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A People's History Of The FPS, Part 3: The Postmod

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

The graph above shows the total post count for a number of FPS modding forums from February 2001 – July 2012 that I sampled primarily from Archive.org snapshots. Though activity doesn’t always correlate with total post count, the nearly horizontal flattened lines from left to right, suggest less output and a dying community.

The tall red line is the outlier. It needed its own graph on the right because this mod community was bigger than the combined corpses of every single FPS mod community that ever came before it in the history of video games.

The tall red line is the modding section of MinecraftForum.net

(Take whatever conception you had of Minecraft’s popularity, size, and culture — then multiply that inkling by a thousand, and you’re close to imagining its magnitude.)

In parts one and two, I’ve argued that FPS modding was quickly transformed from its roots in subversive, experimental, and unregulated design practice into a domesticating tool to farm amateur developers for the AAA game industry. But as Minecraft now shows, the AAA game industry must now share this control with an emerging indie game industry / cultural phenomenon.

If you’re a fresh cohort of graduates from Digipen, do you try to get a job at Bungie, or do you try to “go indie” with a first person puzzle game in UDK or something? Do you choose the normal mapped door, full of stable wages, soda, and crunch time — or the pixelated door, of relative poverty, a shot at an IGF trophy, and “creative freedom”?

As the industry and indie fight each other, the amateur profits. Or maybe both forces are fighting for custody over the amateur. Either way, the tension is beautiful and disgusting, elegant and messy. I’m going to plead uncertainty here: I don’t think I can decide what is causing what, or who is good and who is a traitor to all video games.

Will the AAA industry consolidate and collapse? Will indie games remain relatively niche with rare successes? Will consoles be more open or more closed, vs. Windows / OSX? Will mobile take over everything?

Until the future happens, I can’t really untangle the connections, so all I can tell you is what I’m seeing as somewhat isolated fragments:

I see more mods getting automated distribution from centralized databases. Before, you had to wait in line to download a .ZIP from the late Fileplanet or HL2Files.biz. One of Steam Workshop’s strengths has been how both uploading and downloading mods are as simple as possible… it sure beats trying to get my files seeded across mirrors for several days.

I also see more modding becoming more modular. Mods for the “trinity” (HL1 / Q3 / UT) were usually walled gardens that functioned as isolated games. These days, you can blindly download 200 random Skyrim mods and watch them collide; combinations of mods become new mods in themselves. The ongoing struggle to maintain compatibility requires more communication between modders, and thus a stronger community. Usually.

I see more mods making critical arguments. One of the first Doom 3 mods was the Duct Tape mod, reversing id’s choice to make the flashlight a separate weapon. Some of the first Skyrim mods were barely veiled design criticism: try Less Condescending Guards, Auto Unequip Arrows, or Divine Punishment. Note that modularity (see above) made mods as speech more sustainable because who’d download and activate Better Vampire (which says “the original vampire stats suck”) if it meant you couldn’t play other mods? What if instead of writing text reviews for games, we wrote reviews in the form of rule changes, modding the game to prove that, yes, the AK-47 was too powerful? Isn’t criticism just a design document for a better game?

I see maps and servers acting as mods. The right to host our own dedicated servers was about the right to promote conc map culture in Team Fortress Classic, low gravity servers and surf maps in Counter-Strike Source, achievement maps in Team Fortress 2… and fake achievement trap maps in Team Fortress 2. These maps are mods because they significantly reconfigure game rules and social norms of acceptable play. Surf maps require very different skills from high-level CPL play, for example.

I see modding as conceptual art. You probably never played the fake achievement Kittygeddon trap map in Team Fortress 2 or the 16-bit ALU computer world made in Minecraft, but you’ve probably seen the video. Among late Doom modders, there’s even a “Joke WAD” genre where people compete to outdo each other in making an awful, poorly designed level. Yes, it’s important that these were playable and that they exist, but it’s not as important for you to play them yourself. These mods were made to exist as stories and videos, and that’s usually how they’re consumed.

I see mods in post-amateur/professional divide. The team leader of Black Mesa Source, Carlos Montero, is an art lead at Cryptic Studios — which means an industry veteran has led one of the biggest, most complicated amateur projects in the history of FPS mods. He probably wasn’t modding to get a job he already had. Industry status is irrelevant; we’re all amateurs.

So we’re at the point when history is what happened 5 seconds ago, but it takes time to realize what exactly happened. Game development history is important because it’s the story we tell ourselves, why we are the way we are. This is the collective story and its values that we’ll embody. It’s the same reason why any history is important.

History is more than what John Carmack did on a certain day, as important as that was — history is also certain clans pioneering new strategies on dod_caen, or the rise of fy_iceworld. Did you know people have been modding Asian women into NBA games? How many stories are out there, and how many mods?

If my mom asked me what mods were, I’d have to think about it for a while, then respond, “Well, they’re maps with embedded Turing-complete logic systems that you ‘subscribe to’, made by professional game developers in their spare time, but most people just watch them on YouTube instead.”

Well, hmm, that’s not really accurate.

Maybe we could call these things “postmods” as a play off of “postmodern”, these things that are complicating our understanding of mods, blurring lines and distinctions to the point that we can only reliably label them as “things.”

Let me be clear in my usage: I’m not saying Steam Workshop or ModDB should roll-out a “postmod” category. In fact, it doesn’t really matter what you call them, just as long as you understand that shit is changing.

Whatever mods or “mod culture” is or will be, it’s bigger than some silly industry vs. indie battle and it’s bigger than the platform wars. I’m just trying to emphasize that we’re on the brink of something different and fantastic here, a place where we’re thinking of games less as fixed products / spaces that “gamers” and players consume, but instead as a conversation with everyone all at once that expands if people want it to.

It’s games as graffiti, games as a circus, games as a potluck dinner — games transcending art and becoming culture, generated and sustained by people.

Doesn’t that sound pretty?

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