A look at the UX of mods

I have been brushing up on the challenges that game developers face when trying to map the user journey of players for their game, and I came across this really interesting peer-reviewed paper, by Hector Postigo, on the modding culture and its community. This got me thinking: since modders just build what they are passionate about and don’t really take the UX of customers into consideration, yet somehow their products can be very successful, surely game devs would be better off getting modders on board throughout the development to ensure their game has the biggest possible appeal?

The modding community is made up of a plethora of individuals who create content for a game using the original game as a canvas and the development kit that was used to build it as tools. Whether working on their own or in a team, for fun or to build a gaming portfolio, all modders have at least one thing in common: they are not paid to do so. Of course the end-product can be monetised through various platforms, but the process itself is a self-driven initiative.

I will not delve too much into the types of modders or the types of mods out there. Briefly, there are three categories: The first is game improvements such as sound mods, graphic mods and other improvements (e.g. mini-map widgets) that somehow enhance the game. The second category is additions that open up whole new gameplay possibilities within the original game, for example the LOTR mod for Mount & Blade: Warbands, the multiplayer mod for Just Cause 2 or the post-apocalyptic zombie mod for ArmA 2 (known as DayZ). Finally, the third category are entirely new games that are based on the original game’s engine but use little of the original assets, gameplay, tools and systems to an extent that, in my opinion, makes this category “game development” using an existing SDK rather and/or assets rather than “modding”. Examples of such mods are Counter Strike (original: Half-life) and DotA (original: Warcraft 3).

I would like to focus on the first and second category: some of the mods in those categories are so well-received by the gamer community that people end up only playing using mods (e.g. Skyrim mods in the first category) or even buy the original game only  in order to play a mod (e.g. the case of the DayZ mod for ArmA 2).

WARNING: The following example videos may contain NSFW graphic violence or nudity.

Which begs the question: should game devs take those mods on board? Should they make them an integral part of their official game? Should the modders be hired since they have cracked the code of what makes the playerbase happy and provide an immersive experience?

Dilemma: Should modders be hired for the game they worked on

I will save you the trouble of waiting for a lengthy explanation and a conclusion: the answer to whether game devs would benefit from hiring successful modders that worked on their game is “it depends”. At first glance it may seem that modders have “cracked the UX code” but I think that would be a hasty conclusion.

Take the DayZ mod for ArmA 2, by Dean Hall, which evolved into a standalone MMO (called DayZ, by Bohemia Interactive), for example. Its creator was hired by Bohemia Interactive after the DayZ mod gained massive popularity in order to create a full official version of the game. DayZ has sold over 1,7 million copies at the time of writing. The same story can be told for “IceFrog”, the mysterious co-author of one of Warcraft 3’s most popular maps, DotA. IceFrog was hired by Valve to work on and develop DotA 2, a standalone game based entirely on DotA’s gameplay. Millions of players log in each day to play the free-to-play MOBA.

What does the change from “modder” to “game dev” mean from a UX perspective? Given that mods are generally free additions to an already purchased game, the entire dynamic of responsibility changes. Modders can get away with a lot more things compared to game developers. There is no need to continuously support the mod, to adhere to difficulty requests by players or to answer to anyone, pretty much. Glitches and bugs are expected and unless they completely break the gameplay experience, are easily forgiven and coped with. In the case of a game, any bug or glitch will be picked up and held in front of the developers’ face until it is fixed. Mods can be seen as a trial and error testing situation which allows for complete freedom and innovation. Game devs often cannot afford that freedom, both literally and figuratively.

So as soon as a modder becomes a game dev after being hired, they are bound to work on a product that will ship and must hit the sweet spot, while also answering to the publishers above and the playerbase below. That is not an environment all modders will want to find themselves in, and that is definitely not the environment in which they were inspired to create their original mod in the first place. Hiring modders and turning them into full-time game devs will heavily impact the flow and process in which they work, and the drive and pace at which progress is made on the game may not be entirely familiar to them. In other words, they are people who created and crafted without answering to anyone but themselves and their own motivation.

Lastly, one last point that can be discussed for hours is the following: the success of a mod might be due to its idea. Up until DayZ, there had never been a massively multiplayer persistent-world online ultra-realistic zombie post-apocalyptic game. Zombie games have always been a thing (e.g. Left 4 Dead) and wildly successful at that. But the success of DayZ was definitely not its gameplay mechanics and smooth handling. ArmA 2 and its engine were notorious for not being polished (even though I loved it). The innovation and satisfaction of a niche game genre is what made DayZ so successful, and the lack of alternatives let the mod get awaywith absolutely everything. Now, with the advent of competition in the form of games like Rust, by Facepunch Studios or 7 Days to Die, by The Fun Pimps, there is a lot more pressure to ensure that each of the games provides a polished and immersive UX.

As an epilogue, I would like to conclude that hiring modders should be a very careful consideration and that the original mod was imagined, created and published in a completely different environment compared to a game. Players can get a fantastic UX from mods without being very strict on the usability of things because they are grateful for someone who took the time to create something that suits a need, even if in a limited way. All that changes as soon as a game becomes officially supported by a studio, and it is not always obvious what parts of the original mod created the UX that players have come to expect.

Cover image © Photosof


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