The exact moment I gave up my teenage ambition of becoming a level designer is seared into my memory. Half-Life’s unassuming arrival was nearly a year away, and Counter-Strike’s conception even further. Quake 2 was the game of the moment.

I was plummeting towards a murky pool of water. Moments earlier, I had collected the recently-respawned rocket launcher on the outskirts of Q2DM1 and leapt off the catwalk. I knew this map intimately - all the weapon, armour and health locations, the best jumps, the safest falls, and had been following a circuit through the corridors, atriums and walkways that I knew would maximize my chances of topping the scoreboard. I was no Thresh by any stretch of the imagination, but I could just about hold my own - with a bit of luck, anyway. Most of all though, I was enjoying a welcome distraction from trying to make a map a fraction as good as this one.

Q2DM1, “The Edge”, was by far the most popular map at the time. Created by Tim Willits at id Software, Texas, I was convinced that the only route to success - and landing a coveted level design job at id - was to make a map that was even better. I played it incessantly, trying to understand the design, what made it tick, and why it was so addictive - and compared it to others in my hunt to decipher what set it apart.

Unfortunately my own attempts at Quake 2 mapping had been steeped in failure. Much like my previous attempts with Quake, I’d not managed to complete a single map - things were so bad that I’d barely been able to get a tiny room made without deciding it wasn’t good enough and starting over, and over. Again, and again. Quake 2 mapping was in vogue - it felt like everyone and their grandma (and even her cat) were launching beautiful, fun, high-quality deathmatch maps and I couldn’t even grasp the very basics.

Despite my study (conveniently disguised as trying to reach the top of the scoreboard) I was struggling to convert those learnings into a map of my own. What secret to success had I missed? My attempts weren’t going anywhere, so I must have been doing something wrong - but what? Making maps used to be fun.

The pool hurtled closer and closer.

Simultaneously, my dream of moving to Texas and working at id was drifting out of reach. It was a complete nonsense anyway - I was barely 15 and had years of school remaining in front of me. Even by the time I was done there, I’d still not have acquired the requisite skills or artistry. The entire goal was ill-conceived. And moving to Texas - even if I could, did I really want to put thousands of miles between myself and my friends and my family?

I hit the water and dived for the railgun concealed under the surface.

No - I had greater, more pressing priorities right now that had infinitely higher chances of success. At my age and in my situation, mapping could only ever be a very silly little hobby; a way to pass the time. Playing with a level editor and architecting primitive 3D environments just because I could was already undeniably more enticing, exciting, and fun than schoolwork - it didn’t have to be any more than that.

Play. Fun. That was all that really mattered.

My dream dissolved, I emerged from the water lighter. My sights were no longer set on the unnecessary challenge of turning my hobby into a career - I didn’t need nor want it. Freed of this weight, I could relax and enjoy mapping again - making maps for my own enjoyment, mine and purely mine alone.

But even that could wait for now - this railgun needed introducing to some friends…