GDC Session: Bethesda Studios Talks the Importance of Modders

Joel Burgess, Senior Designer at Bethesda Game Studios gave a talk this week at GDC 2015 over modding in video games, and some of the unique benefits a strong modding community can have on your game, including adding longevity to a title, as well as even to help sell the game. He also gave some helpful tips and insights into how modding has actually made Bethesda better. The first experience Joel Burgess had with modding was in Duke Nukem 3D, after some tinkering he made a crummy level with very basic textures inside of Duke Nukem 3D. This was all from the Duke Nukem Level Design Handbook that gave him access to a unique tool. This not only drew him back into games, but peaked his interest by allowing him to make unique levels for his favorite games. Often times aspiring developers may convince themselves that they aren't smart enough, or they can't program therefore they can't make games. The game industry has grown much larger and now programmers are creating easier to use tools that would empower other people on their teams. Games are no longer being made by an individual programmer, they are often being made my large teams  of six, twelve and even hundreds of people. Modding provides a different level of engagement from the players, it goes a step beyond just consuming games, but not as far as to create games either, it's the middle ground where a person wants to learn how games work, and to be able to tinker with them. The modding scene provides a place for aspiring game designers to get their training wheels on and learn how to create and experiment with an existing game. Modding is not something that is a thing of the past, that was only done on games like Half Life or Elder Scrolls, but it still is important and has a large impact on the industry. There are different levels of mods, total conversions that change virtually everything within the game, or level packs that just adds more content, or even HD mods that add higher resolution assets. That being said, they are all still considered mods in that they are some sort of after market modification that a user makes to the game. The golden era of modding was in the mid to late 90s and early 2000s where every game would ship with mod tools and it was an extremely hot topic within the community. It was extremely attractive to those who wanted to create and learn game design. During this time mods were the perfect junction point between the cutting edge technology at the time and accessibility. In this time period, if you were serious about computer graphics you needed some pretty serious hardware. The SGI machine from 1997 cost $75,000, and 3ds Max at $3,500 was out of the range of a hobbyist. Many people were excited about video games and the idea of computer graphics, but at that time it was nearly impossible to get the experience. Suddenly a game like Unreal launches for $50 running on most PCs and it includes a free level editor. All of the sudden you have a massive influx in the community where everybody now has the capabilities of experimenting with game design. Modders are able to all kinds of ideas, big, small and even strange, these ideas can stick. Gunman Chronicles was picked up by Valve. Mods help launch careers, many notable game designers all started by first modding their favorite games. Nowadays Mod teams are becoming entire game development studios. Look at the mod team on DayZ, it started out as an Arma 2 mod and grew into its own IP, or games like Homefront. DOTA 2 and League of Legends all started out as a Warcraft mod, these are new types of games that may not have existed without the modding community. We are seeing more companies embrace the idea of modding, or letting the player create their own unique levels. Look at Halo 3 at the inclusion of Forge mode, which basically allowed the player to create their own unique levels in a giant sandbox that gave them all the tools they needed to bring their creations to live. This spawned levels that would have never been created had it not been for the players experimenting with Forge mode. Often player created levels even made it into the map rotation in matchmaking. In 2002 when Marrowind was released by Bethesda, it was the first game from the studio that included official modding tools provided by the developer. Marrowind included the game, and it also included the editor along with it. That decision really helped to establish the modding community for Bethesda Studios, and it was so successful that in 2005 when Oblivion came out they continued to release updated versions of the modding tools. They did the same for Fallout 3 and Skyrim. Even though Bethesda Studios had moved on to a brand new engine for Skyrim they kept the modding community in mind and made sure that the new editor felt very similar to the previous version, so that the modders could jump right in and not be overcome by a completely new engine. Some of the more obvious benefits of mods is that they can help build a strong community for your game, but it also can add longevity to a title and even increase sales significantly. When you have a thriving modding community it can extend the lifespan of a game. If you look at a game like Marrowind that came out in 2002, seven years after the game launched you could still find it in a store for $20 to $30. Bethesda Studios is known for releasing games with a significant amount of content, but once you introduce a healthy modding community to it, you theoretically have an infinite amount of content in that game, which increases its shelf life. It's apparent just how beneficial modders can be to a game, and not only should it be something to consider implementing into your own games, but as an aspiring game designer, modding can be an excellent way to get your feet wet and experiment with game design.