Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Modding: A journey through games

The last time I talked about modding, I discussed the current state of Dragon Age Origins modding. I'd like to look at where modding is going in a general sense, but in order to do that, I think it's important to see where we've come from in modding, and some of the influential mods that have been released. I'm only going to focus on a few select areas here, as covering the total history of modding would be a fairly involved task.  So I'm going to mix in some personal experiences of playing and building to cover territory.

My first "real" modding experience was with DEU and DeHackEd - mod tools for Doom.  DeHackEd was a simple editor that modified the Doom executable file itself - allowing modders to increase the speed or damage of weapons/monsters, or even make barrels move and automatically explode. It effectively allowed basic mechanics to be changed. DEU (Doom Editing Utilities) was used to create new levels for the game - allowing players to create their own maps for a new singleplayer or multiplayer experience.  Doom was a relatively "simple" FPS with a level layout that could be conveyed perfectly via a 2D map - e.g. it is not possible to create a bridge which the player can go both under and over. This made the level design process quite simple; if you could sketch out a layout on a piece of paper, then translating that design into a functional level was not significantly harder.

The first custom level for many people involved lots of these guys and BFGs

Moving into a more complicated realm, Descent 1 & 2 featured a "true" 3D environment, and also promoted a somewhat healthy level modding scene. The increased difficulty of creating "real" 3D maps took quite a lot of getting used to for many, particularly given the way that the environment had to be created out of "cubes" (technically convex hexahedron).  However, this was one of the earliest cases that I personally recall of developers actively supporting and promoting their modding community. The "Levels of the World" was an add-on that contained all of the entries from a level design competition held by Interplay in 1995, and selected ones to receive a "top 10" award and some honourable mentions. At this time, Internet access was poor for many people, and as such the company made it available on CD, and even included it as part of "Descent: The Definitive Collection."

It would be remiss of me to fail to mention Warcraft 2 and its popular and accessible map editor, but perhaps more important is the impact made by Warcraft 3. Warcraft 3 featured many new and creative mods, but arguably the most influential has been the Defence of the Ancients (DotA) mod.  The popularity of this mod is substantial (there was even a "popular" song about it) despite the game being notoriously brutal for newcomers and the community having a reputation for one of the most abusive of any game out there. People who are doing poorly are liable to be abused quickly and harshly by teammates, who would rather play down a player than with someone incompetent. (To be fair, in many cases they would actually be better off, but that's a little beside the point) The popularity of this game has led to a slew of "clones" such as Heroes of Newerth, League of Legends, and Darkspore, among others, not to mention DotA2 which is currently being worked on by Valve.

DotA gained devout followers and plenty of fanart

Of course, no discussing about modding history would be complete without talking about some of the most influential mods ever released, which would probably come down to the triumvirate of: CounterStrike (CS) for Half-life, Team Fortress (TF) for Quake, and Desert Combat (DC) for Battlefield 1942.  Like DotA, these mods eventually gained such a following that they effectively spawned their own sub-genre of gaming. CounterStrike took the world by storm for tactical "realistic" team-based play, Team Fortress pioneered the popularity of the class-based multiplayer FPS, and Desert Combat is probably what gamers can thank for FPS games moving out of WWII and into the modern era.  The effects of these three mods can still be seen in the games that are being released today.

I've missed mods for Neverwinter Nights, Morrowind, Oblivion and probably several other games here. But when compared to other mods of their time, where do such mods stand? Can you name other mods that can compete with DotA, CS, TF and DC in terms of their lasting impact upon the gaming industry as it stands today?

Without Desert Combat, this might never have been released

 With that in mind, in my next post I'll look at where the future of modding might lie...


  1. doom was simple, but nwn2 also does not let you walk over and under a bridge (that is, to have more than 1 z axis at any given point for the player). I'm not sure if that is also true of dragon age, but it appear so from what ive seen. I find it a really cheap limitation personally

  2. Doom had no angles in the vertical direction; it was straight up and down or nothing. In addition, a wall could only have space above or below it. In this regard it was less technically advanced than Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss, a game which was released over 18 months earlier.

    From a technical standpoint, this "2.5D" terrain makes pathing and other movement issues a lot simpler. Getting AIs to navigate true 3D environments requires significantly more intelligent AI and/or additional level design constructs to enable them to move around properly.

    I believe it's not possible to have an "under and over" bridge in DAO, but it's possible to make it look like there is. It is possible to create terrain overhangs as well, even if the player can only walk on one part of it.