PC Game Modding – A Brief History
It really is no surprise when a blockbuster PC game launches that all eyes turn to modders. There’s a fair amount of attention on mods now, too. As an example, when dedicated modders, Arthmoor, released their Unofficial Patch for Skyrim on Nexus Mods on 11/11/11 (the actual release date of Skyrim), within two years it had been downloaded 1.8 million times. This just goes to show how popular modding is for top titles, and the eagerly awaiting fans who clamour for the latest graphics tweak, map, or character customisation these intrepid coders create.
It’s not all plain sailing for modders, however, as Arthmoor experienced back in August 2021, in response to Nexus Mods'plans to stop modders from deleting their files, Arthmoor wrote “Due to the recent policy changes Nexus has instituted, I have put in the request for deletion of most of my files here”
“TL;DR: It is our core belief that making modding easier is a noble goal, so more people can enjoy our joint hobby. We are convinced that our collections system, a project we have spent almost 2 years and many work-hours on, is the way to achieve this goal. For the benefit of this system we have to implement a change to how mod file deletions work. The change was announced to mod authors recently, and basically means that mod files are no longer deleted, but rather archived - which will make them inaccessible unless directly requested e.g. via the API. We understand that not everyone in the mod author community shares our convictions and our vision, and that is why we are granting a 1 month grace period in which mod authors can request to have all their files deleted for good by contacting email@example.com.”
Nexus Mods’ thinking was that this policy change would prevent dependent mods from breaking if ever a parent mod was deleted. It was not met with much approval.
If we’re going to look at the history of modding, then it would be fair to say that in the early days, modders had it pretty hard. A lot of the work was actual coding and you’d need a lot of experience in programming. Very quickly, though, it seemed anyone who knew about the architecture of a game’s files could change textures and assets pretty simply, just by copying and replacing some of the images.
The First PC Game Mod
The first mod is pretty difficult to pinpoint, but if we allow Apple into the equation, then that would be the mod entitled “Castle Smurfenstein”. A parody mod in the early 1980s for the game Castle Wolfenstein which replaced enemy Nazi soldiers with – you guessed it – Smurfs. Silas Warner, one of the first hires on the Muse Software development team for Castle Wolfenstein, had already dabbled with modding on a game for the Commordore 64 with Dino Eggs, where he also decided to add some Smurfs. When he turned his attention to modding Castle Wolfenstein (which went on to inspire the smash hit game Wolfenstein 3D) he started by inserting his own hero - Smurfbutcher Bob – and proceeded to change all of the textures for Nazi enemies into the titular little blue cartoon characters.
“Castle Wolfenstein was a terribly fun and addicting game but something was missing,” said Warner on the official Castle Smurfenstein webpage. “Nazis just didn’t seem that threatening to a suburban high-school kid in the early ’80s. Smurfs. That was the real threat now."
A simple change like this opened up the possibilities and the opportunity for maximum creativity for modders, though, so even though it was a parody, it actually benefited the modding scene immensely. Modifications for titles were coming thick and fast throughout the eighties, when modding was called “cracking” (so named due to the act of cracking open a game’s source code). Fans of video games also had something else – a bonus, if you will – to look forward to when they handed over their pocket money or wages for a new game.
Enter The Doom Mods
As coincidental as it may sound, I had not played Doom until I heard about the mods that people were bringing out for it. I remember being told that not only was Doom an awesome game, but the proliferation of mods made it ten times better. I immediately wanted to play it. Herein lies the crossover that modding has allowed for gamers.
id Software, hot off the heels of their first hit, Wolfenstein 3D, saw that modders were now part of the culture of gaming – albeit a subculture in the early nineties – and embraced the idea that modding was not all about copyright infringement and intellectual property theft. Modding – or cracking – was about creativity.
Initially, id founders Tom Hall and John Carmack decided to work with the community of modders who genuinely loved their games, in that they released a WAD file for their consumption. This WAD file – now known as an SDK or Software Development Kit - contained all of Doom’s textures, sprites and maps, and was met with a flurry of activity instantly.
Crackers became modders, thanks to Doom – or rather thanks to id Software. The WAD file meant there was no need to crack open a game, because the developers were handing the game’s guts on a plate. Everything changed with Doom.
“The ability to go several steps further and release actual source code, make it easy to modify things, to let future generations get what I wished I had had a decade earlier - I think that’s been a really good thing” said Carmack in an interview with Wired, who spoke about Doom on its 20th anniversary.
Some of the suits at id Software were none too happy with the modding scene, however. Mods like D!Zone were making a lot of money as CDROMs changed hands at boot sales and flea markets around the world. Still, Carmack wanted to stay true to his roots and offer modders the opportunities he wished he’d had. Taking it even further, Carmack and his team included two of the more popular fan-made missions in the 1996 Final Doom retail release.
“To this day I run into people all the time that say, whether it was Doom, or maybe even more so Quake later on, that that openness and that ability to get into the guts of things was what got them into the industry or into technology. A lot of people who are really significant people in significant places still have good things to say about that.”
Best of the rest
Later in our modding timeline, we had the pleasure of playing the mods of Quake, Morrowind, and, of course, Skyrim. A worthy mention is of course Half-Life 2, which spawned such mods as NeoTokyo, which turned the FPS into a tactical multiplayer game. This kind of modding widened the envelope in terms of what could be achieved with dedicated professionals at the helm. The concept of turning a hugely popular game into a completely new experience had to be the future of modding and was the catalyst for many more to come.
Garry’s Mod, which just celebrated over 20 million sales on Steam, is over 15 years old, and players continue to find new ways to use this amazing sandbox, which is built on Valve’s Source engine. With the ability to create any construct that you can imagine (cars, bikes, helicopters etc. etc.), and then implement them in game style of your choice, Garry’s Mod basically created a new envelope and never looked back. From massive hits like PropHunt to RP Asheville, Garry’s Mod has constantly attracted the gamer who wants more from a game than what developers think they want.
FiveM – How It All Went Right (And Wrong)
Moving swiftly on to the object of our affection in this article, FiveM, we can see the progression from modders using command line editing right up to having source code and SDKs provided, and usually – developers assisting modders in making great games even better.
As it stands, FiveM have over 250,000 concurrent players on Steam, and they are beating Rockstar’s original game by a chunk.
When Epic gave GTA V away for free, the game saw a significant and record-setting boost in players, but are still way behind with around 188,000 concurrent players in the last 30 days as this article was published.
FiveM is no different from Doom in a sense. Except Rockstar do not approve of the FiveM modifications whatsoever. What makes them similar, however, is the fact that GTA V and GTA:O (GTA Online) are behemoths in the gaming world just as Doom was. Although Rockstar do not prevent you from using FiveM, they don’t give you their blessing, either.
FiveM’s website tells us “FiveM does not interact with the Rockstar Online Services other than to validate your game copy the first time you launch it. This validation emulates the game's interaction, and can not be detected by Rockstar. FiveM also doesn't modify your game files at all, even when downloading server assets, so you don't have to do anything to switch between FiveM and GTA:O.”
Whereas Rockstar tells us “The FiveM project is an unauthorized alternate multiplayer service that contains code designed to facilitate piracy