Mod Nauseum: Free-To-Play Games and Mod Support

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4 years 5 months
Submitted by SuperSayu on Tue, 05/22/2018 - 23:00

Midair is a new game in the general vein of the Tribes series (of which I have spoken before); in summary, it is a team-oriented, round-based shooter focusing on the Capture the Flag game mode in a futurist setting involving jetpacks and high explosives. Like Tribes: Ascend, the last entry in that series, Midair are focusing on making their money with a free-to-play game model that hooks consumers by monetizing the game progression, rather than asking people to buy a shooter sight unseen. As an obvious consequence, both Ascend and Midair cannot really support mods, because the mods would be entirely on the outside of the carefully laid out progression map.

Which is fair. Nobody goes into business to lose money, and nobody takes a job to not get a paycheck. But.

But free to play, like early access, relies on a certain humility in the developers in admitting publicly that first, they can't do everything (certainly not all at once) and second, we all learn as we go, there are bumps in the road, and if you come upon something which isn't quite polished yet, that's because they either haven't noticed or haven't gotten to it yet. Along with that humility comes patience on the part of the players, admitting and accepting that the developers are human, and are dealing with not just the game code, but also an enormous player base many of whom aren't paying anything. Those players may have old or edge-case hardware and they have to fix code problems that may only exist for a minority of players, or at the very least double check and make sure they haven't done something which they can fix.

The point is, that humility invites people to think critically about a game, talk to the developers, treat them with respect. And the unfortunate side of that respect is that it inherently cannot be returned. A million people can speak to ten people, but ten people cannot speak to a million. If two players have conflicting interpretations of what would make a game fun, the developers cannot give each of them what they want. I have argued about Blizzard's interpretations of their characters in a few blog posts now, and the simple fact is that no matter what I may believe about character consistency, strategy, or design in the abstract, they have taken on the burden of creating one game that millions of players play, and there is very little room in that equation for public discussion.

And that's why this blog post is about game mods.

I think game mods in general, but specifically in this context, are an admission by the developers that different people have different definitions of fun. You can get people to gather around one game, if you have really good press. But in the end, people aren't all playing the same game, even using the same software, even without mods or anything like it. Overwatch, Midair, Tribes, and Team Fortress 2, all actually end up embracing this fact by having one game encompass several types of play, and I don't just mean game modes. Each of those games lets you spend an entire round healing and supporting your team, if you wish. You can also, in each of them, spend an entire round building and maintaining deployable weapons rather than shooting enemies yourself. These are very clearly not the same game as taking the gun-toting characters out to play, and even among the gun-toting characters, there are differences based on projectile size, quantity, speed, and spread--everything from rocket launchers to sniper rifles to shotguns to miniguns to heavy artillery.

On the one hand, there might be a good answer to what the final game design should look like, such that players who play the game in every possible way feel appreciated and a part of the intended audience. But on the other hand, there are too many ways to play the game. Midair has weapons analogous to the ones in classic Tribes, which is a good solid foundation on which to build, but that is still a whole lot of different perspectives: straight-shooting explosives, grenade launchers, grenades, mines, artillery, chainguns, rocket launchers, deployable turrets, fixed turrets, short-range high-impact weapons, sniper rifles, and vehicles, with cloaking, sensors, armor, and other bonus assets thrown in on the side. Overwatch has even more, what with assault rifles, pistols, hammers, throwing stars, to weapons that barely even have analogues in the real world, like a freeze spray gun, a life drain beam, or a melee weapon best summarized as "rocket flail."

Of the games I've mentioned, the only one who does not let you customize your characters at all is Overwatch, and that is after they spent a great deal of time trying to thematically tie sets of equipment together around the personality of a game character. They went several steps beyond Team Fortress 2, who did the same, but accepted and embraced a certain wiggle room where the same character could just as easily have a couple kinds of equipment, or variations on the original; Overwatch has no wiggle room at all, for better and for worse. Tribes: Ascend tried to strike a similar tone, taking the equipment from classic Tribes and forcing them to be taken as a set, but this (I would say aggressively) did not work. Classic Tribes, instead, simply let you pull weapons off a rack, with only a couple restrictions to keep light armors away from heavy weapons and heavy armors away from finesse weapons. Midair follows this logic as well.

In a discussion I had with the developers of Midair on their discord, I said simply that I felt that mods were a missing piece. A developer responded to say that mod support was a common request but did not fit their financial reality, and they hoped we would enjoy the game anyway. This is the conversation that really sparked this post, because while I understand how that might be true, it still feels like making a game this complex and not allowing mod support only invites people to argue about game balance as though it were an objective, rather than subjective matter. You can certainly force the argument to be objective by limiting its scope--"given the weapons we have now, what are the correct parameters" or "changing nothing but this parameter, what is the correct value"--but that amounts to acting like the game is finished, rather than in ongoing development. Typical to all engineering is the discovery that the answer lays in a direction you did not expect; build vertically instead of horizontally, use a compound derived from fungus to fight infection, launch men to the moon on the back of a million pounds of high explosives.

My current job involves managing a small business, and I once made the following point to the owner to justify my (often unnecessary) anxiety: if something is wrong, oftentimes people won't tell us that it is wrong, they just won't come back. People are like that; I most certainly hate telling people how I feel and what I think. If I waited for people to complain before I started worrying, then we may never discover that something is wrong, or what. When choosing their entertainment, people can be even more fickle, and although they may speak to friends or even publicly about what they think, they usually only express their opinions after they have made up their mind. If they have decided they don't like something, they will only say so after they have left, and they will tell their friends that it's no good as they walk away.

And that's a problem because people aren't all playing the same game. Some go up against highly skilled enemies with a bum team on their first match, and never recover. Some want weapon A to be weaker and B to be stronger, and some want the opposite. Some want deployables and strategy, some want action and twitch gaming. Some want small private matches, some want massive brawls. Some want a game that approximates single player, versus-environment style challenges rather than true cutthroat multiplayer mayhem. Some people want to know what kind of match they'll be having in advance, and some want to be surprised. Some want to support, some want to destroy, some want to duel, some want to chat. They are all using the same software hoping to play different games with each other.

And some people like me enjoy being immersed, and kind of have a problem with the kind of rough edges that appear when you only really focused on the essentials of the game and can't spare time or money for nuanced, consistent polish. Immersion doesn't have to be about narrative, but it does have to be about consistency. If the point of the match is to kill and not be killed, there should be tools to help you kill and not be killed. If the point is to help a side win, there should be tools to help you win, and to help you stop the enemy from winning. And there are all these things in Midair and Overwatch and Ascend and Team Fortress.

But there is also a phantom game character, The Developer, who stands there and gives me orders that I don't like. And I feel like they don't always have to be there. I get the business argument about mods and free-to-play, but you could also only let people who have paid for the game use mods, or it could be a separate unlock DLC. I get how a developer would not wish to give up creative control, too; Overwatch would be a very different experience if it were open to interpretation.

But I just can't get over one very basic detail: without mod support, The Developer determines whether or not I have fun. If they are slightly off the mark, there is no cure. You accept their game as is or you walk away. Perhaps you can tweak server settings and make low gravity or infinite ammo and that helps... for some people and some problems. But you can't give people enough levers to play with, not to satisfy someone like me, not without opening up full mod support. And I get if they can't or don't want to. But a lot of these games fail, too. And nobody says exactly why they didn't enjoy the game, it just wasn't fun for them so they walked away, told their friends it was no good, or just didn't recommend it to anyone when they might have.

I'm here. I don't plan to walk away, certainly not yet. But it's not quite right either, and I don't know what it is. I just want to play with it, tweak it, watch other people play and tweak it, watch things change, grow, get better, get hilariously worse. I want people to play with the game. I want to reap the benefits of people playing with the game. And I want to reap the benefits of people finding the fun that is lying just around the corner, where The Developer can't see it, because they are looking the other way.

I get it if they can't, but I wish they would.