Personal blog of Elijs 'X2Eliah' Dima

Modding != playing

Let’s talk a bit about videogame modding. You know – things like adding new weapons to Skyrim, new enemies to fallout, new car models to GTA4, new universe for X3: Terran Conflict – that kind of stuff. Mods can really improve your gaming experience, adding (perhaps) hundreds of hours worth of new content for absolutely free. So far, great for the mod user. But surely it would be cooler if you made your own content for a game you absolutely dig, exactly the way you always dreamt of? What could possibly go wrong?

Well, okay, that’s really an obvious set-up question. But it does bring me to the point I am going to make and explain here: “Modding videogames is not as fun as you might think”. Don’t start jumping up and down like a hyperexcited … Mexican jumping bean … or something. I’ll provide a few reasons why this might be the case.

To begin with, let’s go with the obvious: Games are great mainly because you get to explore, discover, and experience something unknown and new. The joy of learning a new universe worth of lore. The novelty of exploring a dungeon for the first time (the pure awe of seeing the Blackreach area in Skyrim is a perfect example). The gratification of noticing specific npc/ai behaviour tells that let you gain an upper hand in some conflict situation. The sense of achievement for finding easter eggs hidden in the game. All of these experiences rely very, very heavily on the aforementioned content being previously unknown to you as the player. And that’s the kicker – if you are actually making said content, as a modder, then you directly forfeit the chance to experience it from a null-exposure state.

By knowing all the secret nooks and crannies of a level, by coordinating the placement of objects in gamespace, you inevitably gain a thorough, in-depth understanding of the things you’ve created (or helped create) – so loading it up and playing it is not going to contain any element of surprise for you. Even worse, more often than not the first glimpse of your creation in-game will be during testing runs, when you load up a lobotomised, half-working version to see if aspects A, B and C of it are working or not. Quite often, by the time you’re done with creation and polishing, you’ve already been so exposed to the object/thing/code, you don’t even want to see it again.

And, honestly, I can say that this familiarity never goes away. It is hard enough to look at a thing you’ve created from a side perspective, to abolish the thoughts on what minor details you’d still like to tweak or edit; it is far harder – if not strictly impossible – to actively think of it from a new player’s point of view, to consider what an unfamiliar eye might notice, what mental impact it actually could have. It is nigh-impossible to switch off the mental analysis that your brain does – it is so used to thinking of your creation in creative mode, you cannot tell it to ‘just stop’.

Another issue with modding something you really like is that, well, you have to get the dark and dirty ‘behind the scenes’ view. And since the gaming industry is, like anything else, driven by time and financial constraints, there are shortcuts, quick patches, workarounds and make-do compromises all the way through. By having to immerse yourself in that environment, in the nitty gritty details of your favourite game, you are inevitably exposed to illusion-shattering revelations.

Whether it is seeing that a 3d model you really liked is actually an utterly horrible mess of intersecting elements, copypasted details and stretched texture maps, or it’s noticing that a seemingly clever ai routine is leaking references and operating in a Frankensteinian zombie state, or that an elaborate, purposeful spawn algorithm actually turns out to contain nothing more than rand(100)+rand(20); kind of equations – the reality of how things work is underwhelming (“I thought it was much smarter than this!”), frustrating (“I can’t believe someone actually wrote this pile of crap!”) and depressing (“A whole dev team had massive budget, and they had to make so many compromises…”).

It is a lot like the age-old wisdom that you should never meet your childhood heroes – because there is no way they can live up to the image in your mind. And, of course, this is further exacerbated by the principle that if you really are taking initiative to mod a game, you must have liked that game quite a bit.

The issue of collaboration is another tripping block that’s far less fun once you have to deal with it. For better or worse, great mods do take time to create these days – more time than a single person can reasonably afford to give. Working in modding teams is the obvious (and only) solution to this issue, but, as you know, a lot of people are idiots, and all people are in some ways different from yourself. Even if you manage to assemble a modding team where everyone is your friend, and highly skilled in their respective fields, and productive (I don’t even want to write about how frustrating it is to have people who don’t actually contribute at a decent rate), there is still the issue that their opinion definitely will be different from yours. They might have other visual preferences. Or a separate writing style that conflicts with your own. Or a predilection of using switch(x) structures instead of nested if-else. Whatever the method, there will inevitably be a situation when your creation is criticised in an aspect that you intentionally laboured to create that way. Who is right or wrong, what the outcome should be – that is irrelevant at this point. The thing is, you are forced into a compromise situation.. Either you sacrifice your personal vision – deviating from your imagined ideal view of the mod – or you sacrifice relations in your group. Either way, it brings out negative feelings and associations; too much of these on a constant basis, and it may well be that modding has ruined the entire game (or, heck, gaming itself) for you by just having too much bs tied to it.

Additionally, let’s not forget that nearly all mods are public at some point. And that’s when you have to deal with.. people (shudder). Some will like your mod, and that’s cool. Some will provide constructive criticism. That’s also cool. A lot of folks will be whiners. Bitching about this and that, “demanding” something (a new feature, the entire project in opensource form, or changing a core aspect/ideal of your work) and insulting your team. It takes a thick skin to not let those kinds of replies to get to you, and – obviously – it’s nothing even remotely approximating fun. The problem here is that you simply cannot afford to ignore them entirely – small vocal minorities, on the Internet, can cause no end of PR trouble for your project. The smaller you are, the more vulnerable your public image is to negative user interaction. And managing these conflicts is a minefield of sorts – finding ways to pacify the whiners without making yourself look like the bad guy, correcting factual errors without being condescending, acknowledging “user feedback” (by which I mean pure idiotic ranting that’s completely unfit for genuine feedback principles) without making the impression that you really are going to change the relevant aspects of your work, and so forth.

So, yeah. That’s quite a bunch of reasons why modding is not as fun as just plain playing a game. Does that mean one should avoid modding? Heck no. Whilst you lose a certain type of experience, you gain a different one – you can create. That, in itself, is a hugely rewarding and enjoyable activity, and actually seeing your creations integrate in a game environment, seeing them working and looking even better than what the originals were, learning that other people also enjoy interacting with something you created purely from ideas and concepts – that is absolutely, utterly great. And that is the true spark and lure for modding something. The idea that you are making the game you want to play is a bit irrelevant – you won’t ever get to “play” play it. Instead, embrace the fact that you are making – creating – your vision of the game and letting other people experience it. Or something. Just as long as you remember that playing a videogame is very different from modding a videogame (or, even further along that line, making a videogame), you should not be too disappointed. But don’t fool yourself, and don’t expect the exact same from the two.

~X2-Eliah has lost count of the people asking to be “testers” for a mod only for them to grab the files and disappear forever.

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