Video game mods: essential or illegal?

You bought the game, why not mod it to death?

Game modification has gained incredible momentum over the last ten years. Big publishers and developers such as Bethesda have embraced their modding communities for Skyrim and Fallout by making an official storefront on all formats for them, an industry first for consoles. From modding’s origins in European demo scenes to Steam Workshop allowing talented enthusiasts to sell their work to players, is the practice safe and legal overall?

The clear divide in modding communities is altering gameplay to gain a competitive advantage in multiplayer games. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 1 and 2 both suffered massive dents in their online experiences during their original releases. Savvy players could use auto-aim, spawn walls and more or less ruin the experience for other players. 

Rockstar/Take-Two recently made headlines with GTA Online, paying a modder $10,000 for improving load times. Whilst this is a great way to encourage future developers, GTA Online suffers unfair modding practices that break the game for regular players.

It seems that Take-Two only pays attention to the underbelly of modding when it harms their intellectual property. Modding communities RE3 and REVC both received a DMCA notice, courtesy of Take-Two, for reverse engineering GTA III and Vice City source code. The communities are volunteer-based Grand Theft Auto fans who wanted to expand and remaster the aforementioned games for fans worldwide. Perhaps enthusiastic modders such as the RE3 and REVC teams should stick to using their own assets in future endeavours. Bigger volunteer projects such as ‘Skyblivion’, a Skyrim mod set to bring Oblivion’s content into Skyrim’s engine, ensure this cardinal rule is never broken.

As of now, software modding, in general, is legal, providing it doesn’t infringe a product’s copyrights. For example, modding a game to circumvent anti-piracy measures (DMCA) isn’t cool. However, morphing Alduin into a deformed Macho Man Randy Savage is a-ok. 

The origins of game modding are all thanks to The Smurfs. Serving as a parody to the Nazi-slaying Return to Castle Wolfenstein, Return to Castle Smurfenstien allowed players to kill Smurfs instead. Keeping the trend of modding ID Software titles, DOOM also started as a Wolfenstein mod. The developer would later release tools for players to design their levels by using .WAD files full of skins, textures and more.

Finland’s demo scene in the late 80s and early 90s also played a part in making modding what it is today. Computer science buffs would attend events such as Assembly to show off their latest software manipulation feats. From its origins manipulating Amiga and IBM computers, Assembly has grown in popularity. Its last physical event was held in Hartwall Areena in Helsinki, with over 5000 visitors and 3500 computers present on the ice rink floor at its peak. Competitions include music, short film and ‘old Skool’ demos.

‘Second Reality’ was a graphics demo that showed IBM PCs’ untapped power back at the Assembly Demoparty in 1993. The team behind Second Reality, Future Crew, would go on to form Remedy Entertainment. Studios such as Lionhead, Techland and Guerilla Games all have demoscene veterans in their ranks. Again, modders of the demo scene used their own code and assets to manipulate hardware and software. This is a legal practice in most countries providing it doesn’t infringe any copyright laws.

During the 90s, modding communities began to emerge online, providing a hub of resources never seen before for PC gamers. This made developers such as Valve think about the future of gaming. As a result, Valve was well known for using modding tools such as Half-Life creator to find staff members.

It worked wonders for the company, with Half-Life mods such as Portal, Team Fortress Classic/2 and Counter-Strike becoming full-fledged titles in their own right.

The inception of developers embracing modding communities opened the doors to the legality of modding. With tools being made specifically for the practice, it became easier for modders to flex their creative muscle. Nexus Mods is a household name for game modders today, with around 1200 titles catered to in its website network. Nexus mods started as an Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind fansite, Morrowind Chronicles by Robin Scott back in 2001.

After some growth and expansion, Scott went on to form TESSource and ultimately TESNexus after a split with a former friend due to financial reasons. TESSource/Nexus provided an online library of mods of Elder Scrolls games for players to download/upload for free. This service later expanded and is still the go-to for modders today.

Seeing the popularity of modding servers/sites, Valve decided to evolve its PC gaming platform offering by launching the Steam Workshop. Featuring easy to install mods and more exposure for modders than ever before, 2011 was the start of accessible modding for many gamers. Starting with Skyrim, Valve later allowed modders to sell their hard work. The introduction of services such as Steam Workshop provides controlled environments for mod installation which also deters illegal modding activities such as circumventing copy prevention. 

Bethesda has always taken pride in empowering gamers with creation kits and modding tools for Elder Scrolls and Fallout titles. It was taken one step further in 2017 with console mod support. PlayStation 4 mods could only use in-game assets, Xbox One players, for a plethora of game improving and changing mods curated by Bethesda. It solved an immense frustration for Elder Scrolls and Fallout fans worldwide who played on console. Holding modding communities in controlled eco-systems such as allows developers more control over their intellectual property. Rather than giving players free rein over their assets, Bethesda can curate content internally.

All signs point to the modding community becoming more inclusive. Developers seem to be embracing the movement for their single-player titles but have become stricter against copyright infringement and cheating modifications. Developers and online stores creating their own eco-systems for modding is an effective technique, and it presents gamers with a user-friendly interface. Let’s hope this space in the games industry stays accessible.

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