Have you ever played a game and felt that it was missing a certain spark? I certainly have! How about thinking that you could do a better job than the original developers? Not so much on my end – I am not a programmer. Have you ever lamented that a game seemed like it was abandoned too soon? Yeah, I’m with you there. These are all legitimate gripes that we gamers have with our favorite games. Depending on whom you’ve asked, this can be a good thing or a bad thing. I for one, love to play games. I love to think about them and imagine how I would improve them. I even occasionally share my inner thoughts when a developer is willing to listen, but that’s that.
However, there exists a small, but dedicated, community of people willing to work long and hard to improve some of their favorite games for little compensation or thanks. You know who I am talking about: the modders. They are a talented and hardworking bunch. They put out amazing products (I will only mention ones I’ve recently played) like Fall from Heaven for Civilization 4, The Long War for XCOM 2012 and the Renaissance mod for Warlock 2.
Then there are the modders that get access to the actual code and continue improving the games past the end of their development cycle like Pandora: First Contact. There are also people that like to mod existing games like Galactic Civilizations III, Crusader Kings 2 and Endless Legend because they are unhappy with some of the design choices made by the developers or they feel some aspect of the game was completely overlooked.
Let’s not forget the modders that take existing games and convert them into something completely different. One perfect example of this is Warcraft III and the mod called Defense of the Ancients. This was such a revolutionary product that it spawned a whole new genre of games called MOBAs. These days, you have major studios releasing more and more games in this mod-inspired genre, like Heroes of the Storm, but that’s besides the point.
So, who exactly is a modder? What do they do? Why do they do it? To answer those questions, I devised a Q&A. Several modders answered my call in this thread and on Twitter. It started out as a small project, but I got ambitious quickly and reached out to a few more “places” and got some amazing feedback. Boy, was I surprised by the organic growth of this piece. As a result, I am making this a series that will last 8 weeks or so. Well, don’t let me keep you any longer. Enjoy!
John – XCOM ‘12 – The Long War
Question: Who are you and what is your background?
Answer: My name is John Lumpkin. “JohnnyLump” is my online handle. I’m the design lead and a managing partner of Long War Studios, which we set up as an independent game development company last year. I’m 42 and live in Colorado in the United States. I’m a former reporter who started modding as a hobby while I was in graduate school.
Question: What was your role in creating the mod?
Answer: I am the founder and chief designer on the Long War [Editor’s note: 550k+ unique Downloads] mod for XCOM [‘12].
Question: Why did you choose to mod this particular game?
Answer: I played the vanilla version of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, loved it, and wanted to keep playing.
Question: What does your mod improve on from the base game?
Answer: We certainly started with some fantastic raw material in XCOM: Enemy Unknown and Enemy Within. We built a longer, deeper campaign that was geared toward giving the feeling of an actual war being waged. We essentially threw more problems at the player and gave them more tools to address the problems. Some of the mod’s main features included an alien strategic AI, eight soldier classes instead of four and a fatigue mechanism that required the player to manage a roster of fifty-plus soldiers instead of a dozen superheroes. We also added a lot of features that help tell the XCOM story better, like a hundred new soldier nationalities and voice packs for soldiers from the UK, Australia, and other places.
Question: Where do you feel you could have done more?
Answer: We never figured out how to add new models and textures directly to the game.
Question: How did the community receive your mod?
Answer: I think players who were looking for a deeper challenge and viewed losing battles and even the campaign as a chance to learn and improve were the ones who enjoyed it the most. That said, despite the mod’s hardcore reputation, we’ve tried to include a number of options for shorter, easier campaigns, including an alternate config file with a bunch of settings geared toward players who are happiest just killin’ aliens.
Question: Did your mod achieve the goals you set out to achieve?
Answer: Yes, although I guess I should say the mod grew organically, and we added and fulfilled new goals as we figured out how to mod the game better. So when we started back in March 2013, we didn’t have a massive list of things we wanted to do; instead, we kept discovering new capabilities and adding content as we went, and we continued working as long as it stayed fun and players kept coming back. We finally wrapped up the mod in late 2015 because we figured most of our playerbase would migrate to XCOM 2, and we also wanted to get started developing our own indie games.
Questions: Is there some other modding project you hope to take on some day?
Answer: Not exactly. We actually hope to be able to develop original games from scratch, and we’re underway designing a grand strategy alien-invasion game called Terra Invicta which will be moddable from the start. [During the editing phase of this Q&A, Firaxis announced that Long War Studios is making several official mods that will be available at release with XCOM 2]
XCOM 2 team – represented by Ryan McFall, lead engineer at Firaxis for XCOM 2
Question: How much did the Long War mod change your impressions about the modding community?
Answer: I’m not sure it changed our impressions about what a modding community can be, as much as it cemented the importance of having modding as a key feature for XCOM 2. The Long War team made some really fundamental changes to the game, and the core of XCOM is not very easily modified from a technical perspective. By seeing the kinds of things that they wanted to change, we could say “okay, let’s make sure that’s easier to modify in XCOM 2.” So the Long War team showed what really dedicated modders could do with the game, and the response to it showed that there was an appetite for a wider range of mods to XCOM.
Question: How did XCOM 2 change because of the gameplay in the Long War Mod?
Answer: I think both our team and the Long War team saw things that they wanted to change in XCOM, but our approaches in how to make those changes differed. Long War definitely adds a lot more to Enemy Unknown, and the XCOM 2 team looked at the fundamentals of Enemy Unknown and wanted to refine that experience. Long War is really focused on extending a single campaign of XCOM, and the features it adds are designed around that, with larger squad sizes and more aliens in a given map, and supporting systems like fatigue and additional classes. XCOM 2 is built to provide more of what players enjoyed from the core of Enemy Unknown and change the design of things that players didn’t use or enjoy. We changed the soldier skills and abilities, gave enemies abilities that were designed to disrupt players’ tactical plans, added procedurally-generated maps for missions, and completely reworked the strategy side of the game.
Question: What did you really like about the Long War Mod?
Answer: I’m most impressed by the sheer amount of stuff they were able to add to the game. I know how hard it is to get additional stuff into XCOM, and how much harder it is when you’re coming at it essentially cold. If I had to pick a favorite feature, it would be the increased squad sizes. My personal preferences for gameplay mechanics trend more towards the 1994 XCOM, and big squads were a possibility there so I think they’re great!
Question: What did XCOM 2 utilize that was introduced in the Long War Mod? Why?
Answer: That’s hard for me to answer, since my focus was primarily on systems engineering and less on the gameplay programming. In general, I think we learned that there are a lot of fans who like XCOM best when it’s a long and punishing experience. Going into the sequel with this knowledge helped the designers craft the Legend difficulty to appeal to those fans.
Question: One of the things that developers do to inspire modding is create their own Mods and Scenarios. Did you do something like that for XCOM 2? What did you do?
Answer: The team has some sample mods that they’re preparing, and we’ve worked with the Long War team in preparing the modding tools. They’re getting some mods ready which will be available when the game ships in a week or so. We’re going to show some of this off this weekend [1/29-1/31/16] at PAX South.
Question: Why is the game 45GB to download? Is it because of the Mod Tools? If that’s the case, have you considered making the Mod Tool and Assets an optional opt-in download?
Answer: The download for the shipping game is actually 26 GB (unpacks to the 45GB) and does not include the mod tools. The core game itself is pretty large because of the art and level assets. The fidelity of assets has been massively increased from Enemy Unknown/Enemy Within levels, and with the procedurally generated levels we have a larger pool of things like buildings and terrain to draw upon. The mod tools and content are a 45 GB download that unpacks to 70 GB, which is large, but with that you are getting the same source assets that we used to make the shipping game.
Question: What would kind of advice would you give to future modders?
Answer: Start small, with an idea that you can implement quickly/easily and get a feel for the tools. Don’t try to start out with a new campaign where you play as the aliens, for example! Try lots of mods and check out what other modders are doing. Ask people questions about what they’ve done, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Make the mods you want to see in the game, and remember that not every mod has to be as big and ambitious as Long War.
The cherry to top this cake was the Pax South ‘16 panel where Ryan McFall and part of the XCOM 2 design team as well as John Lumpkin discussed the modding capabilities of XCOM 2 and Long War Studios’ mods that will be available to the public at release for no charge. I could spend two eXpositions discussing all of the things that I saw, so, I will give you a quick list instead.
Modding tools in no particular order:
- Full-blown console controls
- Replay mode
- Debug mode
- Particle effect package
- Map components
- Map maker
- Animation mode
- Character mode
There was plenty more, but you’ll find out when you buy the game and experiment with it.
Meanwhile, Long War Studios introduced three amazing things: Weapon mods that add a new weapon model and gameplay effects. Soldier class, where you can have XCOM commander units with unique skill trees. A new alien called the Muton Centurion, which is a re-skinned Muton with a cool new weapon and skills. All in all, XCOM 2 is going to be amazing.
So, here are a few more post Pax South panel revelations from John Lumpkin.
Question: How much work did each of the three mods take, more or less?
Answer: We’ve been working on them collectively for several months, but it’s hard to break that down further – it was mixed in with giving Firaxis feedback on the SDK and the overall moddability of the game, getting and incorporating feedback from 2K’s QA and doing various other things involved in the formal development process.
Question: How hard was it to do what you did with the Muton Centurion?
Answer: That was probably the quickest of the three mods – it’s a retexture and resize of the base-game Muton model, some coding for abilities and some configuration changes to slide the Centurion into the encounter tables. Certainly this type of mod can be a good starting point for modders reasonably comfortable with art and code.
Question: How hard would it be to create Long War 2 using the tools of XCOM 2?
Answer: From the perspective of the modding tools, it’s certainly possible – and it would go a lot more smoothly than it did with modding in EU and EW. It’s so much easier to create new configuration variables or open up new soldier abilities – no more scavenging unused resources from base-game code. The constraints on modding XCOM 2 aren’t really related to the tools or the game itself – they are more dependent on the modders themselves, in terms of what skills they bring (or are willing to learn) and the time they have to create new content.
Well, there it is folks. Part one of this eight part series. We’ve seen how a modding team not only releases a very deep and solidly put together mod, but also its effect on the future of the franchise. I hope you enjoyed this first article in the series. There are many more to come. See you next week!