Video Game Modding – What’s it all about?

Since you’re here, I assume you’ve probably heard of modding in the video gaming sense? I wouldn’t hold it against you if you haven’t. Heck, a few years ago I was oblivious of what exactly mods were until a mate gave me a basic run-down. He told me modding was whereby someone alters (or ‘modifies’) a game’s files so they work in a different way then as the developers intended. My mate likes giving exact definitions, apparently. Modding encompasses a wide range of possibilities. It can be pretty simple stuff, like changing a line of code to let you alter the screen resolution or how the game boots up and runs, though the possibilities can go almost anywhere. There are numerous talented modders who can mould games, change every facet of how their worlds work into something we never believed could happen, and yet continue prove us wrong. They’re effectively the demi-gods of these virtual spaces.

So why do people mod? Modders spend weeks, months, possibly years building on unprofitable projects which involve big learning curves and may utterly fail to function. Like any type of creators, it helps them to learn how a game works, tinkering around the insides of code by taking things apart, seeing how they work and putting them back together again. Some put the game back the way they found it, but others feel they can add to the design and make it a bit better. If the internet loudmouths are to be believed, they could make a better game than the people who are actually employed to do so. Modders are the merry few who regularly test that theory. Most are here to improve their abilities, learning through experience with hopes and dreams for themselves to become the developers they admire. Alexander Velicky was one such case. Previously a Skyrim modder, he worked on his mod Falskaar in order to get a job at Bethesda, an aspiring dream for a 19 year old. Though not quite landing a job there, he was instead hired by Halo creators, Bungie, just last year and is most likely now working on their current project, Destiny. Impressive. And if sending off a mod to developers doesn’t give success, there are other ways to get started on the ladder. The highly recognised modder of the Total War series, Nick Thomadis, aka Darthmod, was frustrated at having his highly praised mods ignored by the developers Creative Assembly. He responded by creating his own strategy game, which is currently in development and being recognised by plenty of people, not just Creative Assembly but many other companies looking to hire. Modding is a tool to grow as a designer and developer, a first step into making games and fulfilling those childhood dreams, even if it doesn’t happen straight away, persistence is always key.

Despite many modders obvious talent, they would never get crucial feedback on their work or their renown for their craft without the mod-ees (you know, the people who install/use the mods, people likes us, look I couldn’t think of a better term). Again the questions arise, why do people bother to download these unofficial and generally unproven content that could corrupt their saves or game data? For many, it’s to extend the games we adore. Having already completed Fallout 3 and New Vegas several times, going back to the same wastelands didn’t seem as exciting or appealing to me anymore, having seen all or most of it. Yet add in an advanced weather system, better detailed textures, new armour and weapons, a personalised home and much more, what do you get? The same game, sure, yet with a distinct twist. However, those little changes can affect much of how you now approach things. A sunnier, more colourful landscape means it’s easier to spot targets down a scope, making a sniper route more desirable. Or the opposite, with the addition of sandstorms obscuring your view, maybe you’ll try to sneak up closer on your enemies. A personalised home can mean a safe bed to sleep in, a place to grow food or even a place to display your journey’s trophies. That extra layer can ease the tedium of useless travel over the same ground and add at bit of you as a player into the world. Mods actually help do what a lot of games claim to do, in that every time you start over ‘You’ll never play the same game/mod twice’. We also do it because it’s free. Free generally equals good on some deep psychological level. Ever since the UK prices for PC and new-gen video games have, on average, increased by about ten pounds, the latest triple-A games are simply less affordable. I know from personal experience, a student’s wages aren’t great for sustaining this digital addiction so free mods are a blessing for the money conscious. I’m happy to go back into Skyrim with massive new quests set in the distant Elsweyr, or play Civilisation V as a Predator empire who battles Ghandi. That’s another appeal, actually. The mods out there could literally be anything, do anything, and that unknown is a refreshing thing in a game you may know everything about.

But like I mentioned earlier, altering any program has a risk and reward principle behind it. There are classic issues every mod-ee faces like missing files, game breaking bugs, mods conflicting with each other and numerous little strange issues the amateurs (and yes the veterans too) are confused by. Some days I spend more time browsing mods, downloading and eventually trying to make them work than actually play the game itself. It’s a two-sided experience. You’ll feel great about making it work, having figured it all out as the pieces of the puzzle line-up, with the prospect of new ways to play the game all ready and waiting. But then you’ll flip tables figuring out how to make it all work taking over my whole weekend at times, with no reward and meaning you have to re-install the whole, entire game again. Risk and reward pretty much defines the PC gaming experience.

Though I’m complaining, these issues are much rarer now since the ability to put mods into your games has been made easier as many sites that host mods are beginning to provide a standard mod installer. Innovation at work, especially since PC gaming is more popular than ever if Steam’s 65+ million registered users are anything to go by. It’s no surprise the most recognisable mod installer, especially to new PC gamers, is now the Steam Workshop. Though, the Nexus Mod community is the place many experienced first got into this madness and still offers more variety for now. After being dualistically aroused yet disgusted by the adult mods available there, I realised just how deep the freedom mods actually bring, for better or worse. Nexus first hosted mods on a handful of core and easily moddable games which has expanded to host for almost any game. They’ve developed a free mod managing software, itself based off of several Nexus user’s work, which handles the integration of mods much like the Steam Workshop. They’ve made their website easy to navigate, filtering what passes for mods and left the creativity up to its community. You can download to your heart’s content. It’s likely the success of a combined 750+ million downloads across their sites that have spurred Steam to make modding even more accessible to the masses of the growing PC gamers. Especially with their upcoming Steam Boxes offering a PC in console form, for gamers who don’t want to deal with terms like RAM and GPU and instead want everything direct and simple. Modding will be more open to them, and as usual, Steam are playing the long game with their decisions.

So moving onto my final paragraph, here’d be where I summarise the future on the modding scene. But really, they’re in the same position as they’ve ever been, with little change occurring apart from the amount of people making them and the people using them. Maybe Steam’s Workshop support and eventual Boxes will make the number of modders swell even faster, as newbies pop up to show off their talent. I’m not saying they’ll enter a modding Renaissance though. As ever, there’ll be designers who spend hours making the perfect skin models for breasts or strands of pubic hair, along with clunky sex animations and enormously, overly detailed erect penises. Despite them, as ever we’ll have men and women pushing the boundary of what we expect, and subvert some of our favourite games to be something more. In any case, it’s still an exciting prospect to see the future developers of great games starting off in their effective ‘baby stage’ and taking their first steps. Maybe one of the ‘wannabe’ be modders now will be the developer of your future favourite game of all time.