A Mod, Mod, Mod World
Issue: Volume: 26 Issue: 3 (March 2003)

A Mod, Mod, Mod World

The world is going interactive—the world of entertainment, that is. US retail sales of video game hardware, software, and accessories exceeded the $10 billion mark in 2002, beating out the record of $9.4 billion set in 2001. If there were ever a recession-proof industry, this would be it.

Now the gaming world is giving fans a chance to take interactivity one step further, by enabling players to modify game characters, environments, even outcomes, and to share their modifications with other enthusiasts. In fact, both game publishers and 3D software vendors, seeing an opportunity to promote sales, are jumping on the bandwagon and supporting die-hard players in their artistic and programming efforts.
Unreal Tournament 2003 from Epic Games ships with UPaint, a customization tool based on Right Hemisphere's Deep Character technology.

The game-modification phenomenon isn't new. But with more game publishers getting on board, more access to better development technology, and the growing popularity of online multiplayer games, it is now moving forward at breakneck speed.

Early in the history of commercial PC gaming, publishers came upon this clever means to keep games forever fresh and evolving. Texas-based id Software is generally credited with being the company at the fore. In 1993, it released Doom, a game that would sell more than a million copies, with total shareware downloads in the tens of millions. The company then went on to make complete sections of the game's source code available to fans, encouraging would-be game designers to create their own levels, or "mods," as the modified versions became known. Fans could distribute their versions of the game, as long as the updates were offered free of charge to other players.

Thus mod creation was born. However, it wasn't until 1999—when id launched Quake III Arena and Epic Software released Unreal Tournament (UT)—that the movement truly picked up steam. Fans of these games were invited to play the revised versions, which were being hosted on the servers of their creators. The only stipulation was that users of the updates had to own a license of the original game.

Some of the artists and programmers in this emerging community were simply making 3D maps for new game levels. But most were going well beyond that, entirely rewriting the mechanics of their favorite titles—including the rules and physics—and offering new forms of play based on the original game engine.

As part of this process, these amateur developers began using professional CG packages to create new characters and build new props, especially weapons. And software companies with an eye on the game-development market began wooing the industry's front-line, the mod makers.

From the perspective of game publishers, modifications of their games increase sales and extend game shelf life. If players start to get bored with a beloved title, they can switch to an alternate version and experience new thrills within the framework of the familiar. Publishers derive a further benefit from this upstart community: an increased game-development talent pool, many of whom are looking to hone their skills so as to make a place for themselves in the industry down the road. In fact, both Epic and id boast that many of their current employees and partners were discovered as start-up mod makers.

These benefits do not come without costs. Companies must put their own efforts into making their games modifiable. For id, this meant releasing source-code libraries and creating a map editor in which to assemble new elements. And for Epic, it meant developing a sophisticated level-design pipeline through which enthusiasts could upload their 3D content using the company's Unreal Editor software.

In addition, a pair of powerful game-development tools, Unreal Editor and Unreal Script, now ship with all Unreal Tournament game CDs. Unreal Editor comprises rendering, audio, physics, collision, and scripting capabilities. "It is the same tool we use to build the Unreal games we sell," explains Epic Game vice president Mark Reins. "We're also giving users UnrealScript, the source code used in the game, from which they can learn and build on as they make their mods."

Meanwhile, a growing number of other game companies are working to put "mod power" into the hands of less technical gamers. A perfect example of this is Maxis, developers of The Sims, which last fall released the modification tool Sims Creator as part of The Sims Deluxe Edition.

Making new game maps, adding textures to characters, and building new arsenals of weapons have always required the use of 2D and 3D art tools. Even those making modifications to UT require third-party software to use in conjunction with Unreal Editor. Until recently, the road block for the game-mod community has been price. In 1999, at the beginning of the mod explosion, programs like Maya still cost $7500, and 3D Studio Max was priced at $3495—far more than most enthusiasts could afford, considering they made no money from their craft.

However, there were 3D applications available over the net at no cost to assist mod builders. Worldcraft—acquired by Valve Software in 1997 for use with the Half-Life title that would be released the following year—was one of the first of these tools. Although containing basic 3D modeling functionality, earlier versions of the software were considered weak in terms of their user interface. However, the functionality of Worldcraft was extended, and in early 2002, the program was re-released under the name Hammer. Still available free of charge, Hammer is used at Valve for both the design and assembly of game-level assets, and it is compatible with the Valve titles Half-Life, Team Fortress Classic, and all Half-Life versions, including the popular Counter-Strike.

Another 3D program available free to gamers is MilkShape 3D, a low-polygon modeler designed for Half-Life, but which now supports other game file formats as well. The software features basic operations and low-level editing functionality.

Given the high cost of CG tools, a good number of early mod developers turned to using illegal versions of the 3D software packages used by the game industry. Since many wanted to train themselves for a career in game development, the majority of those using pirated software picked up copies of Discreet's 3D Studio Max, which was the most popular 3D software in the industry. Discreet, fully aware that illegal versions of its software were available on the Internet, was nevertheless sympathetic to the financial situation of most developers engaged in this fledgling movement. Moreover, the company understood that many of these talented people would soon be finding their way into the gaming industry and would be endorsing the tools they were most familiar with.

Thus, in the fall of 2001, Discreet decided to offer a free version of its software to mod builders. Gmax, as that package is called, incorporates almost all the functionality of the base 3ds max 4 package, minus the renderer—unnecessary for most users. A year later, after more than 300,000 people had installed the first version of the software, Discreet released gmax 1.2. The update included general fixes, a redesigned Material Editor, and a pipeline into the company's new Web tool, plasma, with which users could output gmax content as online-viewable Flash or Shockwave files. Discreet reports that it is currently looking into making "render to texture" and global illumination—features new to 3ds max 5—available in future versions of gmax. As of January, gmax was available for use with 11 popular titles, including Impossible Creatures, Dungeon Siege, Combat Flight Sim 3, and Command & Conquer: Renegade. Support for Unreal Tournament 2003 (UT2003) is expected soon.
Microsoft's Impossible Creatures game is the latest to come bundled with its own game-modification package based on Discreet's gmax software. Images courtesy of Relic Entertainment Inc., & Microsoft Corporation. "Impossible Creatures™" is a tradem

Also new to the scene in fall 2002 was Alias|Wavefront's Maya Personal Learning Edition (PLE), which shipped with the UT2003 CD. PLE was originally launched in February 2002 as a means of providing anyone wanting to learn Maya with access to a free, completely enabled version of the software. It is protected from commercial use by a watermark that appears in the viewports and on rendered images, but the offering has been immensely successful, with more than 225,000 unique downloads of the software tallied as of December 2002.

Originally thought of as a high-end 3D package predominantly used by the film industry, Maya has become increasingly popular with game developers in the past few years—starting with large development facilities and trickling down to increasing numbers of smaller shops. PLE gives those developing UT2003-based modifications full access to the Maya suite of modeling, lighting, texturing, animation, and dynamics tools, as well as the ability to use the software's highly praised MEL scripting language.
Maya Personal Learning Edition is provided free with each copy of Unreal Tournament 2003, giving players access to Maya's suite of modeling and animation tools, including the Maya character-animation toolset.

Most significant is the Maya character-animation toolset, which will allow many to build, and fully animate, playable UT characters for the first time. Once created in PLE, models and animation curves are baked and exported to Epics' Unreal Editor, at which point they lose the PLE watermark.

While Maya PLE is currently available with only the one game, Alias|Wavefront has seen a lot of interest from other developers and is hoping to make further announcements in the not-too-distant future. Additionally, Alias|Wavefront is extending efforts to make all the features on the game industry's "high priority" list available in Maya Complete, and then in Maya PLE.

With the advent of new development tools from the likes of Alias|Wavefront, Discreet, and others, the mod movement could be propelled into high gear. Veteran UT mod maker Neal Kirkwood, for one, is glad to see software toolmakers finally "recognize and embrace us." They should continue to bear in mind, he adds, that the mod community is the future of game development.

Lisa Taylor is a freelance writer based in Ontario, Canada. She can be reached at lisa@pixelcom.biz.

At present, Epic Games' Unreal Tournament is almost without question the most "modified" game title with over 25,000 people building their own versions of the various games in the series. Veteran mod builder Walter Sharrow ascribes UT's popularity to the fact that it is set up like an operating system, with which artists and programmers can modify just about anything and everything to suit their tastes. "The ability to create in-game menus to control each mod in UT is just brilliant," he states. "It gives the players the ability to adjust anything they can imagine, so long as they make those options available." —LT

Mod maker Walter Sharrow built these creatures for Unreal4ever, a series of highly acclaimed games based on Unreal Tournament.

One of the most spectacular mod success stories is Counter-Strike, the wildly popular counter-terrorist game based on the award-winning title Half-Life. Produced by Valve Software in 1998, Half-Life was immediately recognized as a game with superior character and plot scripting. Only one year after the release of Half-Life, the Counter-Strike team began making its mod accessible via the gamespy Web site, www.planethalflife.com. Just as Half-Life had been successful, the multi-player, more team-oriented Counter-Strike also rose to great heights. And the savvy business minds at Valve, seeing this as an opportunity, took the development team under their wing, bolstering their efforts with technical support, marketing assistance, and funding. In the fall of 2000, Counter-Strike was released as a standalone commercial product, and by the summer of 2002, it had sold more than 1 million copies. —LT
Day of Defeat, a WWII-themed game, joins the growing number of modified versions of Valve Software's popular Half Life title.

In the Fall of 2002, AOL opened its first online gaming network, EA teamed up with gamespy to create an online hub for its multiplayer games, and Microsoft released Xbox Live, a means to get players of Xbox games online and battling each other.

With this emphasis on online multiplayer gaming, might not mod making for console games be just around the corner? Walter Sharrow, co-founder of the highly acclaimed Unreal4ever—a set of modified games based on Unreal Tournament—believes the exposure that mods for console games would provide would be highly beneficial. On the other hand, Neal Kirkwood, co-creator of ChaosUT, a series of modified UT games, including ChaosUT Evolution, says this movement to put mod games in the console environment, "personally saddens" him because it will be much more difficult to modify a console game and get it to the end user. "There's little doubt that Microsoft would charge users to download the mods we make onto their Xboxes," he contends.

In terms of technology, Kirkwood is hoping to see more hardware advances while Sharrow emphasizes the need for software that can take advantage of the capabilities of the new graphics cards. "It would be nice to see bump mapping and environmental speculative reflections," he states. "The graphical bar has been raised quite a bit since the days of Quake. People's expectations are higher than ever, and yet it's not any easier to create game elements than it was back then." —LT

Alias|Wavefront www.aliaswavefront.com
ChaosUT www.planetunreal.com/chaotic
Counter-Strike www.counter-strike.net
Discreet www.discreet.com
Epic Games www.epicgames.com
Valve Software www.valvesoftware.com
ChUmbalum sOft www.swissquake.ch/chumbalum-soft
Unreal4ever www.planetunreal.com/u4e

Images courtesy of Relic Entertainment Inc., & Microsoft Corporation. "Impossible Creatures™" is a trademark of Relic Entertainment Inc.