Triumph of the mod

Player-created additions to computer games aren't a hobby anymore -- they're the lifeblood of the industry.

Published April 16, 2002 7:30PM (EDT)

The wall went down last month. From now on in computer gaming, there were to be no real barriers between creator and audience, or producer and consumer. They would be collaborators in the same imaginative space, and working as equals, they'd create a new medium, together.

That announcement was made, if you listened closely enough, at the annual Game Developers Conference in San Jose, when Valve Software founder Gabe Newell unveiled Steam, a broadband distribution network that would offer instant updates to recent Valve games and new titles from Valve and other companies. Listed among the new titles was "Day of Defeat," a multiplayer add-on to Valve's best-selling first-person shooter (FPS), "Half-Life."

But that last offering isn't a game at all, really, and it wasn't created by Valve or any other company. "Day of Defeat" is a mod -- a fan-made modification to a pre-existing game. Or, in modder jargon, it's a "total conversion," the most ambitious form of mod, in which all the graphics and gameplay of the original title have been reshaped by fans to create an entirely new experience. In this case a group of enthusiasts took the sci-fi trappings of "Half-Life" and transmuted them into a battle zone for ultrarealistic, squad-based combat set amid the ruins of World War II's European theater.

"We told ourselves this would be the most tactically realistic FPS war game ever made," says Kelly Thornton, one of "DoD's" main creators. None of them were members of the industry; like Thornton, many were college students. During breaks in his school schedule, for example, John Morello often plowed 40 hours a week into the project. While earning a master's degree in business, Thornton devoted about 20 hours a week, as did team member Travis Smith. (Even though, Smith adds, "I am still in high school.")

According to Newell, Valve's new service was built with mods in mind. "Steam will really help with the distribution part of creating a successful mod," Newell tells me by e-mail. "For a product that has a distinct audience (which "Day of Defeat" has, with its very strong World War II emphasis), I'd think they would benefit from this kind of approach." Not just for "DoD" but the other mods as well, "it will create a smoother transition between the amateur world and the professional world."

Considering the investment and risks, it's striking that Steam would feature mods so prominently. It's a for-profit network, bolstered by partnerships with companies like AT&T and Acer, including compensation provisions for modders who choose to go for-profit. When Steam officially launches this summer (80,000 gamers are already enjoying its public beta test), several other mods will join "Day of Defeat," along with the professionally made titles, all for a subscription fee of around $12 a month. Commercial prospects for this venture -- especially in Asia, where Internet cafes in countries like Taiwan and Korea have made online gaming phenomenally popular -- are enormous.

And Steam's success will depend in great part on modders like team "DoD." Which, when you think about it, is a little like HBO devoting its prime time schedule to action movies shot by high school kids in their back yard. And getting massive ratings as a result.

But it's possible to do just that. According to Jakob Jungles, another "DoD" developer, version 2.0 (released in February) soon attracted more online players than almost any other multiplayer action game. (All but Valve's "Counter-Strike," that is, which also began as an amateur mod.) That would make "Day of Defeat" more popular online than premium releases like "Medal of Honor" from Electronic Arts, and "Return to Castle Wolfenstein" from Activision -- two recent shooters also set during World War II.

"I had visions of success when I first saw some of the new professionally developed WWII first-person shooters," another "DoD" developer recalls. "[And] saying to myself, 'We're better than those guys, and we're just a group of dudes!'"

Mods have been with the game industry for at least a decade, but as the inclusion of "Day of Defeat" on Steam proves, they've truly come into their own. Many of the best game companies now count on modders to show them the way creatively and to ensure their own survival in a savagely competitive market. This stands in marked contrast to the music and film industry, which vindictively discourages fans from tinkering with their content and clings to an outdated interpretation of copyright. By fostering the creativity of their fans, their more agile peers in the game industry have not only survived but prospered.

In a sense, mods also represent the most visible success of the free software movement on the larger culture. For the millions who play computer games, the same ethos of volunteerism and shared ownership that characterizes free software has helped utterly transform the gaming experience and the $8 billion-plus gaming industry.

How they reached this peak is a story stretching back at least 20 years. What follows are a few select milestones on the way to the summit.

By one estimate, what we now know as mods appeared in 1983, with a fan-made reinvention of the original "Castle Wolfenstein," a classic arcade-style action game for the Apple II. (You played an Allied spy fighting it out with Nazi combatants, who'd shout at you in German as they opened fire.) But the inspiration for this mod was not so much WWII as Saturday-morning cartoon.

"In the true mod spirit," says Tom Hall, a co-founder of id Software, "The first instance I know of that type of modifying an original product was "Castle Smurfenstein," probably the first total conversion, where they took the original Apple II classic and replaced all the actors and text with Smurfs and Smurf-related items ... It was hilarious!"

This wacky jiggering with popular culture is a enduring theme in the mod tradition -- years later, for example, thousands of "Doom" fans would play a mod where you got to blast away at Barney the Dinosaur.

Scott Miller, now CEO of 3D Realms, first noticed that enthusiasts were creating levels for the original "Duke Nukem" (1990), developed when Miller was at Apogee. Not only were gamers creating mods for his company's games, they were even creating level editors to simplify the process for making them -- then distributing both to other gamers online. "This was a fascinating development," says Miller. "We just didn't expect players to take the time and effort to create their own development tools."

All this roiling fan enthusiasm came to a head in 1992, after John Carmack and John Romero acquired the rights to the original 2D "Castle Wolfenstein" and created "Wolfenstein 3D," an ultraviolent bullet-fest. It wasn't the very first first-person game-- that title belongs to "Ultima Underworld" (1992), released a few months earlier from Looking Glass Studios -- but "Wolf3D" was the original first-person shooter. It was an immediate success, driven in part by its method of distribution: The opening levels of the game were made available on the Internet as freeware. To get the rest of the game (and hundreds of thousands did), you had to purchase the "registered" version.

And with its success, according to Miller, came the unambiguous signal that mods could be an integral part of a game's staying power. At Apogee (which published id's first games), Miller and his "Wolf3D" developers watched astounded as mods "actually helped extend the life of a game by providing free additional content for players to explore."

"So by the time 'Doom' rolled around," id co-founder Tom Hall says, "we really wanted to enable the user to make their own content, to make that easy as possible. [John] Carmack's always had the Berkeley-like 'Information should be free' mantra."

In return for allowing mods to be created and exchanged, id simply requested that fans modify only the registered version of "Doom" -- not the freeware version. Almost all modders abided by this request; many even incorporated elements in their mods that prevented their use in the freeware version of "Doom." Not only did this tradition of communal self-policing create a bond between id and their best fans, it benefited the company commercially -- to enjoy all the free fan-created content now coming available, you first had to pay your toll to id and Apogee.

Meanwhile, as mods helped drive ongoing sales of "Doom," id developers were noticing how good those mods could be. "Many were really cool and innovative," Hall says. Justin Fisher's "Aliens Total Conversion" for "Doom" and "Doom II," says Rich Carlson, an independent developer and veteran level designer, changed the way "Doom" was played "by focusing on stealth rather than frontal assaults ... [It] presaged the kinds of 3D action games and mods we play now -- by about eight years!"

In keeping with Carmack's commitment to the principle that the source code for software programs should be made available to the general public, the code for "Doom" was released in late 1997. (Unix guru Eric S. Raymond even cites the game in his influential essay "The Magic Cauldron" as a case study proving the power of open source.)

From then on, modders had full access to "Doom's" innards, enabling them to grow even more ambitious with their efforts. The open-source tradition associated with id was a boon to mod development, says Iikka Keranen, a Finnish modder who now designs levels for Valve. "This way," he says, "mod makers aren't limited to one set of tools but can constantly improve them, [to] add new features or fix bugs." From "Doom" on, id would release the source to all its games.

As Raymond noted, the studio benefited from this generous access as well. Id's "Final Doom" (1996), for example, was a compilation of fan-made levels sold on software store shelves (a share of the profits went to the amateur modders involved).

And by encouraging such innovation, id had also created a new way for fans to infiltrate the game industry. Keranen, Carlson, and many more would be hired by game companies largely on the strength of their mods. And unlike, say, the film and music industries, which are powered by personal acquaintance and face time, the discourse of games is defined online. Which is perhaps why the division between amateur and pro has remained so permeable. For modders wanting in, who you are doesn't ultimately depend on your experience or your contacts but on the quality of your mod file. The upload is all.

By this time, however, the limitations of the "Doom" engine were becoming evident to modders. They'd find liberation in id's "Quake" (1996). The new franchise not only added a surreal, medieval edge to the FPS genre but also gave gamers a new sense of perspective.

"'Quake' was like breathing air for the first time," says independent developer Rich Carlson, "albeit the air of a dark, musty, demon-infested crypt ... The ability to build a level, or a model, in a truly three-dimensional way was very liberating." Trouble was, id's level editor for "Quake" wasn't immediately available online. And when it was released, it required a powerful (and costly) computer to use.

As with "Doom," fans leaped in to create their own level editors -- software tools that allowed anyone to create additional play sequences for a game. Many were developed, but it was Worldcraft, created in 1996 by Ben Morris -- then a 19-year-old from Victoria, British Columbia -- that would grow to dominate much of the mod scene.

Morris had made the Doom Construction Kit (DCK) years earlier and wanted to repeat the success of that mod/level editor. It would also be his own break into the industry -- even though, he says, "I didn't imagine that outcome when I started the project. My main intent was to repeat DCK's success, both financially and in terms of its popularity in the gaming community." (He wasn't even all that interested in using the editor he'd created to make his own levels.)

For Morris, making Worldcraft was an end in itself. But it enabled mod makers to get ever more inventive with their own projects, going way beyond building new levels for the original game. Total conversions became so innovative, their origins in "Quake" were almost unrecognizable. (In Iikka Keranen's "Air Quake," for example, you fly around the world like a human missile.)

Some modders even began to introduce marketing, PR, and branding into their projects. David "Zoid" Kirsch created a "Quake" multiplayer mod called "ThreeWave Capture the Flag."

"After I noticed my small mod was taking off, I immediately composed a sort of press release and mailed it to the major 'Quake' news sites at the time."

It was enough to gain him the attention of John Carmack and secure a gig with his company. "Id's hiring process was rather strange," Kirsch says. "Honestly, there wasn't really an interview per se for getting my job. The majority of meetings were over the Internet. I only met John in person a couple of times."

To many, the period that began with the release of "Doom" and that ended shortly after the first "Quake" was the apex of mod development. "It was a boom time," says Carlson. "Even in the infancy of whatever 3D action games are destined to become, there was an amazing amount of activity and creativity going on."

"I loved every part of that group, which was pretty small those days," says Morris. "I even enjoyed the dumb jokes and infighting, which there was a lot of, but the feedback from my users was the defining aspect of that experience. Software is an art, and receiving criticisms and salutations for my work was both gratifying and inspirational."

For developers and modders, a viable alternative to the "Quake" engine began taking shape in the mid-'90s. Programming for "Unreal" (1998) was Tim Sweeney, who had founded his Epic Games on the success of "ZZT," an early freeware ASCII text-based game that spawned one of the first mod communities. Many in "Unreal's" team were recruited from the "Doom" and "Quake" modding cooperatives, with some staffers first working on their elements remotely from as far away as Finland. Code-wise, Sweeney developed the level editor right on top of the game's 3-D engine so that they were integrated. It helped make the editor customizable in a way that previous utilities had not been. Another innovation was what Sweeney called UnrealScript, which enabled modders to easily redefine AI and other game elements.

"I'd wager somewhere around 5 to 10 percent of players have tinkered with the [editing] tools," says Cliff Bleszinski, lead designer for "Unreal." "While that doesn't sound like a lot, bear in mind that UT ["Unreal Tournament" (1999), a multiplayer spin-off] sold over 2 million copies. I'd estimate that nearly half of all 'UT' players have downloaded and played mods or levels for the game."

But as Sweeney and Bleszinski worked to complete "Unreal" with their team, the innovators at id had not been complacent. As with "Quake," Carmack and his id team made sure "Quake II" (1997) was coded from the very start to support fan mods.

Among those fans was Robert Duffy, a Texas programmer in his mid-thirties. Already the director of technology for an L.A.-based data analysis firm, he had little interest in breaking into the game industry. But he was interested in creating a mod for id's latest game with his brother Pat. The tools to do that were available: Carmack had made a version of his QuakeEd level editor for Windows.

But when he first tried out id's editor, says Duffy, "I was amazed they had produced a commercial game with it; it was a mess. I spent a few weeks tidying up the user interface and making it run on normal consumer-level machines, and put it up on the Net." It was strictly a utility to build a mod with his brother (which was later abandoned, anyway.)

He didn't even ask users to make voluntary freeware-style payments to download it. "My wife thought I was nuts spending so much time on something and giving it away," he says. "In lieu of any donations or registration, I asked people to give money to the abused-children's charity of their choice."

All this fan-driven inventiveness did not go unnoticed in the wider game industry. "I was always impressed by the community that formed around 'Quake II' in particular," says "The Sims" creator, Will Wright. "At some point the mod authors not only made new stuff for the game but also new tools for content  [It's] a great example of how the hardcore fans can totally surprise you with their creativity, given the chance." And it would inspire Wright, a few years later, to make modding a key feature in "The Sims."

Neither did the fan activity go unnoticed by "Quake's" main creator. "The summer after 'Quake II' shipped," says Robert Duffy, "John Carmack got in touch with me and asked if I'd like to do [an editor] for 'Quake III,' their new title." Duffy joined id, and QERadiant would not only be used to help create "Quake III," but also hits like the aforementioned "Return to Castle Wolfenstein" (2001) and "Medal of Honor" (2002), among many others.

So, it was "not originally intended as a calling card," says Duffy, speaking about his utility, which began as a casual project he gave away, "but it worked out nicely."

Meanwhile, two former Microsoft programmers were investing their time and money in a new venture. They called it Valve Software, and without any prior industry experience, Mike Harrington and Gabe Newell were hoping to transform the state of games with a title that would become "Half-Life" (1998). After a visit to the id offices in Mesquite, Texas, they chose to build the game on top of the original "Quake" 3-D rendering "engine."

But important as that engine was, they needed a full-featured level editor to develop the game. "When we looked at the things we were doing in the engine to create 'Half-Life,'" Newell says, "it became pretty obvious that our tool set wasn't going to diverge enough, that we would have to do our own editor." And in the end, they didn't go with id's editor. Instead, they opted for Worldcraft, Ben Morris' mod utility. "A bunch of the guys at Valve had a really high opinion of Ben and Worldcraft," Newell says. (Much of Valve's staff had been recruited from the mod community, as well.)

"It wasn't long before I went to Seattle for an interview," Morris says. "I remember the whole thing, right down to the nick[names] everyone used in deathmatch and the pecan-encrusted French toast at the Woodmark Hotel." After helping Valve develop a version of Worldcraft to build "Half-Life," Morris would take a job outside the game industry. "I really enjoyed my whole Valve experience. But I was too young to appreciate it, and I just didn't like Seattle."

But his contribution was enough: Morris had provided the key utility to create a series of games that would sell millions of copies. All from what he considered an art project, developed mainly for the benefit of his gamer community. And as with id and QERadiant, a professional game studio was now depending on a tool created by an amateur modder.

Because mods were so integral to "Half-Life," Valve returned the favor, creating a Half-Life Mod Expo to bestow attention (and money) on its fans' best works. From this event came "Counter-Strike" (2000), which Valve eventually purchased from British Columbia student Minh "Gooseman" Le and its other creators. The terrorists-versus-anti-terrorists multiplayer game became so popular, it would eventually sell over a million copies even though it's always been free and legally available for download.

Last November, Valve invited the "Day of Defeat" team to San Francisco to attend its 2001 Expo. It was actually the first time the team members had ever met each other in person; scattered throughout the States and Canada, they'd mainly collaborated via e-mail and instant messaging. "Most of us had worked with each other over the Net for about two years," Jungles says, "so it was strange to have 'just met' someone you already knew very well."

With "Counter-Strike" and "Day of Defeat," modders had truly found their place: no longer wannabes or amateur tinkerers but, in a very real sense, members of the game industry with the proven talent to compete with the professionals on their own terms.

"It feels to me like we're moving toward a point where game development is becoming a very collaborative process between the game developers and the players," Maxis' Will Wright says. "I can imagine a future where the mods created by the players are automatically sent between players by a central server that is ongoingly measuring what you enjoy in the game and what's available."

And despite the ascendance of next-generation consoles, most developers seem confident that mods will continue to thrive on the PC and keep the market for PC games thriving. Meanwhile, the best mods will become even more indistinguishable from the "official" games in terms of quality and popularity.

"The trend seems to be toward higher and higher production value, larger teams and longer development times," says Valve's Keranen. "In other words, mods are becoming very similar to commercial games in all but the way they are [not] funded."

Their quality is already gaining recognition among the estimated 10 to 20 percent of gamers who compose the hardcore contingent of mod makers and users -- many of whom prefer the mod "Tactical Ops" to "Unreal Tournament," or who like fan missions like "The 7th Crystal" and "Calendra's Legacy," for the Thief series even more than the missions from the original game.

Or for that matter, who prefer "Day of Defeat" to "Return to Castle Wolfenstein" and "Medal of Honor." "I've always been fascinated with WWII -- the struggle and its impact on civilization," says Kelly Thornton. The team's commitment to portray it with ruthless accuracy attracted gamers with similar passions. "Our initial audience came from the 'historian gamer' group," says Jakob Jungles. "Mostly hardcore realism fanatics who really knew their stuff concerning anything from weapons ballistics to specific World War II events."

In contrast, while the professional WWII games are quite good in their own right, their believability is marred by the assumptions of mass market and the clichés of the first-person shooter genre. ("Medal" has no onscreen bloodshed, for example, while "Wolfenstein" features, well, Nazi zombies.) Judged on historical authenticity and battlefield realism, "Day of Defeat" is actually better than both of them, treating the grim nature of World War II with the fidelity it deserves. "The ultimate compliment for us," says Thornton, "is when veterans of military service play our game and say, 'That's just what it's like!'"

"Of course," adds Jungles, "as 'DoD's' popularity grew, our audience became more diverse." Their niche eventually became a crossover audience, but few companies would be willing to gamble as much effort on such an unproven undertaking. "In the mod community," notes Epic's Cliff Bleszinski, "the users are sometimes able to take design risks that the designers may deem too radical or scary."

And with Steam, modders will have a powerful tool to put themselves out to a larger market -- at a profit, if they choose. "We are going to be offering mod teams a $995 engine license plus royalty to allow them to distribute their mods over Steam," says Newell. "Once a mod team has developed an audience they could think about either being aggregated into some other offering or going all the way to publishing their game over Steam."

For veteran designer Rich Carlson, this shift may be a cause for worry. What happens when modders begin paying to download and make what they once built and traded with each other just for the community spirit and the pure love of creating? "It's kind of frightening," he says, "but the popularity of mods could spell the eventual doom of freeware levels and modifications."

What follows next depends on the ambitions of the modders and the wisdom of the game publishers. Cannibalism -- modder energy consumed by the gaming industry -- is one possibility. Then again, so is a partnership of inspiration and investment, where the only barriers to entry are imagination and a willingness to remake each other's dreams.

By Wagner James Au

Wagner James Au is a frequent contributor to Salon, and also writes "Notes from a New World," an online journal for Second Life, an upcoming MMOG.

MORE FROM Wagner James Au

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Gaming Video Games