Fallout 4 is gonna let players bring PC mods over to consoles. Years ago, however, another game did it -- with mixed results.
The game? Unreal Tournament 3, the third main entry in Epic's pioneering arena shooter series. The console? PlayStation 3. The year? 2007. So then, what happened, how'd it work, and -- most importantly -- why didn't it catch on?
There were, on the surface, many similarities between the way Unreal Tournament 3 handled mods and how Bethesda says Fallout 4 is going to. Anything was fair game for PlayStation 3 conversion: maps, character skins, weapons, game types, whatever. The only restrictions? These might sound familiar: copyright infringements and nudity.
"There may have been a small number of mods we couldn't approve because of intellectual property/copyright issues," Unreal Tournament project lead Steve Polge told me via email. "I don't recall ever having to reject a mod because of nudity/obscenity, but we would also have restricted mods based on those concerns."
The property/copyright policy was not, however, an across-the-board thing, as evidenced by this mod starring Master Chief from Halo:
And this one that includes Metroid and Star Wars characters:
And this one with Spawn and The Avengers:
There are plenty more where that came from.
Interestingly, the vetting process -- an important piece of the puzzle given that Sony didn't want their monolithic flagship crawling the the kind of salacious filth you might find on PC -- didn't always stay in Epic's hands. While there was no direct interaction with Sony on a per-mod basis, Epic did check each mod players wanted to bring over from PC to the PS3 version. Eventually, however, Epic passed their content police badge and gun off to a "trusted" member of the community. According to Epic there were no incidents of objectionable content slithering onto PS3 and ruining America's precious children, so it all worked out in the end.
The PS3 mod community's small size might have also had something to do with that. It's pretty hard to miss cracks in the hull when the ship's not particularly large in the first place. Epic's Stacey Conley described them as a "small but passionate group." They went their separate ways over time (UT3 on PS3 never really caught on) and after Unreal Tournament 3's PS3 multiplayer died with GameSpy, but -- to hear Conley tell it -- they accomplished a lot.
"The Community created an incredible amount of content for the PS3, including popular mods like Jailbreak, or recreations of classic UT gametypes like Assault, Domination, and Bombing Run," she said. "They created new weapons, vehicles, characters, and mutators, [which are] small mods that add new elements or make small changes to existing games. New levels were probably the most popular type of content, and we were very happy to see that the Community Bonus Packs made their way over to the PS3; the CBPs were several packs of professional quality maps made entirely by the community."
Sounds like a pretty solid outcome, all told. So what -- aside from Unreal Tournament 3's relative lack of popularity compared to its predecessors -- stopped console mods from catching on? Conley chalks it up to console-makers' desire for iron-fisted dominion over their platforms. Epic was, at the time, the exception, not the rule. If someone else without Epic's status and legacy came at Sony with a similar proposal, they might've been shown the door. And since UT3's PS3 mods never set the world on fire, they went down in history not as a revolution, but rather as a niche experiment.
Because sometimes you've just gotta have a snowboard mod in your first-person arena shooter.
"Looking back, we were on the forefront of modding on console, and this was new territory for Sony and our community, so the path was still a big rocky and untrodden," said Conley. "I would assume that the jump wasn't made to consoles earlier simply because they run on closed networks; the companies that run them are wary of allowing content to be added so that they can manage security risks and control their economy/ecosystems."
However, she added that console-makers are beginning to ease up on that, something that likely played into Bethesda's decision to go big with Fallout 4 console mods. I don't think it's too much of a stretch to imagine that a lot is riding on their success. If they keep people wandering the wasteland even longer and don't cause any screaming disasters (aside from, you know, nukes -- but only fictional ones), then we may well see the floodgates open for this kind of thing. Mods are more prominent than ever these days, so it certainly makes sense for console-makers to embrace them.
But modding scenes are unpredictable, sometimes contentious things. Heck, even getting them to take off is hit and miss, as evidenced by Unreal Tournament 3's seemingly surefire success formula (give people tools to bring mods to consoles, let them do pretty much whatever they want) going out with a whimper rather than a bang. So we'll see.
Oh to live in a world where console players can finally experience whatever's going on here, though. Just think of the conversations we'll have -- PC and console gamers, finally brothers in arms -- while confused, scared and crying.