“I think we’re coming full circle, but mods 20 years ago when I first started are extremely different to what they are today,” says Scott Reismanis, founder of ModDB and co-founder of mod.io. “The major difference is that 20 years ago if you wanted to make a gameplay experience or a piece of content, you pretty much couldn’t.”
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Reismanis launched ModDB 18 years ago, fuelled equal parts by love for community creations and mods alongside the feeling “that there was just no great way for people to collaborate” and share their work properly. Since then he co-founded mod.io in 2017 in an effort to bridge the gap between modding communities and the game developers themselves, essentially providing mods with an official endorsement.
“20 years ago it was total conversions” continues Reismanis, which are when the core of a game is used to create something almost entirely new. “But now it’s much smaller, as you can share and consume [mods] via digital distribution. Having said that I think we’re now approaching this tipping point where we are actually going to go back to that total conversion.”
“At the moment it is much easier to modify an existing game and appeal to the already existing audience that the game has, so I think we’ll see bigger and bigger creations emerge,” he adds.
Counter-Strike was a total conversion of Half-Life, making an esports giant from a revolutionary first-person shooter, but you don’t see many creations like it in the industry now. Especially not ones with the same amount of mainstream industry success. DayZ, the modded version of Arma 2 released in 2012, is one of few recent examples, but you can still feel its effects today, as a battle royale mod for DayZ is directly responsible for PUBG and by extension Fortnite, Apex Legends and Call of Duty: Warzone too.
“Now the industry is about shipping to the community themselves, and the best way to engage them is through content, giving them more of what they want,” adds Reismanis, as the rise of community-driven games has shifted how many developers view mods and user-generated content. “Every underlying trend in the game industry has been pushing in that direction, whether it’s subscription services, or adding content instead of individual games.”
To Reismanis, giving players the tools and letting them almost create the game for themselves is just the natural evolution of the industry. He says that Microsoft has it with Minecraft, PlayStation has it with Dreams, and Nintendo has it with Mario Maker. “From here it’s only going to get bigger and bigger,” he continues, “and success stories like Roblox are only going to push people in this direction to prioritise it.”
User-generated content games like Dreams and Roblox might be the evolution of modding, but these titles by no means eclipse modding itself. Mods are still everywhere, with publishers often taking down mods for decades-old games. Just this last year Take-Two has been repeatedly taking down Grand Theft Auto mods, so I asked Reismanis about how both publishers and modders can interact with one another in these scenarios.
“It’s a difficult relationship to navigate,” Reismanis began to explain, “because every company has different rules. Some companies can give grace and love fan-made content, or it’s like, ‘as long as it’s not commercialised and it’s respectful to our brand go for it’. Whereas other companies, they may have commercial sensibilities, they might be mindful of maintaining their copyrights and other things, that sort of, I suppose, influences some of the decisions that they’ve made.”
Reismanis says modders should still push boundaries, but be fully aware of a companies historical stance and be prepared to become a part of the “balancing act”. He says this means modders should “recognise that the more you’re pushing, probably there is always that element of risk that you might be pushing in an area that someone else might take issue with.”
At this point I asked Reismanis about a more permanent solution, as publishers and developers not liking mods doesn’t mean they’re going away any time soon. “It’s each to their own really,” he says, “for some of these games that are well and truly end of life and there’s not really much of an opportunity cost I absolutely think you should let modders use them as I think it’s a chance to really support them.”
That solution is not as simple for a number of games though, as Reismanis elaborates that “there will be some studios where that idea is in conflict with what they’re doing, they might be behind a live service game and certain mods would fragment their audience, then that’s a different conversation. They will have built a platform that all their players need to be in, and creating a derivative version of it would then pull their community out of it.”
Commercial sensibilities from publishers aren’t the only roadblock mods have to face, as modding sites themselves can also exercise a degree of control over content. I pointed Reismanis to the bizarre situation around NoSkyrim, a mod taken down from Nexus Mods seemingly for just stopping you from playing Skyrim.
“I think that it’s always healthy for any modding system that does allow people to submit any content to have its code of conduct defined,” explains Reismanis, as this can help prevent mods from accidentally breaking any predetermined rules. “At the same time, it should operate in a world where it tries to enable and keep an open mind with everything, but at the point when something isn’t following that code of conduct and is flagged, then there should be a conversation about it.”
These communities can also be self-policing, Reismanis adds, to a point where the most popular mods rise to the top naturally. “The staying power and the design of the site is really important in that a good design means that anything that is a sort of flash in the pan doesn’t need to be given much consideration, because it’ll inevitably fade away while good content will be endearing because there will be great cause for discovery.”
To Reismanis, this notion of discovery is a two way street, as developers of some games can rely on their players to create content for others to engage with, whilst the players themselves have more creative control over the game itself. Reismanis pointed to Valve as being the best example, explaining how the studio has been operating both lanes successfully for decades.
“I think there is a good reason as to why Valve is quite receptive to the modding and creator community, their two biggest games were made by modders, so Dota and Counter-Strike. Valve has continuously identified someone doing something really awesome, but different, and then gave them the resources and the time and the backing to fully realise that vision, and it has worked extremely well for them.”
Portal is an excellent example, as Valve saw students showcasing the portal technology in an original game at a careers fair and embraced the project. Granted this wasn’t a mod, but Valve still spotted talent and nurtured it, as some publishers do with community creations.
“You look at most games,” Reismanis continued, “and there’s usually always a tipping point where they start to decline, but games that embrace communities, content, and their creators tend to do the inverse by always sort of building momentum.”
Embracing communities and the content they make around the games they play unlocks an untapped part of a player base, Reismanis tells me. “One of the best things about enabling modding and user-generated content in your game is that there is always a percentage of your players, and it may not be large but it doesn’t need to be, that just enjoy creation more. There are players who are consumers and just want to engage with the game itself, and players that want to be a part of the building and creative expression instead.”
Reismanis says that creative expression is what makes mods so special in the first place. “I don’t think I’ve talked to a single mod creator ever that’s working on a project that isn’t just doing it for the love of the game,” says Reismanis. “They aren’t coming from anywhere but a place of passion and fandom.”
Will Nelson is a member of NME’s gaming news time and a regular contributor to the site