Mods, mods everywhere

One of the things that has irritated me in the past few weeks on reading about mods is that a lot of the articles and chapters and papers:

  1. Mostly use the term ‘mods’ to mean anything that a user creates for a game (occasionally add-ons) but they:
  2. Don’t distinguish between different types of mods/CC
  3. Don’t refer to how games and communities use different words to mean different types of changes
  4. Don’t generally discuss how developers and players themselves have a complicated view of modding behaviours (Consalvo is an exception to this).

Even though I want to focus on a specific type of user created content, I feel it is very important to make these sorts of distinctions since I’m struggling to find it already done elsewhere. This stuff may seem obvious to you, fair enough, but that’s because of your insider knowledge. That is sort of half the point of cultural or sociological research – to look at the stuff someone may think is obvious or takes for granted so much that they’d don’t even question it.

FYI: I’m also referring only to computer gaming. I don’t really play consoles and have little idea of how mods work on there.

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Okay, not a mod, but I laughed XD

What’s in a name?

Although academics tend to use modifications and modding as an overall term, there’s really a bunch of different words: mods, add-ons, unofficial patches, skins, morphs, etc. and each of these are used rather specifically to individual communities. There is also the term “fan-programmer” (Postigo) used, but I find that misleading, as it assumes a certain level of technical knowledge that is not always required.

Rather than focusing on the terms – which varies way too widely to draw a consensus – I prefer to look at the how the original game is changed (original = whatever that means! πŸ˜› Sometimes also referred to as the ‘vanilla’ game, meaning the base flavour, but even the word vanilla means something different to other communities).

I rather think I’ll keep with using the term mods aka modifications as an umbrella term for user created content, because modification is essentially what it does, and “mod” is quicker than “user created content”

Modification

Now before you read this and get mad that I left something out, this is a draft of ideas. Of course there will be mods that fit in more than one category, or people will have different ideas about what mods fit in which category. This is NOT meant as a strict typology, just a rough indication of the variety of user created content I’ve come across in my games.

  • Unofficial Fixes – these mods fix glitches or errors
  • Aesthetic – changes to avatar, models, objects or scenes
  • User Inferface – includes new graphical alerts or changes to existing spell or action bars.
  • Difficulty – changes that make certain parts of the game easier or harder (e.g. larger bills in The Sims)
  • Content – this broad category adds additional gameplay, such as maps, zones or levels. It also includes adapting the game in such a way that it becomes a new mini-game or stand-alone game in itself (e.g. Garry’s Mod or Day Z)
  • Quality of Life (QoL) – these are minor mods that don’t add additional gameplay or make it significantly easier or harder, but provide some benefit (e.g. automatic looting)

As I said before, some academics tend to gloss over the differences. Making aesthetic changes in The Sims does not have to include any specific programming knowledge, nor creating maps in Wacraft 2 or Cities: Skylines. Some games come with programs built-in to allow for users to create content without requiring such technical knowledge, or fans even create programs so others don’t need to learn programming to create, say, new traits in the Sims 4 (The Buff and Trait Factory). But this is different, again, from game to game. Interface changes can be built into one game, where another has static bars which would need to be changed by a programmed mod.

Developers

From what I’ve gathered so far, single-player games don’t tend to have policies around mods. There may be a stake in the copyright claim of anything you create that is derived from the program they created. MMOs and zones of competitive play are really where the particular policies are.

As you probably might have gotten in your head somewhere from looking at all my posts on it, I play World of Warcraft (a lot less in the recent expansion, but that’s a whole other argument). Generally, the term add-on is used for changes to the game that are allowed (like LUA scripts) that tends to focus on things like changes to the user interface. The word mods, however, is applied to other third-party software such as executables (.exe files) which modify the game itself or automates character behaviour (also called bots or botting). Modding, for myself, has been a part of my game play for a long time, such as BarTender (to move my action bars around) or MogIt (which shows me all the clothes my character can equip, where to get them, what I own, and lets me save a nice little wardrobe of things I’d like to get for transmogrification) or Altoholic (which shows a little table of all my characters, what money they have, what skills they have, and what they possess).

So I was rather surprised when I was randomly looking up modding policies for games and found that Star Wars: The Old Republic (also an MMO) bans all third-party software, add-ons, hacks, or mods, whatever the name. There was a lot of discussion on the forums where people specifically brought up WoW to argue whether or not this blanket ban policy was better or worse. According to some users, Star Wars had features built-in rather than needing a mod to, say, change the interface. Some people argued that a modding community greatly adds to a game by allowing individuality and creativity. Others argued that mods actually bring down WoW, either by making the game too easy (such as large graphical alerts when it is the prime time to hit a certain spell) or being ‘required’ by others (such as Deadly Boss Mods or BigWigs, which give alerts when a raid encounter is about to change).

Players

I find this discussion of ‘requirement’ of mods as very interesting. A lot of mods can be used for min-maxing (I’ve heard of raiders being required to submit screenshots of their interfaces so the leaders can judge whether they think it is suitably arranged or not), but the topic of Deadly Boss Mods/BigWigs goes to another level. Rather than just being a graphical or interface change, these add-ons are seen as reducing the difficulty of the game at the same time as people report that they have been kicked out of raids for not possessing them. What is Blizzard’s role in this? Are they making raid encounters too difficult, and therefore players need the add-ons to keep up, or are they making them complex because they know that the add-on will make it easily understood by players of all skill level? A rather chicken-or-the-egg type argument, but it crops up from time to time. Note: I’m not actually for or against these add-ons specifically. I don’t raid anymore, but I did have them when I raided throughout MoP.

Another lot of arguments that come up are based around interpretations of WoWs policy. Blizzard doesn’t talk about third-party creators (maybe for a legal reason?), and it would be impossible to list ALL of the creations that are allowed or not allowed. The two biggest arguments seem to be around model-changers (where the models on your screen, such as your character or weapons, are changed for you, but they aren’t changed on others’ screens) and multi-boxing (the playing of multiple characters at a time). The model-changers could be problematic if, say, they let you alter a wall into a fence, so you can jump through it or see past it, which would be detrimental for competitive play – but some people argue that *this name* mod cannot do this, so they should be okay. With multi-boxing, Blizzard allows the practice, so long as the user isn’t using a program to automate their multiple avatars’ behaviour, or using it to level up multiple characters at a time which they intend to sell. However, some users argue that multiboxing should be banned because it does give an unfair advantage to the player when the game is about cooperation. Note: I’m not personally a fan of multi-boxing, too many scars from PvP over the years πŸ˜› But yes, I will acknowledge that Blizzard says it is legal behaviour! Play your game, people!

Co-Creativity

The last thing I want to mention is when developers and players work together. One example of this is in Cities: Skylines, where the developers have a keen interest in following the modding community. There’s rules around modding, but in general – they love mods! See this video:

Mods do actually influence the team behind the game (Paradox/Colossal Order), as TotalyMoo says here:

Mods can provide a lot of inspiration but will most likely never be directly implemented into the game (as in “copy-paste code”).

A highly modded/requested feature might make it into vanilla Skylines, like changing directions of roads in 1.0.6b, but then it will be coded from scratch by CO.

In comparisons from Cities:Skylines to SimCity (2013), many reviews point out that C:S has been supportive of mods since launch through the Steam Workshop and also has a very active community, adding hundreds of thousands of maps, assets and innovative changes to gameplay.

Questions, Comments, Queries?

So for you, dear reader: do you like mods? Do you use them? Are some mods okay and some not? Got any favourites? (I will never give up my love of MogIt!)

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