Open source gets in the game

Gamers don’t just click and shoot — there’s a growing movement toward actually digging into the programming code of games and changing them. Welcome to the world of open-source gaming.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t buy videos. I have a friend who owns a copy of every movie he’s ever seen, and I just don’t get it. If I see a movie once–or maybe twice–enough’s enough. Am I going to watch it a fourth time–or a fifth? Is the film’s ending going to change the next time I watch it? (OK, so I saw “Memento” four times. But that’s because I still can’t figure it out.)

Most console games are like that. When you get through all the levels, when you kill the Big Boss, you’re ready to pack up and move on. And soon all your buds have moved on and the game is no longer in vogue, vanishing from store shelves and, perhaps, resurfacing for one last gasp in a bargain bin someplace.

But wait! What about PC titles like “Quake” and “Half-Life”? Heck, those two senior citizens are five and seven years old respectively, and gamers are still playing them. What’s the secret of their longevity? Just one word–mods.

You may not even be aware of the huge subculture of gamers who spend their time digging deep into the programming code of their favorite games and altering them. It all started when the clever creators of “Doom” released the game as open-source–free for all game addicts to make their own game stills. Sometimes it’s just to re-jigger the images so that, in one modification of “Doom,” you get to blast Barney the Dinosaur to smithereens. But the mod world didn’t end with “Doom.” The mod known as “Counter-Strike”–the single-player, first-person shooter “Half-Life”–was transformed into what’s become the most popular multiplayer game ever. Not bad for something that was knocked off by some geeks in their spare time.

And so gamers who are mod-savvy have found a way to extend the joy they experience from their favorite games. Instead of uninstalling them when they reach the last level, they jump online to download mods created by fellow gamers. (Just use Google to search for “game mods” and see what I mean.) At the same time, because mods only work if used in combination with a purchased copy of the game, the cleverest PC game publishers have learned that the lives of their products can be extended by the mod community. All they need do is release a few editing tools and let the modders do their thing. The publishers count on the modders to help them survive in what’s become a savagely competitive market.

LucasArts, for example, sanctioned a site that lets gamers post the mods they’ve created based on LucasArts titles. Similarly, Sierra and Valve (the publisher and developer of “Half-Life,” respectively) have awarded endowments to “Half-Life” mod development teams, published the mods in “mod packs,” and even sponsored an annual Half-Life Mod Expo.

While modding thrives in the PC arena, it is practically non-existent on the console side, where manufacturers rely on game-disk sales and fear knockoffs. Sony (PlayStation 2), Microsoft (Xbox), and Nintendo (GameCube) have yet to create a means for gamers to get under the hoods of their titles.

Meanwhile, the best PC mods just keep on getting better and may soon become indistinguishable from the “official” games in terms of quality and popularity. Ironically, at a time when console games are whupping PC games on the sales charts, it may just be that mods are what the PC game market needs to thrive.

As a devoted PC gamer, I say, hey, whatever it takes.

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