Saturday, October 15, 2011

Modding: The Dragon Age Scene

In a recent discussion with a fellow Dragon Age Origins (DAO) modder, I was asked about my impression of "the dying DA modder race". While I could deny that such a thing exists, it would be folly to attempt to do so. It seems likely that most cosmetic and gameplay mods that are likely to be made for the game have already been completed and released. The number of additional adventures made for DAO has always been quite limited, and for the most part somewhat lacking in quality. The majority lack voice acting to make them fit in with the DAO experience, and even those that do have varying quality of VO within them (my own Alley of Murders included).

If we look to those mods that are still being worked on, of those that I'm aware, there's the Hidden Circle and Dark Times, The Rose of Eternity (a non-DAO setting), and "Temple". If you're aware of others, please let me know.  (Edit: I've also been told about Sanguine Sunrise since first making this post).

Crown of Creation was recently released, though is a standalone adventure not set in the DA lore. I've played part of it, although it doesn't match DAO for quality, it does seem like there is scope for roleplaying. There's ongoing Quests and Legends mod, which while ambitious in size, suffers from a significant case of "quantity over quality" due to design failings (overpowered items, hordes of enemies and traps, and a failure to adhere to DAO lore) and fails to mesh with DAO in a meaningful fashion but turns the game more into a hack and slash fest. There's also the "Sapphos" series of mods, which focus almost exclusively on "sexual experiences" for the player with practically anyone in Ferelden. This causes people to behave completely out of character, and is hardly what I'd call a meaningful gaming experience, unless your aim is to watch your Warden sleep with everyone in sight.

I don't play an RPG for titillation

Looking at this list, one can't help but notice how small it is. From the visibility I have, the modding scene is small and appears to be close to stopping entirely once those projects are completed. Given there are still dedicated modders for both Neverwinter Nights 1 and 2, which are games in a similar vein to DAO, the question that must be asked is: Why is DAO modding dying?

There are numerous potential causes. Firstly, the entry barrier to modding is very high. For someone with no experience in modding, the time and effort required to even learn how to get around in the toolset is significant. To create a meaningful adventure is even more difficult still. Secondly, even with the required perseverence to overcome this high entry barrier, the skills required to create an adventure are many and varied. Story and dialogue writing, level design, scripting, and cinematics are just some of the skills necessary to create something. To find an individual or even a group of individuals with the necessary talent is no mean feat.

The area editor is probably the easiest aspect of the DAO toolset.

The amount of hours required to produce a quality adventure, or even a well-playtested FPS map is significant. Game studios have dedicated level designers and then testers ready to put a level through its paces while it's still in basic shell form. Many maps released by professionals have been played and refined with default texturing everywhere and simple lighting just to allow navigation and gameplay. Modders simply don't have access to those kinds of playtesting resources to make sure that their levels are well designed before they're released. Given that it can take a very long time for modders to produce something of "good" quality, what is their incentive to keep working on the project during that lengthy development period?

The question is how to keep a team of people with these not inconsiderable skills dedicated to producing a mod over a period of several months, if not years, in order to produce a product to be released for free. This aspect is not exclusive to DAO modders. Few mods to AAA titles have resulted in the creators making money as a result, though some notable exceptions do exist: Desert Combat for Battlefield 1942 and Defence of the Ancients both eventually ended up netting monetary payback, though this was by no means an immediate payoff. For the most part, modders (apparently) do it for the love of the craft, and/or potentially as something to add to a resume in order to break into the gaming industry.

My total monetary profit from Alley of Murders: $0.00.

DAO modding does not seem to be alone in a slow decline of modding popularity, particularly for AAA titles. "Simple" modding to tweak appearances and "numerical" aspects of gameplay (e.g. health/damage/ammo values) are still around, and even custom maps are still made (although again fewer than in years gone by), but the idea of additional playable content in mod form is becoming more and more rare. To follow this trend, we should look at the history of modding - which is what I'll be covering in my next post.


  1. It's a real shame that Dragon Age could not step in where Neverwinter Nights took off from. Ease of use is one of the main reasons Neverwinter Nights continues to be used as a building tool and the learning curve is not as intensive as it is for Dragon Age or Neverwinter Nights 2, the latter community releases in obvious decline.

    I'm not sure why Bioware did not follow suit and build from the simplicity that Neverwinter Nights provides amateur builders. Even the Neverwinter Nights 2 toolset was a pain in the ass to work with once released, with all its annoying crashes and lack of options that was never ported from Neverwinter Nights. It's a lot better now but took too long to sort out and by then, most move on or stick with a toolset that has a quicker turn around time or one that actually works.

    It's a shame because both Dragon Age and Neverwinter Nights 2 communities have a lot of good people and talent. For the folks who like to build a small module or design an area, even that takes too much time for the everyday player with no design skills. Sure, Neverwinter Nights offered some real bad areas and modules but in the defense of those builders, they saw progress in a time frame they could accept. Dragon Age and Neverwinter Nights 2 simply does not offer that and never did, which slows down activity, communities shrink and eventually, the game is left with an empty shell of its former self.

  2. I found the divide between NWN1 and NWN2 an interesting one. I came to NWN2 a little late after shelving the game for several months until patches made both the game and the toolset more usable. That said, by the time I came to NWN2, I found it far more usable, flexible and powerful than NWN1.

    The time required to create an exterior area was dramatically increased, and there was a little bit of extra complexity added to a number of areas, but once you'd come to terms with those issues, I found that there was a lot more scope for creating deep roleplaying experiences. From a technical standpoint, there is no way I would have ever wanted to implement Fate of a City in NWN1, simply because the lack of variable passing into scripts would have made it laborious.

    NWN1 has a very low barrier for entry in terms of being able to create something simple, which is far more complex to do in NWN2, and even more so in DAO. Its success can probably be attributed to this ease of use, which meant that newcomers could easily create something that they could play and gain a sense of accomplishment from that success.

  3. For my part I found modding for DA:O very difficult after I'd played DA2. Not having access to the dialogue wheel and the superior iteration of combat was frustrating.

    Plus I was running out of levels to pillage ;)

    I've spent the time since prototyping my own stuff in Unity, but if you think producing a mod is time consuming, an actual game is something else entirely *sob*