Home » Blog » Berkman » Modding and the “brutal economics” of video games

Modding and the “brutal economics” of video games

How lame is it that I find the game I want to play next through an academic talk at Berkman?

My colleague Shenja van der Graaf studies the culture of game modding, the practice of customizing a game to make it more enjoyable, to make a political or artistic point, or to create an entirely new game. Game modding is usually associated with first-person shooter games, beginning with games like Doom and Quake. Shenja studies some of these games, and has done extensive research on Valve, the company that produces games like Half-Life and Counterstrike. (Counterstrike originated as a mod of Half-Life, and Valve is a company that embraces modding as a key tool in improving and developing games.) She’s also looking closely at systems like Second Life, designed explicitly to make it possible for users to create games and new behaviors.

Some of the conceptual frame for Shenja’s work comes from Eric Von Hippel (another Berkman fellow), whose theories about open innovation focus on how some users of products invent new tools or new uses, extending the functionality of those products. Modding, like other forms of user innovation, offers ways for companies to learn from what users actually do with their products.

In particular, Shenja is interested in “user-particiation on firm-hosted platforms”. This is a more conceptually complicated space than open source software development. Someone building a mod isn’t creating intellectual property they can reuse without impediment, in the same way that a developer working on a project like Apache or Firefox does. Instead, users are putting a great deal of work into modifying a closed-source product, the property of a specific firm. Shenja wants to know why people do this.

Most mods are pretty trivial – they simply change the appearance of characters or of the environment of a game. Shenja shows us a first-person shooter where the enemies are converted into Homer Simpson, who keeps saying, “I am Evil Homer”. Others are significantly more involved. Portal, a new game released by Valve, radically changes the rules of first person shooters. Instead of killing enemies, the goal in Portal is to solve a series of puzzles by projecting “portals” on different parts of the game environment – the two halves of a portal connect to one another, and players solve problems by moving themselves or objects through the portals.

Portal began as a mod to Half-Life, taking advantage of the fact that Valve offers an SDK (software development kit) which allows users to build full games using the core game engine from Half-Life. Students at DigiPen Institute of Technology developed, as a student project, a game called Narbacular Drop, which introduced the portal mechanic. Valve hired all the students who worked on the game and invited them to build Portal. Shenja tells us that the reason Valve didn’t release Narbacular Drop was because of an intellectual property conflict – DigiPen retained IP rights to the game and their resistance to letting that IP be used meant that Valve couldn’t by the game.

Shenja has done extensive studies of the message boards used by modders and suggests that there is a “U-shaped participation curve” in the community. There are lots of people who make farily easy, trivial mods, and a small group of people who get deeply involved with building mods. The folks who get deeply involved often end up building software development teams at least as sophisticated as the teams who build the original games. Gene Koo, another of our fellows, tells us about a mod he worked on for Civilization 4, another platform extremely open to modding. “Basically, I stopped because I would have had to quit my job if I kept managing the mod.” The project ended up involving graphics and animation specialists, designers and writers, and required as much project coordination and management as a major software project.

I found myself wonder (aloud, as I often do at Berkman events) whether building game mods has become a type of auditioning for jobs as a game developer. There are lots of people who want to make computer games, and modding well is one possible path to those jobs. Another attendee of Shenja’s talk observed that modders are a bit like scriptwriters, writing on spec. “The brutal economics of game making and filmmaking demands that lots of people do creative work for free.” The good mods rise to the top, the good films get produced, and thousands don’t.

Two experiences later in the day convinced me that this idea is basically right. A young friend of mine attended the talk, and later that day asked me for some advice on applying to college. He’s looking for an open source project to work on, and wanted advice on where he could contribute both to make useful software and to do something visible enough that it might help with college applications. (I suggested plugins for either WordPress or Drupal.) In other words, he’s looking for a good place to audition.

I had dinner with another friend, who recently had an extremely successful audition. He’s a talented musician and composer, as well as a videogame addict. Lately, he’s played hundreds of hours of Rock Band, the fascinating new game from Harmonix. A few weeks ago, he was offered an interview at Harmonix, which involved a test – arranging a pop song so it can be played on the five colored keys of the Rock Band guitars and drums. It turned out that his hundreds of hours were time well spent – he’s starting a new job at Harmonix in a few weeks. In other words, don’t let anyone tell you that it’s a waste of time to play video games.

3 thoughts on “Modding and the “brutal economics” of video games”

  1. I agree: Why code on closed source? To get a closed source job.

    But there are I think more fundamental motivators, especially reputation … and pure hippie love for the code.

  2. There’s a parallel situation happening in baseball analysis right now; some contributors and writers for such sites as The Hardball Times and Baseball Prospectus have been hired by front offices as a result of the research they’ve done. Bad for us, since then we no longer get to see the results of their work, but obviously an exciting opportunity for them…although my impression is that even those front offices that pay attention don’t necessarily know how best to use the men they hire (such as Voros McCracken and Keith Law).

Comments are closed.