We like tinkering with things. Not just gamers, but humans as a whole, are natural-born fiddlers. A few million years ago, some proto-human fashioned the first hammer, and a few million years after that, the Wright brothers machined their way toward the miracle of flight. Then, in the 1980s, a team of curious gamers turned the Nazis in Castle Wolfenstein into Smurfs, for no other reason than Smurfs seemed like a more worthy threat than the Third Reich.

Castle Smurfenstein – yes, seriously – was one of the very first mods to earn mainstream attention and arguably planted the first seeds of what would become a vibrant modding scene, one that still thrives today. More than thrives, even: Modding is in a sort of renaissance, with more player-made content hitting the web than ever before and much of it at a very high caliber of quality.

It’s not all re-skins and roses, however: This boom has come with its fair share of questions. Today, developers are interested in the modding community in a big, new way, and the changes aren’t all landing exactly on their feet. Player reaction has been cautious and, on occasion, angry. Developers have been part of the modding process since modding was an emerging craft, and now their roles have begun to change. Within these changes come questions of community and symbolism, and make for the complex atmosphere surrounding modding today.

Castle Smurfenstein was one of the very first mods to hit the gaming scene.

The modding community

A mod — short for modification — is simply a player-made piece of content or alteration to an aspect of a gameplay experience. A large portion of mods target visual aspects of a game, increasing graphic fidelity or changing the appearance of a character, for instance. Others may entirely alter a title’s gameplay loop or target a particular mechanic. While closely related to hacks, mods are, for the most part, made to change the gameplay experience, whereas hacks are designed to give players an unfair advantage over others. The two shouldn’t be mixed up.

More importantly, mods are unofficial content, separate from developers and, often, closer to the needs and wants of the gaming community. In many instances, they can even be the clean-up crew for shoddy mechanics or poor design on a developer’s part. In this sense, they’re immensely important to the players who use them. It’s no wonder that when industry entities like Bethesda Softworks try to inject themselves deeper into the scene, there is apprehension among gamers.

Nexus Mods is one of the largest player-made content networks on the internet.

To say Bethesda has had an important role in modding is a considerable understatement, though their role has been largely one of passive support. Their games, especially the acclaimed Elder Scrolls series, have provided the platform for vibrant modding communities since the early 2000s. Among these communities is Nexus Mods, one of the largest modding networks on the web, founded in 2001 as a fan site for Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. Nexus Mods community manager James Fitzpatrick wrote in an email that, as mods have become more accessible, the mainstream has taken notice — and that includes developers.

“Where it used to be a niche hobby for only the most technically inclined, we now see developers working to make modding more accessible and officially supported,” Fitzpatrick said. “It is moving from being a niche community of enthusiasts to a mainstream community that is taken seriously by game developers and other industry institutions.”

The symbolic hang-ups

By 2015, Valve’s Steam Workshop was offering PC users a dedicated marketplace to pick and choose player-made content. Bethesda’s 2011 blockbuster, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, had seen a huge variety of mod content in the four years since its release, a large portion of it featured in the Skyrim Workshop. Then, on April 23, 2015, Valve announced that it would begin allowing modders to charge for their Skyrim content, a move widely regarded today as half-baked and contrary to the wants of the mods community.

Critics were dubious that a modding community could, all of a sudden, become monetized, and players saw it as a cash grab. Most of all, modders were concerned that injecting money into the modding scene would poison the community. In a Reddit AMA (Short for “ask me anything”) with Valve CEO Gabe Newell, user TheAscended wrote:

“Coming from someone who has modded games including Skyrim… Modding is something that should continue to be a free community driven structure. Adding money into the equation makes it a business, not a community. With all the drama that has happened, it is clear that this will poison modding in general and will have the opposite effect on modding communities than intended.”

Putting Thomas the Tank Engine in Skyrim wasn’t necessary, but it is hilarious.

Though Newell assured users the community’s best interests were in mind, the program didn’t last long: Just a few days after, Valve and Bethesda announced the program would be rolled back, and those who did buy mods would receive refunds.

“There are things we can control, and things we can’t,” Bethesda wrote in a blog post shortly after canceling the program. “Our belief still stands that our community knows best, and they will decide how modding should work. We think it’s important to offer choice where there hasn’t been before.”

You could argue that this moment crystallized the idea of “paid mods,” something that, to older gamers, could sound like an oxymoron. So, when Bethesda took the stage during E3 2017 to announce its new Creation Club program, which aims to curate, oversee and monetize select player-made content, anyone who remembered what happened in 2015 was quick to get cynical. It seemed like passive support was again turning into a business move.

There are many great articles assessing the pros and cons of Creation Club, but this is not one of them. Instead, let’s take a look at the reservations of the modding community. The hang-up here is the same as it was in 2015: The mods community is passionate about the symbolism that surrounds it, and it is resistant to compromising its values. In a sense, mods may be the closest thing gaming has to a grassroots initiative, and monetization is an on-the-nose manifestation of industry influence. PC Gamer’s Tyler Wilde wrote about this symbolic collateral in his piece, “Paid mods won’t kill modding, and might make it better”.

“Modding feels like it isn’t supposed to be about money,” Wilde wrote. “Until now, it’s been about passionate fans making stuff that makes games more fun, and then sharing those things so we can all have more fun. It’s about taking control away from publishers and developers and making their products our canvases. It’s passion, not capitalism that drives modders.”

The role of developers

To say whether it’s “worth” being apprehensive of paid mods, or any sort of industry meddling for that matter, is impossible and irresponsibly speculative. What Wilde proposes in his article isn’t outlandish in the least: Monetization could work for the modding community if implemented carefully. And yet, I admire the modding community’s sense of self and its clear image of what it wants to be. This being said, any notion that industry entities are antithetical to modding ignores the origins of the craft.

Within the grand context of player-made content, developers have been key to forming successful modding communities. For 1993’s Doom, developer id Software designed the game to be easily modified, packaging crucial data into a single, easily-messed-with file. Similarly, industry giant Valve Software is known to hire modders who create impressive things out of their content and has turned some of its best mods into standalone titles. Even Bethesda, in the last few years, has enabled mod support on console versions of its flagship titles, turning what was once a PC-only opportunity into a multi-platform endeavor. Developer-side support can be a huge boon to modding communities.

However, counter arguments are crucial. Let’s consider a nightmare scenario.

Earlier this year, gamers got a spooky look at what an unsupportive developer is potentially capable of when in a conflict with a modding community. OpenIV, a popular modding platform for the Grand Theft Auto series, was issued a cease-and-desist from GTA publisher Take-Two Interactive. This came not as OpenIV was just coming to prominence, but years into its career as the premier modding tool for GTA players.

OpenIV was the preferred tool of Grand Theft Auto modders, who were quick to add the humble blue whale to the iconic open world title.

OpenIV wrote in a blog post shortly after, “Yes, we can go to court and yet again prove that modding is fair use and our actions are legal. Yes, we could. But we decided not to. Going to court will take at least few months of our time and a huge amount of efforts, and, at best, we’ll get absolutely nothing.”

The fan reaction was immediate and furious. It’s a sobering moment that highlights an important truth: To exist, modding must, at the very least, be tolerated by a developer or publisher. Because if they want it gone, it’s gone, and it’s unlikely any modder or mod team is going to be equipped to fight back. OpenIV eventually did resurface, conveniently alongside Rockstar Game’s brand new modding policy, but the subliminal message was sent and many fears, justified.

The future needs clarity

OpenIV’s takedown should not be taken as a premonition. With newfound console support and flourishing modding networks, gaming’s most explorative few shouldn’t worry about losing their hobby anytime soon.

It should, however, be remembered. The next handful of years will demand a bit of caution because the boundaries of modding will likely be tested both by modders and by developers. Questions abound: Is a paid mod any different than a DLC? Who decides prices? What if a mod breaks months after purchase? There are no clear answers here, and the bulk of this work is on no one’s shoulders in particular. Developers, publishers, makers, and players all will have to eek out an existence together. According to Fitzpatrick, there’s still much to be seen.

“I think we are in something of a period of change,” Fitzpatrick wrote. “It’s hard to say what the landscape will look like when we come out the other side.”

About The Author

Steven Pirani
Review/Editorial Writer

First things first: Steve has been a "Super Metroid" devotee since he was four-years-old, and that remains today. A writer and journalist from Long Island, New York, he spends most of his time trying to get decent at "Rainbow Six: Siege" and nailing aerial shots in "Rocket League." He put 600 hours into "Animal Crossing: Wild World" and he's not afraid to brag about it.