Saturday, October 22, 2011

Modding: The future?

In this series of blog posts on modding, I've looked at the current Dragon Age scene, and some of the history of mods in gaming. One thing you may note about many of the mods and games I mentioned in my last post is that they were predominantly focussed on FPS games. This isn't to suggest that the only good mods are for FPS games, far from it. However, FPS modding is where many of the "biggest" mods come from for a number of reasons:

1) A level design focus means it is easier to create new content that gives an immediate sense of something new for the player and visually demonstrates to the modder their progress.
2) Ease of modifying gameplay - it's simple to modify how an FPS plays by modifying gun mechanics - how fast it shoots, how much damage it does, accuracy, damage spread, etc.
3) The flexibility of existing engines today means that it is a lot easier than previously to adapt something like the Unreal Engine for use within a new FPS.
4) The PvP aspect means a focus on balance/gameplay rather than getting "bogged down" in creating involved cinematics, dialogue, AI, scripted sequences, etc.

Multiplayer FPS games don't need this storytelling

Of course, even this kind of modding is reducing in popularity to some degree.  Arguably, the shift towards consoles is partially responsible for this, where for the most part it is not feasible for player created content to be accessed on consoles.  There are some notable exceptions to this, perhaps most importantly Little Big Adventure - but even the modding scene for this game was somewhat underwhelming.  Unreal Tournament 3 also allowed for the export of levels to the PS3 version of the game and gamers did take advantage of this to produce some good content, but this is a relatively rare phenomenon.  There were rumours that the upcoming Skyrim would feature a marketplace allowing mod authors to obtain money for their work, but these appear to have dissipated. Todd Howard from Bethesda has gone on record saying that they would like to try and make it possible for mods to be made accessible to those on consoles, which is a potentially promising development for modders. Whether this suggestion is actually something they can deliver given difficulties with licensing and quality control issues for Sony and Microsoft remains to be seen.

The lack of "quality" content was and remains one of the most common gripes levelled at user made levels or mods, and this only seems to be getting more and more noticable as time goes on. This is not surprising given the continually increasing standards of games released by major studios. It's verging on impossible for modders to meet the "quality" standards of players when it comes to AAA titles, so expecting levels of the same quality as those produced by Epic, Infinity Ward or DICE is frequently an unreasonable for most level designers. When you add onto this mods that require more than simply level design, and thus need people with skills in writing, scripting, cinematography, etc equivalent to those being paid in the game industry for these talents, the pool of modders becomes very small indeed.

An increasing availability and prevalence of free or cheap development kits for games that have many of the basic features available to budding creators may see a transition of groups of such talented people from modding to the development of their own IP and game titles. Once problems such as working across disparate timezones and setting up server infrastructure to allow for remote collaboration on a game are solved (which is most definitely possible given a bit of technical know-how), it is entirely feasible for a team of developers from different parts of the world to work together on a gaming project. Unity, Torque, or even the Unreal Engine are excellent choices for developers, and there are plenty more options out there.

Indie developers can reap the rewards from the advances made by others

Furthermore, the improvements made to digital distribution, particularly on the PC platform mean that ability for such development teams to get their work out to potential players has dramatically increased over the past few years. The support that Valve has provided to indie game development through Steam has been undeniably fantastic for developers and gamers alike. By providing a common distribution platform used by a very large number of PC gamers, Steam has provided visibility to titles that would have otherwise gone unnoticed, and moreover allowed them to be purchased and downloaded with ease. While I'd sometimes say that Valve receive a little too much credit for their (limited number of) game releases (even though they are usually quite good), their overall contribution to gaming, particularly PC gaming and indie development, has been a massive boon to gamers and game developers alike.

So is the future of modding going to turn to indie game development? Perhaps not exclusively, but I can't help but see a trend towards modding becoming entirely based around cosmetic changes or slightly tweaks to mechanics.  The increasing number of games featuring DLC to provide additional content is seemingly (and almost counter-intuitively) leading to a decline in the interest of mods to do the same, as the rising bar of quality means that mods for AAA titles are increasingly time consuming.

I don't imagine mods will ever disappear completely while gamers can still get access to the tools and components of games that allow them to modify the games they purchase, but I definitely see the past-time becoming more and more niche given the increasing possibility for gamers to create their own content in their own setting. This is without doubt still a more challenging prospect than modding an existing game, but as long as developers set their expectations at a reasonable level, the dream of people being able to create their own game and have an audience of happy players seems closer than ever before.

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