GamerDad’s Guide to Mods

ffgdbox11.jpgby Mike Anderson 

So you want to change the Game World? Mods aren’t well-understood by parents and Mike’s here to change that.

The somewhat recent flap over additional content found hidden in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas has brought the spotlight on not just that game, but on additional content available in games in general. Gamers and the gaming media routinely toss around terms like mods’, cheats’, trainers’, unlockable content’, bonus maps’, and so on. Many of these terms are completely foreign to parents trying to be involved with their kids’ gaming habits, and occasionally the usage in the media only serves to make things more confusing. I will attempt to sort out some of these terms in a way that will hopefully help parents become more informed. Many of these items are specific to PC games, but several are generic to any video game platform.

Game Content: this is the easiest one. This is the meat’ of the game, the stuff you are supposed to do (or at least have the opportunity to do) as a normal part of playing the game. This includes the normal missions, quests, objectives and locations the developers intended as part of the main story of the game. For example, jump puzzles to cross a room, dialogue to obtain and complete quests, destroying a fuel dump, racing to the finish line, and so on.

Secrets: these are small areas or features that the developers put into a game in an out of the way place in order to encourage players to further explore the game world. Often, they consist of hidden power-ups, or fragments of an item that will be very powerful when all parts are collected, or perhaps extra skill or experience points. The key thing is that these are unnecessary but intentional things in the game to enhance enjoyment and extend gameplay. An example is that the in Jedi Knight, finding all secret areas in a level would earn you a bonus star’ to allocate to the Force Power of your choice.

Exploits: The flip-side of secrets, exploits are unintentional things that players can do in the game due to limitations or errors in the developer’s programming. In a single player game, this might include the ability to sell an item for more than it costs to buy it, thereby making a huge profit by repeated buying and selling. In a multiplayer game, it might include a weapon or move that was not properly balanced, or a location which is partially obscured, allowing the player to fire on others but not be hit.

Unlockable Content: Similar to Secrets, this is something that rewards the player for reaching a certain goal or completing a certain task. For example, in the Star Wars Episode III game for the Nintendo DS, you can unlock the Millennium Falcon for use in multiplayer matches by defeating it in a skirmish match.

Bonus Content: This often comes as a purchase incentive recently Guild Wars had pre-order bonus weapons given away if you ordered the game before it was released through certain retail stores. Similarly, bonus multiplayer maps for Pariah were given as incentive to pre-order from retailers. It also occasionally means extra stuff in the game box for example, the recently released Bard’s Tale PC game comes with all three of the original Bard’s Tale games from the 80′s in the box.

Easter Eggs: Another form of secret, these are items that are not hidden, but may not be obvious to the casual player. One of my favorite examples of this is the two ムchicken jokes’ you find when checking the status information for chickens on one farm ヨ one has the status “The chicken ignores you, eyeing instead the nearby road, perhaps trying to decide whether it should cross it or not” and another has “The chicken appears to be engaged in some kind of polka”.

Patches: There is an old adage that any software more complex than ムHello World’ is bound to have bugs’ or errors. These can cause the game to crash or lock up, cause things within the game not to work correctly and so on. For example, a bug in Dungeon Lords occasionally caused the assistant to a wizard to stand blocking a door you needed to enter to talk to the wizard  which was absolutely necessary to go any further in the game. A patch to a game works like a patch to a tire you are fixing a hole in the original. More and more, however (especially in the PC world) patches are being used as a crutch to release unfinished games, and have also been used to make changes to gameplay or add functionality that didn’t make the release deadline.
Now we leave the world of normal game play and enter the slightly seedy world of winning by any means.

Cheats: Cheat codes are words or button combinations entered at certain times or locations that allow the player access to things not intended as part of the normal game experience. The most common of these are god mode’ or things that give more weapons or ammunition. However, just about anything can be changed if the developer made a code for it and cheats by their nature are built-in by the developers. Typically these are left in the game for testing, and to speed up the game for reviewers. However, sometimes developers have hidden other interesting features. For instance, in a recent GamePro magazine, there is a large Code Vault’ section (dedicated to cheat codes for various games) which tells you that by pressing “L, B, Y, L, L, X, White, Up, Down, Left” in sequence all pedestrians become Elvis.

Trainers: for the PC-only, when there are no cheat codes available, clever individuals have figured out a way of making a small program that patches memory locations to provide another way of cheating. You run the trainer program, then the game, and press the prescribed keys to activate the trainer features.

GameShark / Cheating Hardware: for consoles (including handhelds!), you can insert a simple and easily available hardware device, which allows the entry of cheat codes or other special mechanisms. (This is how Hot Coffee can be unlocked for the PS2 – ed)

Finally we enter the largest and scariest world of all  game modification.

First-Party vs. Third-Party: this is simply a description of who is developing the modification to the game. First party is the game developer themselves, or another professional developer if tasked by the publisher or owner of the intellectual property. Anyone else is Third-party, but largely it is intended to mean amateurs.

Add-ons: these are files separate from the main game software which add something to the game yet do not change the plot, flow, or gameplay. These often include extra racecourses or weapons or character appearance files.

Expansion Packs: almost always First Party developed; these are large sets of files that significantly expand on the original game world. They often feature new characters, new locations, even different times. However, they always require the original game to be owned and installed before playing.

Total Conversions: these tend to be Third Party developed, and hardly ever get finished anymore due to the ever-increasing complexity of games. What they do is to change one game ヨ typically a newer one with better graphics and/or controls ヨ to have all of the content (characters, levels, sounds, story, etc) of another game. An example of this would be ムBatman Doom’ ヨ pretty obviously making Doom play like a Batman Game ヨ or ムA Jedi’s Quest’, which is a Star Wars oriented total conversion for Duke Nukem 3D. Or ヨ as was the case with the Counter Strike total conversion for Half-Life ヨ totally change the behavior of the game. A look at a site like TotalConversions.com will give a better idea of what is out there.

Mods: this is a blanket term used to indicate any third party developed software that makes some partial conversion of the gaming experience. I will break them down a bit further; as there are so many mod types you can hear about.

In General ヨ Third party mods are often developed using tools released by the developers and/or publishers of a game, but neither the publisher nor developer control the content of those mods.

Skins ヨ these are user-created graphical files which completely change the appearance of a given character / vehicle / etc. For instance, after the movie “The Matrix” came out, people wanted their game characters in multiplayer games such as Unreal Tournament or Quake 3 to look like Neo. So various people developer a graphic file that wrapped around the existing skeletal model to make it look like Neo. This is extremely popular, and has ヨ naturally ヨ resulted in many ムinappropriate’ skins for female characters or NPC’s (non-player characters). For example, some players of Unreal II looked at the scantily clad first officer Aida and thought, “what would she look like with no clothes?” So someone developed a ムnaked Aida’ skin. While the game is already rated M, the production of ムnaked models’ has been done for many rated T games as well, and possibly even Rated E games.

Scripts / Dialogue ヨ much of what NPC’s do or say in a game is dictated by script or dialogue files in a programmable language, which allows different programmers to manage the different tasks more easily during a game’s development. These can be very helpful to third-party developers creating mods using tools provided by the developers. For example, Neverwinter Nights mod developers can create characters; give them routines and places to go, and entire dialogue trees with the ability to give out quests and items. Given the uncontrolled nature of these mods, it is possible that the content could range from rated E to rated AO depending upon the whim of the mod programmer.

User Levels / Missions / Tracks ヨ sometimes a player envisions something different they could do or somewhere different they could go with a game, and if they possess the skills ヨ and if the tools are made available by the developer ヨ they can make it happen. This is highly dependant on developer support, so games with excellent tools ヨ such as anything based on id’s Quake 3 engine ヨ tend to have loads of user-developed missions. These can be simple single area maps using all resources and assets already available in the game files, all the way up to a multi-level, story driven missions such as the ムShadows of the Empire’ Gall Spaceport mission for Jedi Knight II.

User vehicles / weapons / models / etc. ヨ instead of just adding a new look to an existing item in a game, users can sometimes create new items that not only look different, but have their own characteristics as well. This includes technical things like adding an MP5 machine gun to Soldier of Fortune 2 as well as adding a Yoda-sized model to the multiplayer mode of Jedi Knight II.


This is by no means a complete listing of all of the terms and things that are possible to alter the originally intended game experience and therefore fall under the term ムmod’. Hopefully it provides a flavor for some of the possibilities gamers have to enhance the gaming experience ヨ to get more for their money, some would say.As parents, however, it means yet another area where vigilance is required. The ability to obtain files that give T-rated games blood and gore or nudity is certainly an issue you need to discuss with your kids so they know where you stand. Another issue is one of the ease of ヨ and problems with ヨ downloading files of largely unknown origin over the internet. Soon after the release of the Jedi Knight II tools for the Quake 3 engine, maps and skins began to appear. It was only a matter of time before one of these was found to be spreading a virus the programmer had on his computer. Most ムmod hosting sites’ such as PCGameMods.com make sure all of the hosted files are clean, but it is possible for an innocent desire for Kyle Katarn to wield Aragorn’s sword resulting in your computer being trashed.

The bottom line is this ヨ as parents we owe it to ourselves and our kids to understand this stuff well enough to have a consistent family policy. My wife is not a gamer, but she understands many of the issues related to game content, and is constantly working with me to keep up so that as our boys get closer to being ready for T rated games she will be ready for the issues related to them. We have already discussed the whole GTA issue in some detail, because the ideas she got from the media were generally incorrect or at least misleading. But she had already made the connection to my older son’s desire to cheat his way to playing LEGO Star Wars as Ki Adi Mundi. Listen to your kids; take an interest in what they do; be fair and consistent. And remember ヨ you have your kids’ interest at heart, while the media are interested in ratings, politicians are interested in votes, and special interests have - uh -special interests.

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