Final Blog Post: Modding, the Lego Bricks of Modern Gaming – Kyle Nystrom & Paul Dargan

As a child, Legos created an almost infinite number of opportunities for creative construction.  The instruction booklets provided in Lego box sets could guide you through the prescribed directions to create the image on the box; but the best quality of Legos was that, at a whim, you could simply tear down that construction and build your own work of creation with the pieces.  Then, if you so chose, you could tear it down and create something entirely new all over again.  The possibilities were limited only by the number of pieces you owned, which (if you ever owned Legos in your life) probably increased as time went on.  Products such as Lego, Lincoln Logs, or Play-Doh all represent the idea of a toy that can be constructed, deconstructed, and reconstructed to produce a myriad of unique creations.  As both a business strategy and a form of entertainment these toys were (and still are) highly successful.  It is only natural that, as our access to technology increases, this form of play would evolve to meet it.

Henry Jenkins, author of Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, considers consumer-generated content to be representative of a convergence between game producers and their customers, as indicated by the title of his work.  He states that “convergence, as we can see, is both a top-down corporate-driven process and a bottom-up consumer-driven process” (Jenkins, 18).  In other words, in Jenkins’ opinion both parties hold equal stake in the production and consumption of popular media.  This concept applies quite adequately to user-generated game content, known more popularly as mods.

Modding (short for modifications) is fast becoming an incredibly diverse facet of the video gaming industry.  A simple look at The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim with and without graphics mods can give you an idea of how avidly video game users are embracing the idea of supplying their favorite games with their own self-generated modifications.

Skyrim with no graphics mods

Skyrim with a collection of graphics mods

What’s more is that, far from considering mods to be illegal edits or unwanted additions, video game producers are often excited to see what consumers can do to enhance their productions.  In a web article for PC Gamer, Tyler Wilde had this to say: “When Skyrim released we said, “Yeah, it looks pretty, but just wait until the modders get to it.”…A blogger going by Unreal has been posting Dead End Thrills-like screenshots from a Skyrim world augmented by up to 100 mods at a time, and oh man, Bob Ross would have approved, rest his soul” (Wilde 2012).  Yet while this example may support the argument that video game producers approve of user-generated content, it doesn’t contribute much to the question of why they approve of it.  What, then, is the impetus for modding?  And why has it received so much recent attention?

From a legal perspective, mods and other user-generated content such as fanart, music videos, and short films infringe upon copyrights held by the production companies.  In that respect many mods would technically be illegal; that is, until some relatively recent legal changes provided some leeway for modders.  In August of 2007, “Microsoft issued the Game Content Usage Rules, which unilaterally licensed the limited use of copyrighted content from many of their video games to create new derivative works” (Hayes, 569).  According to Microsoft, as long as user-generated content derived from their licensed products did not contain pornographic, obscene, vulgar, racist, or hateful content, it was essentially good to go (575).  For consumers, this opportunity produced a creative avenue that exploded with unique content.

While user-generated content takes many forms, modding is fast becoming the most widely practiced art of this broad category, and as of today there is a vast variety of add-ons created by users. Minecraft, developed by Mojang, has quickly taken the spotlight with hundreds of mods created by expert programmers and eager learners alike. Mods range from texture packs (changing the look of the game) and additional items to new game modes and even fundamental behavior changes of the game (such as shading and monster path-finding algorithms). The incredible part about this popular creative outlet is that it was originally against Mojang’s will.

When video game producers wish to protect their software, its code is often obfuscated, meaning that the words written to create the game are garbled into an unreadable mess. Like other companies before them, Mojang did this to prevent rival companies or developers from obtaining the source code and stealing their intellectual property: the organization and algorithms of their code.

However, the desire to use Minecraft as a creative outlet was so strong that users banded together to accomplish easily what would have been very difficult for one person to do alone. Using a complex method called decompiling, users effectively decoded the obfuscated code back into semi-readable code. Forming communities through forums and connections, they quickly streamlined the decompilation process, and when Mojang took notice, they realized that the power of the consumer to generate content was unparalleled.

Mojang wrote in a statement confirming support for modding: “We hope that this will help the quality of Minecraft multiplayer to improve, both for large and private family servers, while still being able to add fun stuff for the bigger audience” (Walker 2012). In fact, the modding community has been so successful in Minecraft that its developers are considering even making their own features a mod – in other words, optional. In an article written by Marsh Davies, Jens Bergensten, lead developer of Minecraft, is quoted as saying, “I think we’re getting to a point where everything new I’m thinking of should probably be a mod… The features are getting more and more specific and not so useful to everyone” (Davies 2012).

Minecraft before graphics mods

Minecraft after the Photo Realism graphics mod

Modding has long been supported by Bethesda, a game development company that has produced games such as the Elder Scrolls series and the Fallout series. For their games in the past, as well as the recent Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Bethesda has released along with the game a copy of their development kit, containing the exact software that they used to create the game itself. Users can download the software and change anything they would like within the game. In addition, most Elder Scrolls games come with an in-game command console, allowing users to change properties of the game while they are playing it. These efforts have revolutionized the modding community around Skyrim, especially during the release of the Steam Workshop developed by Valve.

Steam is a PC game client developed by Valve, a company that also develops games such as the popular Half-Life series. Steam Workshop is a new technology integrated with Steam
that allows users to create mods and upload them to Valve’s server, where they are shared, rated, and commented on by others. Valve, like Mojang, has stressed the importance of supporting the modding community. Gabe Newell, co-founder and director of Valve, stated in a conference at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas that “ten times as much content comes from the userbase as comes from us. So we think that we’re super-productive and badass at making [new] content, but even at this early stage, we cannot compete with our customers” (Newell 2013).

Gabe Newell at a panel at the University of Texas

Mods can generally be divided into two major categories: soft mods and hard mods.  As can probably be guessed by their name, soft mods are mods which do not alter or enhance the game’s fundamental characteristics.  Texture packs, player skins, graphics enhancers, and the like are considered soft mods, as they can change the look or feel of the game without changing the actual gameplay.  Hard mods, on the other hand, alter the core gameplay itself.  Examples include special items, weapons, plot devices, or game crossovers.  Though not always the case, these mods usually require a greater knowledge of decompiling and coding, which can lead amateur coders to occasionally produce highly unstable mods.

While soft mods can be implemented as a user preference – in other words only appearing to the player who chooses to use those particular mods – the nature of hard mods makes it impossible for players with different sets of said mods to interact together on the same server. The server must know how to speak the language of all of the hard mods that are being used, and expects the clients (the players’ programs) to know how to handle that language as well. Miscommunication between clients presents a problem for players of Minecraft, who often want to connect to modded servers to see unique changes that have been added by a particular set of mods. Yet to do so requires players to look up the server online, find a list of mods, and install them all, sometimes in a particular order. This disrupts the flow of gameplay, and at times proves too difficult or frustrating for novice players to do by themselves. Modding may allow users to live in their own customized worlds, but playing with others still requires some degree of mod-based conformity.

This is no problem for Skyrim, a single-player game, which has long embraced its modding community. When asked why more game companies don’t support modding, director Todd Howard replied, “I don’t know why they don’t… I think it makes your game better. I think it’s like, since we’re not a multi-player game, that becomes our community” (Howard 2012). Modding creates a “multiplayer” space for Skyrim, where users can interact by sharing their worlds and allowing players to customize their own identity within the massive RPG. “[Mods] hearken back to the idea that [Skyrim] is like a role playing system, and [players] make [their] own modules and make [their] own adventures… you don’t have to be a really good artist to put together a space and make your own adventure,” Howard continued. With technology like Steam Workshop, greater numbers of players are getting involved in modding communities. More than just changing elements of the game, modding has become its own form of enjoyment and interaction.

Interview with Todd Howard:
http://www.g4tv.com/videos/57495/the-elder-scrolls-5-skyrim-creation-kit-preview/

Modding communities serve multiple purposes, and attract a wide variety of creators. Artists, programmers, story writers, even novice coders who are game enthusiasts or who are looking to learn something new all gather and share their knowledge. With popular games, modders will meet through the community and start large projects that offer a completely original experience. A great example is Nehrim, a German overhaul to Skyrim’s predecessor Oblivion. Nehrim’s team included graphic designers, programmers, a cast of voice actors, and story writers, who banded together through collective creativity to change every element of the game. Constructing the mod is often a collective experience – as gamers, the creators come to a consensus on what would be the most fun or original attribute of the game, and put their heart into that creation. As Jane McGonigal would say, modders are often optimistic and team-oriented people. The community gives them a platform to share what they know, help others and be helped themselves, and eventually work on projects for the whole community to enjoy.  Terry Daugherty and Matthew Eastin of the University of Texas attest that “creators of UGC [user-generated content] feel inherently gratified with a sense of self-esteem because they have created content and become members of an online community that shares the principles they consider important” (Daugherty & Eastin 2008).

Interestingly enough, the idea of reflecting important values through user-generated content is not something that must necessarily be communal.  Daugherty and Eastin also consider media consumption to be “a deliberate, active behavior in which audiences seek content according to their internal motivations” (Daugherty & Eastin 2008).  In other words, consumers of popular media (including video games) are searching for that which most closely coincides with their personal preferences. Modding allows consumers to effectively generate those preferences when they’re not already present in their games, and as such this produces a unique gaming community.  By picking and choosing mods to their own tastes, they are drawn to player communities centered around the production and distribution of those mods (such as forums, feedback threads, &c). So while modders engage in their own “multiplayer” community to foster creativity and productivity, the consumers of those mods form secondary communities through active participation and downloads.

The shift from T.L. Taylor’s experience of EverQuest in Play Between Worlds has been massive over the past decade. Executives at EverQuest once forced people to define their identities within the boundaries of the game they had created, and shut down derivative works such as fan fiction (Taylor 2006).  But now, not only are users increasingly permitted to craft their own works outside game worlds, but encouraged to do so from within them. Both Todd Howard and Jens Bergensten are strong believers in a game’s ability to define one’s identity, whether one is a creator or consumer of mods. More than just customization within the game, players can pull in game elements that other players identify with, and combine them to make a unique experience. Clive Thompson wrote for the NY Times that UGC offers “a whiff of countercultural coolness, the sort of grass-roots street cred that major corporations desperately crave but can never manufacture.” (Thompson 2005). Game creators can only create so much content; and with each player desiring a unique experience, the demand is too much for one company to completely satisfy. Thus, rather than a single company creating content with which its consumers can express themselves, modding allows anyone with enough willpower to manufacture their own building blocks and distribute them across the world. In a modded game, one’s identity is no longer bound by their in-game decisions, but also by the way they choose the game to be constructed.

Bibliography

Christina J. Hayes, “Changing the Rules of the Game: How Video Game Publishers are Embracing User-Generated Derivative Works,” Harvard Journal of Law & Technology Vol 21 No 2 (2008): accessed February 3, 2013.Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: NYU Press, 2006).

Clive Thompson, “The Xbox Auteurs,” New York Times, August 7, 2005, accessed February 3, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/07/magazine/07MACHINI.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.

“Gabe Newell: Reflections of a Video Game Maker,” last modified January 31, 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t8QEOBgLBQU.

John Walker, “Mojang Making Moves to Support Minecraft Modding,” Rock, Paper, Shotgun, February 28, 2012, accessed March 6, 2013, http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2012/02/28/
mojang-making-moves-to-support-minecraft-modding.

Marsh Davies, “The Future of Minecraft: what lies ahead for the all-conquering sandbox game?” PC Gamer, November 11, 2012, accessed March 6, 2013,http://www.pcgamer.com/2012/11/
11/the-future-of-minecraft.

“Minecraft Realistic Graphics Mod HD,” last modified March 17, 2012, http://www.youtube.com/
watch?v=4FHhIfRTXso.

T. L. Taylor, Play Between Worlds: Exploring Online Game Culture (Cambridge, MIT Press: 2006).

Terry Daugherty, Matthew S. Eastin, Laura Bright, “Exploring Consumer Motivations for Creating User-Generated Content,” Journal of Interactive Advertising Vol 8 No 2 (2008): accessed February 3, 2013.

“Todd Howard DICE 2012 Keynote”, last modified February 9, 2012. http://www.youtube.com/
watch?v=7awkYKbKHik.

“Todd Howard: Mods “make your game better”, more companies should allow them,” VG 24/7, March 1, 2012, accessed March 11, 2013, http://www.vg247.com/2012/03/01/todd-howard-
mods-make-your-game-better-more-companies-should-allow-them.

Tyler Wilde, “Here’s what Skyrim looks like with up to 100 graphics mods at a time (spoiler: amazing),” PC Gamer, November 19, 2012, accessed February 3, 2013, http://www.pcgamer.com/2012/11/19/skyrim-graphics-mods

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