The Mod Squad: Part #1

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The Mod Squad: Part #1
The art and science of expanding upon an original product.

Originally Published on October 10, 2002

Most of you aren’t old enough to remember the original Mod Squad, a sixties television series about a trio of teenage criminals-turned-cops. Armed with badges, bell-bottoms, and bad attitudes, Linc, Pete, and Julie always delivered the goods.

This article isn’t about that Mod Squad. It’s about the new Mod Squad, that mutant breed of computer gamers who take the law into their own hands. Unable to leave things well enough alone, these gurus of geek insist on ripping things apart, spilling out the guts, and putting them back together in new and often better ways.

For those of you not ‘in the know’, mod is computer slang for modification, and those who practice the dark art are called “modders”. What do modders mod? Just about anything.

In the beginning, some gamers weren’t content to simply play games. Discovering that access to certain files allowed them to change various game parameters allowed these amateur “programmers” to modify different aspects of their playing experience. Firepower, victory objectives, and other variables could be altered to suit individual tastes.

Soon after, many realized that First Person Shooters, war games, and many other categories provided the opportunity for customization by anyone who had time, patience, a bit of talent, and a willingness to learn. The means to design new levels meant new life for games like Doom, and the ability to create new scenarios gave gamers the chance to recreate obscure battles that Avalon Hill, SSI, and the other war gaming companies couldn’t find a large enough market for.

The turn of events that followed was inevitable. Amateur level designers, not content to keep their creations to themselves, posted their levels on the Internet. Knowledge of these spread quickly through the gaming community, and gamers flocked to the sites, looking to squeeze some more play out of their favorite titles. A modding subculture was born.

Although some developers and publishers felt threatened by what they saw as an infringement on their copyrighted property, most embraced the new trend, realizing that any game which developed its own community would have longevity and likely be more profitable, which was (from their view) the whole point. To encourage such communities, publishers began including level/scenario editors with their games, some of these the same powerful, full-featured programs used to design the original material. A well-known example of this is World Craft, the professional-grade level editor used by Valve to create the award winning Half Life, arguably the best FPS of its time. World Craft was included with the game right out of the box, and gamers were urged to experiment.

Armed with the proper tools, there is no aspect of a program that talented amateurs can’t modify. And today, there is no stone left unturned in a modder’s goal to make a game “his own”. “Skins”, the physical bodies of player and non-player characters and monsters are altered routinely. Gamers can even insert their own likeness into games like Grand Theft Auto III. Story editors allow role-players to create their own quests in popular RPG’s. Many games can be turned into something completely different from the original designers’ vision.

And now, designers’ visions allow for this. For example, Space Empires IV Gold, a 4X space strategy title similar to Master of Orion II, is the epitome of the customizable game. Players can alter races, ship types, and just about every parameter imaginable, and even supply their own bitmap images for the visuals. The result is that SE4G’s generic universe can, and has been, transformed into dozens of interesting settings including the Star Trek and Star Wars realities. These mods are available online, the products of a large and loyal Space Empires community. In fact, the Gold Edition includes user mods and mod utilities right on the CD, and the game was revamped from its previous iteration based on input from the modder community. The developers went so far as to store data in editable text files for ease of manipulation, and to include a lot of information and resources in the hefty manual, making the game a welcome entry point for first time modders looking to take the plunge.

The ultimate expression of modding is the total mod, or total conversion. Editors like World Craft can be used not only to create levels, but also to change actual game code. The game “Gunman Chronicles” was a total conversion of Half Life, which was designed entirely by amateur modders from around the world who hadn’t met face to face. Almost overnight, the unknowns who called themselves Rewolf Studios became famous in the gaming community, receiving a contract from Sierra to turn their labor of love into a boxed retail product. Unfortunately, Gunman Chronicles didn’t fare well at retail, but those who created it still had their fifteen minutes of fame.

Fame and money, no one can deny that these potential rewards are on the minds of many. Modders harbor the thought that the talent scouts of the gaming industry might recognize them. Richard Gray, also known as Levelord, was an amateur level designer before he was picked up by the industry to work on major projects such as Duke Nukem 3D, a Quake Add-On pack, and Heavy Metal FAKK2. Many amateur “bot” (computer controlled deathmatch opponent) designers became known for developing the most sophisticated and lifelike artificial intelligence for their creations. They too picked up jobs with developers. The shot at fame and a paying job in the games industry provides a major incentive to many gamers to try their hand at design.

The last two groups of modders play with hardware rather than software. The first, motivated by a need for speed, will not hesitate to open up their cases and overclock CPU’s, bus speeds, and Graphics cards. They’re not afraid of motherboard jumper switches and nothing gets in the way of their desire to squeeze the last bit of juice out of their gaming machines.

The second group thinks outside the box- the beige box that is. “Case mods” as they’re called are becoming extremely popular. Oddly shaped and wildly painted computers, many with windows and internal neon light strips are more common now than ever before, as gamers look for new avenues of self-expression. Though many case manufacturers like Antec, and gaming system makers like Falcon-Northwest, are now manufacturing custom cases in a variety of styles and colors, many gamers prefer to go the do-it-yourself route, going so far as to bake their cases in ovens to get an automotive finish on their high gloss paint jobs.

So there it is, an overview of modding in all its forms. The next time you buy a game that comes with an editor, do something different. Don’t just play the game; try your hand at creating something. Go online and get some help from the community that’s waiting there for you. If you create something halfway decent, don’t be afraid to share it with others.

Elias Fixler