PC Game Mods - From Smurfs to Counter-Strike and Beyond!
Modding games is one of the most vibrant scenes in the world of PC gaming, with a rich history of great games that have been tweaked, improved and expanded by bedroom coders and professional developers alike.
The success of the modding scene is, at first glance, a little counter-intuitive. After all, taking a company’s trademarked intellectual property (IP) and modifying it for other gamers to enjoy should ring all sorts of legal alarm bells. However, on the contrary, publishers of highly successful game franchises have embraced this very practice for reasons we will look at shortly.
To put things into perspective, and to get a grasp of how huge modding has become, let’s first take a look at the numbers.
By far the most modded game is The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim from Bethesda Softworks. Visitors to Nexusmods.com can download a staggering 45,588 mod files, which is no small reason why Skyrim sales remain so strong for a game released more than five years ago. Some observers expect Fallout 4 could eclipse Skyrim ’s success. Released just over three months ago, Fallout 4 already has more than 7,000 available mods. And this number is expected to skyrocket when the highly anticipated creation kit gets released.
It’s worth mentioning that many of these files provide only minor tweaks to their parent games, such as small gameplay enhancements and graphical makeovers. Regardless, any adjustment to the original base game, whether a tiny tweak or a complete re-imagining (known as a total conversion) can legitimately be considered a mod. And these range from changing how a candle flame looks in a particular game to a complete re-imaging of the base game (known as a total conversion) that changes all the art, audio and animations.
Let’s take a look at the origins of the modding scene and some of the most influential PC gaming mods that kicked off the modding phenomenon.
A Brief History of PC Game Modding
One of the very first popular mods was a parody of the original Castle Wolfenstein on the Apple II in the early 1980s, called Castle Smurfenstein. The mod replaced the Nazi enemies in the game with Smurfs.
Fast-forward a decade or so and you have what is perhaps the most important single title in the history of mods, id Software’s classic first-person shooter, Doom, released in 1993.
The founders of id Software, Tom Hall and John Carmack, were aware that fans of their previous game, Wolfenstein 3D, had attempted to make their own modifications to the game and, as a result, they decided to package Doom’s maps, sprites and textures into a WAD file (for trivia fans, it’s an acronym for “Where’s All the Data?”) that was entirely separate from the main game engine. This allowed would-be designers to create their own levels.
It proved so popular that in 1994, id Software pioneered the first major attempt by a commercial developer to provide user-friendly tools to allow the game community to easily create their own mods and build their own levels. The first Doom level editors appeared and fans got busy showcasing their skills.
This led to more ambitious mods that added new monsters and significantly altered the core gameplay. These modding tools also provided a gateway for talented young coders to make their mark. One particularly active amateur Doom level designer, Tim Willits, would go on to land a job at id, ultimately taking on the role of lead designer at the company.
The Half-Life Connection
Another seminal PC gaming developer that also has to be credited with successfully blurring the lines between players and developers is Half-Life creator, Valve Software, the first major studio to regularly hire the best mod developers and the most talented level designers from the community to work on its official titles.
In 1998 Valve released the ground-breaking first-person shooter Half Life. Two years later an individual coder, Minh Le, modded the base game to model the theme of terrorism and counterterrorism in Counter-Strike. Players were able to join the game either as part of the terrorist faction or counter-terrorist forces and face off in battle. The objective of each battle depended on the map chosen, and included bomb-defusal and hostage-rescue scenarios.
Le, hoping that the game would find a small audience interested in the subject matter, was surprised when Counter-Strike caught the public’s imagination in a big way. Aided by his working partner Jess Cliffe, who ran the game’s website, Le was able to establish a dialogue with the players and use their feedback to drive changes and innovations that would appear in subsequent updates to Counter-Strike.
Valve recognized Counter-Strike’s potential and hired Le and Cliffe, and acquired the rights to the game. In the intervening years, the original mod has spawned a franchise that players are still enjoying in huge numbers. It may surprise you to learn that on the day of writing this article alone, there were more than 650,000 people battling away in the mod's latest incarnation, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.
Counter-Strike is another example of individuals using mods to channel their passion for games and talent for coding into a project that ultimately gets the attention of the industry and provides a route to employment. It’s a symbiotic relationship that is beneficial to both parties. Indeed, Valve founder Gabe Newell has often said that modding is one of the best ways for would-be game creators to hone their skills and to demonstrate their talent to a potential employer.
Classic Mods and Current Favorites
Some of the original classic mods of the early to mid 1990s included such gems as Justin Fisher’s total conversion mod for Doom called Aliens TC; the incredibly popular Team Fortress mod created with id Software’s Quake engine; Chaotic Dream Group’s Chaos Deathmatch remix of Quake II; and the aforementioned epic multiplayer shooter mod that is Counter-Strike.
One of the more spectacular modding achievements of recent years is Alexander Velicky’s Skyrim mod, Falskaar. It takes Skyrim players to an entirely new land that is roughly a third of the size of the base game with 30 hours of additional gameplay, 26 new quests, plenty of fully-voiced new characters to interact with, along with new weapons, armor, books and recipes. Oh, and there’s a an original soundtrack to boot.
Falskaar is more substantial than some official DLC packages for other mainstream games. It’s all the more remarkable when you take into account the fact that it was created by a 19-year-old Skyrim fan.
Velicky credits more than 100 people for helping to bring his vision to life. Voice actors, composers, modellers… they all contributed their time and effort, but it was Velicky who managed the entire process that totalled more than 2,000 hours of painstaking hard work.
He was able to do this for two reasons. First, he had Bethesda’s Creation Kit at his disposal, which is a suite of tools that enabled him to put his ideas into practice. Second, he had passion and the support of his family. In a 2013 interview with PC Gamer he cites the contribution of his father who was “incredibly supportive and allowed me to live here, paying for living expenses and charging no rent”. His hard work, and his father’s faith in, him paid off handsomely. He now works for Halo and Destiny developer Bungie.
Comprehensive mods on the scale of Falskaar are somewhat rare, but there is a broad spectrum of modding activities going on covering every aspect of gaming for many popular games.
Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto V has been extensively overhauled by fans. The ability to hijack a cop car and take on police missions that we saw in GTA III and GTA IV was notably absent in GTA V. So, a few enterprising fans created the Police Mod to address the omission. Another group of modders felt the game was lacking zombies, so they put them in. GTA V players who want added graphical fidelity need only to download the R*hancer Photorealism mod that lends an authentic sheen to the game’s environments, weather and vehicles. (See our story, Ten Must-have Mods for GTA V, for more examples.)
Interestingly, the model of two-way traffic between developer and player established by the modding community over the years has become self-sustaining. Minecraft, for example, whose sandbox premise is entirely built on creativity and modifying environments has spawned countless fan-made mods. Players are using incredibly inventive methods to manipulate the game’s crude building blocks to create maps that feature elements of combat, puzzle solving, platforming and any number of other familiar gaming genres. One particularly stunning Minecraft mod is a complete recreation of Nintendo’s Luigi’s Mansion.
In turn, we now have Rust, a brutal survival sandbox game whose developer Facepunch Studios first created it as a clone of DayZ, which itself was a zombie-themed mod for ARMA 2. CEO of Facepunch Garry Newman has stated that, having grown sick of fighting zombies, he altered the premise and added Minecraft-inspired elements, resulting in the punishing survival experience players have come to know and love. Rust, we should remind ourselves, is a follow-up to Garry’s Mod, a physics-based sandbox game that launched for free back in 2006, was subsequently acquired by Valve and has gone on to sell more than 10 million copies. Garry’s Mod started life – and this is where we come full circle – as a Half Life 2 mod.
Valve’s mega-popular, and free to play, Team Fortress 2 is yet another game with mod roots, and yet another case where Valve assimilated the creators of the original mod, which was based on the Quake engine and released in 1996. The developers were hired on by Valve and reworked the game as a Half-Life mod called Team Fortress Classic, which has since evolved to its current Source engine-based form, Team Fortress 2.
The Modding Future is Bright
From relatively humble beginnings, PC game modding has exploded in popularity, with a thriving fan-driven modding scene surrounding most major PC game releases, and popular sites covering news and providing downloads of the best mods out there. Millions of eager PC game modding fans worldwide visit outlets such as ModDB.com and nexusmods.com.
Mod DB’s Mod of the Year competition, known as the “Golden Spanner Awards”, names the definitive list of the year’s best mods, as voted for by the huge community of readers and the site’s editors. (Check out our article on Mod DB for more information about the site.)
The situation we currently find ourselves in is an exciting one. Developers are inviting the game community to show their creativity at a grassroots level (through level editors and self-publishing gateways), as well as providing professional tools and development kits to nurture budding talent. This often results in collaboration between rising stars in the modding community and development studios, opening doors to careers in the game industry.
In the end, it’s the PC gamers that benefit the most by enjoying a wealth of innovative new content for many of their favorite games. Best of all, the vast majority of this content is free to download and enjoy.
Rest assured we’ll continue to highlight the very best of the modding scene here on GeForce.com. We can’t wait to see what’s next!
Share your favorite mods - from current games or favorites from games past - in the comments below!