, like the hugely popular Invasion mod, started with a few pieces of chicken-scratch code held together with bubblegum and MacGyver’s nosehairs back in the dark ages of the original Unreal and UT99.

Of course, mod development is just like regular game development: you need to start small. No, seriously, get away from that jar labelled “IDEAS FOR BIGGEST AND BEST MOD EVER!”. If you don’t have a group of dedicated devs that outnumbers, say, the sheer horse-choking quantity of crappy Star Wars videogames that get released by LucasArts on a day-to-day basis, you’re never going to get further than modelling half a leg to hop around some blocky greyscale arena.

3DS Max's ActorX exporter tool in action

3DS Max's ActorX exporter tool in action

Start off instead by making a few levels and perhaps some new game types with the help of UnrealEd, Epic’s officially supported map editor and content generator for games made in the Unreal engine.

UnrealEd is a WYSIWYG (“What You See Is What You Get”) map editor which allows devs to quickly and easily create maps, script AI, and make French toast. On the art side, UnrealEd conforms with most modern level editor standards (in fact, it was responsible for kick-starting most of them), allowing users to start with a big chunk of geometry and add or remove shapes to create a navigable level for players to walk about in.

Static meshes can be created in standard 3D modelling programs such as Maya and 3D Studio Max, and even open-source software such as Blender for those of us who don’t sweat out 100 Rand notes every time we jog to the kitchen for another sandwich.

UnrealEd is also a helpful introduction to Java programming, if you decide to dip into its built-in UnrealScript. The script is a powerful way to tweak your creations in ways that normal map creation wouldn’t allow (affording custom behaviours, events and rule sets) and follows the same rules as standard object-oriented programming.

The same mesh imported into the Unreal Engine

The same mesh imported into the Unreal Engine

If you own an Unreal game, chances are that you already have a version of this extremely popular editor. Check out the Unreal Developer Network for helpful links and ideas, or see other people’s creations in Epic’s User Maps and Mods forum. Community Websites such as BeyondUnreal and Planet Unreal (they have a nice little beginner’s tut right here) can also be useful.

If you have a hankering for modding and are willing to start small, you should play around with making some maps in UnrealEd. Not only is it one of the best tools out there, but the opportunity to gib your buddies at that next LAN with a carefully concealed doomsday device that only you know about is something altogether far too tempting to pass up.