We Built This City

The Game You’ve Always Wanted


Whether they’re new textures, objects, maps or complete overhauls, most mods take a fair amount of time and effort to create – time and effort that could otherwise be spent actually playing the game. The vast majority of modders do not get paid, so they’re clearly not in it for the money. That begs the question: Why mod? What possesses someone to learn the ins and outs of a 3D program, master Photoshop or learn the basics of programming just to make content for their favorite game?


It’s easy for me to say why I started modding. Most of my creations were partly out of boredom and partly to add something to the game that I felt was missing. Mods allow you to change a game to your own tastes, like redecorating an apartment. In my case, this involved adding a lot more Elven architecture to The Sims 2 than EA or Maxis had ever envisioned.

Considering the amount of unofficial patches, re-textures and armor additions out there, it should come as no surprise that a lot of people start modding for the same reasons I did. “What got me involved was when I downloaded the mod to play, and my first reaction was ‘blargh,'” says Daniel Jones, one of the people who worked on Light of the Warp, an overhaul of the real-time strategy game Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War. “There was a lot of stuff broken in the early versions,” he explains. “So I went and fixed it for my own game, and decided I might as well fix the mod itself and help out.”

Jones’ response highlights a common trait among modders: We’re a selfish bunch. Most of us make custom content first and foremost for ourselves; whether or not we make it available to others is mostly due to whether we’re part of a greater modding community. “It wasn’t so much appreciation as gloating rights,” says Jones of his decision to share his work. “I was a teenager. I had friends I played Dawn of War with over the net, so this was a coup.”

Appreciation from others is nothing to scoff at. One of my main drives has always been the positive feedback I receive. Uploading good mods gets you compliments – a lot of them. And even though they may be copy-pasted into every other download thread by their respective users, they still do great things for the ego. For an activity that can be pretty solitary, the motivation behind a lot of modding is social.

It certainly is for Stefano Caldarone, one of the better known modders for The Sims 2. He worked on some of the earliest modding tools, including the CEP, a package of programs that made it easier for others to create content for the game. Caldarone says he was more or less drafted into the modding scene: “Frankly, I didn’t want to get involved, but one of my colleagues somehow convinced me into helping out, thinking that I was much more skilled that I actually was. Since I didn’t want to make him think poorly of me, I worked hard to understand what he explained me.”

Even though Caldarone has never felt particularly inspired to create, he still maintains a presence in the Sims 2 modding community. “There were many more people to impress,” he explains, laughing. “All the people that praised me for my creations … I really appreciated their enthusiasm, and felt the need to go on satisfying them. You can have your 15 minutes of fame, and it’s thrilling! If you are lucky and skilled, maybe it’s more than 15 minutes … but it’s fatiguing, too.”


Once you get really into it, modding can be almost as bad as a World of Warcraft addiction. Before you know it, you’re getting up at four in the morning to push pixels around until the curve of a 3D object is just right. “I spent a lot of time modding – too much, probably,” says Caldarone. “Back in the days we were working on CEP, I stayed online for a big part of the night because of the time zones. The people I was working with lived in New York and California; I’m in Europe. On average, when I was a full-time modder, I probably spent more than eight to nine hours a day on my PC, sometimes more when I didn’t have to work. There were days that I left my PC only for eating and sleeping.”

Those long hours suggest modding isn’t all about bragging rights. It requires some kind of technical skill, and learning that skill is half the work. For many, modding is a stepping stone, a way to acquire new proficiencies and see results fairly fast. “When I initially started, I wanted to learn to program in a fun way. So I started tinkering,” says Derek Paxton. That tinkering eventually led to Fall From Heaven, a mod that took the turn-based strategy game Civilization 4 – a vast and engrossing experience in itself – and turned it into something … well, bigger. It created a deep fantasy world, complete with factions, races, history, religions and magic. “Fall from Heaven is based on the D&D campaigns I ran for about 17 years,” says Paxton, “so I already had a unique and elaborate mythology and world to draw from. It isn’t an attempt to recreate that world, though. I drew from it for things that would make an interesting Civ 4 mod and dropped or changed things that didn’t work.” What Paxton ended up with was a living, breathing world that he thought up himself. It took him three years to create that world, but what he got was well worth it: “I get to play the game I always wanted.”

Of course, there are always people who are singular in both goals and means. “The reasons for making it were: ‘I want to be a game developer, so I’d better start developing something now, or I shouldn’t call myself a developer,'” says Leo Gura. He’s the main creator of The Lost Spires, an expansive and hugely popular mod for Oblivion that adds extra quests, maps and 3D models. To make it, Gura took a unique approach: Where most modders play with pixels and code as a hobby, Gura actually modded like it was his job. “I started in December 2007 and worked on it from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. every weekday until its release in August 2008,” he says. His goals weren’t the usual ones, either. “I wanted to be a game designer since I was a kid,” Gura says. “I convinced my folks that I could complete this grand project and use it as a portfolio piece to break into the industry. So I had about six to12 months to get things in order.” It worked – he was hired by Irrational Games (then 2K Boston) shortly after the mod’s release.


Gura is, however, an exception. The vast majority of modders make their creations after a day at work or in class. We’re hobbyists, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. Modding is the modern equivalent of knitting your own sweater, painting, writing or building your own car. One of the main reasons for doing it is the very act of creating itself. “You do it, above all, to make something new – to create something, say you created it and have others enjoy it,” says Jeroen Dessaux, a member of the four-man team that made the Hoodoo map for Team Fortress 2. Valve, being one of the more community-friendly developers out there, discovered the map and made it part of the official game.

Tim Johnson, who did most of the mapping on Hoodoo, tells a similar story. “I’ve always been into creating,” he says. “I can’t remember how old I was when my dad bought me a copy of Blitz Basic, a programming language aimed at making games. Together we went through one of the example games, Blitzanoid, a humble take on Arkanoid. After a few weeks we had a pretty neat game with all sorts of power-ups, glass bricks, metals bricks and even a little laser attachment on the bat.” The practice got him hooked, and he’s been working on maps in different games ever since.

The actual joy of creating shines through in all of the modders I talked to. It’s a wonderful feeling to make something, to find out all the cool stuff you could do, to show it to friends and say, “See that? I made that.”

So why do we create? It’s simple: We do it for its own sake.

That, and the compliments, of course.

Els Bellens is a lover of all things chocolate and all games that are even slightly silly. By day, she works for several Belgian IT magazines; by night she’s one of the few living people that understand the interface for Blender 3D.

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