March 17, 2013 8 Comments
At what point do modders become the developers?
Modding is a broad term (like everything in the gaming industry). I use it here in its broadest sense, from texture modification, through custom scenarios to unofficial patches.
Don’t get me wrong modding is great, I mod myself and have done so in the past for games like The Elder Scrolls (III,IV,V), Quake 3 (and derivatives), etc.
Modding can increase the longevity of a game, it can make it better, it can even make it worth playing at all, and herein lies the problem.
Simply, with modding we have a small paradox on our hands.
Games that are objectively to be considered bad games (non-functioning, broken, incomplete) can become good by way of the community that is dedicated to “fix” its problems. Prominent examples include Vampire The Masquerade: Bloodlines, The Precursors, STALKER or the older Arx Fatalis.
In this scenario a game is being bought and the sales are improved by the mods and fixes created by the community. Expected maintenance and requested features are being implemented by the community, for free, which help the game sell better than it would otherwise have.
A posterchild for this kind of behavior is Bethesda and their Fallout (3+) and The Elder Scrolls franchises. The games released are oftentimes buggy, feature incomplete, or at least badly balanced. However Bethesda always made games available for modding and released modding-tools like the GECK and Creation Kit.
Please note that I’m not saying that Bethesdas games are inherrently bad, just that they often are released with severe problems that are fixed later (even years later) by the community. Don’t get me wrong, I do love me some Oblivion/Skyrim, but without mods the “fun” stops for me very quickly. With mods I managed to extend the experience of both games far beyond what they were ever intended to provide. With the right combination of mods you can turn Skyrim from a moderately entertaining hack-and-slash dungeon crawl into a deep and challenging wilderness survival game for example. There are even mods that make the game more in line with Mount And Blade (warring kingdoms/holds) which make it a completely different game altogether or adding on a global multiplayer.
We have a situation where the community increases the value and quality of the game, for free.
This is a problem in a few ways.
For one, a judgement about the quality of the game is now impossible. This means that either a reviewer will now need to either leave out or take into account the modding community and their involvement. I’ve seen this in reviews of mod-happy games like TES or Fallout, for example Kotaku writes:
Skyrim is not a flawless game by any measure, but where fans of other titles might rise up against rampant glitches and shoddy programming, this impassioned community has embraced it.
This sentence opens up the second problem: The community embracing shoddy programming and rampant glitches because “we” can fix them ourselves. This is a faulty expectation on our part, it throws out our right to a product that is fit for purpose out the window and replaces it by our desire for the game to become what we want while still paying full price.
With this comes bundled with the third problem, the perpetuation of “patch-culture”.
Why should a company be interested in extensive QA or creating more engaging content if modders can fix problems and create content later on their own? If the community gives the impression that they are ok with a lower quality product than usual through their wallets (or even review scores that purposefully overlook flaws in favor of “patch it later”), should we really expect a company to be interested in delivering a product that is not just “the minimum”? Modders are reducing the incentive for companies to produce quality.
Of course nobody asked the players to create content or fix the problems for the game, and an argument could be made that it’s their decision to work for free on improving the game for everyone.
And I would agree with that if it was a purely isolated incident and would not influence other consumers, the company itself, as well as their spending and incentives. As it stands however your personal choice influences everything.
The situation is akin to tuning your car, it’s a personal choice to do so. However with digital media and sites dedicated exclusively to mods, it’s like you would tune your car AND THEN tune everyone else’s car as well, for free. Maybe in the future (soon) we will even be able to do this with cars as well. Imagine chip-tuning your car over wi-fi by downloading your favorite mod from the internet. Would we then embrace an inferior factory-chip setup? I think not.
Certainly the investment is lower for games and so this analogy isn’t completely accurate, but the volume is also correspondingly higher.
A company has to have an incentive to create a quality product and modders are reducing this incentive significantly.
I’m not -blaming- modders here, or expecting everyone to stop modding because it’s “evil” (I enjoy it myself after all) but rather highlighting a problem that we ought to have a discussion over.
A starting point would be the review and gaming-news sites and how they handle their reviews. This includes a discussion about (official) patches itself and how much broken parts we are ought to tolerate before a game can be considered “unfit” and if we even should take patches or fixes into consideration.
How late can we expect these fixes to arrive to match our expectations? Should we correct the reports/reviews for games that ignore to fix glaring problems the writer -expected- to be fixed with a patch?
Should we expect companies to take a step forward and offer to buy our content and make it “official”? Some games already do this in a sense. Star Trek Online has its Foundry, that will feature in Neverwinter as well, which allows players to craft their own missions and share them with others. Players that share and make content are rewarded with “tips” of Dilithium, an in-game currency that can be converted to real-money-store currency.
Linden Labs and their game Second Life has also employed this business strategy for a long time and some (albeit few) people make a living selling their modifications. Blizzard has also talked about introducing the ability for players to create and sell maps for their game StarCraft 2 (http://www.joystiq.com/2011/03/17/blizzard-starcraft-2-marketplace-still-coming/). Actually, with Blizzard having seemingly accepted Starcraft Universe to BattleNet, I wouldn’t be surprised if that modification would turn up as paid content as soon as it reaches the release stage.
There is a lot to think about here.