Liveware.Conundrum: Modding

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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.

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.

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8 Responses to Liveware.Conundrum: Modding

  1. Syncing says:

    I thought a bit what I could write here, but I’m still not sure.
    What kind of bothers me here is, that you take only games as examples, that are made with mod support, primarily games based on the Gamebryo engine. Modding isn’t just one big thing, there are “branches”:
    On the one side there are mods for the source engine, NMRiH, to write a good example, then there are “skins”, or simply replacers, for example the stuff people make for CS:S, CS:GO and TF2, to have something different ingame. Then we have mods for games that weren’t even meant to be modded. A good example for that would be Dark Souls and the DSFix, not only fixing the resolution, but also adding custom texture support, making it possible for modders to include high-res textures. Or mods for older cRPGs like for Planescape Torment, making it possible to play it on current-gen displays at full resolution as well as smaller community patches fixing bugs in a years old game.
    That a game has an active modding community means that someone cares about it. Bethesda knows that, and in my opinion, without the modding support and the tools Bethesda brings with the game, modern TES and Fallout games wouldn’t be what they currently are.
    Where I agree with you is the point, that making reviews is harder when there is active modding. I feel the same, Skyrim without mods is fun for about 2h, but after the 3rd fight with a dragon you begin to notice the flaws. And there are mods that make fights with dragons better. Or do you think that there are not enough unique weapons in the game? Well, there are tons of mods for that. So without mods, Skyrim is maybe a 6/10 for me, with mods it’s 8/10.
    Also, maybe code of mods can be licensed by the publisher, but I’d say that ~90% of the models and texture are made in a pirated version of Photoshop and 3ds Max, or, like for me, in an education version of the program, that forbids to sell the model.
    Uff, now I really don’t know what to say anymore. Just one more point I’d like to make:
    Modding isn’t bad, not for the game, not for the game series and not for your sales as a publisher. Making bad excuses about NOT including mod support is. I’m sick of listening to DICE trying to tell people that “the animation system is too complicated for modders”. Or Maxis with “oh well we might add mod support sometimes”, and a few weeks later somebody removed the artificial area limitation of Sim City 2013 without any modding support. Fuck that. People are not stupid. Mods like the DSFix and many Source Engine mods prove that. If you don’t want to include mod support say it, and don’t babble around “wahh it’s too complicated”. But that’s way too off topic now.

    • tradamtm says:

      I used Bethesda as an example because people are most likely to be familiar with it and its widespread modding support.
      I acknowledged at the beginning of the article that I’m using modding in the broadest sense including all the examples you cited.

      I felt it not necessary to specify and explain all types of modding for the purpose of my point, it would unnecessarily complicate the discussion. The problem I described is systemic and not contingent on the type of improvement a mod provides. Nuances exist as always but are not relevant in the big picture.

      “Modding isn’t bad, not for the game, not for the game series and not for your sales as a publisher.”

      It is however bad for the consumer in the long run.

  2. Here’s an alternate perspective, at what point does the concept artist become the developers? At what point does one programmer become the developers? At what point does the animator become the developers? Who are the developers for chess, considering it has been iterated on a few times across history?

    Are the developers strictly the people who made the software? Are the developers anyone who iterates on the game’s rules or logic? Are the developers exclusively the owners of the intellectual property? Are they the people who made the foundation? Are contracted workers hired before the game’s release developers? Are volunteers in the original development process developers?

    Is there a certain threshold for someone becoming a developer of the game? Do they have to do a certain amount of work on the game? Does a certain percentage of the code or assets have to be theirs? What if they make a total conversion, like counter strike? Is this a new game or an old one? Are they the developers or “just” modders? The Half Life engine, or source engine, has been repurposed for new Valve releases. Are the current employees are Valve working on Team Fortress 2 and Left 4 Dead developers or modders?

    Imagine you have an objectively bad game, and the developers patch the game so it becomes and objectively good game. Can the game really be counted as a good game or is it paradoxically a good and bad game simultaneously? What if someone who is not the official developer patches it? Are different versions of a game to be considered different games?

    A lot of these distinctions are rather arbitrary in all honesty because they can’t be anything but.

    Final comment: The Elder Scrolls is objectively bad.

    • tradamtm says:

      I’m unsure about the purpose of this comment, you might be a bit hung up on my lead-in sentence.

      My article raises the questions of authorship, purpose, product and monetization as well as who has responsibility for the product, not necessarily trying to answer the (rhetorical) lead-in question.

      The TES series being objectively bad is an interesting comment (I guess with the intent to challenge me?) but ultimately irrelevant to what I wrote.

  3. Agh, that deserved a followup.

    I am atomistic. We can only really regard a game as the sum of its parts and emergent properties. Squabbling over who is or isn’t the developer doesn’t change the game, the game is whatever set of rules and logic you are playing by, which is subject to variable interpretation. Legend of Zelda the Wind Waker is probably not a terribly good game (a sentiment I’d share with a lot of 3d Zelda), it doesn’t have a lot of interesting choices and it kind of corrals the player around and doesn’t give them a lot to interact with that it doesn’t dictate the nature of the interaction in whole or part, unlike say Devil May Cry or Dark Souls. It’s not terribly analog, it’s digital, and it’s closer to a series of booleans than integers.

    However from another perspective, another interpretation, that of speedrunning, it’s a massively interesting puzzle to crack, with new discoveries and methods being found all the time and improved upon. In terms of interpreting it as a game to be completed in the shortest time possible, it is rife with possibility and means for players to do things that are frankly pretty absurd in other contexts (like manually creating cutscenes in order to store and thereby skip other ones later on).

    Games are subject to variable interpretation and this can come in the form of modding the game logic, creating new objectives, finding alternate ways to play.

    And I don’t really care about patch culture, that shit is old hat. I got totally hung up on the introduction, the rest is kinda boring.

    • tradamtm says:

      Those are all valid points indeed and I can see this as a potentially interesting discussion (if there is anything to discuss, as I agree with your sentiment in general terms).

      I wrote this article to raise questions about the economic implications of your (in my opinion correct) assessment of shared authorship, I’m sorry if you found this boring.

      • tradamtm says:

        Actually scratch that, I’m not sorry at all.

      • Nah, I mostly found the question of, “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?” to be dull. I’ve heard it a lot before. “why make a quality product when modders can fix it?”

        Everyone is responsible for their own intentional or semi-intentional shit.

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