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Want To Try Modding Fallout 4? – Here's A Long-Time Modder’s Lessons

by Parker Lemke on Dec 14, 2015 at 07:15 AM

For years, creators and users of mods have upgraded their favorite titles in ways too numerous to list. From revamping a few textures to building entire new worlds, their modifications blur the gap between players and developers. They are a hobbyist’s gateway to game design.

Long a PC gaming staple, modding is set to make new inroads when Bethesda Softworks brings Fallout 4 mod compatibility to the Xbox One early next year, with the PS4 to follow. Already, the company’s latest free-roaming RPG teases player creation with in-game settlement construction. But aspiring mod creators should know what they’re getting into when booting up Fallout 4’s upcoming Creation Kit. Using these developer tools takes a lot more know-how than crafting a Super Mario Maker level. I should know. I’ve plugged away at the same mod for the past six years.

The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind ignited my imagination with its bizarre, twisted fantasy world of giant flea taxis, ashen wastelands, and bug shell-armored Dunmer. On its own, the game became a personal favorite. But when I found out I could alter its organs to my liking, it added a new layer of magic to the experience. I was hooked on mods with my first download. 

After some clumsy tinkering with the game’s packed-in editing tools, I learned the basics and joined Tamriel Rebuilt, a fan project dedicated to completing Morrowind’s fictional landmass. In its dozen-plus years of activity, ambitions have waxed and waned, modders have come and gone, and content has been built and rebuilt – and then rebuilt again. And yet, whether you’re modding a clunky RPG from 2002 or Fallout 4, the same pitfalls apply. So let an old hand outline a few pointers.

Know Your Ambitions And Plan Ahead
In theory, modding is a limitless à la carte of customization. Want to mutate The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim’s dragons into "Macho Man" Randy Savage doppelgangers? No problem. Add Buzz Lightyear armor to Fallout 4? Modders already have you covered. More substantially, you could sculpt entire new lands to explore, like Fallout 3’s fan-crafted expansion Alton, IL.

Without tight studio budgets or deadlines holding them back, modders can seemingly fabricate whatever they want. But here’s the thing: Restrictions aren’t always undesirable.Time and again, the Tamriel Rebuilt team has carved out sprawling cities and vistas, only to nit-pick and redo them years later. We throw out substandard work left and right, chalking it up to past mistakes and imperfect planning.

Nothing represents this habit better than Necrom, the Dunmer people’s ancient necropolis. First constructed back in 2003, we tore down the mishmash settlement and its lame pyramid temple to reconstruct it from scratch. In its current iteration, the majestic Fane of the Ancestors towers over Necrom’s mortuary and pilgrimage districts, erected above a cavernous maze of catacombs. Ideally, we would have put as much painstaking care into designing its layout the first time around. Such large-scale revamps wouldn’t fly at a professional developer. Even for a fan project, scrapping content drains morale and resources.

Necrom, Tamriel Rebuilt

For modders who hope to do more than crank out quick adjustments, it’s vital to begin with a clear framework for what they want to accomplish. Deciding what to make and how from the start helps avoid unrealistic goals and regrets. Currently, Tamriel Rebuilt is doubling down on planning, composing a world bible in the form of a Master Plan, along with design documents for various factions and settlements. We’ve come a long way since our forebears set out to haphazardly build all of Tamriel – the obscenely massive continent on which The Elder Scrolls series takes place. But there’s no reason a younger project should burden itself with similar miscalculations.

Going Solo Vs. Teaming Up
An important question for any modder to ask is whether they can muster the motivation and free time needed to handcraft a mod. If not, can they feasibly recruit a team to help out?

Going it alone comes with perks and disadvantages. A solitary modder starts with complete creative freedom. No other meddlesome hands interfere with their vision. But that also means he or she lacks the benefit of batting ideas around with friends. Often it takes mastering multiple skills – level design, modeling, code scripting, and writing – all at once. My own solo projects each collapsed because I couldn’t wear these hats all at once. 

On the other hand, modding as a team comes with its own drawbacks. Divvying up a workload gets things done faster, but it also invites drama and headbutting when you run into creative differences. Building consensus takes frequent and thorough communication – a problem when a project counts members from across the globe. I’ve seen both cordial and heated discussions unfold on forums, IRC channels, and Skype chats. Trust me, none of these platforms are perfect for coordinating complicated game-design discussions.

Teams must also prepare for when life gets in the way. When the leader of another Morrowind project I contribute to, Skyrim: Home of the Nords, stepped down last year to pursue a career in professional game design, we lost a team cornerstone. His passion led our effort to create an alternative vision of Skyrim’s snow-swept mountainscape. It was his brainchild. He had been there to hand-place thousands upon thousands of trees in a vast frozen forest. He modeled castle ruins and nordic cabins alike, giving us much-needed building blocks and guiding our output. Thankfully, he also recruited a talented team over the years, and left his pet project in good hands.

Tamriel Rebuilt has also lost many talented modders to real-life responsibilities, draining our collective wisdom with each departure. For larger teams, these developments make recruiting and retaining an active membership key to their long-term health. Mods need to have the right people on board at the right time. Otherwise, a promising mod will inevitably turn into vaporware.

Baan Malur, Tamriel Rebuilt

Keeping Up With The Pros
Modders today must adapt to the growing complexity of games if they want to craft modifications that fit alongside the original product. As the Beyond Skyrim team puts it, “Modding Tamriel is a slow and painstaking process… [that requires] “experience with the Creation Kit, 3D modelling software, texturing, or Papyrus scripting.” To assemble the right talent, a larger mod must wow the community with its goals, while still keeping them doable.

Oftentimes, passion alone won’t save a good idea. Not being able to find enough modelers who could mass-produce Bethesda-quality architecture and items doomed Tamriel Rebuilt’s spin-off Hammerfell project for The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. “We lacked manpower,” wrote former administrator 'Lady Nerevar' in 2009. “Not many people have the skills necessary to create a single model, let alone hundreds to thousands, to match Oblivion's quality levels.”

The rise of full voice acting threw another obstacle at modders hoping to blend their content with the games they modify. Nowadays, every line of dialogue modders write needs a corresponding actor to bark, cry, grunt, laugh, roar, sing, or whisper the words into the player’s ears. And unless they want to pony up cash, they'll need to find them pro bono. Fallout 4 adds a further complication by giving the protagonist a voice for the first time in a Bethesda game. No doubt, the development will spur demand for voice doubles who can pull off convincing imitations.

Modders can scout for this talent at dedicated modding forums or seek auditions from communities like Voice Acting Alliance and Voice Acting Club. Casting calls need to pinpoint people with quality recording setups – laptop and headset mics simply won’t do. The difficulties of lining up voice-acting hobbyists are what make mods like Interesting NPCs so impressive. The massive project populates Skyrim’s sprawling kingdom with 250 fully voiced characters, each with their own story to tell. Chatting with these talkative denizens adds unprecedented flavor to the Dovahkiin’s adventures.

Interesting NPCs, by Kris Takahashi 

Final Words
Modding is an empowering hobby. You can quickly find yourself tweaking a game for hundreds of hours more than you did playing it. But it’s important to understand that there’s no guarantee that a mod that sounds awesome on paper will reach fruition. But that’s also true for games in general. After all, any fan project, no matter its size, draws upon the same design principles employed at professional studios across the word. When someone taps into that magic, they can bring new life to a favorite game.

Fallout 4’s post-apocalyptic Commonwealth will give modders an unmatched canvas for player creations. Plenty of us already have wish lists for the improvements we’d like to see – including the Game Informer staff. A better map, expanded base-building options, and companion management options are in high demand. Now it’s up to people like you and me to make them a reality.