Modding: Limitations on Innovation

Terence Gogarty

Professor Jong

ENGL 398

April 9, 2015

When games like Oblivion or Skyrim are released, some players completely ignore the original gameplay parameters created by the developers and instead opt to play the game with user-generated modifications. However, some players augment the game with so many different types of mods that what they end up with is an almost entirely different game. In fact, a player can carry out their adventures only with user-generated equipment, weapons, houses and even missions. Not just in the case of these two games, but some modifications can prove to be incredibly popular amongst players that they end up being developed into standalone products.

Counter Strike, which began as a mod for Half-Life, is an example of this. What began as something simple ultimately snowballed into a franchise of games. Even though it initially began as a mod, players can still completely ignore the standard ‘terrorists vs. counter terrorists’ team death match servers that are offered and instead play on servers that solely host modified maps and game modes. These, amongst many others, include ‘surf’ maps, wherein the physics of the game have been manipulated and players complete obstacle courses by ‘surfing’ along walls.

Counter Strike is not the only example of a mod transcending into a full retail product. Defence of the Ancients, or DotA, began as a modification on Warcraft III’s ‘Battle.net.’ It became so popular that the IceFog, one of the creators of the mod, was hired by Valve and is now the lead designer of DotA 2, currently the number one game on Steam.

But are these ‘rags to riches’ stories expected to be a considered an attainable goal amongst modders, or are the aforementioned examples exceptions to the rule? In his article Precarious Playbour: Modders and the Digital Games Industry, Julian Kücklich makes a strong argument in how game companies, such as Valve, are using the modding community as a tool in their research and development. They monitor the trends in the type of mods which are being creating along with which mods are being the most used by players. This not only allows them to create future products which cater to their customers tastes, but it also eliminates a large part of the risk involved in implementing new additions to future products. While this may prove fruitful for developers of the platforms in which these mods are taking place, what is the perceived gain for the modders themselves? Kücklich states that these developers are not actively recruiting modders and instead using their work as a form of free labour.

Not only is this labour considered ‘free’ because of the lack of wages associated with the work, but also the fact that modding is interpreted as a leisure activity. Upon first glance at this community, this is an understandable conclusion to reach since there is no apparent economic incentive for modders. This sentiment is further justified by examining end-user license agreements that modders operate under. Having inspected the EULAs of Bethesda and Blizzard’s Battle.net, they all maintain similar legal boundaries to the example stated in Kücklich’s article. The EULA explicitly states that any modifications created by the player belong to the developer royalty-free. Under this assumption, the modder is doing this solely to exercise their creativity or to, hopefully, be recruited by a game company.

This implementation of an EULA seems to be a way for the developer to maintain the upper hand, legally speaking. In one sense, this is understandable from their point of view. For example, Minecraft’s creator Markus Persson openly claims inspiration from the open source game Infiniminer, which contains an alarmingly amount of similarities. These similarities include the ‘lego style’ aesthetic design to the goal of ‘mining.’ Since there was no EULA to enforce, Minecraft went on to become one of the most profitable video games of all time whereas Infiniminer, along with its creator, became its obscure spiritual predecessor. It seems, though, that these EULAs are not heavily enforced. Typically, if a modification has become popular enough amongst the gaming community and ultimately warrants a standalone product, the original creators, as seen previously, are involved in this process.

To counter this trend, however, is the mod ‘Gun Game’ for Counter Strike: Source. In this mode, the player will progress through a series of weapons and will be awarded the next weapon by killing another player, with the ultimate goal being to complete an entire weapon cycle. This mode, being incredibly popular in the Counter Strike: Source community, has made its way into AAA titles such as the Call of Duty series. Save for a few minor differences, the game mode is near identical, including being titled ‘Gun Game.’ There haven’t been any articles that state whether the initial developers were compensated or involved in any way, but if the EULA is to be any indication of how business was to be conducted, all dealings were done exclusively with Valve. However, Michael Barr, the lead developer of Gun Game, helped implement the mode in Counter Strike: Global Offensive, now under the title ‘Arsenal.’ It seems that with these agreements, the developers are bound to the company under which the mod was implemented.

If there was some form of deregulation or ‘freedom’ when it came to modding, could this provide an economic incentive for people to become involved in the modding community?  This would seem to be the outlook that Linden Labs has applied to Second Life.  The game contains modding software, albeit rudimentary, free of charge, and enables players to create clothing, costumes, furniture, etc. Not only are they able to freely create, all of their creations belongs to them outright, not to Linden labs. Similar to a ‘laissez-faire’ economic policy, Second Life has allowed its players to sell their creations amongst themselves, free of any intervention from Linden Labs. In fact, this method has become incredibly fruitful for one player in particular. In 2006, Ailin Graef became a millionaire out of investments she made in Second Life in just over two and half years.

This is clearly not a black and white issue. As it becomes a more prominent part of the gaming landscape and impacts the decisions made by developers, modding should be given more value than it does at the present. It should not be viewed as a fringe element of gaming, but should rather be promoted and encourage. While the previously mentioned companies do offer methods for players to mod, it comes with many strings attached and ultimately benefits the developer, not the modders.


Kücklich, Julian. “Precarious Playbour: Modders and the Digital Games Industry.” The Fibreculture Journal, 5 (2005). http://five.fibreculturejournal.org/fcj-025-precarious-playbour-modders-and-the-digital-games-industry/

Blessener, Adam. “Valve’s New Game Announced, Detailed: Dota 2.” GameInformer. 13 Oct. 2010. Web. 7 Apr. 2015.

Cooper, Hollander. “Valve Working with Gun Game Creators on Modes for Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.” GamesRadar. 22 Sept. 2011. Web. 7 Apr. 2015.

The Word of Notch. “The origins of Minecraft.”notch.tumblr.com.  Tumblr, 30 Oct. 2009. Web 7 Apr. 2015.

Hof, Rob. “Second Life’s First Millionaire.” Bloomberg Business. 26 Nov. 2006. Web. 7 Apr. 2015.

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