Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Moddable Game

Since I first played my first computer game on the Apple II, I've always wanted to tweak what I'm playing. I am in favor of tweaking to the point where every game I've ever made was about letting the players tweak the game.

So it's an understatement to say that I'm in favor of mods.

I'd like to talk about what makes a game moddable.

First off, there's the engine's capacity to be modded. Some games are built to import mods freely, like Kerbal and Skyrim. Others can be forced into it, like World of Warcraft. Others are nearly impossible to mod, either due to technical constraints or anti-mod policing.

Next there is the popularity of the game. The more popular a game is, the more people will want to mod it. There are some super mod-friendly indie games out there that nobody has really heard of, and in turn they have few mods. Skyrim isn't actually hugely mod-friendly on its own, but it was so popular that the mod community built tools to MAKE it mod-friendly.

Lastly, there's also the fundamental design of the game.

I was thinking about this the other day. I was wishing for a version of Mass Effect that had a mod library as large as the one for Skyrim.

To make it clear, I've got 50+ mods for Skyrim downloaded, around 2 dozen installed, and there are hundreds more that I never bothered with. This is about the same numbers as Kerbal, although recently Kerbal's modding community has been gutted. In both cases, there are mod managers which make installing and uninstalling mods as simple as a double-click. And the mods are often very deep, such as changing out the entire animation system, or making combat work completely differently... or adding 30+ fully voiced new NPCs, or 100+ new locations.

The Mass Effect games do have some mods, but nowhere near that volume or depth. Mostly they're about making Mass Effect look better, or tweaking costumes. As far as I know, there are no mods to completely change the combat system, or let you play as a new species, or replace the Normandy with a Spanish galleon.

This is a shame. I really am looking for a moddable personal science fiction game.

There are loads of moddable impersonal scifi games, starting with Kerbal. But I want the close-in RPG experience, where you live in a world and you can mod the things that are in that world. Mass Effect is one of the few that seems like it'd qualify.

Why aren't Mass Effect games very moddable? Well, partly it's due to the technical and cultural constraints. But I think a bigger part of it is the fundamental design of the game. Mass Effect's basic design has two major flaws that make it difficult to mod.

The first is that the statistical and character growth side of things are too basic. A lot of mods in other games make extensive use of "peripheral" skill sets, but Mass Effect is laser-focused on pitched combat and solely pitched combat. Everything else isn't simply mediocre, it's missing entirely. Nobody feels annoyed by the mediocre crafting system in Mass Effect because there isn't one. Nobody is annoyed by the stealth system because there isn't one. Gameplay-wise, Mass Effect is very small and tight, which makes it hard to mod.

In addition, the world is also designed a bit annoyingly.

In theory, a sci fi game should be dirt-easy to add new content into. You can just stick a whole new planet in, it'll just appear on the star map easy as you please. No scuffling needed.

Unfortunately, Mass Effect isn't a game where you can freely wander the universe. It just feels that way because of the atmosphere.

Mass Effect feels very open and immersive, but it isn't. You are on rails the whole time, it just lets you take a few of the stops in a different order if you like. The world is very tightly designed so that nothing really distracts you from your quest - occasional sidequests have the exact same gameplay and do not affect how you approach later missions in the slightest.

Skyrim, on the other hand, lets you pretty much do whatever you want once you get past the epic(ally self-indulgent) opening sequence. You can pick flowers, hunt bears, map out lost ruins, raid dungeons, learn magic, craft weapons, enchant things, learn alchemy, go to college, find companions, buy a house, raise a family... the main quest will wait patiently.

A huge part of this is that Skyrim is full of STUFF.

I don't mean locations, although that's part of it. I mean STUFF. Every inch of Skyrim is crawling with pointlessness. Outside, there are harvestable plants, interesting gullies, ruins to track down, lakes to swim in, overlooks to look over... and inside, there are not only people (and children!) but also plates, apples, beds, cooking pots, complex dinners, crops, books, lamps, shops with stuff all over them - all interactive.

Contrast this to Mass Effect. Shepard has no interest in day-to-day life. She is physically incapable of showing any interest towards day-to-day life, because she literally cannot interact with day-to-day things. Every book and plate is part of the background, nobody ever eats. There are few things to interact with, and they are universally either text tidbits or guns. There are beautiful places to go, but Shepard cannot enjoy them: she physically cannot jump in the water or pluck a flower.

The Normandy makes this even worse. The Normandy is incapable of enjoying itself as you travel. Shepard can at least find a beautiful spot and gaze at it, or chat with a random NPC. But the Normandy glides through empty space without any variation or life.

What can a modder do to spruce up these experiences? A modder could create new locations, but they would be just as hollow. As with all locations in Mass Effect, they would exist solely as either combat zones or exposition zones. Shepard will always be a military captain with no other life. She physically cannot be a trader, a thief, a cook.

Hence, no mods.

Well, few mods.

I'm looking for that category of sci fi game - the close third- or first-person space RPG - that is as moddable as Skyrim. I would buy extra copies.

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