Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Current State of Modding

Modding has gone through a few iterations, waxing and waning over the years, and I have been having conversations with some steam friends about it over the past few weeks so I think I'll do a post about it, to get my ideas down on "paper". As usual, I'm just rambling here but I know some people take their scene history to heart so take it with a grain o salt. Also for the sake of understanding this article I would like to define four camps in the games development biosphere. The two in modding are the scene - the mod creators - and the community - the mod consumers. In "the industry" there is the indies and the AAA.

Modding started off as (and still largely is) a way for people new to the concept of game creation to get right into the guts of developing an idea with all the prelims taken care of, or as a way to improve on or change the mechanics of an existing game, and create new game modes or entire games. The people surrounding modding on both sides - the consumers (community) and the developers (scene) - have changed faces a few times over the past two decades, but I'm going to focus on where modding was when I started, where I think it is now, and where I see it going.

Cheery beginnins

When I busted onto the scene like a ruptured appendix modding was in the waning stages of its first real boom. The first boom of modding started when games like Doom and Half Life were being heavily modified into entirely new games (Half Life into Counter Strike and Counter Strike into Team Fortress, and even Doom II into Half Life, I believe). Playing mods was super popular since the communities link to the scenes developers was much stronger than that to AAA development companies. Modders were members of the community themselves, and they made mods that they wanted to play.

Another reason for the popularity of mods was that they were free. In the relatively virgin games landscape of the time the concept of a free game was not as mainstream as it is today. Most mods were like entirely new games and were being provided free, out of the creators desire to see them played. This formed cohesive and often loyal communities, and fostered a fervor for people to try out all the mods they could find for their games.

The more moddable the game, the more free games you got along with it. Communities would be built entirely around one engine and it's mods. This is similar to todays "UDK or Source" argument on the modding scene. But that's a whole other post. I think it's safe to assume that at least 80% of the people who have HL2, CS:S or Garrys Mod have a source engine mod (not counting Garrys Mod). Considering Valves dedication to their modders (CS, Garrys Mod, Portal, TF2, Dota2 and Left4Dead are all poached mods), this is not an unexpected outcome.

Modding from the creators side of the fence was a very niche culture. Not many people could get far enough into the modding tools to create something truly spectacular and this meant that most of the modders were clever and dedicated people. The community around modding was more one of pushing the boundaries and challenging yourself and each other, and this showed in both the amount of people creating mods, and the quality of work being produced. Sure there were some bad mods but they weren't numerous and pronounced. The small group of modders worked steadily away in their corners of the internet for the betterment of the scene as a whole.

The release of Source

With source, Valve sought to really encourage modders to do their thing. Seeing the vast amount of replayability and value that mods of the past had brought to their game, they released the SDK as well as a base game code for modders to create mods from. This was both a good and a bad move. On one hand, it was now much easier for the experienced modders to manipulate their game and subsequently a lot more fantastic mods came out. On the other hand, however, this newfound accessibility meant that any dweeb with a mouse could put together the first thing that came to their head, and the scene was flooded with decidedly sub-standard mods. Due to the inaccessibility and difficulty of creating a mod on older engines, only experienced and intelligent people could get in deep enough to make anything to show. This meant that, for the most part, mod making was limited to the best and brightest - resulting in much better designs from much better minds.

With the influx of potential modders, the scene saw a massive growth in its population. It went from a small amount of people plugging away and showing each other their work in hushed tones to pre-teens screaming from the rooftops about how good their mod is and demanding you make textures for them. The population grew and the skill level per capita shrank. These days we have to sift through a mountain of FPSbanana shit, ideas guys offcuts and never-to-be-finished mods in order to find the odd gem. The market has been saturated to the point of 'pissing in an ocean of piss' as it were. I guess it's the same as weightlifting. The bigger you get, the harder the gains come. Well source modding is pretty damn big.

People grow up, and move to UDK

Unreal modding has always been "the other child" and when UDK on unreal 3 was released, a lot of source modders got greener grass syndrome. Their toolset is better supported, the graphics more versatile and powerful, the scripting more accessible and the map editor does things it should (unlike hammer, which primarily does things it shouldn't). The problem was the lack of ready-to-go assets. In order for modders to move their creations to the nicer engine and toolset, they would have to forgo all the art and code that they had had to work with on source. The mod had to become an indie game.

This transition has been made many times, however, and has failed at least as much as it has succeeded. But the concept of making your mod an actual game changed the scene forever. Modding all of a sudden had the extrinsic reward of income. Mod teams started getting business registrations, art departments, pricing structures. A lot of people in "the industry" have come from modding via the fruit of their own labours. The good mods, once the apex of the modding scene, now became the indie games. This further restricted the flow of good mods to the community, since any mod with a good team and half a brain saw the benefits of moving to a superior engine. Now the modding scene was flooded with arrogant nooblets and had less spearheads to keep them at bay. The lack of good mods made the bad mods worse. And lord almighty there is a lot of bad mods.

The accessibility of UDK has also drawn would-be moddb-shitter-upperers to attempt to make games, rather than mods. This helps mitigate some of the flow of crap that we have been seeing in the past few years, as the greater power requires greater skills, and they fail much faster and don't end up releasing another smudge on the source engine mantle.

A paradigm shift, or a return to roots

What this means is that the modding scene is now slowing down, as it is less appealing to people who want to make games to gain income. The scene now really separates the people with extrinsic motivators from those with intrinsic ones. The modders I have worked with are doing what they are doing for the love of the act. The community may be a thankless swarming mass of bees but the scene has returned to a niche. Interlopers used to be a force in modding, a community of hundreds, now reduced to probably around 30 people. But the people who stayed are the ones we want to keep. People who want to push themselves and develop their skills, rather than find a quick path to riches. Of course, we all want to be a game dev one day, but we realise there is more to it than getting a title on the shelf.

I see the future of modding being a quiet and awesome place. Rather than hundreds of people creating quantity and no quality, we're having a return to the inverse. Smaller groups of people helping each other achieve greater results. We always want to share our love with new modders, but I think it is a good thing to have some peace in the scene, so we can just plow forward and get shit done.

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