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A People's History Of The FPS, Part 2: The Mod

"the modder-industry relationship"

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“A People’s History” is a three part essay series that argues for a long-standing but suppressed tradition of amateur involvement in the first person genre. This is part two. Here’s part one.

“Amateur” may mean unprofessional or of lower quality, but it’s also French for “lover.” Even if it’s difficult and time-consuming, even if you’re 15 years old and you have to figure out this complex physics engine to try out a cool idea you have — it’s because you love it.

I was 15 when I joined Nightwatch, an epic Half-Life 1 mod made by a dream team of veteran modders, replete with new weapons, voice acting, monsters, scripted sequences, and a 10 hour single player campaign with 99% custom art. We were the Black Mesa Source of the Half-Life 1 community, except we never released anything.

Maybe that’s because we didn’t really love modding. In fact, we hated modding.
Well, we loved game development, but we slightly resented our status as amateurs when we were already producing “professional quality” work. Many of us aspired to “break into” the AAA game industry, and working on a mod to develop a portfolio was one of the entrances.

Basically, we modded because modding meant you could quit modding.

At the time, there had already been a long history of mods going retail (Doom Master Levels, Final Doom, Team Fortress Classic, etc.) and of modders going professional (Tim Willits at id from Master Levels; Dario Casali at Valve from Final Doom; Robin Walker at Valve from Quake Team Fortress — and fun fact, on April 13th, 1997, TF 2.5a was the first FPS to have headshots. We should celebrate Headshot Day.)

So people kept leaving Nightwatch to join various first person studios with non-compete clauses: Raven, Gearbox, id, Infinity Ward, Splash Damage, Valve. But of course, our mod failed for many reasons, and staff turnover was just one contributing cause. Besides, how can you stay upset at someone for fulfilling their dream and achieving success for their hard work?

Indeed, modding was quite a lot of work, and the nature of the work kept changing too:

A “new monster” in Doom was a reskinned demonhog with increased movement speed. In Half-Life, a “new monster” entailed a custom modeled .MDL with UVs / textures / animations as well as C++ hooks for the squad AI to access animations, bone controllers, and weapon attachments. And now in Source, many modders feel a “new monster” requires them to bake a high-poly sculpt down to a normal map, configure ragdoll properties / joint constraints, and script response rules for lip-synced voice-over to react with battle line / squad assault coordinators… and so on.

This increase in production followed conventional wisdom: that making games was getting harder and more expensive with each engine generation, and thus so must modding. It suggests the escalation was inevitable when, in fact, it wasn’t.

We forced mods to get bigger. We started saying that all characters SHOULD have high poly sculpts, that textures SHOULD have high resolution normal maps, that mods SHOULD have a custom menu screen, a new HUD, and different crosshair designs. And when we defined add up all these “shoulds”, they often had more to do with what looked like an AAA game because that’s where we wanted to work. “It doesn’t even look like a mod!” was (and still is) one of the highest compliments your posed marketing screenshot could garner, yet a “total conversion” was regarded as the ultimate mod, the moddiest mod.

The best mods didn’t want to look like mods. Nothing exemplifies this attitude better than the production porn of Half-Life 2 mods: mod teams publishing renders of benches, trash heaps, planks, and mundane light fixtures. They wanted to emphasize the sheer amount of time and effort lavished into realizing even the most trivial of details, just like a real AAA game.

That’s because we had an inferiority complex. We were obsessed with compensating for our weaknesses (lack of asset production capability, no funding, no on-site coordination, no proven credibility or esteem) so much that we constantly forgot our strengths (quick iteration, no stakeholders to answer to, a ready-made library of retail assets to use) despite Valve pleading, please don’t try to copy the game industry.

Compared against the wild frontier of early Doom modding dominated by veteran hackers / open-source renegades appropriating pop culture without permission, this era of modding was tamed farmland where teenagers manufactured countless AK-47s to varying degrees of accuracy. We were poorly run factories with a 99% failure rate.

Now, domestication does offer many benefits for the domesticated. Domestication is bad for some things, but great for other things:

Common values and engines allowed us to build communities long before the critical mass of engine libraries that made today’s indie games scene possible, and I still keep in touch with modders who are now in the industry. We learned a lot from each other, and we were perhaps the last large generation of self-taught game developers. Also, it was awesome to have an army of professionals develop stable engine technology, balanced combat mechanics / weapon feel, and gather asset libraries for us to use — the game industry was doing a lot of heavy lifting and kind of making our own games for us.

Which was convenient, because most of us wanted to make what the industry made anyway.

This “Silver Age of FPS modding”, stretching approximately from early Quake mods to the twilight of Source Engine modding on Source SDK Base 2007, was marked by the mod community’s synchronicity with the AAA game industry’s value system. It celebrated conceptually slight deviation from the manshooter template, high asset production capacity, advanced technical expertise, and perceived hyper-realistic visual polish. This process domesticated modders and prepared them for possible recruitment into the AAA industry, thus separating amateur professionals from professional amateurs in the community.

I’m not saying people still don’t make large total conversions, or that this value system is obsolete. There will be plenty of modders to remake City 17 in Source 2, due for release in 2018. When I say “mods are dead,” I mean that this “Silver Age” concept of the mod is much less prominent and relevant to younger modder communities today. Many people don’t think about mods like this anymore, though it’s okay if you do. It’s just… problematic.

Because these days, the modder-industry relationship is much more complicated. Studios are closing and the AAA industry is consolidating; laid-off and burnt-out veterans leave the industry with cautionary tales and war stories. The common practice of mandated work on weekends / associated sleep deprivation, or “crunch” in the game industry, has been publicized and deromanticized by whistleblowers. It’s enough to give pause to aspiring amateurs and students, to suggest that breaking into the AAA industry might be like breaking into a prison.

So if you’re not modding to get into the industry, then why mod? What, because you love it?

Next time, part 3: the Golden Age of FPS modding, when modding drifts further away from the AAA value system and develops its own aesthetics and purposes.

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