Kaelin Consulting

Mark W. Kaelin

I have over 25 years of experience in the electronic publishing industry. I was an editor for CBS Interactive for eleven years, where I was responsible for acquiring, editing, and writing technical content for daily publication on CBS Interactive properties TechRepublic.com and ZDNet.com. My duties included the recruitment and development of contributing talent. Prior to CBS Interactive, I was an editor with ProQuest for 12 years, where I developed, designed, edited, and maintained an array of university and business school supplemental curricula products. Before ProQuest, I was a public accountant for five years, specializing in tax preparation and in compilation and review engagements. In addition, I have performed independent consulting services over the last 30 years for various business clients.

Extend your game’s life with mods

Originally published in June 2002.

Historical note: Another non-game review. Looking forward, I think I know why - I was trying to make it through The Elder Scrolls Morrowind. Little did I know at the time, modding was about to become a very big deal.

Let’s face it. Computer gaming is an expensive past time. Game players are spending $40 or more for games these days, not to mention online fees if the game is multiplayer. If the game is single player only, you could conceivably blow through it one week or maybe even one weekend, especially if it is a first person shooter. Buying a new game every other week to satisfy your craving for new game experiences can crimp your budget and cause friction with unsympathetic spouses. Neither of which is ever a good thing.

However, there is a way to extend the playable life of many computer games selling today. Recently, computer games have been shipping with, or have made available via download, resource tool kits that allow players to make modifications to the game itself. Affectionately referred to as “mods,” these changes can range from manipulating the color of a character’s clothes to changing the actual universe where the game is set. In some cases, these tool kits are so powerful that players have made completely new games and made them available for free on the Internet.

A brief mod history

The underlying concept behind mods has actually been around since the early days of computer gaming, only back then mods were created by hacking the game code. For example, many of the games for the old Commodore 64 were written in Basic. It was fairly easy to hack into those games and make modifications in how the game played. It was easy enough that even I could do it. Of course as the games and the systems that ran them became more sophisticated, hacking into them became more challenging. While the games soon became beyond the reach of the novice hacker, they were not beyond other more talented code-breakers. A culture of hacked and modified games developed and in many ways still survives.

Eventually, game developers saw the potential for bringing this hacker/mod community into the open. The developers began to encourage modifications and enhancements, which greatly increased their game’s popular longevity. For id Software and their Doom and Quake franchises, the ability to modify those games in conjunction with the shareware business model, helped define the first person genre and the player community it spawned.

One of my all-time favorite war games, Steel Panthers, was abandoned by its publisher around 5 years ago, but with the help and encouragement of its original developer, the game was modified, improved and is still going strong today. These improvements and modifications were performed by the community of Steel Panther players. The ability to create scenarios and recreate famous battles is an addictive drug for many strategy war gamers. This passion for Steel Panthers extends its life long after it has been abandoned.

The current mod squad

Dozens of more current games are mod-friendly, with the first person shooters leading the way. Extensive online mod libraries can be found for Half-Life, Return to Castle Wolfenstein, Max Payne, No One Lives Forever, Freedom Force, and most other titles in the genre. And the tools to create the mods are readily available. For modern games, Half Life is arguably the one currently sporting the most modifications. I have played a Half Life zombie version, several new single-player missions, a few team-based missions, and a handful of multiplayer scenarios including Counter-Strike. Development teams, well organized and dedicated, have even been created to produce these mods for Half-Life. There are literally hundreds of these mods available from several Internet sites devoted to the enterprise.

Max Payne, with its defining slow-motion “bullet-time” feature has been a natural fit for fans to develop Matrix mods. I played a fantastic mod that recreated the famous building lobby scene from the movie. This mod even included Trinity, scripted to help your Neo in key spots as she did in the movie. Some industrious and slightly-crazed fans are attempting to remake the entire Matrix movie using the Max Payne modification tools. A number of other inventive mods for Max Payne can be found at various Internet sites.

Modifications for other games not in the first person genre are not as prevalent, but they are worth the effort to find and can enhance your game experience. A conquest game like Civilization III always inspires its fans to create new and often impossibly challenging scenarios. The ability to tweak rules, create maps, develop new races, and control scenarios has lead to some interesting and befuddling mods that will feed your addiction all over again.

Traditionally, war games have always been mod-friendly because by their very nature they are designed for creating historic battles and conflicts of which there is an almost limitless supply. Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord, a truly remarkable 3D tactical battlefield game, is notably flexible in its design. Not only can you create new maps and recreate battles, but you can change unit specifications to the minutest detail all the way down to the camouflage. The mod community for Combat Mission is one of the most passionate I have ever come across. Forum flame wars have continued for months on whether some piece of armor was 2.75 or 3 inches thick, for example. This is bizarre behavior, even by my geek standards.

This past month, the traditional role-playing game Elder Scrolls: Morrowind was released (look for a full review in the next issue). This game comes with a complete RPG construction tool set. I emphasize complete. Every aspect of an RPG – quests, NPC dialogue, races, professions, maps, terrain – the works, is customizable. You could conceivably create a completely new role playing game using these tools. And, knowing RPG-players like I do, I’m sure someone or some group is already well on its way to doing just that. I have already seen recruitment postings for developers – this modification business is a serious business.

This is just the tip of the iceberg of course, but you get the general idea. Just because you have played the game that shipped in the box does not mean that you have played all the game you can play. Very creative and slightly crazed fans might have very well created new experiences for you. Go to your preferred online search-engine and do a search for your favorite game and see what is out there. While not all of the mods are top-quality, there are enough good ones to justify the effort. With these mods you may be able to continue playing your favorite game for quite a while. And who knows, maybe you will become one of the crazed and start developing your on mods.