Games Modding:
My Work in the Wing Commander Universe

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Games Modding



A note for the uninitiated about games modding in general:
Games modding (verb derived from the noun 'mod', which in turn is slang for 'modification'), basically, means editing a game, either by creating new content, or altering existing content. Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, this was usually a difficult process, with many technical limitations - because game developers did not see the benefits of allowing users to mod their games, they did not make their games particularly moddable - consequently, to make any alterations users had to dig deep into the game executable files using hex editors. Doom (1993) changed all that - the game was designed specifically to be moddable. Users could easily add new levels; with a bit more work, they could also add new enemies or weapons. Although the developer, id Software, did not release any kind of Doom editor, it didn't take long for dozens of fan-made tools to appear, followed by thousands of mods. The fact that Doom continued to sell for years afterwards was a real eye-opener for the industry - fan-made content could boost and extend sales to an incredible degree. Since then, more and more games have been designed specifically to be as moddable as possible, reaching the point where (especially in the case of the first-person shooter genre) the original game is sometimes little more than a demo of what can be done with the game engine. It is not rare (though also not commonplace) for fan-made content to surpass the original game in terms of quality. There is just one (big) catch - unlike game developers (who are paid for their work, after all), fans have no reason to work on a mod from start to finish. Consequently, there are hundreds of fan-made mods out there that are never finished - sometimes, never even properly started - because the people developing them frequently grow bored, get discouraged, and sometimes are forced to stop modding because they simply do not have the time for it. Because modding is so time-consuming and financially-unrewarding, the best and most reliable modders are, paradoxically, teens in their last years of high school. Commencement of university usually means either an end to modding, or a drop in grades (remarkably, I managed to avoid both - but only by sacrificing my social life). Commencement of work, or starting a family, means even further restrictions - although you do sometimes get people who manage to balance work, family and modding with good results. 

My first attempts at game modding were primitive hacks for Dune 2 (1992) and Eye of the Beholder II (1992) - which was also my first and only attempt (successful, at that) at disabling copy protection in a game. When Doom came out, I eventually made several new levels for it (which I still have... somewhere). This was followed by a few levels for WarCraft II (1995) - we spent a vast amount of time playing these levels during lunch breaks on the school network.

And then came the Wing Commander (WC) series. I had been a great fan of this series since about 1996, when I got my hands on pirated copies of Wing Commander I (1990) and Wing Commander II (1991), subsequently buying every game from the series that I could get my hands on. Having previously downloaded a few Doom-related things off the internet, it was perhaps inevitable that when I finally had regular internet access, WC was the first thing I searched for. Over the years to come, I became deeply involved (and still am) in the community of WC fans. After a few half-hearted attempts at making new missions for the older games in the series, in 2000 I finally jumped into the deep end, getting involved in a project called Unknown Enemy, for the latest game in the series - Wing Commander: Secret Ops (1998). I suspect that had I known how difficult and time-consuming this project would turn out to be, I would never have dared to join it - but ignorance and naiveté are sometimes wonderful things.

Wing Commander: Unknown Enemy (UE) was eventually finished in 2002, after nearly two and a half years of struggle. The finished product included nearly 20 missions, a dozen new ship models, seven scripted cutscenes (i.e., game missions where the player had no control, with all action and camera directions pre-scripted for storytelling purposes), and over a hundred pages of written fiction. While the game for which it was made was already four years old when we finished, it was also a very different game to what was originally released - the fans had been able to hack the game to make it run at a higher resolution (1024x768, compared to the original 640x480) and allow it to display movies in the DivX format. Our mod took full advantage of these improvements - and so, apart from everything mentioned above, we also included several DivX movies, varying in length from 5-10 seconds to nearly 2 minutes.

My personal contribution to UE was, I daresay, significant - I wrote all the written fiction, designed most of the missions (I didn't program them, however, though I did handle most of their debugging later on), and created the scripted cutscenes. I also put together the sound-fx tracks for all but one of the DivX movies, and, during the last year of the project, coordinated everything.

The mod was, all in all, a remarkable success. Many fans claimed that the missions we had made were more interesting than the original game. This was most certainly also the case for the scripted cutscenes that we made - the few such scenes that had been in the original paled in comparison with our work. The mod also received some attention from the mainstream gaming press, with one article about it appearing in the Polish online magazine (direct link to article), and two articles in two separate issues of the (also Polish) offline magazine Swiat Gier Komputerowych (I'll scan them in at some point). We quickly started talking about a sequel... but talking is about as far as it went, as in the meantime, we had another project to complete...

Wing Commander: Standoff was started around 2001, although I personally didn't join it until 2002. This project was hugely more ambitious than UE - in some ways, it turned out to be more ambitious even than all the projects I've done professionally. It ended up including more than fifty missions and dozens of cutscenes, both scripted game engine sequences and pre-rendered videos. The number of new models was also staggering - Standoff has more variety in ships than any previous Wing Commander game. Only the written fiction was less impressive than what had been done for UE - but then again, most of the narrative work was now carried by the scripted scenes and the movies, and there was simply no need for all that text.

My responsibilities with Standoff were similar to those I had towards the end of UE - I helped to coordinate the project, wrote, designed and implemented the scripted cutscenes, designed (and, in many cases, programmed) the missions, and wrote most of the written fiction.

Standoff was actually five projects in one, in the sense that it consists of five episodes. Each episode was released separately over the course of five years (ouch!) - the first at the end of 2004, and the last in September 2009. It was an incredible relief to finally get it over and done with.

But what's next...? I suspect modding is going to take a backseat for a while. Possibly permanently. I've got tons of ideas, there's many things I'd like to do - not just another Wing Commander project, but many other things. I'd like to finally give RPG modding a serious try - maybe with The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion (2006), maybe with Mount & Blade (2008), whatever - the point is, there's a lot of great mods waiting to be made, and my ambitions grow every time. But will I still be able to find enough spare time to take on another project? Time will tell...

Copyright 2010 Jakub Majewski