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Modders are developers - it's time to stop treating them differently

Overwolf CEO Uri Marchand argues self-publishing's next fight must be on behalf of players

Within a few short years, through changes in technology and policies, the video game industry has made monumental strides in freeing creators to share their visions with others. The notion that a developer could not release a fully realized product without the expressed, paid permission of a publisher, once stalwartly defended by the industry's gatekeepers, has crumbled before the sheer wealth it turned away.

But what have we really opened up? If you cut a door into a wall, does the wall cease to exist? Allowing an outsider to step through your barrier is a tremendous step forward, but what about everyone else?

If the last debate over self-publishing laid bare how arbitrary the line between developers with publishers and those without is, perhaps now we can look at the similarly cumbersome barrier between those who produce software and those who use it. Why does our concern for independent development start and end with those who release games, rather than those who engage with them? How disheartening that a platform like iOS, itself a shining example of what potential can be unlocked when we democratize systems, still so stridently walls off users from cultivating their own full experiences.

This is more than an argument about making software more open or including more modification tools in the products we collectively release (though that's important, too). Rather, it's about recognizing that development is a never-ending process; you may finish work on a project, but once it's out there, it's not entirely yours anymore. Sure, you may own the legal rights to it, but its spirit, the passion and creative energy that gets put into it, belongs to all of us now. For the people who use it, software is never finished. A new set of developers - your audience - will take up the reins of your design, and there's incredible opportunity there for developers, especially those who know not to get in the way.

"we devote so much energy to the negative aspects of serving a technologically savvy audience - hacking, piracy, etc. - that it's easy to overlook what a wonderful resource having a community that's talented and passionate can be"

As platform holders, we devote so much energy to the negative aspects of serving a technologically savvy audience - hacking, piracy, etc. - that it's easy to overlook what a wonderful resource having a community that's talented and passionate can be. Having players who can identify and address unintentional flaws in your product before you can, who care enough to fix for free the thing you couldn't devote resources to, who can focus on social features or added functionality while you focus on gameplay, who can evolve your work beyond what you thought it capable of... all of these are things to be welcomed, not chased away with threats of legal action and ambivalent silence.

Because the line between programmer-developer and programmer-player seems awfully trivial when it is users who make a game like Dark Souls playable on PC. When it is users generating the staggeringlevel of content and functionality that makes open platforms the clear champion of Bethesda products. When a mod restores the original Final Fantasy VII soundtrack to its PC release before the publisher does, and a console takes nearly a year to give us an app to watch Game of Thrones.

This isn't to say that tech creators and licensors don't have a right to protect their properties - they absolutely do - but rather to point out that users also have an interest in advancing your product, and sometimes your community is better with it than you are. We wall off content to shield our creations from 'bad' users - from people who want to compromise our vision - but in doing so, we also lock out those who just want our designs to function better. Is that a trade-off we're satisfied with?

Unity, Unreal, Steam Workshop, and more... these are more than just tool sets. They're means for empowerment. They let creativity and problem-solving flow from the bottom up. And that's the next battle for self-publishing and indie development - protecting user-defined gaming experiences. Giving tech and platform consumers a bigger stake in our designs, and giving us a bigger stake in them. As an industry and as a culture, we've gained so much in the past by expanding the circle of who is "allowed" to call themselves a developer. How much will be gained when we get rid of the circle entirely?

Overwolf is an in-game overlay platform that allows users to add features or functionality to their PC games, founded on giving users the freedom and means to tweak existing products or make in-game apps of their own. The studio has sought out partnerships with companies like TeamSpeak, Twitch, and to push the concept even further.

Its currently ongoing TeamSpeak app development contest, bankrolled by SteelSeries and Tobii with up to $10,000 in cash and professional gaming peripherals for the winners, has opened the door for hundreds of developers and community members to improve and innovate upon one of the service's most integral in-game features (you can still register).

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Latest comments (4)

Tim Carter Designer - Writer - Producer 6 years ago
It's hell self-funding. Total hell.
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Curtis Turner Game Developer - Monsters of War 6 years ago
Please do not be a Moneyless Modder™ in 2014, you have way better options!
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Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 6 years ago
Considering how much money modders make for publishers, they damn well should get more respect, have life made easier for them, and, yes, sometimes get a cut of profits. Whilst not technically modding, an example is C&C: EA couldn't be bothered shifting the C&C multi-player to a new system with GameSpy shutting its doors, but C&C fans arranged a new server-system ( ). Who wins out of this? Well, other than the fans who already have C&C, that'll be EA, who still get sales from the game on Steam and Origin, and who don't have to spend their own money keeping the games fully-featured.

That said, "free" modding is still seen as a service worth doing, for other fans, and as a possible foot in the door to the industry. Jason Shackles modding of Steam has been part of his résumé to work at Valve for a while now, and whilst not yet netting him a job, it's certainly given Steam more features for those who install his Enhanced Add-On. And free mods can still be seen as a form of competition, if looked at in the wrong light - it could be said that some Company of Heroes fans are waiting on the Steam release of the Eastern Front mod for CoH 1, rather than buying fully into the official sequel.

The end-worry with modding is that developers/publishers will just shrug and say "Let the fans solve it". There's a fine-line between allowing your fans to improve on the great game you've released, and making them fix the broken mess you've shoved out the door. From Software learnt a great deal from Durante's DSFix when they developed Dark Souls 2, but they didn't have to.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Morville O'Driscoll on 17th July 2014 7:43am

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Robert Abercrombie Assistant Producer, Vanguard Entertainment Group6 years ago
Valve is actually doing more than rewarding 'standalone' mods. In CS:GO for example, mappers have a chance of being included in a limited time 'operation' map pack, which the community can buy passes for. The money from those passes goes towards the mappers that were included, same goes for weapon skins.
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