Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Digits & Dragons
  by Greg Allen
July 2006

It's a Mod, Mod, Mod, Mod World!

Take a look around the internet today and you'll see that most of the top sites aren't really being created by the site owners. Sites like Myspace, Ebay, Craigslist and much of Amazon get their content not from the site creators, but from the site users. Wikipedia is the ultimate example of this, with over 4,600,000 articles (at least according to the Wikipedia entry on Wikipedia), and with nearly every word written by unpaid but enthusiastic volunteers. Let's face it, consumer-created content is here in a big way.

As huge as the impact of user-created content has been for the internet, the effects have been equally significant for gaming. In the early days, customers simply bought the packaged box (or sent in the $9.95 for the floppy disks of Commander Keen), played the game through, and then left the disk to collect dust. Pretty soon, however, players wanted to take things into their own hands, to begin to take apart and rebuild these games, looking to get more out of them than the standard play time. The mod was born.

Mods come in many shapes and sizes. The most basic modification may just change the text or difficulty, while more elaborate changes can go so far as completely transforming the game (known as a total conversion). Obtaining a mod is just about always free (once you have the original game) and the coders and artists behind the mods can range from the amateur to the amazing.

While getting extended life out of a game is good for the player, publishers don't always embrace it. Perhaps having others tweaking their work hurts their confidence, or maybe they just want the game to stay true to their vision. After all, how many writers would be crazy about fans ripping pages out of their books, adding their own, and calling it an improvement?

Whether or not it can be a blow to the ego of a developer, one thing stands for certain: when done right, it makes money for the publisher. Who can pass up this deal: your paying customers do the work of your developers and create very new, very different content. And you pay them nothing!

Moderately Moddable

My first exposure to a mod was with a tweak to the classic Civilization on our ancient PC. I had been playing the game for a few months and liked it well enough, but one of my crazy uncles decided that the game wasn't quite right without a few… modifications. I don't know if he modified the Civilization script files himself or if he was simply passing along the changes, but pretty soon I had diplomats moving sixteen times their normal speed and a number of other… "improvements." It turns out that Civilization was made pretty mod friendly; soon my friends and I were naming all of the leaders after ourselves and changing the place names to better fit the insane world of our imaginations. To young nerds in training, it was ridiculously fun.

Games that make it easy to mod without explicitly making the tools available are fairly common and pretty successful. Much of today's multiplayer first-person shooter action takes place on Half-Life mods like Counter-Strike and Team Fortress Classic which are far more popular than the producer's original multiplayer offerings. Sure, the basics of these first person shooters are still the same - twitch, click, reload - but the new ideas and approaches brought by these conversions have made a huge difference in their success.

Encouraging the Mod Squads

Making your game accessible to modders is one thing, but why not take it further and give the playing community the modding tools they need to easily add new content to the game? This approach, most commonly used with role playing games, has led to thousands of awesome community creations and kept games relevant long after their original content grew moldy.

If you want an audience filled with aspiring game creators, then look no further than the hordes of Dungeons and Dragons players who have spent their Friday and Saturday nights making up adventures for their friends. Neverwinter Nights fits this audience perfectly by shipping not only with a great game and story, but more importantly, the tools to make entirely new tales. The included Aurora toolset is every dungeon master's dream. Now gamers' deadly labyrinths and heroic tales can go beyond their parents' basement and be enjoyed by gamers worldwide!

The Aurora toolsets sure beats graph paper and dice!

Even after four years, virtual dungeon masters are still making new content and amazingly, Bioware only recently stopped releasing patches and free upgrades to the game. Not only has Neverwinter Nights been a huge success, but the sequel due this fall will arrive to a very excited and very dedicated mod-building community.

After taking a break for a while from Neverwinter Nights, a great top-down role playing game from Bioware, I recently found a great mod that has rekindled my love for the game and for adventuring with friends. This mod, dubbed "The Lord of Terror," is a recreation of Blizzard's Diablo, only created with the engine and graphics of Neverwinter Nights.

The modders behind "The Lord of Terror" took a popular and action-packed game and merged it with a more modern and multiplayer-friendly platform. You certainly wouldn't have seen Bioware ripping off Blizzard's creation, but for modders and those who enjoy playing them, this is literally the best of both worlds.

Deckard Cain and all your Diablo favorites are back in this faithful recreation!

If you have heard of or played any role-playing game recently it has probably been Oblivion, and rightly so. Like Morrowind, its predecessor, Oblivion ships with a toolset to allow players to modify the world and create new quests and dungeons. Modders have certainly done a lot of work with this and added new creatures and equipment, but as always, creative fans have taken things further and created entirely new user interfaces and difficulty levels.

Absolute MODness

So, there are some games that make it easy to mod and some games that even encourage it by giving players the tools, but what about games that are themselves almost entirely player created? Second Life, a very successful product of this idea, takes the Wikipedia approach to game content. The world and framework have been provided by Linden Lab and the content creation is almost entirely left to the players.

As a player, you can create the world as you see fit. This may be by manufacturing things already existent in the game to build new homes or decorations, but it can also include bringing in your own entirely new objects, sounds, and images.

Massive buildings and ridiculous clothing seem to be the major products of Second Life

Unlike just about every other multiplayer world out there, the goal of Second Life isn't to gain levels or be the toughest orc in the swamp. The goal in Second Life is… well… I haven't quite figured that out yet. Perhaps it serves as a creative outlet for some: there are certainly a lot of really cool, creative things you can do in this world. Another draw for some is money, both inside the world and in real life. The in-game currency, Linden dollars, can be exchanged for real world currency and some players have done amazingly well (to the tune of over $100,000 a year) through real estate deals and creating their own fashion labels.

All of this is based on a simple concept: build the servers, put the physics and materials in place, and let people make the world however they want. This certainly isn't a new idea. Games like Entropia Universe and Active Worlds have been creating 3D worlds since the mid '90s. It is only recently, however, that the media has begun to highlight the huge amount of money flowing through these virtual economies.

None of these worlds really hooked me and these environments probably aren't even considered "games" by most… yet they are certainly proof that people will be drawn to the chance to make a difference in the world (even if it is only a virtual one).

The message for developers is clear: give us good games on the shelf, but allow us, your community, the chance to help you in this development process. Your fans, and your wallet, will thank you.

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