2K Games' PGA Tour 2K23 Course Designer mode gives users the ability to imagine and build their own courses — some to stunning detail
If only Donald Ross had today's technology at his fingertips. Better yet, imagine the pre-eminent designer of his time firing up a video game console and using that as his trace paper.
The idea seems far-fetched, right? Not in this day and age.
In the latest release of 2K Games' PGA Tour 2K23 title, its Course Designer tool has been marketed as one of its strongest features outside of the standard true-to-life players — Tiger Woods, Justin Thomas, Lexi Thompson, Tony Finau and Lydia Ko to name a few — actual branded equipment and iconic venues that show up in the experience.
In short, the Course Designer addition provides gamers the wherewithal to create aspirational and challenging courses that pop with aesthetics, while married to dynamic realism. Anyone has a license to replicate what Robert Trent Jones, A.W. Tillinghast or Ross laid out. Taken to another step, the allure is that any golf gamer of any level can cull from the mind's eye their very own masterpiece.
"What I like about it is the ability to have this blank canvas in front of you and maybe you're looking for some inspiration, maybe you're looking at other golf courses," says Andre Queeneville, who famously goes by Crazycanuck1985 in the gaming world. "And at this point where the [Course] Designer is right now, you can probably pretty accurately kind of redo that look or recreate that look."
Queeneville, a high school teacher by day, should know. Living outside of Vancouver, he grew up casually playing golf with his brother and father but always had a strong passion for the sport — and gaming. He first got lured into crafting layouts by the initial iteration of the the course designer mode in The Golf Club, released in 2014, by HB Studios.
At that point, golf games weren't an annual bet outside of the Tiger Woods PGA Tour series that took off in 1998. So whenever a new variation of the HB Studios-produced The Golf Club hit the shelves, Queeneville's interest piqued.
In August of 2018, seeing the value of being in the golf gaming space, 2K Games announced it would publish The Golf Club series before it rebooted as PGA Tour 2K21 in August 2020. This was before 2K Games acquired HB Studios on March 16, 2021. That date also holds significance because Woods signed an exclusive deal with 2K as the game's executive director.
In the aughts, Woods openly talked about how gaming filled his spare time, not so much to promote his own series but to offer one of the few rare glimpses into his personal life. His deal with Electronic Arts ended in 2014 and virtual Tiger took a seat. With 2K, besides using his likeness, he was given the executive director title and advises the development team.
"It’s not only great to be back on the cover of a video game, but the executive director role makes this a truly unique opportunity,” Woods said.
Prior to Woods' signing, Chris Snyder, 2K vice president of marketingm said the business was riding a wave of popularity.
"Golf is hotter than ever, with celebrities, athletes and musicians playing the game and sharing their experiences on social media every day," he said. "Our goal is to create the most authentic golf simulation experience ever, and HB Studios brings that authenticity in ... incorporating realism, depth and fun that appeals to golf aficionados and casual fans alike."
By 2021, the Course Designer tool had developed a cult following. A popular feature, it offered stimulating sandbox gameplay that never faded like a poorly hit shot. Also by this point, 2K knew of Queeneville and made overtures encouraging him to join its officially launched program called NextMakers. The program focuses on content creators and those who can provide an active voice in the gaming community.
If anyone fit the bill it was Queeneville. In 2014 after The Golf Club came out, Queeneville searched for online tutorials that could help him build courses.
"Back in 2014-15 there were not too many people who had a grasp of the [Course] Designer," Quenneville says. "I spent a ton of time working at it, trying new things and kind of learning by failing. I felt if I was feeling that way, there must be a ton of others feeling like this too. I thought maybe I could try to give them some kind of help that might get them started instead of spending hundreds of hours figuring out things. It was powerful once you did have things figured out, but it took a lot of time."
He kicked off a YouTube channel and built tutorials that were educational and articulated extremely well. His videos quickly drew a following. They parlayed itself into the NextMaker gig, where he's been paid to develop courses featured in PGA Tour 2K23, which is available for Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PlayStation5, PlayStation4 and Steam. He's also been asked to create courses for others, such as Matthew Haag, better known as the former professional Call of Duty player, Nadeshot.
"Sometimes I'll pop in on some streams and catch some clips and I'll be like, 'Wow, they're playing a course I created. It's pretty cool. Very surreal. It's hard to describe. It's weird," Quenneville says laughing.
As for the Course Designer mode, the meat is in the pudding. There are excess options lending to the creativity aspect. The game itself is evergreen, defined as one with an extended shelf life and playability. Developers continually add new elements, content, playable golfers and in-game events via updates that also translate to the online mode.
Queeneville says with just a few clicks an entire course can be auto-generated. But then, what's the fun in that? Realistically, a virtual architect can expect to spend 30 to 200 hours on average in the creation process, he adds. Sure, a design could be finished in less time, but it's like the "get what you paid for" proverb. Think of an unvarnished cabinet. It suits a purpose but there's little pizzazz.
"It's probably the No. 1 question I get," Queeneville says. "How long does it take to build a course of quality."
Overall since 2014, Queeneville estimates he's built about 50 courses. No nuance is too little or too large. From topography to surface greens with manipulated breaks to bunkering and elevation and routing — really, anything part of a course environment — the Course Designer doesn't leave out much.
In the latest version, a new enhanced way to tweak and manipulate splines helps fine-tune surfaces, not to mention fencing, trees, brush and many other objects. All of it adds to the realism. It may sound silly, but gamers had been asking for an improved splining tool that could expedite various backdrops and additions, improving upon a glacially slow process in some respects.
Another neat component can be found in the sculpting tool. It's handy for developing smooth, realistic slopes, hills and breaks. It helps a designer think like an architect, too. Was that blind shot intentional or unintentional? How about that false front? Will that hole prove to be too challenging? The promising news is everything is editable. Of course, that's before a course gets published to the 2K server, in which any gamer will have access to play. Queeneville says that's an area that gamers have inquired about — the ability to pull back a course to fix, alter or improve.
That said, users have the ability to port legacy courses from a previous game in just a few short clicks.
The designer dashboard offers many themes to get started, too. For example, maybe the design should be constructed in an arid environment, like a desert. Or maybe it could have a rustic feel. Don't fret, there are more than 13 themes to choose from, with creators able to infuse lighting, terrain, weather and backdrop choices.
As the game gradually segues into the next version, Queeneville was asked what he'd like to see done differently in the Course Designer. Without hesitation, he said "more toys to play with," such as buildings, textures, backdrops and themes.
And what constitutes a solid virtual course?
"Something with polish to it," he says. "Having a course with some really nice smooth undulations where it looks like time was taken with it. Something with thoughtful bunker sculpting, the greens are playable and it just looks like effort was put into it."
Queeneville tried to sum up what he called a niche community.
"The course design community is awesome and there are some real authentic, hardcore traditional designers. You get some designers like a Donald Ross, or like the Golden Age golf designers," he says. "Then there are the fantasy golf designers who create things that are wacky and out of this world. I kind of ride the middle. I'm not crazy fantasy and I'm not hardcore golf architecture."
Meaning we'll never know if Ross would have chosen the fantasy path had he gotten his hands on the Course Designer tool, which will be forever lost as what if?