Despite the perpetually growing backlog of unplayed and/or unfinished video games that sit in our collection at the moment, m’colleague and I (and another friend) have been sinking hours and hours into Sven-Coop. Sven-Coop is a mod for the original Half-Life that brings co-operative gameplay into the engine, enabling players to play through the original game and a variety of custom maps with a group of players. At the time of writing, the mod is 14 years old and is still in active development: the developers recently announced that they had struck a deal with Valve to create a standalone, expanded version of the mod for free release on Steam.
If that is not a measure of the potential value of game modding, then I’m not sure what is. Years of tweaking, trickery, and pushing the engine to its limits has resulted in one of the biggest developer/publishers in the world granting them access to the source code to their engine. But modding has merits beyond critical success, and it comes in fostering new talent for a career in the game development industry.
Modding refers to the modification of a game: be it as simple as replacing the sound effects for a game to creating a brand-new campaign for it. It’s a privilege granted to players to take an original piece of work and change it as they see fit, within whatever boundaries the developer affords. Valve are, perhaps, the absolute leaders in the concept of modding: some of their games (Counter-Strike; Team Fortress) originated as mods created by ordinary players, and their Workshop system on Steam rewards popular player mods for games with monetary incentives.
For many players, creating a mod for a game is the entry-point for an interest in game development. For the most part, initial forays into modding are simple and offer a low investment/high reward scenario. Creating a room with some guns and a bunch of enemies in it for Half-Life takes little effort, but seeing that worked compiled and working in-game is palpably thrilling. Should the interest in development be sustained, it may burgeon into an area of specialisation: level design, art design, programming, sound design; the list is large and ever-changing. Furthermore, modding brings about the chance to be thrust into a team-based environment. Few of the more successful mods over the years were a solitary effort. Rather, they required the coordination of a small team, with all the advantages and pitfalls that it entails, particularly when the work is conducted on an international scale.
If a developer does not wish to open their game up for modification, then that is their prerogative. There are issues of logistics in terms of offering developer tools to the community for free. In some cases, the engine and tools are too complex to grant users that level of control. It is, however, difficult to ignore the substantial disadvantages that such a decision carries: if I, and a substantial group of players, still sustain interest in a game like Half-Life, which is now 15 years old and faces competition from every other game released in that time period, then what could it have done for the longevity of other games?
It’s a shame that in the past ten or so years, game modding has somewhat fallen out of favour. If you look at how heavily games were modded in the late 90’s, you can definitely see a big drop in popularity of modding in general. However, I think that we’re not very far away from a ‘modding renaissance’ of sorts, where the activity makes a comeback in a reasonably big way.
Modding used to be a pretty big deal, and many PC games came with modding tools or had support for modifications. After the PC market fell out of favour in the earlier half of the 00’s, the majority of PC games were ports from the console generations. Hardly any of these games had mapping support, let alone full modding support.
For some examples of how influential modding can really be, just look at the list of most-played games on Steam. At the time of writing, the list looks like this:
Take a good look at the entries in bold – half of the games in the top 10 are mods or commercial sequels to mods. Most obviously, you can see a rather large number sitting at the top of the list, next to a little game called DOTA 2. The original DOTA was a mod for Warcraft III, and the sequel is now the most popular game on Steam by an order of magnitude. Look down the list, and there’s Team Fortress 2, which was based on Team Fortress Classic, a Half-Life mod which was based off the popular mod for Quake. Down more and you have Garry’s Mod, which is a hugely popular sandbox and creation mod based on the Source engine. Then there are three more entries for one of the most popular mods of all time: Counter-Strike. Even 15 years after the release of Half-Life, Counter-Strike and its various sequels are still going strong.
Now, I hear what you’re saying – with perhaps the exception of DOTA 2, these are not the most played games in the world. The console figures for Call of Duty surpass all these games fairly easily. The PC figures for League of Legends (which is arguably derived from DOTA), Starcraft, World of Warcraft and others are enormous, as well. The Steam list is not a complete reference by far, however I’m using that list for a reason.
Steam is a key factor in this, as Valve have once again stepped outside of the realm of pure profits to embrace and encourage the modding community, with the Steam Workshop. If you look at Valve’s core game line up, all of them – with the exception of Half-Life – were originally created as mods. Modding is how they are still operating today. It makes a lot of sense for them to encourage the modding community.
The Steam Workshop is basically an interface around a content browser combined with a standardised API which the games themselves use. It handles installation, updates, and management of mods. This makes is very simple for modders to create content, get exposure for it, and easily push updates to their users. All of the top five Steam games support the Steam Workshop. I’m no statistician, but that seems like a very important fact. As more developers realise that modding makes your game more popular, they will start to integrate with the Workshop, or otherwise add their own modding support (like Bethesda have done with Fallout).
With consoles becoming more and more like PCs, and the Steam Box trying to push PC gaming into the console market, modding is going to make a big difference to how this next console generation turns out. It might take a few years, but I believe that game modding is going to make a big comeback in the very near future.