Is modding a dying art?

Once upon a time, modding was a legitimate (albeit unlikely) path to gainful employment as a videogame developer. The idea was almost like writing and pitching a spec script. You would take an existing game, modify it in such a way to demonstrate your prowess and command, and then hope the original developer (or some other big name) would notice your work and want to hire you.

The reason for this was twofold, according to Robert Yang, of Black Mesa (a complete overhaul of Half-Life) and Radiator (an experimental short-form FPS based on a mod). First, there is a kind of gaming establishment that is walled off and difficult for outsiders to access. Second, making a videogame alone or with a small team is hard work, but making a 3D game is really hard work.

Modding was the best available avenue for a lot of people in a lot of places to not only learn how to make games but to find employment making games, according to Yang. However, he believes that the tides are turning and that modders as we once knew that may be disappearing. The reason? Capitalism and the Unity game engine.

There is a kind of gaming establishment that is walled off and difficult for outsiders to access. 

Yang was clear, with respect to modding, the choice boils down to, “Do you do want to chain your giant project to some framework that someone else controls? Or do you want to use this other framework with very permissive license terms that let you own your work?”

When you mod a game you’re tweaking someone’s existing work. In most cases this violates the end user license agreement (one of the things we just click [agree] on and skip when installing a game). This leaves you with a game that is not legally speaking yours and one that you cannot legally profit from.

This is where Unity comes in. Now, developers no longer need to make their own very complicated and expensive game engine. Unity gives them the tools and engine necessary, free online tutorials, and allows them to profit from whatever they develop. In fact, unless they’re making more than $100,000 dollars they don’t even have to actually buy Unity, it’s free.

Independent developers are also no longer attempting to attract a bigger fish; they are studios in their own right. Republique, The Room 2, DEVICE 6, Gone Home, Kentucky Route Zero, and Kerbal Space Program were all developed using Unity. Not only is Unity providing adequate tools to more and more people, more and more people are making great games with Unity and making Unity their game engine of choice.

While this is all positive for creators, it comes at a cost: that is, the rich spring of artistry that some found in modding. Projects like Black Mesa, Counter-Strike, or the endless iterations of Vampire: The Masquerade are more than just cover versions or technical tweaks; they’re creative works in their own right. They represent countless hours of work and willpower. Though there has been a steady stream of mods to improve and expand Skyrim and Defense of the Ancients became DOTA 2, one wonders how prevalent modding will be with the proliferation of game engines like Unity that allow for creativity and ownership.

However, Yang assures me that there will always be a place for mods and modders, though the community is still shrinking. Many mods, he explained, have become expressions of fandom, slotting the characters or mythos of one canon onto the game engine of another. Others are acts of artistic expression, such as modifications to create machinima or deliberately breaking a game in order to expose it’s “game” qualities. Lastly, there are still a few “total conversion mods”, like Counter-Strike, which strip a game down to it’s engine and rebuild it to the wants and desires of its creator(s). Ultimately, Yang believes that Unity affords game makers an unprecedented level of ownership over their game and has made game making more accessible than ever. “If game development is art,” he said, “anyone can make art. Art is accessible, anyone can pick up a paintbrush and make.”

Indiecade East 2014 was held at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens. Currently at the museum, Indie Essentials: 25 Must-Play Video Games will continue to be on view through March 2.