Mods: The Fountain of Youth for PC Games
PC gaming is dead!
We’ve all heard it over and over recently from many pessimistic sources in the games industry. They cite software piracy as a major culprit, claiming an incredible percentage of games are stolen. We’ve heard how PCs are so much more expensive to upgrade than consoles and with the seemingly infinite combinations of hardware, software and drivers is it any wonder consoles look so promising to developers? With each successive generation of systems, consoles have become more sophisticated and now rival the performance capabilities of midline PCs.
PCs are hard to write games for. Again and again, developers complain about the time and money involved in creating games for systems that have no standard specifications and have a wide range of performance capabilities. Consoles represent a base configuration, sure they may or may not hare a hard drive and even when they do the size might vary but its nothing like PCs and its use of different hardware, OS and drivers. There’s no guarantee that a game will work for every build out there even if the machine meets the minimum system specifications.
All these are legitimate complaints, but I think there is one very important reason why the cries of PC game death are false. PC games have an appeal that is uncommon among the proprietary game consoles by offering a training ground for future developers. Gamers modify PC games adding increased value for other players while granting the titles a longer life span if the mod scene takes off after release. Developers even plan for and encourage game owners to create new content and change existing code. What console offers this sort of tool? Some games come with tool sets packaged with the game, while others are free to download. Its become common for development teams to challenge amateur game makers to enhance or create new game content through contests, some – like the Make something Unreal contest, offer substantial prizes to the winners.
The first large mod making community emerged around Id Softworks Doom. WAD files allowed players to create custom levels for the game. Modders didn’t stop there. They created new monsters and altered gameplay drastically. According to the Doom Wikipedia entry, some of the most popular unauthorized WADs were Aliens, Star Wars, The X-files, The Simpsons, South Park, Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball Z, Red Faction, Pokémon , and Batman. WADs launched the careers of several game developers who were once game enthusiasts.
One of the earliest examples of a developer releasing a tool set for a game is Interplay’s Bard’s Tale Construction Set published by Electronic Arts in 1991. Players didn’t have to own the Bard’s Tale Construction Set to play games created with it, so players could legally create and distribute their personal games. Unfortunately, because the game pre-dates the modern Internet, many of these user created scenarios were lost on floppy disks in basements the world over.
Since then, many developers began providing tool sets with their creations. BioWare made an effort to give modders the same tools in the retail release that they used to create Neverwinter Nights. The sequel, developed by Obsidian, continued this trend to less spectacular results due to the core changes when they changed from a tile based game to one where creators had to place every tree and paint every blade of grass on the landscape. The BioWare Forum continues to provide a place for players to share their new tile sets, modules and unexpectantly whole user created mini-mmo’s called Persistent Worlds even saw release for both games. Bioware and Obsidian both often feature their favorites in the regular Community Updates. CD Projekt, who licensed the original Aurora Engine from NWN only to basically rewrite it from scratch released its Djinni Adventure Editor for its popular game The Witcher. The new Story Tellers’ Tavern is already getting teams of modders together to work on mods for the game.
Bethesda is a sterling example of a developer that encourages and applauds the efforts of modders and their work on the Elder Scrolls series. Morrowind is one of the most modded games around. Even after its sequel Oblivion was published, modders still continue to create new weapons, armor, monsters, NPCs, quests, dungeons and whole new territories for the game. One of the most ambitious mods ever created is Emma’s Children of Morrowind mod. Children are conspicuously absent in the Elder Scrolls series, even though they carry a mature rating because all NPCs can be killed.
Modders aren;t merely adding content to new games, they are resurrecting old favorites. Troika Games has been gone for three years now, but fans continue to enhance Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines; unlocking new weapons, disciplines, occult and quest items and even action sequences based on content left over from development hidden in the installed game files. The latest unofficial patch is up to 5.3. Other favorite games like Interplay’s popular Fallout 2 are still being enhanced by dedicated fans. The Fallout 2 patch enables a higher visual resolution and adding DirectX 9 support, making it easier for fans to continue playing on modern hardware and operating systems.
Some of the most popular mods out there are for real time strategy games and first person shooters. Valve actively challenges its players to create and share new Portal scenarios. Some total conversion mods, mods that completely change the nature of the original game, became games in their own right. Team Fortress began life as a mod for Quake and is now a full game with an excellent sequel on the Source engine. Counter-Strike became more popular than Half-Life. These games continue to inspire prospective developers and fans.
Sure, the handheld and console markets are slowly developing a niche “homebrew” market… but guess where these garage band developers do their work? Is it on these consoles they eventually port their creations to? No, its on the PCs – because the PC is not merely a game machine or DVD player, its also a development platform.
Long live the PC!