Friday, November 1, 2013

Modding's Mighty Influence

This post originally appeared on a blog for a digital culture class. See it here.

One of the major aspects of remix culture that Dr. Burton touched on but didn't have much time to get into is modding. Essentially, modding is digging into the code of an existing game to alter it in some way. Mods range from basic "unofficial patches" that just fix a few bugs that annoy players to complete overhauls that change nearly every aspect of the game such that it's unrecognizable from the original.

Interestingly, modders haven't faced much trouble with copyright issues, and many of the best mods have been adopted by the games' original developers and released as official content. The main reason for this is good mods sell games, and bad mods get ignored. If a mod is good enough, people will buy the original game just to play the mod, so it's in the developers'/publishers' interests to just let the modders do their thing. On the modders' end, it's good for them because it's an easy way to show their coding skills and get it out to a lot of people quickly without having to build a game from scratch.

Just like music remixes, however, mods have produced an entire subculture, and many of the world's most successful games actually began as mods. I'll show you three quick examples: Counter Strike, League of Legends/DOTA 2, and DayZ.

Counter-Strike started as a mod for the immensely popular game Half-Life made by Valve Corporation. Originally a first-person shooter with an impressive story line, Counter-Strike opened up online multiplayer for the game that put a team of terrorists against a team of counter-terrorists each trying to fulfill specific objectives while surviving/eliminating the other team. The mod became so popular that Valve actually purchased it from the original creators (Minh "Gooseman" Le and Jess "Cliffe" Cliffe) and sold it as its own retail product. The game quickly rose to be one of the most popular online games in history, spawning professional leaguesa documentary, and several updates and re-releases of the game that continue today (almost 15 years later). So far, the game has sold over 25 million copies worldwide.

Audience of the Counter-Strike 2008 World Quarter-Finals
(source:  krystianmajewski)
Defense of the Ancients (DOTA)
DOTA is perhaps the most interesting modding story in terms of copyright and intellectual property, as well as altering a game from one genre to another. Originally, DOTA was a mod for Blizzard Entertainment's Warcraft IIIbut the gameplay is so different that it virtually invented a new genre of game. Warcraft was a real-time strategy (RTS) game originally, meaning the player built and controlled an entire army while trying to out-build and out-fight his or her opponent(s) in a contained area known as the map. DOTA echoed that gameplay, but instead focused the player on a single "hero" character, with the computer controlling the base and other units. The game is played as two teams of five control their heroes and work together to gain control of the map and take down the opponents' base. While similar, this gameplay was different enough that it has become its own genre known as the multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA). DOTA on its own was popular enough to become perhaps the most-played game mod in its time, with Blizzard Entertainment officially recognizing it with tournaments held at its annual convention known as Blizz-Con. However, things got weird when Valve, not Blizzard, bought the rights to the mod. Then it got even more complicated when an entirely new game studio called Riot Games developed their own game based on DOTA called League of Legends, which is now the single most played computer game in the world. Valve used the rights to develop a stand-alone game they called DOTA 2,which is League of Legends's biggest competitor. Finally, Blizzard is at last getting around to making its own version of the game which has gone through several names but is now being promoted as Heroes of the Storm.

It is impossible to explain how big these games are in a single blog post. Every number attached to them is in the tens of millions, from daily active players to prize money in tournaments to online/TV viewers just watching the pros play. League of Legends just finished its second world championships at the Staples Center in LA (the same arena as last year's NBA Finals), selling out its over 13,000 tickets in less than an hour. Try checking out this infographic, this article and this video for an intro:

Originally made for the military simulation game ARMA 2, DayZ is credited for a sudden spike of over 300,000 unit sales of the game a full three years after its release. DayZ changes ARMA 2 into an open world massive multiplayer online role-playing (MMORPG) zombie survival game. The game's popularity is in large part due to its unique gameplay. Essentially, you can do whatever you need to do to accomplish a single objective: survive. The game forces you to deal with real human needs like thirst, hunger, and even blood pressure, and interactions between players aren't regulated in any way. If you die in the game, you cannot just respawn and keep going--you have to start as a new character and scrounge around for supplies again. You can even (if you're lucky) go find your old character's dead body and take the stuff you had before if it hasn't already been looted by other players. Because it's so unregulated and realistic, strangely human stories happen within the game. For instance, the game is credited with the world's first MMORPG photojournalist writing stories from within the game world completely in character, and there have even been reports of players being forced into slavery or fighting to the death for initiation into a group. Because of this anarchy and freedom, the game has also been used for research on human behavior in apocalyptic environments. For all this and more, DayZ was the 2012 inductee into the mod hall of fame.

Due to it's popularity, much like DOTA 2 or League of LegendsDayZ is getting a standalone version that won't require players to buy ARMA 2. Unlike those games, however, DayZ's standalone is being built by the same people who built the original mod, and it's due out late 2013 or early 2014.

Like remix culture for other mediums, modding is perhaps where some of the most creativity is happening in games. Fortunately for the games industry, the professionals and big companies seem to agree and actually encourage it. Hopefully, the culture will remain as open and accepting and more and more creative and fascinating projects will come out of modding.

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