Modding (changing and adding to the code of a video game) creates infinite possibilities for gamers.
In modern gaming, the state of a game as released by developers doesn’t necessarily determine its longevity. What often matters more is its potential to be tweaked, overhauled and even completely transformed by mods.
PC versions of grand open-world adventures such as Grand Theft Auto V, Fallout 4 and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim have maintained large player bases due to the commitment of their communities to modify games and, in some cases, change their identity entirely. Sandbox games like Minecraft, DayZ and Garry’s Mod constantly become different playgrounds depending on which mods a user equips.
It may sound strange to some that games are being altered by their players. It may even sound impossible, or like some sort of cheat code. In reality, mods are largely created to funnel more enjoyment into the games that people love. Yes, sometimes alterations are made for nefarious purposes, but those are often caught quickly by developers, and the people who use them are punished accordingly.
Mods continue to change the way people interact with games — mostly for the better. So what exactly are mods, and how have they become an integral part of gaming?
Mods come in all shapes and sizes. Mostly, though, they are independently developed tools inserted into existing games to change the originals. They can be small in scope. Unofficial patches fix bugs and glitches that developers haven’t personally addressed. Art mods alter cosmetic details. More elaborate small-scale mods can introduce effects like rain, snow or day/night cycles in games that don’t feature those sorts of transitions.
But mods can also be rather substantial, and these are the types that introduce new gameplay content that keeps players coming back for more. Add-ons can bring new vehicles into games like Grand Theft Auto V, new items for games like Minecraft and even new missions and areas to explore for players to get the most out of their experience.
Mods can also overhaul graphics and in-game textures, turning the entire game into a brighter, more advanced experience. GTA 5 Redux, a mod that affects the entirety of RockStar Games’ Grand Theft Auto V, did just that, while also offering improvements to central gameplay elements like driving and the star system that triggers police to come after players for being bad.
Other times, modding becomes such an encapsulating experience that it creates an entirely new product. In the case of Counter-Strike, which is now an extremely popular Valve multiplayer shooter franchise, the game was born from a Half-Life mod created in 1999. A similar story occurred with the successful open-world survival game DayZ, a game that originated as a mod for ARMA 2.
As the world has become more connected by the internet, the modding community has taken off in recent years. It’s never been as easy as it is now to fundamentally change a game. With powerful tools and detailed instructions available, you don’t have to be incredibly tech savvy to install and use mods. And if you don’t like the changes, you can simply switch them off, often with easy-to-use menu systems made possible by, yes, even more mods.
You might be surprised to hear, however, that modding was already a burgeoning segment of the game community long before file-sharing sites became an ordinary part of our internet experience.
Within niche gaming communities, modding became an intriguing prospect with Castle Smurfenstein for the Apple II computer, a parody mod that replaced Castle Wolfenstein’s Nazis with adorable Smurfs. Outrageous? Yes. But its absurdity was enough to garner interest in retooling beloved games.
In 1992, with the World Wide Web still in its infancy, Wolfenstein 3D from id Software launched. The game is now considered the “grandfather of first-person shooters.” Needless to say, PC gamers were in love. So much so that they found ways to create new characters and levels, even though the game’s creators had put actions in place to avoid user edits. Thankfully, id Software found these efforts endearing rather than a case of copyright infringement.
id Software was so enamored by the idea of fans modifying its games that the following year when Doom launched, the studio separated the game’s maps, textures and sprites from the in-game engine. The ease of access to these files opened the door for wannabe game designers to tinker with the game’s assets to create their own levels within the game. The following year, id streamlined the process by releasing user-friendly tools designed to make it easier for less-tech-fluent gamers to create levels.
Now 24 years after its launch, the original Doom still receives new mods from loyal fans and is one of the most modded games ever.
Given the significant time required to make many mods — and certainly the ones that garner the most attention — you might wonder why people spend their free time working on alterations. While mods can take off, receive press and be enjoyed by many, the sheer number available means that it’s unlikely more than a modest group of people will actually spend time with a creator’s mod.
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Surely most who create mods do so because the change or addition is something they personally want to play. Some create mods as a hobby. After all, the best part about mods is that they are free additions for the most part, ones that are not created for profit but for the love of experimenting with a revered game to see what works, what makes the experience last longer. Increasing a game’s longevity without spending more money is appealing, especially when considering the average cost of a new game ($60).
Other times, though, mod developers seek a career in game design, and making waves with a mod has proven to be an unconventional route into the field. Minh Le, a single developer outside of Valve, created the aforementioned Counter-Strike. Valve hired Le and acquired rights to the Half-Life mod, which was then turned into a stand-alone phenomenon. Le later went to work on Rust, which started as a clone of DayZ and expanded into something much more. It seems that despite Le’s initial monetary success, he never lost the urge to reinvent experiences.
A similar scenario unfolded when a group of modders created XCOM: Long War, a free mod that made the magnificent strategy games XCOM: Enemy Unknown and XCOM: Enemy Within much harder. Firaxis, the studio behind the XCOM series, caught wind of the mod and hired the modders to create official expansions for XCOM 2. The modding team is now a game studio called Pavonis Interactive.
For fans of PC games, though, the efforts of the dedicated community of modders help preserve and reinvent their own gaming experiences. Whether it’s from injecting Superman, The Flash or Iron Man into Grand Theft Auto V or merging Pokémon with Minecraft, if you’ve thought of it, there may be a mod for your favorite game. And if what you’re looking for doesn’t exist, you could always try your hand at making it come to life.
For all things mods, check out Mod DB.