Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Changing the World: The Unique Phenomenon of Game Modding

Only mods can make a fearsome foe look as dapper as this monocle-sporting mud crab from Skyrim.

Mods, or modifications, are one of the many ways that gaming, as a hobby and as an art form, is unique. There’s no convenient parallel to draw from film, or literature, or traditional art – they’re a phenomenon that’s utterly exclusive to their medium, and that makes them a fascinating anomaly.

Anybody can make a mod, be they an official developer or armchair enthusiast. Modding ranges from making small changes to a game’s functionality, appearance, or sound, to creating entirely new games in themselves. They can include new items or weapons, characters or enemies, models, textures, levels, story lines – you name it. Sometimes a modded version of a game will have changed so drastically from its original version as to be almost unrecognizable, whether by increasing the quality of the game’s visuals or radically altering them, sometimes in ways that increase a player’s immersion and sometimes in ways that purposely shatter it (such as The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim’s famous – or, perhaps infamous – mod that places top hats and monocles on wild mud crabs). Mods can devolve a modern game into a classic, and make a decades-old game feel fresh.

Modding has existed for as long as gaming itself; wherever there are games, there are talented fans working to change them. But why? If you enjoy a game, why bother changing it? What does this impulse say about modders, and about the way that these enthusiasts enjoy their hobby? In some ways, it’s a cure for boredom: popular games can go years, even decades, without update while their sequels or follow-ups are in development, and for those who love these games but have exhausted all the content they have to offer, mods can be a way to provide fresh material until that new incarnation comes along, or change the existing material so it can be enjoyed in a new way. In other ways, it’s amateur game development: making mods requires a technical skillset that allows for the creation or change of game content, which can be a stepping stone to making a brand new game, all one’s own – or maybe just a fun pastime for professional designers and coders. In many ways, the pastime that most resembles the modding community is automotive mechanics: a hobbyist can buy a 1997 Hyundai Elantra and enjoy it just fine (as much as one can enjoy an Elantra, anyway), but until she restores the engine, replaces the rims, changes the bodywork, and repaints the thing, it’s not quite her Elantra. And, just as you don’t have to be a mechanic to enjoy modifying a car, you don’t have to be a modder to enjoy mods – but modding your favourite game to provide the experience you crave carries the distinct thrill of personalization. To use mods is to reclaim a game, and truly make it your own.

Mods can provide simple joys, like being able to drive Doc Brown's Delorean from Back to the Future through the streets of Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto IV.

There is an argument that this attitude can be detrimental to gaming. Some believe that modding a game divorces the player from the “intended experience,” and that this denies something special to both the player and the creator. Think about how different the film medium would be if cinephiles could modify their favourite movies to include different actors, better visuals, and new editing – would we hear cries of indignation from those who would preserve the films in their original format? (This very slippery ground has already been tentatively explored, when George Lucas petitioned the Library of Congress in 1988 to stop the alteration of original film negatives by arguing that “cultural history must not be allowed to be rewritten” – a noble idea which he would abandon over the following fifteen years.) Most of these concerns derive, however, from the concept of the artist’s right to preserve their own work – which, when speaking about games, becomes an even muddier issue.

That’s because many gaming mods aren’t made by fans, they’re made by official developers. Counter-Strike, for example, began as a multiplayer mod of Valve Corporation’s watershed 1998 title, Half-Life, until its creators were hired by Valve to help develop Counter-Strike as a standalone game. It went on to become one of the most popular first-person shooters ever made, with over 25 million units sold. In this case, not only were the artists able to preserve their original work, they were able to profit greatly by its alteration. Minecraft, currently one of the most popular games worldwide among an under-20 user base, would never have achieved its gargantuan success without the support of a mod community that has embraced the game’s “build anything you can imagine” philosophy so thoroughly that they use the game itself as tools to create their visions (one famously mind-bending mod, for example, allows players to create their own games-within-the-game using programmable computers inside the Minecraft engine). These are examples of game creators who have embraced their mod-making supporters, and given them the platforms and tools they need to redefine and reshape the games they love.

Extensive modding can bring unprecedented photorealism to games like Bethesda's Skyrim, seen here.

This isn’t always an entirely altruistic endeavor, though. Valve recently got into some very hot water over a partnership with Bethesda Softworks to include paid versions of mods for Bethesda’s Skyrim, as part of Valve’s ubiquitous online software retailer, Steam. Modders and casual gamers alike reached for their pitchforks and began a campaign of ruthless opposition to this announcement, claiming that the modding community, which had always provided its services for free, should continue to operate on a non-profit basis (this was mostly based on the regulations of these paid mods, which initially promised a 75% cut of the profits for each mod to Steam/Bethesda: a clear attempt by Valve to monetize a service their users had been enjoying for free). The issue was starkly divisive, with some in support of modders earning real money for their hard work, and others (including many high-profile modders themselves) in opposition to Valve and Bethesda’s draconic proposal. Within two days, Valve and Bethesda pulled the plug on the project, offering refunds to users who had paid for mods and removing all paid mods from their storefront. Rightly or wrongly, the community had spoken, and in doing so marked a turning point for modding in games.

Developers and publishers, wary of avoiding similar scandal, are now investigating ways to appease this passionate sect of gaming society. At this year’s E3 event, Microsoft announced that mods for certain games will soon be introduced to their Xbox One console , an unheard-of shift in a decades-old system. Until now, mods were the sole domain of desktop PC players, since gaming consoles designed for the living room have always been mass-marketed as “plug-and-play” products that don’t encourage modification. Allowing mods on a console platform opens the floodgates to a massive existing fanbase – so who knows what so many new gamers will bring to the modding table?

Gaming, as an industry and an art form, is still in its infancy. Enthusiasts like me will see constant upheaval and rapid, unpredictable restructuring of its form and function over the next few decades and well into the future. As games change, so will the ways that we, in turn, change them. And as the medium grows up, the discussions we’re already having on the relationship between mods and creativity, art, ownership, and intent will only become more fascinating.

 – Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.   

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