Despite advances in living room gaming, there remains a valley between PC and consoles. When all of the Microsoft and Sony exclusivity agreements expire and content is finally available to all, no one remembers the bitter days of waiting. PC gamers still ride victorious because of one crucial advantage: modding. This weekend, we visited the Alienware Main Stage at QuakeCon’s swanky Hilton Anatole to see Chet Faliszek and Matt Scott of Valve, Bethesda‘s Joel Burgess and moderator Nick Breckon (formerly of Shacknews and now Bethesda’s community manager) discuss why user creation tools are vital to the industry.
Bethesda and Valve continue to support the mod community when so many others have abandoned the practice. The three panelists share the view that a healthy community will inspire a new generation of modders to grow their skills and enter more formalized development environments. Each of the individuals on stage has a history of tinkering with toolsets, and the phenomenon is integral to Bethesda’s culture. According to Burgess,
“Part of the application process is submitting a mod you’ve made for a Bethesda game.”
He even admitted that sometimes he implements things with the intent of modders finishing them. There may be game elements and design decisions that don’t necessary mesh well with the overall theme of the game, but modders can flesh out these elements, or create something that is a complete turn-around of choices made by the original development team. Developers also design games with a general audience in mind, so that difficulty is scaled to be fairly friendly. Mods aren’t under pressure to follow these restraints and can ramp up a game’s challenge or give gamers the flexibility to play as they wish.
The conversation took an interesting turn as the topic of modding tools surfaced. Recently, Valve released the overwhelmingly successful Portal 2 puzzle maker. According to Faliszek, before the puzzle maker’s release, only 6% of the maps (roughly 300 sessions) being played were community developed. Afterwards, the number ballooned to 60% representing 2 million sessions. Portal 2 puzzle maker’s success lays in its simplicity, working with its interface requires only dragging-and-dropping. Yet, despite how easy to use the tool is, it’s also extremely powerful. Valve Level Designer David Sawyer was apparently able to recreate almost every level in Portal 2 with the exception of a few minor details.
Breckon then posed the question of whether or not the fact that the necessary ease of use of mod tools influenced the creation of development tools.
“We don’t go down routes that we know will make it more difficult for us,” says Burgess, but mod tools have been crafted with already a finished product in mind. “We fully didn’t understand Portal 2 until it was shipped,” explained Scott on why the developer tools for Portal 2 weren’t quite as scaled down as the puzzle maker. “Then we could build useful tools.”
However, that doesn’t mean that the companies don’t build their developer tools without some mod sensibilities in mind. They should be built with the intent to develop DLC, so that additional content can be added to the finished product without having to rebuild everything from scratch. That’s a lesson that Valve’s learned the hard way with Left 4 Dead 2, since the game was created with a separate code branch than Team Fortress 2, making it difficult for the company to implement DLC (never mind the fan-favorite hats that have become a staple of the company’s games).
The panel wrapped up with a quick Q&A session. When inevitably asked about advice for modders, all three of them emphasized the iterative process, a concept that most game design schools drive home for their students. With the wide variety of tools available out there for modders, the best thing for someone interested is to simply pick it up and follow the Nike slogan (Just do it!)
“It’s about releasing, getting feedback, and iterating,” answered Faliszek. “You have to decide how to use feedback and work it back into the process.”
Creating and iterating is the way to perfection, simply because it helps cycle through more ideas. It’s best not to beat around the bush because you’re worried about making something of lower quality.
“You’re going to make junk. You’re going to make piles and piles of trash. And you can’t let that discourage you,” said Burgess.
Before closing, there were questions regarding Steam’s upcoming launch of Steam Greenlight. This is a community-driven effort, where developers are free to upload anything they’ve created—be it a part of a game or an entirely new IP—to be judged at the mercy of Steam users. The projects that receive the most positive feedback will be added to Valve’s virtual shelves for purchase. It’s a process that’s beneficial to all parties involved.
Valve will no longer have to deal with reviewing the overwhelming amount of entries submitted to it. Developers will get the publicity from the Steam community (whether or not their game actually makes it onto the Steam store) and the community is able to choose by popular vote what they want to see available on the service. Another audience member wondered whether or not Steam Greenlight would be available for Source mods. Faliszek gave a lukewarm response, since he wasn’t sure what the legal implications of submitting those mods would be. He definitely didn’t want it to be a barrier, but there are issues.
“Someone will submit Half-Life 3,” he joked.
He explained that Greenlight was an entirely new process, and as such he told the crowd,
“We’re iterative on [Greenlight].”
For the future, when Greenlight launches, expect a few rules to be shifted and tweaked as Valve figures out what works and doesn’t work about the experiment.
Though the number of developers that continue to release mod tools and support the scene have dwindled, Valve and Bethesda’s passion and investment in modders almost single-handedly makes up for the deficit. The companies came together to collaborate on the Steam Workshop, an interface that streamlines the process of discovering, aggregating, and implementing mods for games. Their goal was to make mods more user-friendly and to give them more publicity. Looking at the stats that Faliszek mentioned with Portal 2, they’ve been overwhelmingly successful. Hopefully, more developers will follow in Bethesda and Valve’s footsteps and help rejuvenate the PC modding community.
If you are interested in watching the panel in its entirety, GameSpot has a recording available here.
Headline image captured from GameSpot’s recording of the QuakeCon 2012 Talking Shop: Skyrim, Modding and Steam panel.