A somewhat brief history of video game modding

June 28, 2018 — by Manish "Trigger-Happy" Rajesh0



A somewhat brief history of video game modding

June 28, 2018 — by Manish "Trigger-Happy" Rajesh0

Modding is pretty much synonymous with PC gaming. The synonymity is to the point where it’s listed as one of the many advantages it has over its console brethren. Recently, console gamers did actually get a chance to experience mods thanks to steps taken by Bethesda, but it is still nowhere near the experience offered on PC. Anyway, the point of this article isn’t to look down on our console gamer counterparts but to delve into the practice of modding itself, and its humble beginnings.

Mods in general have been a great tool which has allowed fans to submerge themselves into the games they love. And when developers embrace this, the game you get is a fruit of two labours, grown to tasty perfection by both the fans and the developers themselves.

But that’s not all modding has showered us with. We must be obliged to mods since we’ve been graced by some of the biggest games ever in the gaming industry because of them. We’ve already mentioned these in articles we’ve done before, but Counter-Strike, DotA, and the currently popular Battle Royale genre all spawned from popular mods. And this is just to name a few. The creativity of modders goes beyond gaming too, machinima is a notable example. Just about everyone has heard about Red vs Blue. If you haven’t, you should go check it out right away! Again, that’s just one among the many ways in which modders have expanded gaming beyond its original confines. What’s more, they’ve managed to make it accessible to a large number of people including non-gamers.

Modding is great, but where did it all start?

The 80s. The kind of modding that we have been familiarised with can be traced back to the 1980s. However, modding was called cracking prior to that. We’re sure all of you familiar with ‘cracks’. The reason they were called so was because it involved ‘cracking’ the game’s code. Back then, developers weren’t too keen on letting others fiddle around with their code, so it was substantially harder to mod games. Of course, this was due to the risk of piracy as well.

Today is a whole different story, with developers allowing fans to not only mod their games but also providing tools and kits to enable them to mod their games.

Anyway, back to the 80s. The game in question is Castle Wolfenstein which as well all know, was a huge hit back then. The developer Silas Warner, who was later actually hired by Muse Software (the guys who made the game), had already tried his hand at modding games on the Commodore 64. Basically, he liked adding Smurfs into games. He had decided his next challenge was adding Smurfs into Castle Wolfenstein, because he felt that it was what the game was “missing”. And so, Castle Smurfenstein and its main character Smurfbutcher Bob were born. The Nazi guards were changed into Smurfs, the vaguely German sounding voices they had were now vaguely Smurf sounding voices and there was a new title screen and everything.

Where it all began. With Smurfs. Obviously.

Over the next decade or so, more and more mods started popping up. Of course, they weren’t as potent as the merger of two successful brands, but that was enough to prove that it could be done successfully.

This also lead to a sub-culture within the modding sub-culture (a sub-sub-culture?): demoscene. Basically, the creators used game assets to create stuff. This could be just about  anything, ranging from short videos to new demos.

Like we mentioned above, publishers weren’t too happy about people using their assets. This was basically piracy and copyright infringement, where the public were taking their assets and reselling it. There were so many mods of popular games like Pac-Man and Space Invaders that there was a rise in ‘cracked’ consoles which were able to play the modded versions of those game.

90s and Doom

While the 80s saw the growth of modding, it was in the 90s that modding truly ‘arrived’ at the scene. Doom, which released in 1993, was a gaming landmark. It became immensely popular and of course, resulting from its popularity came the modders and crackers who wanted to have a ‘crack’ at the game’s original source code. Id founders Tom Hall and John Carmack realised this, and unlike the majority of the studios and publishers who did not take kindly to their assets being ‘modded’, they embraced the modding community. Tom Hall and John Carmack realised that modding was just one of the ways in which gamers showed their passion for the games they loved. They released a WAD file which contained all of the textures, sprites and map designs for Doom. This is what would later come to be known as a software development kit or an SDK.

Aliens in DOOM

The significance of this WAD file is massive, as it changed the world of modding forever. Modders no longer had to crack a game’s code open, they were just given everything they needed to adjust the game how ever they wanted to, be it a slight adjustment here and there or a comprehensive overhaul.

Of course, not everyone at Id was happy about this, especially when modded versions of the game, D!ZONE to name one, were making more than the original was. However, Carmack was adamant about giving modders the tools they wanted and desired, which was probably partly because he used to do the same on his Apple II way back when he was a young teenager.

Carmack even said, in the same interview, that many people have come up to him and have expressed that it was thanks to the openness inherent in Doom, and later exhibited in Quake where they were able to fiddle around with the guts and core of the game that actually got them into the industry.

However, there was still a problem. Freeware versions of Doom were selling too well and the retail version of the game wasn’t making anything. So id Software asked its modding community to create content only for registered versions of the game. A thankful community obliged. This mutual understanding that benefited both parties would set the foundations for the future of modding.

Half-Life 3 confirmed? JK

Come 2000s, the world of modding was steadily growing, but it wouldn’t be until the release of Half-Life that modding would really blow up.

Half-Life was Valve’s first title and like Doom, a gaming landmark in its own right with its in-game physics and its then stellar game engine: the GoldSrc engine. It was simply called the Half-Engine by users and developers till Valve came out with the Source engine. The GoldSrc engine was a hybrid engine, which used base code from the first games in the Quake series, and original code created by Valve. Valve constantly added to the engine, including creation tools like WorldCraft, which was popular with Quake modders.

The OG counter-strike, still quite popular today

The modding community embraced the GoldSrc engine, and we saw several titles such as Sven Co-Op, Cry of Fear and more being created. However, none of them were near as popular as a certain mod: Counter-Strike. The mod was a huge success, so much so that Valve went ahead and hired both Jess Cliffe and Minh Le, the people who were behind the mod and acquired the intellectual rights to Counter-Strike. You know a mod is successful when people are modding the mod.

Now you have Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, a hugely successful standalone version of the game created by Valve.

Getting closer to now

Mods are exploding all over the place now. There’s mods, and then there’s mod for popular mods, it’s crazy. However, a certain action-RPG had a growing mod community like no other that were fueling the game with fan-made expansions, updates and complete overhauls. We’re talking Bethesda’s beloved Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. 2002’s Morrowind is to this date considered an epoch in western RPG gaming. So beloved was it, that it is still, even now, got a modding community that’s very much alive and kicking.

Morrowind can look as good as Skyrim with mods.

A few years down the line we saw the release of GTA IV. The much awaited and highly anticipated sequel to the Grand Theft Auto series took its time arriving on PC, with the PC version being delayed by eight months, but we’re a patient lot.

The game came with a brand new engine, the Rockstar Advanced Game Engine, and also with a new animation tool, Euphoria, which had many modders excited.

Forza Hor-what now? This is GTA IV? Oh, ok.

The amount of the customisation available in the game is INSANE. You could tweak just about everything in the game and make graphical upgrades to anything and everything to the point where you could make it look far better than even GTA V. We aren’t kidding. BETTER!

Anyway, that was 2008, now it’s 2009 and Minecraft is upon us. Oh god. Minecraft. What a behemoth. The game itself gives users the power to make whatever they want but it’s the guts of the game that kept people coming back. You could probably call Minecraft the largest ecosystem of users creating content for the game at both the front and back ends. Overhauls for textures, lightning, particle, and even new gameplay mechanics, it was all there and in large numbers. There were numerous way you could play a game that at it’s core, had very simple mechanics.

Raise your hand if you like mods

Around the same time as Minecraft, tactical shooter ARMA 2 was gaining traction. You might not have heard of ARMA 2, but you probably would have heard about DayZ. Which actually started its life as a mod for ARMA 2. It’s a standalone game now, a tactical shooter with zombies in it. It was the mod’s popularity that actually sold the game. You can thank ARMA for the Battle Royal games that have taken the world by storm today as well.

We’re at now, now

Skyrim. The most modded game of all time. Probably. Can you believe that the game came out in 2011? Everytime we boot it up it’s like a new game. But then again, that’s probably because we have around 250 new mods running on it every time. We probably don’t need to tell you the absurdity of the Skyrim mods. The representative image seems to be Thomas the tank engine.

The Macho-Dragon Randy Savage needs no introduction

But what we’re getting at is modding is way more accepted and commonplace now. It’s gone from something that was looked down upon by publishers and developers to something that is an integral part of the gaming industry. Furthermore, it’s a great platform for modders to showcase their skills. There have been many a tale of studios hiring modders, heck a lot of the games you play now and made by developers who at one point in their lives probably enjoying ‘cracking’ games.



Manish "Trigger-Happy" Rajesh

If he's not gaming, he's... no wait he's always gaming.

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