Modders: Bringing Games to Quirky New Levels

Game personalization, or soft modding, has been a hobby among hardcore gamers for at least a decade. In recent years, however, the underground pastime has been gaining popularity, so much that the art of creating a personalized version of a video game is even being taught at summer cyber camps. In 2007, soft modding will hit the big time and go official with the launch of Sony’s LittleBigPlanet.

Through modding, gamers are able to craft a level of personalization not normally built into video games. While games such as “Half-Life,” parts 1 and 2, and “Warcraft 3” encourage players to build a better game, only recently have game developers begun to embrace the trend.

“If you understand the tools, you can go in and create a character that looks quite a bit different than anyone else’s. And for games that provide the ability to create special maps to enjoy and share so that you get a difference experience in the game,” Rob Enderle, principal analyst at Enderle Group, told TechNewsWorld.

In the Beginning

The first real breakthrough in video game modding came with the release of the first-person shooter “Doom” in 1993, gaming guide author David Hodgson, told TechNewsWorld. “Doom” was one of the first video games released as shareware that allowed gamers to try out the game by playing a sample. If they liked it, they could head to the store and pick up the full version.

“What they also did was they created an SDK, a software development kit, that was like a rudimentary map-making tool that you could change the texture of the walls if you wanted and were technically-minded,” Hodgson explained.

“‘Doom’ was pretty good at about [personalization], where you could create custom ‘Doom’ maps that people would trade back and forth. You could have unique battle experiences by going and playing with those maps,” Enderle noted.

As a result, gamers with a bit of extra time on their hands could make their own maps that they were then able to play within the game — shooting demons, etc. — without fear of violating the games end user license agreement (EULA). Personalization became so popular, Hodgson noted, that computer magazines began including CDs of content users had created with their monthly issues.

“That happened gradually and continuously until the release of ‘Half-life’ in 1998,” he continued.

The first-person shooter “Half-Life,” released by Sierra Studios, also included a much more robust SDK for anyone who wanted it — for free. Game designers Valve Software licensed the “Quake” engine from Id Software.

A modding community sprouted up around the game almost as soon as it was released. The modifications on the game started simply enough with gamers able to shoot rodents instead of humans and quickly evolved to include hundreds of modifications to the game engine.

“For example, one guy was asked by the Discovery Channel to create a submarine game — which he did — using the same engine but making his own texture maps and his own graphics,” Hodgson said.

Growing in Popularity

“Half-Life: CounterStrike,” a team-based, first-person shooter for PCs, was originally a modification to “Half-Life 2” created by Minh Le and Jess Cliffe.

“All of these modifications began in the PC community,” Hodgson noted, “and then there were offshoots. The first offshoot was mods and the second was ‘Quake’ and ‘machinema.'”

Machinima, a play of words on machine cinema, is when people create their own comic or movies that have in-game graphics. It began with a “Quake”-related comic that later on became a video. That culminated in perhaps the most famous machinima animation series, “Red vs. Blue.” The series of animated videos took characters from “Halo” and cast them in comedic situations for a series that, since its debut in April 2003, has released four seasons on DVD.

“Basically, all that is tweaking the in-game graphics, and putting a soundtrack and voice up is a type of modification,” Hodgson pointed out.

“It started with ‘Doom’. Exploded with ‘Half-Life’. And then it’s sort of gradually become a part of the home brew community. It is a cool way for people to teach themselves before joining the game development community; it’s also a hobby for others,” he added. “It’s a good way for people to showcase their talents as well.”

Get ‘Em Young

These days, software modding takes various forms, with personalized skins, avatars, specially-designed clothing and more, Van Baker, an analyst at Gartner told TechNewsWorld. It has even made it into the online gaming world of PlayStation Network and Xbox Live, with gamers displaying their game accomplishments, badges and weapons.

“The ability to show where you sit in a league or a ladder if it’s a sports related thing; what your best score is in a game, that’s personalization too,” Baker noted.

Microsoft kicked off the most recent round of interest in game modding with the release of its free download Microsoft XNA, a set of tools intended to facilitate computer game design, development and management.

“They’ve had a number of competitions and at least a quarter million downloads. It has put game development tools in the hands of lots and lots of people in the hope that a select few of them will bring a breakthrough title or demonstrate enough talent that they will be recruited by one of the major game developers,” Baker said.

Microsoft has created a community for its XNA developers where they can receive feedback on newly developed games with other community members recommending improvements and directing the author to links for the suggested add-ins.

“It ends up creating a much better game by virtue of the fact that the community works together and helps each other out and leverages each others code bases and makes for a better gaming experience with the end result ultimately being hopefully some surfacing talent or content that the major publishers might be interested in,” Baker explained.

Children as young as 12 years old can get in on the action and learn to design their own games or mod games such as “Half-Life 2” and “Warcraft 3” at summer Cybercamps held around the country. During a one-week session, campers work on their own projects and learn the core concepts behind game design. The courses include the introductory “Game Design” and build up to “3D Game Creation,” “Game Modding: ‘Warcraft 3′” and “Game Modding: ‘Half-Life 2.'” They’re perfect for children who have an interest in gaming industry careers, according to Cybercamps.

“[Modding] adds a lot to the game play and helps kids learn how to program. It’s not only entertaining and fun, its actually educational,” Enderle pointed out.

Enter Sony

Set for release this fall, Sony’s “LittleBigPlanet” brings modding into the mainstream. In the game, developed by Media Molecule, players start by learning about their character’s powers to interact physically with their environment. Gamers can explore places, collect creative resources and solve puzzles in order to advance to the next level.

Players can craft their own individual experience using their creativity. The game also offers an unlimited number of possibilities for user-generated content with players able to personalize everything from their characters to the landscape in their part of “LittleBigPlanet.”

Aside from a cool game for PlayStation 3, “LittleBigPlanet” is a way for Sony to get children engaged in the games and create a level of loyalty that goes beyond the gameplayer, according to Enderle.

“They think about the game itself and are also able to customize the experience as well,” he continued. “It’s a way to get folks interested in aspects of the gaming experience that otherwise would not be open to them.”

Personalization has been and continues to be a growing trend in the video game industry. Enderle expects developers to release more games from which gamers can create a personalized experience.

“Initially, the efforts were about personalizing the game and treating it like a game feature — you could modify the game, you could personalize the characters and the experience, making the game more attractive,” Enderle said.

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