Unforeseen Consequences – Mainsteam ModdingJanuary 3, 2009
There is a great podcast at Moddb.com featuring level designers Anthony Stone and Jean Paul Jarreau, writer Ben Truman and voice-actor Mike Hillard from the upcoming Half-Life 2 mod Black Mesa: Source. A particular comment that caught my attention was the mention of support from the parent company Valve through non-intervention, but more importantly, the continued support for the scalability of the Source Engine and its continuously evolving SDK. Which brings me to this post concerning my personal impressions on the Source Engine and Black Mesa: Source as a wonderful example of what I would call Mainstream Modding
The term is pretty self-explanatory. It’s basically modding that panders to the mainstream community. Black Mesa: Source is such a great leap in mods primarily because of the quality and hype from gamers that may have never played the original Half-Life. I have heard multiple accounts of friends that are refusing to play Half-Life: Source and waiting for this mod to be released to experience Half-Life for the first time.
Mods have a stigma of being half-hazard efforts in emerging, new gameplay. It is great that Valve’s distribution service, Steam, hosts various mods for the Source Engine but casual players quickly grow tired of the mod’s gimmick. They often lack the balance in design as well as the quality of production that studio house games have. The majority of mods never see the light of day, either abandoned before they are completed or just do not find the audience. Black Mesa: Source has been in development for over four years, much longer than we expect any independent mod to be in development.Much of the success of Black Mesa: Source in appealing to the mainstream is the care the team has placed in the production values of the game. And I attribute much of that success due to the continued support and scalability of the Source Engine. Despite what gamers say about the graphics for Left4Dead, Valve has been able to squeeze its engine from Half-Life 2 realism to Team Fortress 2 surrealism. The flexibility of the engine has allowed the mod team to continuously work on the game and implement production values that are on par and even surpass what one expects from a five-year engine. Instead of going into numerous engine iterations ala Duke Nukem Forever, the mod can continue in lengthy development to appeal to the mainstream where previous engine mods do not have such a luxury.
Valve’s approach to its engine is a philosophy that more studios should take note of. That is not to say that Epic’s Unreal 3 Engine does not offer developers the same kind of freedom that the Source Engine provides. I am thankful that there are still engines that push the limits of hardware. Crytek’s CryENGINE is a wonderful tool to play with and the level editor for Far Cry 2 looks surprisingly intuitive. My hope is that in the future, the CryENGINE will have its place in scalability and continued support for the modding community. But no engine has integrated and updated the SDK for implementation in Gary’s Mod or general development in the same manner that has impressed me.
As a consequence, mainstream modding has begun to encroach into the gaming public. If memory serves correct, Left4Dead began as a Source Engine mod in the same manner as Counter-Strike and Team Fortress. Given the resources and luxury of extended time to remain relevant, I hope to see more mods put the thought into its user creation. Garage modders have a chic that invokes the garage designers of the 70s and 80s in videogames. I can’t wait to see the evolution of games to come out of the PC modding scene as consideration for audio and writing begins to rise as the issue graphical prowess no longer becomes a primary factor of concern.