I found the old essays I wrote for my Arts Degree at Melbourne University (1997 - 2000), and decided to upload some for historical interest and general self-reflective purposes!
What are the theoretical ramifications of fans actively engaging with, and even altering the "original" computer game text? How does this alter film theory models that assume a closed text and passive spectator?
Subject: The Entertainment Experience
by Murray Lorden (1999)
In this essay, I will consider the implications of fan culture and the internet, and the function served by the various ways in which a computer game can be modified by the fan.
The modification of games has dramatically altered the shape of whole areas of the computer games industry. Fans of computer games can interact with the "original text" of a game in ways that are revolutionary to mass-entertainment forms. Some "fans" who have made particularly impressive and revolutionary modifications (mods) have gone on to be picked up by game development teams. Other mods have gone on to become as popular as the games that they emerge from. Since Id Software first encouraged users to create their own modifications of their game Wolfenstein 3D, the notion of the "closed text" in many factions of the computer game world has begun to collapse. The phenomenon of modification for many users has become a large part of their involvement with computer games. The ramifications of this collapse of author and audience are monumental in their scope. This collapse is made possible only through the new technology of the internet and the communities which have been setup therein. It signals a complete departure from previous theoretical models of spectatorship.
A modification (mod) describes the alteration of any element of a computer game. By far the most commonly modified game genre is the First Person Shooter (FPS). This genre describes a game in which the user plays the game from the perspective of the protagonist. The frame of the monitor becomes our field of vision. Through this field we interact with a three dimensional space and the entities that inhabit it. This space is made from geometrical shapes that form the architecture of the rooms, hallways, landscapes or whatever the space is trying to simulate. Each side of these geometric shapes are texture mapped, (ie: they are covered with an image file like bricks or wood-slats that works further to create the atmosphere of the location). As you move through this virtual space, the graphics of the changing viewpoint are rendered in real time. And in this space, light sources exist, the luminosity of which must also be calculated in real time also. Within this space there may also be any number of objects that can be interacted with to achieve some effect in the environment such as buttons which open doors, traps which damage your character or numerous other instances.
This space is also inhabited by virtual entities such as Non-Player Characters (NPC's) which may be friendly, hostile or of a more ambiguous nature. To deal with the hostile variety of these entities, we generally have a selection of weapons that can be found in the space and wielded against such foe. The weapon you are currently using will appear in your hands, outstretched from the bottom of your viewpoint. In these environments, you have the freedom to go in any direction at any time, so long as a piece of geometry is not blocking your path. The overall effect that is experienced when playing a FPS is a feeling of "really being there" and a strong sense of agency due to the immediacy of the world's response and the freedom of movement.
This freedom of movement and the immediacy of the world's response to your actions is made possible by what is called the game engine. This is the programming of the game which dictates to all of the elements how they are to behave. The game engine is forever updating a constant present; forever telling every aspect of the game to "take one step forwards". It is constantly updating what appears in the player's view of the world, updating the movement of any NPC's, updating the movement of any projectile in motion after its propulsion from a weapon, updating the movement of light being transmitted from light sources which may be casting shadows behind both objects and moving entities. It also prescribes to the world the "physics" which everything must adhere to. For example, if the player jumps, it constantly calculates the gravitational effect on the player until they land again. The same must be done for all NPC's and projectiles which are subject to the physics of the world such as grenades.
The reason why FPS's are the most modified game genre is because each of these elements is largely independent from one another. Each can be altered on its own without having to change (or even understand) the others.
For the purposes of the remainder of this essay, I will summarise the breakdown of separate components of a FPS:
- There is the game engine which is the programming code behind the actual running of the game. It is the component that brings everything together. It controls the "rules" of the world and dictates how things will behave, including weapons, NPC's, player characters, obtainable items, etc.
- There are the map files. A map is a file which contains all the information that describes one particular three dimensional space. It is one "level" in a FPS. It contains all the information of the geometry and textures, and also the information describing which entities inhabit the level and where they are placed in the level (such as NPC's, buttons, doors, weapons, etc.). A map file also contains the information on where the light sources are placed and what their attributes are, such as the color of the light being transmitted, its brightness and whether it behaves in a special way (ie: an ebbing light or a flashing light, etc.).
- There are the models, which are the files that contain the information regarding the geometrical shape of a player character or NPC and also contains all of their animation frames.
- There are the skins which are image files that are wrapped around a model. A skin is the flat image that, when wrapped around a geometrical model of a monster, become the actual textures which are its eyes, its face, its clothes, the blood stain on its teeth, etc.
- There are the weapons that - besides their actual behaviour which is controlled by the game engine - are made up of their corresponding models and skins.
- Finally (although not exhaustively), there is the Heads-Up-Display (HUD) which is the graphical interface that shares your viewpoint and shows you the status of various attributes such as your health status, ammo supply and inventory, etc.
Now the beauty of a FPS is that you can create a map, for example, without ever having to involve yourself with adjustments to the game engine, the models, the skins, the weapons or any other aspect of the game. All you have to do is obtain a program that will allow you to build the geometry of a level and place textures on their surfaces, place and configure the lights, and position the NPC's. Such software is available for free over the internet or can be purchased cheaply in any number of normal software retail stores. Once the map is created you can simply load the game that you are making a map for and choose to play your own custom made level. Your character arrives in your level just as you would in any level of the original game. The behaviour and appearance of the NPC's is unaltered and your arsenal of weapons is still the same, yet now you find yourself surrounded by an environment of your own making.
Just like mapping, other software is available that enables you to alter models, skins, or any other element of a FPS. Some games have more modification software than others. Often the modification software itself is made and shared by users. Sometimes people modify games without the use of custom-made modification software. Some game development companies like Id Software actually release the source code (all of the programming behind the game) to the public for use in non-profit modifications free of charge (providing that no money is charged for the modification). Some games, such as Unreal and Thief: The Dark Project are sold in stores with a map editor that comes on the game cd. Games companies have discovered that by encouraging the modification of their games, the lifespan of a title can be increased indefinitely. It also helps the games industry to expand which is of benefit to every game development studio.
Id Software's Quake was created with specific intentions: to make a game with a highly modifiable engine and where each component can also be modified individually and easily. This has allowed the game, made in 1995, to still be extremely popular today in its ever metamorphosing forms despite the fact that the technology is becoming dated. The fact that the way the game is played and the scenarios that can be played out can be forever altered has allowed it to develop with the changes in the industry even though Id Software themselves have not had do the work. Another title of equal original quality may now be left by the wayside due to the fact that it cannot be modified and is therefore merely a static example of the past. For example, the average real-time-strategy (RTS) or racing game is quickly superseded by a newer game that has taken on the array of its chosen genre and then enhanced it with new features and ideas. There is no way that a game can keep up with the evolution of computer gaming if it cannot be modified. And these games just slip into the past.
Internet sites such as Planet Quake are set up in accompaniment to the Quake series, yet most of the site is devoted to progress that has been made by other developers - both amateur and semi-professional - since the creation of the original game. The main menu of the site (http://planetquake.com/) covers: Files, News, Mods, Skins, Models, Maps, Bots, Utilities, Editing, Strategy, Enhancing and Creativity. Almost every one of these links pertains to the modification of the game; either to help you to work on your own mods or to help you find out more about what others have done. The "Planet" series of sights covers almost every recent FPS available and almost every one of these games has been designed with easy modification in mind.
Skinning is probably the easiest thing to do out of all forms of modification. It is the practice of drawing your own skins to wrap around a character model. Usually it is done for player models to wear on your own character but it is also done when modifying an NPC character. It is the easiest form of mod because you can open up a skin file in any graphics utility (even Paintbrush) and experiment with your own skin designs. This way you can personalise the look of your own character that you use when you play your favourite game over the internet.
At the other end of the complexity spectrum of mod making is the total conversion. There is no hard and fast definition for what a total conversion (TC) is, but it is generally defined as any modification that involves the alteration of most of the elements of the game. An example of a very successful TC would be Action Quake 2. This modification is a multi-player conversion in which you play on a team and must kill all members of the opposing team to win (unlike Quake 2, which has no such mode of play). The makers of Action Quake 2 made new weapons (based on real world weaponry rather than Quake 2's sci-fi based arsenal) by making new weapon models and skins. They also made alterations to the actual game engine, including altering the programming of the weapons and their visual, aural and environmental effects. They also modified the physics engine so that if you were injured in the leg you would limp. Elements and details were also added to the game engine to differentiate the game from it's source. "Bandaging" was a new aspect. If you are shot or fall from a great height, you must bandage your wounds to stop your health from continuing to drop due to blood loss. Bandaging also stopped you from limping if your leg was wounded. Action Quake 2 also introduced its own maps, its own player models and skins and all its own sound effects. The only element remaining from the original text was the basic game engine.
Such a conversion as Action Quake 2 will almost always rely on users to support the game and make it a success. Generally this involves relying on users to make maps for the game. Action Quake 2 only came with 3 or 4 maps and all of the rest (of which there would be over 30 "official" maps) are made by users. This gives the maps (and therefore the game experience) a great diversity. This sort of inclusiveness is a complete revolution in terms of theorising mass-entertainment forms. Even though the people who created Action Quake 2 have opened a text and totally reworked it, they have never even closed it back up, but instead have left it open for ongoing additions.
For such conversions to be made legally, technically and practically possible, it has taken developers, beginning with Id Software, to take the bold move to opened up their text to the public. Beyond encouraging people to make their own maps and skins for their games, Id Software have actually released the programming code of their games to the public so that people can use it for projects such as Action Quake 2, providing that they do not charge any money for it. And this is the basis of the huge phenomenon that is the modification community. It is revolutionary that such a large scale "public-domain" is made possible in such a huge industry. Game companies like Id Software seem to have realised (fortunately) that the best way for everyone to make the most of the computer's ability to reproduce data with such little use of resources is to encourage it rather than to try to contain it.
For many years now, Id Software have been licensing their game engines to other development companies - for very large fees - for use in their own titles. Examples of this would be Valve's Half-Life and Ritual Entertainment's Sin which both use the Quake 2 engine as their starting point. Likewise, Klingon Honor Guard, Deus Ex and Duke Nukem Forever have licensed the Unreal engine. It is becoming such an important part of the industry now that Id Software (the most famous for licensing their sought after engines) have actually licensed their Quake 3 engine to at least one company before the game has even been released. Talk about an open text! They are giving away the basic foundation before they have even finished the original!
As an illustration of the wise investment Id Software made by opening their games up for user modifications, Id Software themselves have actually collected up the best multi-player conversions of Quake 2 and sold them together in the one box under the title Netpack: Extremities. The proceeds were distributed evenly amongst the developers involved with the mods.
With the mass-culture forms we are used to, such as cinema, the novel, or the theatre or television show, we assume a closed text; a static work. Such works can be viewed and interacted with on a level of identification to the degree that we may be able to draw certain meanings from it that may or may not influence us in certain ways. The complexities of these theories are never-ending but in the end we still have a model that involves a piece of work that is received by an audience (and never the twain shall meet). What we have with these readily modifiable computer games provides a theoretical-model-busting new relationship between author and audience!
The internet seems to be the element that has made all the difference for this games industry phenomenon. With the games-dedicated communities set up on the internet, modified files can be shared throughout the world easily and at minimal cost. Also, because FPS's have been so popular as an internet based multi-player gaming experience, the whole structure was already in place to support the development of modifications that concentrated solely on the evolution of multi-player gaming. This would easily be the largest single factor in the success of the phenomenon of mod making. The mod making community competes heatedly to come up with the best new way to play against other players online and in turn these mods have dramatically influenced and inspired professional development companies in their new titles.
The beauty of the internet is its egalitarianism. Anyone with a recent computer and an internet connection can try to gain notoriety in the modification community. Everyone has an equal footing because pretty much everyone starts off as a "no-body". You have no identity until you prove yourself through the quality of your work. And the quality of your work does not really depend on how much money you have, what race you are, what your appearance is, what sex you are or how well educated you are because these factors simply do not play any significant role in the decision as to what makes a good mod. And to submit your efforts to an official game site where they will potentially choose your modification as one worth distributing through their site, you do not need your own printing press or film studio or monetary backing. You do not need to buy film or use up paint. The cost of resources simply boils down to time, patience and a little electricity. And the reason why this system is so different from other forms of mass-entertainment is that the whole modification phenomenon is free! You do not have to pay to download mods or maps or models or skins. This is because the people who make them give them away for free. This phenomenon is something that has not been experienced before in any other medium in the way that it exists in the gaming community on the internet.
Never before in the mass-entertainment world has it been so easy for almost anyone to create something so cheaply that can be shared and used by so many so easily. Perhaps software companies like Id Software realised that instead of battling the rampant piracy that would naturally come from a phenomenon like the internet would be better put to beneficial use for themselves and gamers alike by making the modification of games a joint aim of theirs and of users, thus benefiting the gaming world as a whole.
It is the internet that has lead to this move by computer game developers. And so I see the internet as the central factor in the rupturing of theoretical models of spectatorship that are based on a closed text and a passive spectator. If anything, the growing mod phenomenon signals a monumental movement in the opposite direction! The mod community, as supported by the computer game industry, is really encouraging the FPS player to become as participatory as possible, both as an active member of a community and as a modifier of the original text. The internet provides the know-how for beginners and communities are set up to receive submissions and distribute the best examples freely between users. It is a community that feeds itself and is powered by its own momentum.
The internet is challenging our traditional notions of the "author" because authorship in computer games is becoming very de-centralised - the opposite to the traditional auteur theory. Now anyone has the potential to become at least a minor star in a specific computer game realm. The best mappers are noticed, the best AI programmers are noticed and these people are sometimes even picked up by the big computer game companies for their further projects! For example, Ryan Feltrin created a program called Eraser Bots, an addon for Quake 2 that enabled a player to sit at home and play against artificially intelligent opponents as though they were playing on the internet against other people. The "other players" (AI "robots") were programmed to learn maps as they ran around and acted much like real players, picking up ammunition, using guns in an intelligent way depending on the nature of the weapon, etc., in a way that made them much more impressive than the actual monsters programmed by Id Software for their version of the single player narrative driven mode of play. The guys at Xatrix Software were so impressed with his Feltrin's AI programming that they employed him to work on their next title, Kingpin: Life of Crime that features some very impressive and revolutionary use of AI.
Another example would be the Australian made Team Fortress mod for Quake. Team Fortress is a total conversion mod with strong team oriented play and strategic elements. Each member of a team takes on a specific class, such as scout, sniper, or engineer, in competition with other teams. The player’s class determines his or her appearance, tools or weapons, and skills. It was released in August 1996 and today, approximately 40% of current Quake servers are dedicated to Team Fortress. Valve Software, the makers of Half Life bought Team Fortress Software P/L and employed the lead programmers Ian Caughley and Robin Walker so that they could make Team Fortress 2 using their own game engine called the Half Life engine (a total conversion of the Quake 2 engine which they officially licensed from Id Software).
These developers have been noticed because of their work that has been distributed over the internet and because of its success in that realm. Such examples illustrate the way that the computer game industry has at its fingertips a wealth of talent coming from a global pool like never before experienced by an entertainment industry! All they have to do is keep their fingers on the pulse of what is happening in the internet community to get a good idea of what sort of talented people are out there and what they are doing. There has never been such a way for amateurs, hobbyists and fans to get their work published on an equal footing to semi-professionals and professionals.
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11th Hour, The Trilobyte 1995
Action Half Life Suislide, et al. 1999
Action Quake 2 Suislide, et al. 1998
Aliens vs. Predator Fox Interactive 1999
Blood 2 Monolith Productions 1999
Delta Force Novalogic 1998
Doom 2 Id Software 1993
Drakan Psygnosis 1999
Eraser Bots Ryan Feltrin 1998
Half Life Valve Software (Sierra) 1998
Half Life: Cold Ice (Weapons mod) ColdIce 1999
Half Life: Counterstrike (Espionage TC) Mindvision Software 1999
Half Life: Team Fortress Classic Valve Software (Sierra) 1999
Half Life: War In Europe Borderline Studios 1999
Heroes Quest Series Sierra On-Line - - -
Jedi Knight Lucas Arts 1997
Kingpin: Life of Crime Xatrix 1999
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Klingon Honor Guard Microprose 1998
Malice Quantum Axcess 1997
Outwars Singletrac Studios 1998
Powerslide Ratbag 1998
Quake id Software 1995
Quake: Killer Quake (Collected mods) various 1996
Quake 2 id Software 1997
Quake 2: Awakening Redchurch 1999
Quake 2: Gunslinger Quintin Stone 1999
Quake 2 Mission Pack 1: The Reckoning Xatrix 1998
Quake 2 Mission Pack 2: Ground Zero Rogue 1998
Shogo: Mobile Armor Division Monolith Productions 1998
Sin Ritual Entertainment 1998
Thief: The Dark Project Looking Glass Studios 1998
Tomb Raider Core 1997
Tomb Raider 2 Core 1997
Unreal Epic Megagames 1997
Unreal CTF Necrotic Software 1999
Wolfenstein 3D id Software 1992