Why Don't More Developers Release Mod Tools?

Bethesda recently announced it will make the Creation Kit, the development and modding tool for Skyrim, available early next month so players can get to work on enhancing the RPG. Judging by the success of the new Fallout titles, and Bethesda's older games such as Morrowind and Oblivion, the Skyrim Creation Kit should assure the game exists in minds and on hard drives for many, many years to come. This raises a compelling question: Why don't all developers release modding tools for their games?

If only it were that easy. First, let's cover off some important facts about the majority of development tools. Any serious, AAA game in development will have a dedicated tools team building programs or writing scripts to aid in content creation. Tools are almost as vital as the game itself. Modding tools released publicly are almost always these same tools, altered slightly to be easier to use and to protect IP, if necessary.

Depending on the level of support the tools team has, these programs will be incredibly powerful and user-friendly, like Naughty Dog's Charter, used to build the Uncharted games, or complex, unorthodox creations hacked together to serve the needs of the moment. In this case, a program might start out with a single purpose -- say, compiling AI scripts -- but evolve into something with multiple uses -- compiling all game scripts -- or a feature it was never intended to have -- script highlighting and automatic expansion of common functions. It's not hard to see how a tool might go from being simple and straightforward to use, to something unwieldy that only a select few know the quirks and full functionality of.

In a perfect world, tools would get the same treatment as the game, with everything from interface design to tutorials fleshed out following solid design principles. But, ultimately, developers are there to ship a game, not a tool.

So, imagine a tools team that doesn't have the resources of a developer like Naughty Dog, Epic or Valve. The tools team might consist of a single programmer, and that programmer might have to split their time between the game and tools support. When the priorities are broken down, the tools will receive the absolute minimum attention required to get the job done, especially if those tools will only be used by a small number of people who can be quickly schooled in their operation with a face-to-face chat.

Now, let's say said programmer is asked to make the tools shippable. Hundreds, if not thousands of people are suddenly going to be privy to software never intended for mass consumption. It has hacks, an inconsistent interface, horrible bugs and nothing even resembling proper error handling. Features must be documented, work flows explained and custom file formats detailed.

Again, ideally, you'd have all this information at hand. And it always is -- in code. A trained programmer can usually reverse-engineer a file format based on its structure or class in code. In fact, given time, they can nut out exactly how a program works. But you're not releasing source code, and you probably wouldn't want to (at least not without comments and a good surveying of potential IP issues). You're releasing a program, and the user of this program won't always come from a programming background. They might be intelligent, but intelligence does not grant clairvoyance.

Some tools aren't even programs, they're scripts to supplement apps such as Autodesk Maya. You can bundle these up and release them, but requiring users to purchase a piece of software costing thousands of dollars or, worse, forcing them to pirate it, is not really conducive to building a supportive community of fans.

Why not just whack a "use at your own risk" disclaimer on tools you release and be done with it? The answer to this question lies in brand perception. Sure, you'll get kudos from some for getting the tools out their for modders, but curious others will fire up your programs, attempt to read your hastily-constructed tutorials and guides and shake their heads in dismay. At best, they'll come away thinking "It's a bit over my head, but that's alright."

At worst, they could take away a new, negative perception of you as a developer. Instead of thinking about the great game you made, all they can think about are the shoddy, undercooked modding tools you released. A lack of proper documentation could lead to mods that compromise the stability of the game, which could lead to crashes or corrupted saves. The blame might land on the mod developer but, for the less educated, that hate is going to be aimed directly at the developer.

Who knows what conclusions your fan base will come to? For some developers, this is too big a risk to take. Better to keep the mystery of how your game works under the hood than to expose its unsightly innards.

At the end of the day, it comes down to what it will add to the game and the player experience. Releasing internal tools isn't always the best choice for every developer. Its benefits cannot be denied, but having nice, presentable and easy-to-use tools shouldn't compromise the quality of the product you're actually selling.

I'm sure we'll see more games embracing modding in the future, at least those who still recognise the PC as a formidable gaming platform, but know that it's not something every game can accommodate, be it because of time or budget constraints, or the realisation that sometimes, it's not always wise for the magician to reveal his secrets.

UPDATE: A lot of people are suggesting the main reason is the rise of DLC. It may be a contributing factor, but I'm not convinced. Good points I've seen are value-add from user-created content, the life-extending nature of empowering users with development tools and the "gating" abilities of official content (a map from the developer might allow ranking and advancement features, whereas a user-made map would not). There's also a guarantee of quality and balance with developer content (in most cases), and you don't run the risk of damaging your install or save games.


Comments

    3D Realms promised mod tools throughout the whole development of Duke Nukem Forever, Gearbox didn't release them. FUCK GEARBOX

      How dare Gear Box not come through on a promise THEY never made.

      Stupid moron is stupid.

      3DRealms also promised to release the game when it was done, but as we all saw they were blowing each other for 12 years rather than developing a game.

    I think the advent of paid dlc is the real main reason mod tools aren't given these days...

    It's a shame, since a lot of the best retail games came about as fan based mods first.

      What do you mean a lot? I can only think of a handful off the top of my head, eg TF2.

    Why dont more Publishers releases mod tools/ its bloody simple, they can no longer charge PC users for shitty DLC when Mods are FREE and 10times better.
    Obsidian got DLC right with each first run through of their New Vegas DLC being 4-6hrs long.

    EA and Activison wont release mod tools with their games because then they cant charge $15 for 4 half arsed maps that were rehashed.

    Yep, basically it really, they know they can charge for [more importantly, people will actually pay for] DLC. They dont want modders cutting their slice of pie. I still remember when they would put out free official DLC too [they were called "Map Packs" back then though mostly], Raven were particularly great with this with the Jedi Knight games!

    What's worse is that it has now spread into the realm of "Cheats" too, [remember those?]. I blame gamers for this though. I had a laugh when EA started to charge for "time saver packs", though was just a whole bowl full of fail when people actually PAID for this!

    There are also a lot of games being made on proprietary game engines that are licensed from other companies. In those situations developers simply can't do it without breaching intellectual property rights and giving modders access to any game also using the same base engine.

    I remember struggling to make maps for a game called Battlezone back in the day.
    The tools were very good considering but there were no end of bugs and gettng a map/scenario to run on someone elses PC could be a lesson in futility.

    Then came HL1 and some guys showed what could be done, with what has to be the ultimate mod story, CS.

    All you have to do is browse a few sites out there to see the incredible amount of talent that lies dormant on the net.

    Unfortunately companies and gaming studios are, for the most part, run by monkeys in suits with the creative vision of a myopic cow pat.
    They can't see the profit in allowing a community to engage with the game and as such they will never be able to publish a game with the longevity of CS.

    The day someone creates a set of game building tools that are easy enough for a layperson to pick up and create with will be the gaming industries equivalent of the singularity.

    Engines have gotten more powerful. Games are a lot more complicated. As you mentioned with Uncharted, some tools become used in ways incomprehensible to the majority of people. Sure, they could put the effort into making the tools usable, but isn't it better that they put effort into the actual game?

    For some games, the tools the developers use are used straightforwardly, and this allows them to release a minorly touched up version for modders. But this isn't always the case.

    As for thyco1 and Lyndon L's theory that DLC is behind it, I'm skeptical. The last Elder Scrolls game had quite possibly the most disgusting DLC ever (Horse armor), so Bethesda making a mod kit with Skyrim seems to show that they'll do both crazy DLC and modding.

      DLC may contribute, but I agree Bethesda's in the best position to judge if modding tools would compromise the profit from official content.

      I don't know how well Fallout: New Vegas did with its DLC, but the fact they released quite a few and didn't stop at one suggests profits were made. There's probably diminishing returns as the game ages, however.

        There's that, but as some developers note, having modding tools raises the chances of a game staying on a hdd for much longer than if it were just vanilla. No mod tools = no user made content = no reason to keep a game installed once you're done with it, dlc or no.

        I'm with the others in cynically viewing profits and paid dlc as the main culprit in the increasing scarcity of mod tools.

    DLC is the most obvious one for me.
    What gets me a little mad is that people will forget about a game very soon if it has paid DLC, because in most cases an unfinished game was released needing people to patch up the holes with additional money for DLC. A game with a toolkit, however, simply creates an infinitely more valuable product that keeps people coming back. Who is going to complain about a constantly expanding buffet of free content for a game?
    Publishers are trying harder to make people pay more money for less content instead of trying to deliver a quality product that people will find fulfilling for years to come thus making it a far more compelling purchase.

    As a technical artist myself I have to say this is a pretty solid write up but it does ignore or gloss over a few interesting points. First of all, the companies that ignore good tool production go bankrupt before the game ships or are mostly using pre-made tools from a third party engine producer. What this will mean is they can't release the tools, since either, well, they're bankrupt, or the tools will be held under a separate licencing agreement, that in itself cost huge sums of money.

    Second of all, most modders pirate expensive software. You just have to look at the amount of sales Autodesk gets vs. the amount of content being produced in their products on modding forums. Autodesk doesn't seem to care that much, since it helps them monopolise. If people only learn their software, then why would the industry switch to a superior competitor?

    Third; tools tacked onto software packages like 3Ds MAX / Photoshop / Maya etc. are not always hacky. Sometimes they're incredibly advanced, well made tools, built as such because they need to be used by artists again and again. Yet MOST of the time these tools never get released, because knowledge of their mere existence can betray a serious competitive advantage a studio has in it's pipeline. That's not to say companies trawl other's tool sets, but there is a reason why it's mostly exporters etc. that get 'exported' and not in house content creation tools.

    Next up, yes, many tools teams do consist of many programmers. Take one prominent former Australian Studio I was aware of that had ~9 programmers and 1 artist working on tools that were outside the realm of individual titles.

    But, technical artists are one of the new waves of professional's mixing this up. The argument for them is simply that programmers don't know how to make art let alone how to improve artist effeciency. Most technical artists start as artists and then go on to become tools / shader / pipeline programmers, and in a sense it is more appropriate to refer to what they do as art by programming.

    Lastly, I have to concur on the DLC argument. This really does have some weight behind it. There are of course plenty of approaches and attitudes towards it but I have had it pointed out to me by people who worked on a particular, very successfully modded game, that they felt they were unable to compete with the mods when releasing DLC. Needless to say, they further crippled the mod tools later on, but how much that had to do with better internal tools, I cannot say.

      We could definitely dive into a lot more detail, but I think it's better to get people talking, and people such as yourself commenting, on particulars. My experience comes from a designer / programmer point of view, so I welcome input from other specialities.

      When I was in the industry, one company I worked at did have a technical artist working on tools, but I think the amount of work was too much for a single person. In the end, I shouldered the burden. It wasn't unwelcome -- it was good as a designer to be able to tailor the tools to how I needed them to be -- but ideally I wouldn't be put into that situation (I wasn't being paid to program, or make tools).

      If developers are concerned with mods competing with DLC, there are solutions, such as gating mentioned in the updated article. Harder to implement in an offline game, for sure, but I'd like to see the business model evolve to a point where DLC and mods can coexist.

    To be completely honest, I think the modding community is diminishing. I did a series of posts on this on my blog (http://amstradherocreations.blogspot.com/2011/10/modding-future.html and the two links at the start of that post) covering this very topic.

    Sure, there's the issue of hasty hacks and potential incompatibilities, but those have always been issues with mods tools. I can't ever recall a mod tool that didn't have some issues. If modders can't deal with that, then they don't end up producing much. If people end up with a negative impression of a company as a result, then they don't really understand how games are made. The prevalence of 3rd party tools has definitely played some role in the decrease in popularity, but as I stated on my blog, the ease with which people can create their own games that they can subsequently sell is likely playing a major role in the decline of modding.

      Sure the modding community is diminishing. But at the same time so has the number of moddable title's.

      Like the original BF mod tools were made by the community. EA/Dice eventually released some but the community ones were superior. And back then it was simple to start a server and have the stuff going.

      Odd's are that even if you made mod tools for BF3 and got maps and conversions and other tweak's up and running. EA would shut you down so fast that it wouldn't even be funny. The EULA probably even give's them the right to. But it could be as simple as not having server's with custom maps show up in their browser.

      The rise of console's doesn't help either. It's in the companies best interest to ensure that little Good content comes out for their game on PC. Because while they view pc as the Realm of Pirates. Having thing's like mods and completely new campaign's is something that could entice people to change platform. Which could lead to them becoming a evil pirate.

      Then you have companies like blizzard who have decided that because they want to have an online marketplace mod's have been completely banned from their game. I still have no desire to play D3 online. I'd rather play it myself with the mod's and level's i choose or at most co-op at a LAN party but beyond that i have little interest in online or the online marketplace.

        How dare companies make sensible business decisions! It's almost like they are creating games to make money. Next thing they'll have the bloody audacity to think that their professional game designers are better at game design than people who like playing games.

    Coz they didnt feel like it? Their game, its their choice what they do wih their IP.

    I guess firstly, not all games have to be moddable as not all games really lend themselves to modding. Secondly, there are now complete, robust, regularly updated development suites available for free. If it comes down to developing a game via mod tools for an existing game on a specific platform, or developing via UDK/Unity/CryEngine3 at no cost, I know where I'd rather spend my time and energy.

      No cost if you don't intend to sell, I mean

    It should also be noted that some games just aren't meant to be modded. Sure some games like Skyrim are a modders dream. But a game like any of the Final Fantasys would just feel wrong if it was modded.

    I'm going to play devils advocate with the DLC argument - wouldn't more mods give people more incentive to buy the game, and rise the number of people who would consider buying DLC?

    Obvious piracy and quality of DLC are issues, but not enough to counter it, I reckon.

    Do publishers actually want to extend the life of their games? dont they want you to finish the game and buy another one asap?

    Especially if you want the tools to be polished and well supported - that implies money needs to be spent, for no direct profit.

    Trouble is most in-house developer tools are buggy, not user friendly with little GUI considerations etc. etc.

    To polish them up and support them is generally too hard and too expensive basket for small-mid sized developers.

Join the discussion!