Garry Newman has one of PC gaming's better-known first names - and one of its best grassroots success stories.
He may have flubbed his one job interview with Valve, but the man behind Garry's Mod is doing alright and has some thoughts about modern modding.
Newman is set up in Walsall, England. He's 28 and tinkers all the time with his world-famous prized creation. That creation, Garry's Mod, launched in late 2004 and has been a hit since then, regularly one of the 10 most-played games on Steam.
Of course, Garry's Mod isn't a game. It's a toolset, a playground for tinkering in Valve Software's Source Engine and one of the most successful gaming canvases ever released to the computer-playing public. Players who own games made with Valve's Source Engine - Half Life 2 or Team Fortress 2 - can use the mod to set up worlds, pose characters, design contraptions and do all sorts of wondrous things.
Here's a classic example from a few years ago (and several Garry's Mod iterations ago).
For Garry, the Mod has been a few things:
It was the thing he was talented enough to make. "I never started out thinking 'I will make a sandbox mod'," he told me over email this week. "I was just messing around with the Source Engine and it turned into this thing. It was mostly about letting me mess around with the Source Engine's features. … To be honest at this point I didn't really have the programming ability to make a real game on the Source Engine. Adding guns that attached things to ropes was easy compared to that."
It then became a surprise. Garry didn't realise it was popular, he said, until he "begrudgingly" set up forms for it. He didn't realise it was going to be so malleable until he added ragdoll posing and saw what people made of it.
And it's become income, a lot of income. He didn't tell me how much he's made in the four years the $US10 mod has been on sale (it was free for two years before that). He did give me some numbers, so we can sort of do the maths. He makes $US5 when the game is bought on its own; $US2.50 when it's in a bundle. 770,628 units sold lifetime, 264,350 of them since this time a year ago - which means sales are speeding up and it's safe to assume he's netted more than $US1 million.
It did not become a job at Valve. "I did apply for a job there a long time ago," he told me. "I got a phone interview, which I must have blew. Admittedly, I wouldn't have hired myself back then either. I knew nothing."
Garry's Favourite Mods
Over the years, people have made the most marvellous Rube Goldberg contraptions in Garry's Mod, tinkering with the set in ways that gave us great domino tumbles and the adventures of Half-Life hero Gordon Freeman's brother. Oh, and they've made good-looking Zelda stuff.
Garry's favourites? He offered five, "some" of his favourites in no particular order.
Garry's take: "We are watermelons. This is my kind of cruel humour."
Garry's take: "b-buck's dance video is kind of a classic".
Garry's take: "Everything FancyPants does is gold."
Garry's take: "The first person project is pretty brutal."
Garry's take: "War of the servers is a full-length movie shot in GMod."
The New Mod Era
Modding isn't what it used to be and Garry Newman sees a scene that not only has changed, but is pretty much making games worth being paid for.
"In the early days people were happy with really simple mods," he recalls. Faster-firing weapons, double high jumping, grappling hook, team-based gamemodes, etc, etc. At some point (I'm guessing when proper SDKs [software development kits]started being released), the term 'mod' got to mean 'total conversion'. No one cares unless you've got a new gamemode and every art asset has been completely remade by your team."
That kind of work is game development, he says. "What's the difference between someone modding an engine and someone licensing an engine? There's no difference at all, it's just what you call it. A mod isn't just a mod anymore, it's a game."
If the mod scene is indeed the game development scene, then it's no surprise it's becoming more of a business. You've got Blizzard setting up a marketplace where player-modders will be able to sell their maps, Valve allowing players to profit off of their creations for Team Fortress 2. It's not all rosy. Big PC games, like Modern Warfare 2, don't ship with mod tools, despite a history of popular PC shooters supporting player mods.
Garry likes the marketplaces, sees them as a scion of moulding "growing up", and he's undeterred by developers who don't make their games moddable.
"PC game modding can be pretty ironic," he says. "You've got these games with awesome SDKs, awesome level editors, and no one gives a fuck. Then you've got games like GTA with no SDK, no easy way to change anything - and people are bending over backwards to make mods for it.
Garry's Mod launched on the Mac last month. Mac users are creating stuff as well, though Garry isn't spotting any differences between Mac and Windows users' creativity. "If there's someone in the server on a Mac they're indistinguishable from PC players," he says. "Which is the way it's got to stay since PC gamers are assholes to Mac gamers for some reason."
He encourages those who haven't seen Garry's Mod in a while to check it out again. He's built a "Toolbox" option (pictured above) that less users download other players' creations into Garry's Mod without having to look for add-ons on the web yourself. That should make things more fun and even easier to create.
Garry may not have intended Garry's Mod to be anything other than a lark for himself and his friends, but he's created a hit. This is what a PC mod can do. This is the power of PC gaming where a Garry Newman, phone interview flubbed and all, can be a developer who matters - and help you be one too.