Game Mods - Overcoming the Content Crisis

(Originally published as a poster at the WJogos 2003 Conference.)

A quick look at the mod culture, and how it could mature the medium and change the way computer games are made and played in the future.

Keywords: Game Mods, Modifications, Content, Game Design

1 The Content Crisis

As anyone who have walked into a computer game store in the past ten years can testify, there is a content crisis in the gaming field. Sure, some genres faded and a few others emerged, but just taking a look at the shelves you can notice how the medium is flooded with clones and regurgitations of the same old themes. It´s not just the fact that they look alike, but there is almost no difference in the gameplay. Some games have even the same control schemes, so the player won´t have to read the manual and learn anything new. Just “play the game and enjoy the experience”.

Maybe this uniformity have some positive side, bringing familiarity with the game to the player, but learning the rules of a new game is not supposed to be so traumatic – specially in well made games.

Maybe it´s just a market issue: publishers who don´t want to take risks won´t buy new ideas game designers are trying to sell. Will Wright, who designed, among other games, SimCity and Sim Earth, worked hard to convince his skeptical publishers to publish The Sims – a really original game that became the best selling computer game of all time(1).

This content crisis isn´t exactly new. In fact, a lot has been said about it. So, if even the small game studios have to play by the big publisher rules, how can the medium change and evolve?

2 Introducing the Mods

Mods are modifications made by third parties, usually game players, by editing and/or replacing assets from a pre-existing game. This can range from simply adding some new textures to a total conversion including soundtrack, AI scripting, etc. The final result is a new game or, at least, the customization of the pre-owned game. Usually these mods are published on the internet, so anyone with the same game can download and play the modification for free.

3 Then and Now

The game mods production started back in the eighties(2), when Castle Smurfenstein (a Castle Wolfenstein parody) was released. Back then, and until no more than five years ago, a mod was made with a lot of hacking from the programmer, who had to figure out how to deal with the assets. Today the game companies are much more supportive, releasing toolkits with decent documentation along their games, promoting mod contests, etc. Some hacking is still necessary for more deep modifications, but the ease of use of the tools increased the number of game players that take their chances into the mod production. These game companies are not just making a favor to the player: nowadays, the possibility of customization is a very important game feature and a great selling point. Not to mention that, if somebody creates a really good mod, it can even help to increase the sales of the game (like Counter-Strike did to Half-Life). A good mod can potentially double the value of a game – and the players will consider that when investing their money in a game.

4 Where is the New Content?

User-made content is not a mod exclusivity. Open-ended games like The Sims provide a way to players quickly produce - using the game interface - the characters they want to play with and - in the game - the houses they want their characters to live in. This kind of customization is one of the reasons that make this game so popular - It allows millions of combinations that not only makes the game looks different each time you play, but also affects the way it plays (a bigger house is harder to keep, for instance). In a game like this, there´s a lot of space for the player express himself.

On the other hand, mods are made by gamers, and mainly by hardcore gamers, so it´s not a surprise that most mods are very similar, in content and shape, to the same unoriginal games we were talking about. Lots of mods are made so people can play with their favorite franchise without having to wait the official game to be released. For instance, long before Enter the Matrix was released, you could play Neo in the Authentic Lobby Shootout mod for Max Payne. Therefore, we should not suppose that the experience of playing mod games are necessarily “more creative“ than playing a standard game. It´s also not truth that mods made after pre-existing content are not original – It takes a lot of creativity, sometimes including the creative side of programming known as “hacking”(3). But even modifications that doesn´t include coding can have a very creative side.

In fact, making a modification can be challenging and, at the same time, fun – a description that sounds like a game. Game mods blurs the line between player and designer. It gives the player power enough to design his vision of what would be fun to play with. The exercise of this creative side, by itself, is enough to worth the act of making it. The possibility of sharing it with other people is very significant, but is a plus: most game modifications are made, first, to please the person doing it. Just replacing some game assets, the whole idea of the game can be twisted. Even with poor graphics, bad AI and unbalanced gameplay, a mod can be fun to play – or at least fun to make – because of its uniqueness. And the most unique modifications are not necessarily the professional-looking ones – even if these can also be very unique.

5 New Ways of Playing an Old Game

Even with the advent of the toolset kits, a substantial modification that affects gameplay elements, rather than just a visual change, is still possible only by accessing the code. The production of mods with new ways of play require, thus, programming skills.

It would be a mistake think that gameplay based mods are less creative than graphical based ones. The creation of a multiplayer experience to originally single-player game – and the inverse – are good examples of how significant can be this kind of modification.

Mods like this are considerably more focused on issues like balance, scripting, AI etc, since those are the ways to “sense” the code. A natural consequence is that modifications including new code, and not only graphics, are more popular among the gaming community. The concern about gameplay issues make the mod more audience-directed. Except for graphical mods that uses some appealing preexisting content, like a Star Wars skins collection, for instance.

6 Maturing the media

The videogames are going mainstream. Gaming culture was never so popular. The language of games - game design, technical terms etc. - are no longer restricted to professionals and hardcore gamers. This “step out of the gueto” is promoting an exchange that may be very positive for games, breaking the old idea of computer games as toys or technological novelties. Today, the average gamer is 29 years old(4). What kind of games does this audience will want to play in the future? And what will you want to play in the future? If mods could provide, at once, both unique content and compelling gameplay, it could deliver more interesting games than those we can find at the store. Mod makers wouldn´t need the to follow the industry rules. They could choose any subject they like. The development of a mod usually takes less time than full games, so the content could always be fresh. Controversial themes, like politics, religion, social issues, relationships etc. could be discussed through games. These themes would probably need new kinds of games to be fitted in. It would be a great place for experimentation. Eventually, the mainstream games industry would absorb some of the ideas experimented. Also, more and more people, including casual gamers, could start not only playing mods, but making their own. Computer games are interactive by nature, and computer game mods takes this nature to an even higher degree. Game companies should embrace the mod community, making the insertion of user-created content into the game as smooth as possible. With the appropriate set of tools, the modification would be part of the game. Maybe the best part.

4 References

1. Morris, Chris. CNN Money _over/column_gaming/ (8/22/03).

2. Saltzman, Marc. Gamespot mod/ (8/26/03).

3. Rolling, Andrew and Morris, Dave. Game Architecture and Design, The Corilolis Group, 2000.

4. Greenspan, Robin. Gamers Growing Up 91