Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Are mods cheats?

Recently I was involved in a discussion regarding cheating in games. During this discussion, one player declared themselves to be the equivalent of the game developers, thus the arbiter of all rules within a game, and consequently assumed that using console commands to do things like giving themselves extra gold was not cheating. While there was little point in belaboring the issue, it did raise an interesting question for me about the nature of modding official adventures from game developers. The question is: at what point do mods become cheats?

In Dragon Age or Oblivion, it is a "simple" matter to include additional content in the main single player campaign or to even modify the mechanics of the game. Adding extra quests, weapons or armor, new creatures, changing creature AI, or even abilities and levelling curves are all possible. All these things result in a different experience than was created by the developers of the game, so at what point are we considered to have "cheated" by using these mods?  If someone pulls down a console window and gives themselves an extra 50 gold, almost anyone would call it a cheat. But say the player installs a mod with a large and expansive quest line, and by the end of completing that quest line, they've gained 50 gold, not to mention a bucketload of experience. Is this cheating? The end result is the same, in that it has the same (or at least similar) effect on the character as far as the "original" game is concerned, but in the latter case the player has had to "work" for their benefit rather than receiving it instantly via a console command.

Is Alley of Murders a cheat?

In both Dragon Age and Oblivion, gaining extra experience is not as much as an issue due to their level scaling of enemies (I've already discussed the pros and cons of that, so let's not cover old ground), but the additional resources of gold the player gains may allow them to buy additional equipment that would make them more powerful that they should be as part of the normal course of the game.

I'm also forced to think about a mod I installed on repeat playthrough of Oblivion that changed the levelling and skill system. Instead of magically levelling up and selecting attributes to level based upon which skills you levelled during your adventures, your attributes and levels dynamically rose in the wild, just like your skills do. Upon raising your level in a particular skill, the relevant attribute would be raised by an appropriate (fractional) value and would increment a value that was used to determine your current level. You could customise both the amount each skill contributed to your attributes and level, such that it was possible to implement a balance that effectively mimicked the original levelling system in the game without potential desire/need to metagame skill advancement to facilitate attribute increases.

It's night, so be a good player and go to bed so you can level up

To be honest, I found it a far more useful system that allowed the player to play freely without worrying that the game would become extremely difficult at later levels had they not done some metagaming to increase their attributes by significant amounts for at least part of the game. This playthrough followed a similar difficulty curve to my first playthrough, yet I found myself liking the modded levelling system a lot more than Bethesda's because it felt more immersive by taking away the arbitrary "you levelled up so now get to increase your attributes based on what you did".

So given the experience was more or less the same as an unmodded playthrough, could it still be considered cheating? At what point do mods become "cheats", and at what point does that matter in being able to make objective judgements or reviews on the game that players are given by developers or modders?


  1. I think it's important for a modder to consider carefully the effect of anything they add to the base game's tuning. There's no particular obligation to occupy any given space between cheating and masochist-hard, as long as you understand where you're hitting and can communicate that accurately to your audience.

    Personally for an add-in my taste is to not significantly impact the characters' power for later official challenges, but I'm happy to improve the player. I saw Eye and Shadow as fitting into a particular spot in the DA:O-Awakening-DA2 continuum, so the primary reward is poultices. That's a valuable convenience for the player, and one that can be imported into Awakening, but nothing they couldn't manufacture themselves if so inclined. The gameplay however is intended to be training for the Ancient Rock Wraith encounter.

    This is one of the reasons why stand-alones are much easier to develop ^_^

    Re your Oblivion example, I think the debate (if any) is undercut by how terrible the default levelling system is. I'm not a fan of improve-by-use systems, since they typically invite degenerate gameplay in the name of simulation, but Oblivion's is particularly bad. It's one of the reasons I reach for Fallout 3 or NV whenever I get that old Elder Scrolls itch ;)

  2. The majority of the times before I install a mod for RPG games I consider carefully how it will affect the game balance. I am not interested in getting mods that will ultimately destroy any enjoyment of the game by removing any challenge by introducing god-like weapons etc.

    That being said, I installed a mod for Oblivion that significantly changed the levelling system and allowed me to skip the majority of the grind. It did make the end-game easier but if I hadn't installed it I wouldn't have stopped playing the game long before.