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A conversation with one of Skyrim's top modders photo

A conversation with one of Skyrim's top modders

ThirteenOranges worked as a pro for Ubisoft, but now he makes Skyrim mods

5:00 PM on 02.28.2013     by Joshua Derocher

Callum Macarthur, AKA ThirteenOranges, has worked as a professional level designer for Ubisoft, but these days he spends his time creating mods for Skyrim, and they are among the best content available for the game. He is responsible for the epic "The Elder Scrolls Quests Series" and "The Elder Scrolls Places" collections of mods which add awesome new quest lines and locations.

All of ThirteenOranges' mods can be found on the Steam Workshop, and if you are looking for some new quests in Skyrim you should really check them out. Some of this stuff is better than quests Bethesda has made. The locations are all fleshed-out, the characters are fully voiced by good actors, and the new items fit really well with the lore.

First off, tell me a little bit about how you got into modding.

Well, as you may be aware, prior to starting modding I was working for Ubisoft as a level designer and mission scripter. My roles at Ubisoft were largely focused on working with and developing content creation and scripting tools to build the playable content in games, so working in the Creation Kit isn't too dissimilar to the sort of thing I was already doing every day, albeit on different games and with different technology.

It was a few months after I’d left Ubisoft that the Creation Kit was released, and by that point, I was itching to get my hands into some proper development again, but didn't have a team of developers in other disciplines needed to start an independent project. The Creation Kit gave me a chance to develop my skills in pretty much every field of level design from logic scripting, environment design and gameplay prototyping to script writing, AI and art direction, with all the essential technology already in place, a vast asset library sitting there ready to use and a working game to integrate my work into.

At first my forays into the Creation Kit were really just out of a professional interest in the systems they used to build the game and the scripting methodology used by their content creators, etc. It got a bit out of hand to be honest -- a year later and I still feel like I've hardly scratched the surface of what's possible. 

Did you plan on being a game level designer?

Yeah, I guess I did, although not at first. I studied graphic design and illustration when I left school. It was a fairly interesting subject, but a career in graphic design wasn't for me. I'd done a little experimenting with game development tools like UDK and among others, the tool sets for Morrowind and Neverwinter Nights, and then I heard about some degree courses on game development that sounded really interesting. I decided around then that I wanted to be a part of the games industry, but without much knowledge about the actual process of development or what roles I would really find myself working in. 

How did you start working for Ubisoft?

During the course, I began to break away from the games art side of things and focus on design and implementation. I also made a number of industry contacts throughout my time at university, a couple of whom worked for Ubisoft at the time. After I graduated, a position opened up on a team that one of those contacts was part of, he recommended me for the role and I spent the next few years there, working with some fantastic developers across a number of projects.

Are you currently employed at a game studio?

Not at present. I've been freelance for about year, currently working on an indie project with some old colleagues and trying to find time to continue modding where possible.

Are you looking to get back into it full time?

Yeah, at some stage I'd like to. I never intended on leaving full-time development when I left Ubisoft, but at times development can be every bit as stressful as it can be rewarding, so to some extent it has been nice to work at my own pace for a while. It's also a difficult time to be looking for work in the industry, especially in the UK. There's been so many studio closures here over the past two or three years, it's kind of terrifying to think how many developers are out of work at the moment.

Can you talk about this indie project at all?

There's not a huge amount to tell about the current project I'm working on. It's something some old colleagues had started a couple of months ago, they brought me on board fairly recently in order to manage the design direction and level/mission design of the game. So far it's still really a prototype, a lot of the core gameplay is in, but the structure and direction is still being worked on, as are the tools for building the content. It's hard to say exactly what the time frame of the development will be at this stage.

Any games that you have worked on as a freelancer that people might recognize?

There's not much that anyone would recognize outside of the Ubisoft games I worked on or my Skyrim mods. I've done bits and pieces on a couple of Xbox Live Indie Games, but other than that I'm afraid most of the projects I've been involved with are still ongoing (except for one, which was cancelled). Again, this is an area where modding has really kept me going.

It can be pretty tough in indie development, just to keep a team together when there's no money. People inevitably have financial responsibilities and have to dedicate their time to something that can actually provide for them and their families, which can delay or cancel projects altogether. With modding I always have something solid to show for my time, as it doesn't rely so heavily on other peoples work, even if it isn't a valuable use of my time financially speaking.

Do you plan to keep making mods for Skyrim, or is there another game you might move to?

I'm always interested in learning and exploring new tools and the structure of other games, so I am likely to spend some time working in other engines. Rage Tool Kit or the upcoming RedKit from CD Projekt Red are both tools I'd really love to spend some time learning when I get a chance.

That said, it's quite unlikely that I'll be working properly on mods other than Skyrim for some time. The Elder Scrolls has always been one of my favorite fictional settings, and as such it's the perfect platform for me to create really detailed pieces for, any mods I make in other games will likely be more technical experiments than fully fleshed out pieces of content. Until The Elder Scrolls VI of course...

Out of the Skyrim mods that you have on Steam Workshop, which one is your favorite and why?

That's a difficult question to answer. I think as a player, I'd choose Sorcery, but speaking as a modder, I might go with Pit Fighter. Technically, Pit Fighter was a greater achievement, the scripting work is more complex, the character interaction is generally better, it provides longer potential play time, and the foreign areas in the Travels add-on were really interesting to make. Sorcery, however, is creatively the most interesting. I had a great time working on the environments and the designs for the magical realms, and I personally would always choose exploration above combat so it's more in line with my own preferences as a player.

How long does it take you to make one of these mods?

The length of time it takes varies from project to project. Sea of Ghosts was the longest, at about three months including the two expansion islands I added later. Sorcery and Pit Fighter were both about six or seven weeks, I think that's really the longest I'd want to spend on any future projects, though ideally they would be a little quicker.

The 'Places' mini-series was much quicker. I think each of those took between one and two weeks. I really viewed the whole series as a single project. It was a bit of a break from quests after having finished Sorcery and it was quite nice to try out something a little different and spend some time getting more involved with AI Packages and the Radiant Quest methodology.

Do you work alone, or is there anyone else involved in these projects?

I work alone on the mods themselves and all the content in the Creation Kit, but on occasion I have worked with people in other disciplines (voice actors, 3D artists etc.) to add more content that gets created outside of the CK. Normally I start contacting people about providing assets or voice work when I'm about 50% through the bulk of the work, when the structure of the mod is already in place and ready to go, and when I know what sort of extra content is needed to improve the standard of the mod.

It's great to be able to work with these people from other fields of development on this sort of project. Working with people like PrivateEye (who put together the reward weapons in Pit Fighter), means he gets his work displayed as a part of the game with a specific purpose, while my work gains the breadth of new content needed so the mod can compare to base game quests. We both see our content improved by the other's work.

What can we expect to see next from you?

I haven't started anything new since I finished the add-on for Pit Fighter. I'm not in a position at the moment where I have time to begin anything time consuming. Saying that, it's not like I'm short on plans. There's a number of ideas for projects I've had rattling around my head for a while, so when I can start something new, it'll be the one that seems the most feasible at the time. It's most likely going to be more Quest mods, although there is an idea for a second Pit Fighter expansion that's a bit different to anything you've seen in that mod so far.

I've also done a few online surveys about my mods for my Steam and Twitter followers, which have been really quite interesting. It's helped a lot to get an idea about what people are actually responding to in my mods, which in turn helps me decide what will feature in future projects.

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Go check out his work on the Steam Workshop for yourself, and follow him on Twitter to see what he's working on now. If you want to support what he's doing, you can donate to help him keep making more awesome Skyrim mods.








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