Mods and what journalism can learn from videogames


It’s the internet that really makes UGC happen. But the pace of change in the online world is so fast that it leaves most of us wondering what on earth will happen next. One place we can look for answers is the path taken by that nerdiest of pastimes, videogames.

Mods

Image: ehud42

Gamers have been doing UGC for years. The heyday of the ‘bedroom coder’ was in the 1980’s providing seminal experiences for a generation of gamers whose interest lay not just in consuming but creating. Modifications, or ‘mods’ are archetypal UGC. They’re user-created extensions to already existing games which use the game ‘engine’ (the underlying code). They range from unofficial patches and bug-fixes through to additional content or even entirely new games, known as total conversions.

By allowing people to make their own experiences and speak to an audience at times frustrated by the mass market approach of commercial developers, mods have developed into a vibrant niche. It’s an examplary UGC network and a big one, with more than 10,000 mods in existence.

Developers soon realised that mods are a good thing and provided access to their game engines and tools. Today, a casually interested gamer can easily play

Usercreated is a popular mod site

around, download new maps (game environments) or check out any other mods through dedicated websites. Almost anyone who buys a game (at least on the PC) can extend their enjoyment through UGC.

Difference and art

Without the restrictions of commercialisation, mods allow for real experimentation. Dear Esther, originally released as a mod for Half-Life, was created as a research project at the University of Portsmouth to explore storytelling beyond the traditional conflicts of shooting aliens. It’s now being released as a commercial indie.

Commercialisation and the future

Valve (makers of Half-Life, Counter Strike, Left 4 Dead and Portal) are the

Team Fortress Image: Bryan Sutter

masters at making the most of UGC. In 2001 they brought in the makers of an old mod called Team Fortress and released it for free. That might seem like a good way to lose money fast, but a community soon developed and it quickly garnered a host of UGC maps. Interest grew and the buzz for the free mod sustained sales of Valve’s other games.

Valve now incorporate user generated additions to such an extent that they’ve made a marketplace where players buy them. Valve approves and controls the sale of all the items and keeps 75% of the money. They profit from opening to door to user-participation.

Journalism

Clearly ideas like Creative Commons and Open Source sites are a step in this direction in the wider online world. But there are concrete reasons why mods have been so successful.

  • a reasonably niche and defined area
  • die-hard fans
  • easy to use tools and distribution channels
  • an active community where members talk to each-other

There are plenty of journalistic areas that would be  fertile ground for this kind of UGC. Trade publications with narrow specialisms, or fan-based journalism like celebrity or political blogging, are just a few.

Hiring

Significantly, there is a steady flow of modders into full-time employment with game developers. But should this be be the route bloggers take into paid journalism? The idea is attractive, but the problem is money. Gaming is a bigger industry than films these days, and there’s cash to spend, unlike in journalism. With editors tightening their belts, it’s unlikely we’ll see much hiring any time soon.

HARRIET BIRD

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