Life and Death of the Total Conversion By Slaine

Life and Death of the Total Conversion By Slaine

Total Conversions for Quake are a funny beast. Roughly one hundred TCs have been announced in the past year and a small handful have come to completion. A smaller amount still will ever see completion because interest will probably quickly phase over to Quake2, or some of the upcoming Quake-Engine games. Regardless I strongly suspect that this phenomenon will repeat itself again and again.

I have personally worked on two DOOM II multi-level wad projects, one approaching the level of a TC. As well, I have done quite a few Quake skins, and been invited to join a half dozen quake TCs.

Obviously though, there must be a central reason for the high rate of failure for the completion of TCs. This article is about the methods of avoiding that failure.

First off let’s take a look at the normal TC cycle:

  1. Someone gets a good (?) idea for a TC.
  2. They make a web page.
  3. They hack a couple of Quake files, steal a model from someone else’s TC, and release a “beta”.
  4. A long string of “beta’s” ensue from this TC team with little difference between them except that their web page counter seems to pop up a few notches every time they get noticed on Blue’s.
  5. Most TCs dwindle away quickly: updates disappear, interest of the developers’ wanders, and motivation doesn’t exist for the long haul. The TC disappears for all practical purposes.

Now, hopefully there’s plenty of folks who see what is wrong here already, but let me take a really quick look at what is wrong with the above sequence.

A: Step number 2 is a bad sign. If the most substance you can come up with for your TC is a web page, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it? Your web page shouldn’t come until you’ve probably reached Beta stage in my opinion. Otherwise you are wasting productivity time on updating the web page. Once you’ve reached real Beta stage then a web page is valuable for gathering interest, providing documentation, feedback etc.

B: Grabbing stuff from other people’s work just doesn’t cut it. If you’re going to make a TC you need to either be capable of properly modifying the game you’re doing it for, or have a team of people who are capable. If you don’t have this, maybe you should first focus on a mod, not a TC. A good mod can be a very large time consuming project. It also gives you plenty of practice for doing a TC at some point in the future.

C: An endless stream of .001 incremented Beta’s are lame. In fact if you can help it you should not release a Beta at all to the public. I’m not saying, don’t do a Beta at all, just give it to your testers, not the public. The public does not really want to test your project. Most of them are just interested in seeing something new. Many people will get turned off by incremental Beta’s that don’t work, or are very sloppy products. When you finally finish your work they won’t want to download it because they will remember the 999 Beta’s that all sucked.

I could spend the next several pages letting you know more about the way not to do it, just in case you don’t know, but instead I will focus on the right way to do it. This way you hopefully gain some insight if your TC is faltering or without direction.


What? What is this? I know most TC developers do not have one and have not even heard of it! Progression beyond Step 1 without a design document is pointless, counterproductive, and just plain moronic. The design document is the lifeblood of your TC. It gives everyone direction, a common goal, a focus! If you don’t have the motivation to complete a design document do yourself a favor and don’t start a TC.

What does a design document contain?

  • A detailed description of what your TC will entail conceptually (art, theme, etc).
  • A detailed description of every monster you will include.
  • A detailed description of every weapon you will include.
  • A detailed list of the maps you intend to include that will meet the mission requirements.
  • A detailed list of the textures you will need to complete your maps.
  • A detailed list of the models you will need.
  • A detailed list of what QuakeC will be needed.
  • A detailed list of what sounds will be necessary.
  • A detailed list of skins that will be needed.

The above list is a good start. Depending on how you organize it, this may be enough for a decent Total Conversion. Obviously, depending on the needs of your TC, you may have other sections, but I doubt that you can complete a project worthy of the label “TC” without the minimum list I have detailed.

Let’s take a deeper look into the design document before we go to the second step of a TCs development cycle.

Each of the elements I have detailed is strongly interdependent upon each other. For instance, if you have not decided upon a theme for your TC, how will your mappers know what type of levels to design? How will your texture artists know what type of textures are necessary? How will your modelers know what type of monster is most suitable for the TC? The fact is; they won’t know. What you will end up with is a mish-mash of independent work, that will impress almost no one. A directionless , unfocused disaster, that wasn’t worth the download time.

Instead let us say you’ve decided upon a “sci-fi” TC with a universe similar to “Star Wars”. Well, you realize right off (I hope you do) that you can not use the name “Star Wars”. So you have to come up with your own idea and names. So let’s name this idea “StarQuake”.

Okay, for “StarQuake” we obviously realize that we are not going to be using any medieval dungeon style levels, we aren’t going to have any Knights or Goblins running about. We aren’t going to be using swords, or crossbows, or any other antiquated weaponry.

But what will be needed? Well, probably we will need some techno-weaponry such as; laser guns, plasma rifles, phaser’s, and who knows what else? We will need some nice futuristic, metallic, cyber-esque textures. We will need some futuristic level designs (to use our nice futuristic textures) in which we will place some futuristic models of futuristic enemies, with.. can you guess? Yes.. futuristic skins!

So all of a sudden, taking the design concept from “let’s make a TC!” to “let’s make a StarQuake TC” we’ve already taken a tremendous directional step.

Here is an example excerpt from a possible design document on the “StarQuake TC”.


As an oppressed citizen of the UD-FED (Universal Dictated Federation), you have finally joined the resistance movement in a secret effort to kill the Emperor of UD-FED.


A: A standard issue start map fit to the theme of the StarQuake TC.


A: A Mountainous rocky area where the player starts off, the UD-FED already has learned of the plot to assassinate the Emperor and is sending in the UD-FED secret agents to infiltrate and eliminate.
B: Player must make it from his home, through a sewer system under the city, to the Space Station.


A: Player enters space station through sewer entrances.
B: Player must bypass station security to enter Off-Planet bound space ship to reach UD-FED homeplanet.
C: Main avenue will be through luggage compartment access.
D: If player wishes they can also battle through the main boarding gate, heavy opposition though.


A: Player has boarded the ship through either means. Once the journey is underway the ship is attacked by UD-FED space marines.
B: Player must battle through ship to make it to escape pods.
C: If player makes it to escape pods he gets cinematic sequence with him ejecting over the FED homplanet as the space ship explodes.


A: Player lands in escape pod from space ship in suburbs of the UD-FED capital.
B: Player must find way through city to the UD-FED headquarters building.
C: Player must find way into UD-FED headquarters. Either front gate (big fight) or back entrance, power conduits.


A: Player must make it from either entrance point to the UD-FED command center located through several security levels below.


A: Player makes it into the UD-FED command center and meets the Emperor, and must defeat him in battle. End of game.

The outline above simply gives a very limited look at how a design document can help define where you are going. There should be a similar outline with much greater depth for each of the points I mentioned earlier. This will allow everyone in your TC to have direction and give a good mark of progress if you update the document occasionally and show what has been done and what remains to be done.

Step 2: Take me to your leader!

All TCs need some leadership. Leadership helps keep goals in mind. Leaders can help set deadlines. They can help coordinate people and make sure the design document is being followed, or if not, make sure there is darn good reason for it. The leadership I speak of here though is not the “I’m telling you what to do” type, but more of the organized coordinator.

Sometimes if you find a person who is very interested in your TC idea whom you trust but has no talents as far as art, modelling, mapping, etc go, they might make a good “leader”. Their job would be to keep the design doc updated, and inform everyone of the progress being made. Get updates from everyone, and keep the project on its feet and moving forward instead of stagnating.

Step 3: Everything takes time.

Everything you endeavor to do takes time. A TC will take a lot of time. In fact, it is likely to take a lot of people’s time, not just one person’s. With this in mind before you head up a TC, despite your willingness to take on the challenge already presented to you, try to be honest with yourself if you really have the time to devote to doing the work on it. This is a trap I myself I have fallen into on several occasions. Although there may be other reasons the TCs I’ve worked on have not come to fruition, I myself have been guilty in part because I have not had the time available to work on them properly.

If you have a full-time job, girlfriend or wife, and like to play games, and want to work on a TC, sit back and try to figure out what amount of time you can honestly commit to the project. You will be doing yourself, and possibly getting more done instead of eventually giving up in disgust.

4: Look for Experience

Look for members to join your TC team who have experience in the area they would like to help out on. Don’t bring on a skin artist who has never done a skin. Don’t bring on a modeler who has never made or even modified a model. This seems simple enough, but with the lack of people available in the community who are good at doing these things, TCs often end up accepting people with no skills at all. This is merely another nail in your coffin.

Ask for references, ask for examples of their work. Give them a sample piece of work to perform for you. Either they can produce some of these items, or none. If none of the above can be produced from them, find someone else. Just a warm willing body is not enough to see your TC to completion!

5: Have Fun.

I’m sure you thought I was going to leave this out? Sorry, it’s too important to do that! One of the most important elements of any TC is that you have fun doing it. For myself, all the Quake related projects I take on are usually very inspiring, I want to stay up all night working on them because I have this unquenchable fire inside me to do something that just ROCKS the world. (And hey if my wife let me stay up more often, or I quit my day job, maybe I could do it ) I would love to work in the gaming industry (as many of us would) to be able to spend day after day working on stuff like this. The reality is most of us will only ever do this as a hobby, but if you don’t have that type of enjoyment or interest in doing it, you will probably lose motivation very easily.

Enjoyment of what you’re doing makes it more tolerable. It helps you get through the rocky waters and see things to their completion.

In closing let me say that I surely have not covered every reason in the book why a TC can fail. Or all the things you can do to help ensure that it stays on its feet and give it the best chance to succeed. But I do feel that I have hit some very important points here that can benefit the TC making community. If you think that I’m making this up, think back to a couple of months ago when John Romero was making the “design doc” for Daikatana, and how it was over 100 pages long? If it’s good enough for the professionals, it is certainly good enough for me.

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