Modding Final Project_Reflection

Final leg of my modding project.

This will go...well. Image hosted on the blog Misadventures of a Misfit.

This will go…well. Image hosted on the blog Misadventures of a Misfit.

Rhetorical Situation

Audience

For this project, I was working on learning the basics for creating a mod for Dragon Age Origins, though my original plan was to create a playable mod that could be integrated into the actual gameplay. Now that the semester is coming to a close and I will continue working on the mod for a larger modding project to fulfill my portfolio requirement for my program before the start of the Fall 2015 semester, my intended audience is other gamers who are familiar with and play the Dragon Age series, so the future product should be something gamers would want to add on to their own games. Despite the Dragon Age series not being a set of casual games, I still have to take into account that the gamers will be of different age groups, sex/gender, educational backgrounds, and levels of gaming experience. One other thing I will have to take into account as I move forward is that gamers will have different preferences for the kinds of mods they integrate into their gameplay, with some gamers only wanting alternate avatar skins, some wanting extended sequences, and others wanting standalone scenes (such as the Thriller mod). Even if I can do an amazing job creating an extensive and (personal bias on this one) entertaining mod, not everyone would be interested in playing.  My secondary audience had originally been my intended audience throughout the semester and is composed of my professor and peers as we were sharing our project developments in class and on our class blogs, but my secondary audience moving forward will also be other professors and peers as I develop my portfolio. For this particular class, the majority of my peers are female (with one male in the group), and all of them are in the English and Creative Writing departments within the PhD, MA, and MFA programs at Old Dominion University. Some of my peers in this course are not gamers, while the others are gamers with varying degrees of familiarity, ranging from beginners to someone who is a hard-core gamer with experience in coding. This range from non-gamers to a hard-core gamer makes my project interesting because the end product that I am aiming for in the summer of 2015 should be accessible throughout the spectrum, being refined enough for a gamer to enjoy it as a text while a non-gamer can still maneuver through the gamespace and controls with relative ease. My tertiary audience is anyone who stumbles across this blog and wants to follow the development process of this project. Unlike my knowledge of my peers’ experiences with gaming, I cannot assume to know other people reading my blog, so my project should be just as accessible to anyone taking the time to delve into my multimedia project.

It was a little difficult to think about specific elements in my modding project that support my audiences, especially as my mod is incomplete in the sense that it is nowhere near ready to be integrated into the actual gameplay experience or shared among the modding community. For the most part, I have been thinking mainly about fulfilling the first goal of my project, which was to familiarize myself with the modding software in order to begin learning how to build a mod that draws on narrative elements while also being playable (not just some characters talking at one another), with brief thoughts about how I would distribute the mod at the end. The interface of the toolset was one of the hardest elements I had to deal with since its “simplicity” was disconcertingly stark compared to the simplicity of the interface found in most video games. Another element that could be potentially claimed in my project is that of networking as I have been relying on the network of people who authored the Bioware toolset wiki, who have interacted with one another on the forums, and the YouTube users who have posted and linked their demonstrations and tutorial videos for others to watch, follow, and critique. During this project, I have come to understand just how collaborative a community of modders can be as they share stories of their building processes, ask and answer questions, look for people who would like to help them and those they can help in return, and proudly share the work they have struggled to build over varying amounts of time and with varying degrees of skill. There is also the network built between the Bioware studio with their game software and the modders who download and use the toolsets, which culminates in modders integrating their work into the official gameplay for themselves and for whoever downloads and imports those mods in Dragon Age. It is in this sense of networking that interactivity comes into play because while the official gameplay holds the highest rank in heirarchy of importance to gamers, the modding community overs a democratic space in which people can share their work. The modders are interacting on a level that is only divided by experience and devotion to the projects, with experienced modders often taking the time to explain and help those who have less experience and fewer modding skills. By sharing my emerging understanding of this collaborative community with my peers and professor, it helps me as a new modder think about other sets of peers whose faces I cannot see and whose names I may never find out, but it also gives insight into a gaming community that is not always visible because they do not compose a game studio; they are -just people working with software they love to enhance their own and others’ experience with a game they enjoy(ed) enough to build upon further.

Purpose/Aim/Subject/Topic

So what is the purpose of this particular project? When I started this project in September, my aim in this project was two-fold: 1) to learn, for myself, how to create my own text (a mod) out of a preexisting text (the video game Dragon Age Origins) in order to better understand the tools of the industry, and 2) to create a mod that builds onto a theme from the game (coping with loss, the nature of self-sacrifice, what it takes to become a leader, how messy human politics can be, or the consequences of fanaticism. There are plenty of other themes to choose from, but these were the ones that interested me the most) to better understand how the building of a game mod can reveal the processes that underlie narrative creation and collaboration in a digital space. Now that the semester is reaching finals weeks, my second aim has been scaled down considerably due to my lack of skill in manipulating the toolset, so my goal is to learn the basics and understand the workings of the modding software before I try to take on as ambitious a task as creating a quest tackling a theme from the game.

In regards to the first aim, the reason I have been trying to familiarize myself with the Dragon Age Origins Toolset is because I would like to someday enter into the video game industry and Bioware is one of my favorite developers are they are able to intertwine engaging narratives and characters with fun game mechanics (from fighting styles to the dialogue wheel). Despite wanting to be the storywriter for a video game studio, a working knowledge of the tools being used to design the games would not only make me a better candidate, but would also give me a greater sense of what I could do to create a story players will enjoy and one that would actually be feasible for the designers/artists/programmers to create. On their website, in the Careers section, Bioware lists that for an Assistant Designer position, the candidate should have “Experience using world building toolsets (Unreal, Unity, Neverwinter Nights, etc)” as well as “Practical level building experience [and] Good scripting and commenting skills.” With this first aim, I have been my own audience as I continue working towards becoming familiar enough with the toolset to create game mods I could potentially use as part of a job application, learning what works and what could work better after having played around with a mod design.

With my second aim, which is more inclusive as to who is my audience, the end goal for the future is two-fold in that 1) I am attempting to show non-gamers what a game mod can do with narrative by building off of a preexisting text, and 2) to provide an experience for those who play Dragon Age that deepens their own interaction with the game itself. Game mods allow creators to manipulate the gamespace and character design to enhance gameplay by creating a new look for a character design (through things like facial features), adding to scenes, or by creating entirely new scenes, and many of these mods can be shared among players and added into each others’ gameplay experiences. In a sense, game modding creates a collaborative space for players, though the act of modding can be a solitary endeavor, in which they can engage with themes explored in the official games. I am choosing to work specifically with the Dragon Age Origins Toolset because the narrative in the game is so complex, the characters and their relationships with one another are intricately developed, and the game does not shy away from dealing with messy and harrowing themes. The game provides a great jumping off point for me to begin workings towards creating a mod in which I present a new perspective to an in-game situation, or to use the tools/setting/character design that is already in place to create my own, related scenario. By presenting to my intended audience, a game mod of my own creation, I am hoping that we can start to see how the process of modding can change the way we see a delivery of narrative in the digital era and how digital tools are allowing us to reshape, share, and instruct one another in a collaborative space that is not bounded by physical space. To do this, I have begun thinking about  the ways in which narratology’s Possible Worlds Theory (namely Lubomir Dolezel’s theory) can be applied to modders’ creations, especially those that are shared in collaborative spaces and integrated into other gamers’ own gameplay experiences. I am choosing this theory, in connection with software studies and world building, as I am curious about how unofficial creations being added to official gameplay changes the shape of gamers’ narratives (especially as the dialogue wheel game mechanic allows players to direct their experiences within the gamespace, building relationships and reactions to events through choices they make). By potentially linking Possible Worlds Theory to software studies, I am hoping to uncover how the software the modding communities are using have shaped the gaming culture as a more collaborative space, allowing to help build the worlds they and others participate in, even outside of the game studio’s original scope.

Context/Setting

This semester was a really interesting time to be trying to create a mod since the newest installment of the Dragon Age series, Dragon Age Inquisition (which looks so beautiful!), was released November 18th, and many of the fans were gearing up to play (myself included). The previous game had been released some years before, so interest had dimmed a bit beyond devoted fans. Now that the newest installment has come out, there will most likely be a wave of mods coming out that are designed to enhance and alter Inquisition‘s gameplay mechanics, characters, cutscenes, and weapons/armor/accessories/objects/mounts. Once this wave of new mods begins, the modding community should also start to expand outwards to encompass new modders (of different ages) whose interests were piqued by Inquisition. Having spent a little bit of time moving around in the gamespace of Inquisition at the same time as I work on my mod, I have a greater appreciation for the game designers, but I also started thinking of ways I could design a functioning quest that would be fun for players. Though my mod is set within the Dragon Age Origins Toolset, Inquisition was useful in understanding quests: how quests were initiated (quest givers, letters, request boards), information was revealed (non-playable characters, letters on corpses, killing a certain enemies), what quests were more interesting than others (collecting plants vs. fighting hordes of enemies vs. character-driven quests), and what was required to complete those quests (fighting a boss, dialogue options, finding a secret locations). Another thing that happened during my project was I found out that a friend’s younger brother is deeply familiar with integrating mods into gameplay, though he is not familiar/interested in modding himself. My friend’s brother was able to show me how NexusMods mod management system works in connection with a game site called Steam, which allows users to pick and choose the mods that they want to initiate during gameplay. This gave me an idea of how I can distribute my gaming mod once it is complete and also an idea of how my mod would be integrated by others into their gameplay (as well as me integrating my own mod to see if the damn thing will actually work). He then showed me a new kind of mod that I did not even know existed: the recreation of an entire city that is accessible after a player has witnessed its destruction. I cannot even begin to imagine how much time it would take to rebuild an entire city or how the user would tap into the software to gain access to pre-destroyed cities. The last thing he explained to me was how a user can integrate a mod at a specific point in the game, granting more control over when and where a user-created quest can be accessed from, which was beyond what I had researched to this point.

Design

Okay, so let’s talk about design elements listed in Robin Williams’ (not that Robin Williams) Non-Designer’s Design Book. The four elements — contrast, repetition, alignment, and proximity — are sort of useful in thinking about my modding project, though they are a great deal easier to apply to production of my blog entries (this one especially). Let’s start with the two elements that are the least useful for my modding project: contrast and repetition. In a sense, I understand the need for contrast and repetition in game design since contrast is useful in making certain objects and persons stand out (playable characters from crowds, cave entrances from rock walls, treasure chests amidst other furniture in a house, and so) and I also understand why repetition is important (copying unmoving objects like trees, houses, statues, lanterns, and so on) by saving developers from having to code thousands or even millions of individual objects. They create ambiance in the gamespace. Repetition is also visually useful by filling in backgrounds and populating landscapes, with trees being an example because a number of similar looking trees can give the appearance of depth to a forest that the player make not trek out into. Virtual worlds are not infinite spaces; at some point, there need to be boundaries as a way to save memory space and ease how much work the game engine is required to do. Repetition of assets gives the sense of a gamespace being larger and fuller than it is through elements that are simpler because they are the same thing copied outwards. One example would be the wooded area that is accessible in the layout. In the game, this location is the origin point for the Dalish elf option and feels like a camp out in the depths of the woodlands far from human cities. Looking at the area in the modding toolset, I have a very different (top-down rather than on-the-ground) perspective and the trees are revealed to be identical and just placed in spaces that would give the gamespace a fuller appearance. While I do see the significance of these two elements, they do not seem as important as alignment and proximity when I was working with in my module because when I loaded an area, much of the background has already been filled. I have no way of placing trees or making certain objects stand out; I am working with the assets provided to me in areas that are preset with repetitious elements that have as much contrast with other elements as the game developers had previously decided upon. Contrast and repetition may become more important as I become more adept at modding and can start to tweak the physical surroundings in areas, but for now, they are simply design elements that I can appreciate when I open an area in the module but, ultimately, do not have much control over.
The design elements of alignment and proximity made a bit more sense to me after working within my mod because they affected how elements in the module were being presented to players. Because the areas in the module are preset to what is displayed in the game, complete with moving water and crackling campfires, I had to think carefully about where I placed items and then had to align certain items with other items. An example of this (and one of my favorites since I could actually make it work) is the Altar and Urn of Andraste. In the module, both the altar and the urn are considered separate objects, which I did not know until playing around in the module, because the player can interact with the urn in the game but not the altar. Alignment and proximity were particularly useful when I decided upon the Urn of Andraste as my potential quest item because I had to stop and plan out where would be the best place for an item of power to be placed so that its placement would make sense if I were to make a quest in which the urn was the object to be obtained. To place the urn in the middle of the woods would not make sense because then anyone could stumble upon it and it would seem like some object to loot rather than a special item to search for and go against a boss to obtain, which meant that my forest area was off the list. After going through the Area Layout Index, I decided that a winding cave would work because a cave promises to be creepy (which hints at the possibility of it crawling with monsters), it can be a hidden location found only after finding a special map or hours of the character searching (in game-time rather than playing-time), and caves are often linked with quests in legends, myths, religious stories, fairy tales, and fantasy novels. Once the area was chosen, I had to think about the best place within the cave to place my altar and urn, which meant zooming out to look down upon the entire cave and could be considered the deepest cavern-ish space since that would mean a player would have to travel farther to locate the magical item. Proximity became a top concern as I was trying to build the map because I could not have the area surrounding my cave be some fire pit or in the middle of a lake because the cave itself does not have an overheated or watery atmosphere. Once my location was scouted, I had another issue dealing with the altar and the urn being aligned so that the urn would actually sit on top of the altar (instead of floating above the altar like I had mistakenly raised it during one of my trial-and-error sessions). To have messed up the alignment of the altar and urn would have the potential of interrupting a player’s suspension of disbelief regarding the gamespace or would have required me to think up a plausible reason why the urn would be floating over the altar that is supposed to be its resting place. Before attempting this mod, alignment and proximity of elements in a gamespace would have been something for me to laugh at, applaud, or feel disappointed about, but when doing the work on the semi-backend of the software, I see how much time and effort can go into aligning quest items (caves? forest? underwater cavern? Why that space? What should be around the item to give the space a certain type of atmosphere?), buildings in an area (i.e. in the middle of the woods to feel isolated or on the edge of a space to trigger an area transition), and everyday objects to make the gamespace more realistic (though what type of realism depends on the genre of the game). Proximity’s emphasis on reducing clutter gave me something to think about as I toggled my way through the gamespace and looked at how spaces were set up with buildings and plants and man-made objects. Too many things in one space can disorient a player and cause confusion as to which objects are necessary and which are superfluous and just amusing. The design elements of alignment and proximity are more important to game designers than they are to modders because the designers are building the gamespace from the ground up (couldn’t help myself) and have to be careful how they develop the alignment and proximity of the elements of the world so that players are not jarred out of their experience in the game because they notice elements that are not in the right space, such as a torch in the middle of a waterfall or a regular person swimming in lava. Gamespaces do not have to be realistic, but they need to make sense in much the same way that information on a page has to be placed in such a way that is not so distracting for viewers that the message is lost (though there are wild exceptions in which gamespaces are designed to be wild and nonsensical, and webpages are designed to be as distracting as possible).
 In terms of my Rhetorical Situation, I found that thinking about and applying the design elements was really helpful when thinking about how I could apply possible worlds theory (which I discuss below in my Theory section) because I was attempting to make a mod that stayed faithful to the atmosphere and goals of the original game rather than diverge off to make a completely new text. In this sense, I tried to make my areas and objects function much as they would in the actual gamespace, which meant adhering to the laws of physics the first game had observed, though I did play around with how I was connecting areas rather than placing them in the same order as they were originally intended. The design elements of alignment and proximity gave me insight into Dolezel’s narrative modality of alethic constraints  (physical and temporal laws placed upon a fictional world, such as whether or not time travel is possible or the dead can be raised) because I was trying to think of how objects and areas would work in my mod compared to how they worked in Dragon Age Origins. Having reflected on my dealings with the four design elements, I am curious to see how experienced modders approach the designing of their modules, whether they tried to align objects to fit the surroundings or if they took liberties with the assets to create a space that gives a new perspective on familiar gameplay (such as finding the Urn of Andraste in the dwarves’ caverns surrounded by monsters known as the darkspawn when the urn had originally been located in a sacred temple deep in the mountains).

Project

Having spent the last few months reading tutorials, watching demonstrations, searching through troubleshooting forums, and plunking away at the toolset, the thing I am most proud of in my project would be when I was finally semi-successful in placing an area transition between two of my exterior areas (pictured below). It was pretty thrilling considering the fact that this had been my second attempt at area transition, but the first attempt (which had to do with a cave entrance) just wouldn’t no matter how many times I tried and I still cannot figure out why the damn thing wouldn’t work despite crawling through the official tutorials. Part of the problem I was initially having with the area transition was that there were a number of variables that pop open for the user to look through and change depending upon the needs of the user for that particular object. The tutorial was really good about specifically pointing out which variables would have to been changed and wasn’t specific about how I was supposed to change the variables to get the desired result, but then I also have to remember to reverse the process when creating an entrance back to the original starting point. However, I have yet to try out the mod in a playable space (which is another obstacle I will have to face sometime down the road), so I could be way off on how the area transition works and may have done everything backwards. It seems like such a little thing to be excited about compared to scripting or making plot moments or generating companion characters, but now that I have some semblance of an area transition in place that is linked by an entrance of some kind, I feel a bit more confident about creating an area transition that is triggered by an event, such as killing a particular monster or collecting a special item. I have spent a lot of time trying to tinker with connecting areas and this feels like the first real step to having a solid environment in which a character can be generated and players can work through an interesting quest.

Semi-success in creating an area transition!

Semi-success in creating an area transition!

**UPDATE: SUCCESS!!!!!!!**

So after weeks of spazzing out about how to generate a character, I finally found the instructions on how to do so….in the very first tutorial I read. >.< Yes, the very first tutorial. I feel so stupid and yet so relieved that there is a script that a user inputs into the module, though the tutorial does not do a good job of explaining how the character generation works or how to tell if the script is functioning when the mod is integrated into the game’s software. Despite all that, I had a moment of running around and squee-ing to anyone who passed by because I FINALLY figured out the damn script! Hopefully this will have a domino effect and the rest of the modding steps will start to fall slowly into place. Of course, I should make a note of the character generation script so that I can have it for the future to stem future character-generation-freakouts. Anyways, this moment screen-captured below is the proudest moment I have of this ridiculous learning curve, and it had been right there in front of me the whole time. *cries* And yes, I named the character generation script “fuckyou” in my joyous despair. *reaches for new bottle of Advil*

Isn't it just so flippin' beautiful?!

Isn’t it just so flippin’ beautiful?!

Image hosted on the site Taste Like Crazy.

Image hosted on the tumblr.

Feeling like an idiot. Image hosted on the site Taste Like Crazy.

Feeling like an idiot. Image hosted on the site Taste Like Crazy.

**END OF UPDATE**

I cannot even begin to count or list the number of times I have gotten  stuck while working with the toolset. With almost every new task I approached, I would look through the tutorials and then open the toolset to see if I could complete the task, such as opening a pathway between two areas. The biggest issue I have had is in understanding how character generation works within the toolset. So much of the scripting and companion features seem to be dependent upon a character actually being available when the module is integrated into the larger system, which would be fine except that I am not sure if the character generation is automatic if the mod is a standalone. I am plagued by questions about how to find out about automatic/manual character generation, scripting that involves a character, and plot sequencing. I probably spent more time than I should searching for guides and tutorials on playable characters that do not involve changing the skin of an avatar or head morphs (though I am still not sure how those modders were able to locate a head to morph in the first place).  Other issues with the toolset really just involved sitting down and writing out the steps in a manner that was coherent to me and didn’t assume that the user had some previous experience working with the toolset, and then going into the toolset for trial-and-error experiments until I was successful. However, the character generation questions I have are still unresolved. I might be overlooking some tiny detail that would be a reveal-all for me, but I have pushed that issue aside in favor of connecting areas and setting up placeable objects in the areas so that when I do finally figure out how to generate a playable character into my mod, everything will be set up except for the character-related scripting tasks.

I am rather disappointed with how little I was able to accomplish in terms of making a coherent and stable mod. So much of my module feels as though it is mismatched pieces stitched together with coding I do not understand, especially as nothing has a solid reason for being in the mod except that I was trying to see if I could actually follow the tutorials properly. I know that as a beginning modder, with absolutely no training in coding, completing little tasks is supposed to be seen as a victory (and it certainly feels that way), but I wish that I could have expanded my efforts towards making even a shabby quest in which a playable character goes into a cave and finds a magical item necessary to do something other vague quest. If I had been able to construct a mini-quest, then I could have begun thinking about how my mod would fit within the overarching story and themes of Dragon Age Origins and researching ways to distribute my mod through sites like NexusMods. Instead, I have to look to other users’ completed mods to see how they seem to fit within the threads of the canon or how they have diverged and for what reasons they have done so. Because my goal has been to look at mods and their creations through the lens of possible worlds theory, I am excited by the prospect of viewing my own efforts at making a mod through this theory, but then I get frustrated by how slow my progress has been, how many obstacles are still in way, and how little I truly know about the software overall. Beyond that, there is really nothing else I would change about my project. I like that I can use the Dragon Age Origins Toolset because I love the series so much and everything feels familiar even as I work with areas and objects outside of the studio’s original intentions. I also love how collaborative the modding community seems to be and it has been especially helpful to flitter through their posts to look at ideas they want critiqued, questions they have had (many of which are similar to mine and make me feel better because someone else asked), and see where others have had trouble and potentially have ways to fix those problems.

Theory

Theoretical Application

Now that I have spent some time learning the basics of modding, I find that Lev Manovich’s Software Takes Command is the most informative, but Brooke’s Lingua Fracta and Gane and Beer’s New Media: Key Concepts. We’ll start with Gane and Beer’s New Media: Key Concepts, since they are useful for thinking about modding through their discussion of Tornatzky and Klein’s innovation and their own discussion of proairesis. In regards to Tornatzky and Klein’s innovation, this concept really informs what most creators of mods are doing because they are creating additional character designs, extending scenes (such as this game mod), correcting glitches that occur in-game, creating a new character class (officially, the game only has three – mage, warrior, and rogue), and other enhancements to gameplay (such as modifying a spell or remapping the menu and its sub-menus). Most of these mods are add-ons that do not change the game entirely and do not exist as isolated pieces (though creating unique scenes can be isolated), and they work towards improving the gameplay experience. Innovations are really interesting in terms of what modding can do and how modders can make the gamespaces their own, but I am not quite to the point where I can do innovations since it takes a bit more work than just setting up a module and populating it with preset objects and area transitions. While I say that, innovating will be something that I keep in mind as I become better at modding and can do my own innovations (such as creating a special class for my quester and/or a unique object that could be the end goal). For invention as proairesis, Brooke’s remapping of this particular rhetorical canon is useful because game modding takes one existing text (the game) and allows players to create whole sets of other possibilities that can be added into their games. Moments in the game, then, are not to be seen as resolutions in so much as they become points of departure for modders since every scene, character, class, and spell can be altered to create something new. For example, one of the mods that I personally enjoy is an extension of the sacrifice scene that happens in the game, but it is developed to deliver a more poignant moment for the player and her characters compared to the original scene that is cut short to move on to wrapping the game up. It is a possibility of what could happen in the space where the game’s official path skips over. What I have discovered recently is that modders are not restricted to incorporating Dragon Age elements, as they are allowed to import elements from other games like music (I have only seen music from other games, but it is possible that any music file can be imported so long as it fits the right audio type), objects (armor, weapons, accessories), and avatar skins (such as a female skin to be placed over an avatar in a game that has an all-male cast of characters). This opens even more possibilities for changing the game as there can be an overlaying of textual elements, even though the games themselves cannot be meshed together. The best part of learning that other games’ elements can be used as resolutions to flaws gamers’ have with particular video games, such as using a female avatar skin laid over a male character as a way to be more inclusive of female gamers.  Modding seems to be an act of proairesis that has more potential than official game software allowing for multiple endings and gameplay styles as this would not be prescribed ahead of time for the gamers and would be limited only by the skills of the modder.

The second theoretical application is Gane and Beer’s take on interactivity as they draw upon Tanjev Schultz’s understanding of how new media in general is considered interactive: “New media interactivity is, for a start, instantaneous, and tends to work in ‘real-time’. It also, in theory, offers the promise of being more democratic: ‘the formal characteristics of fully interactive communication usually imply more equality of the participants and a greater symmetry of communicative power than one-way communication’” (qtd. in Gane and Beer 95). By allowing their players a chance to create mods through their toolset, Bioware is creating a space in which players are allowed to extend the discourse of the game in a way that does have “greater symmetry of communicative power.” That is not to say, though, that players are equal with the developers since modders must work within the confines of the software (the mods must be compatible with the preexisting coding), but the toolset gives players the chance to create something of their own, however small, and share it with others. After learning about the NexusMods mod management system, I have a better grasp on how the moddng community allows for greater interactivity in Schultz’s sense because anyone can upload their mods to be distributed. The NexusMods website claims that, “We support modding for all PC games. If you can mod it, we’ll host it,” promoting the idea that the site is inclusive rather than exclusive, creating a digital space that is democratic and with very few restrictions (which is most likely limited to keep offensive content from being distributed since the modders are of different ages, sexes/genders, and backgrounds). Since the interface of the mod management system is more intuitive than the actual modding toolset, it allows for people with different levels of programming skills (modders as well as those who just play the games) to use the system with relative ease. This theory of interactivity will become even more important as I work towards the final stages of creating my mod because that is when I will start thinking about the process of distributing the mod within the community. The sense of interactivity maintained and encouraged by the modding community will be a foundation upon which I can build relationships that are both collaborative and cross-cultural (something I discuss below in the course outcomes).

The final New Media theory I am applying for this modding project is Lev Manovich’s software studies since Manovich’s focus is on looking at how software shapes our experiences, claiming that, “None of the new media authoring and editing techniques we associate with computers are simply a result of media ‘being digital.’ The new ways of media access, distribution, analysis, generation, and manipulation all come from software” (Kindle Locations 2653-2654). As a gamer, the software is something I think about, though most of my attention is on the interface, when I have to upload the games into my consoles and when I purchase downloadable content. Gamers also have to deal with glitches in the game, such as walking through what should be solid walls and free-falling forever into empty gamespace. However, Manovich’s theory looks even further “under the hood” of New Media applications as he asks programmers and scholars “to investigate the role of software in contemporary culture, and the cultural and social forces that are shaping the development of software itself” (Kindle Locations 287-288). This is really fascinating when looking at the history of computers leading to the development of video games since some of the original video game programmers were contracted to design computers and software for military use, but started altering the software for entertainment purposes (Spacewar! is listed as one of the first) and then video games were appropriated by the military for recruitment and training. Cultural influences also happen with the content of games, as games reflect and critique social issues (such as politics, disease, fears of zombies, religion, war, and economics), and then those video games become a social issue in themselves (especially with the issues of violence and gender in video games). Now that I am done fangirling video game history, let’s turn our attention to modding. The reason I am applying software studies to my modding project is because it helps me to look at the ways in which a game studio’s choices about what they will allow modders to do, such as working from/with preset areas and objects but being allowed to script characters while working around variables. How software allows mods to be integrated into games is another source of interest because it seems as if it is only through third-party websites/management systems that mods can be integrated into the actual gameplay experience. It raises questions for me as to why so much of modding distribution is through third-party systems when the toolsets can be offered directly from the studio’s websites? How have the advancements of computers, the web, and the internet altered the course of gaming and modding in particular? And how has the experience of modding changed since games were released on floppy disks or through shareware compared to now when a player can purchase the game as a disc or do a digital download not just on the PC but for consoles as well? This question is especially important to me because modders used to be hackers, and now toolsets allow for modding to be done by people like me who have very few skills in programming. As toolsets are constructed to be more user-friendly, the demographics of people who have access to and interest in modding is also shifting. While modding is not quite to the point of mainstream cultural software in the same way that fully developed video games are cultural software, they are integral to a section of the gamer population, so studying the affordances and limitations of the progression of modding toolsest would be fascinating compared to the kinds of shifts that happen within the dynamics of the modding community as the toolsets become more intuitive. As I move further into modding and the modding community, these are questions that I want to start looking into rather than just wondering about as I fight with my own lack of modding/programming skills.

Though this is not a theory we read in class, I have thought a great deal about the application of  Lubomir Dolezel’s Possible Worlds Theory to my modding project because the Bioware toolset gives modders access to many (though not all) of the official Dragon Age Origins assets, limiting beginning users to working within the boundaries of those assets until they gain enough skill and knowledge to tap into external resources or can construct their own. Dolezel’s possible worlds theory is centered on the concept of “narrative modalities,” which are composed of the 1) Alethic Constraints (“possibility, impossibility, and necessity [that] determine the fundamental conditions of fictional worlds, especially causality, time-space parameters, and the action capacity of persons” (115)), 2) Deontic Constraints (“affect the design of fictional worlds primarily as proscriptive or prescriptive norms; the norms determine which actions are prohibited, obligatory, or permitted,” (120) such as a people’s laws or customs), 3) Axiological Constraints (transform “the world’s entities (objects, states of affairs, events, actions, persons) into values and disvalues” (123)), and 4) Epistemic Constraints (“modal system of knowledge, ignorance, and belief” that are divided into “Codexal epistemic modalities…expressed in social representations, such as scientific knowledge, ideologies, religions, cultural myths” and “Subjective K-operators [that] define a person epistemic set, an individual’s knowledge of and beliefs about self and the world” (126)). What I am curious about when applying this theory to my modding project is how modders take into account these modalities that construct their experiences in the actual game? Do their mods conform to the values placed on objects and action as exposed by the playable character’s adventures through the country of Fereldan (such as Grey Wardens seen as good while darkspawn are seen as bad, or characters like Loghain are seen as traitorous rather than rational)? Can they change how the behaviors of objects within the game engine (i.e. an object floating above the ground when it has no such powers in the game) without jarring other players out of the experience of the game? Do modders feel compelled to keep their mods as faithful to the originals, or does the fun come from getting to make that mod something unique? I know that some mods stay very close to the world constructed by the game studio, such as an extended scene between the playable character and a team member in which the dialogue attempts to be/is close to the original dialogue presented in the game. Other mods diverge sharply from the original game, such as the Thriller mod since the song “Thriller” that is very different from the medieval-esque world of Dragon Age. My goal as I move forward is to explore the modding communities for the types of mods people create (I know there are different types that are specific to changing avatar skins, rescripting dialogue, constructing quests, reconstructing areas that have been destroyed in-game) to see how true they stay to the gameworld or the ways in which the modders decide to diverge from the gameplay and its elements. My biggest question is, in what ways do the activities of modding alter how we study possible worlds theory since fan creations are building upon and being integrated into the canon established by the official game software?

Course Outcomes

While working on this project, some of the course outcomes I think I worked towards are 1) Developing a proficiency with the tools of technology, 2) Managing, analyzing, and synthesizing multiple streams of simultaneous information, and 3) Analyzing and applying multimedia scholarship and theory. As I work further into learning to mod, I think the course outcome of Build relationships with others to pose and solve problems collaboratively and cross-culturally will become important as I start to engage with the modding community, hopefully becoming proficient enough with the toolset that I could confidently share my knowledge with those who are new or those with some experience who need help troubleshooting or want to know how to do something specific that I have previously worked on. Emphasis on the “hopefully” part of that statement, mind you, though I am really excited with the possibility of becoming a full member of a modding community like NexusMods and getting to share my future with other members.

Okay, so for the first outcome I feel I worked towards — Developing a proficiency with the tools of technology — I have not yet developed a proficiency for the tools so much as I have begun laying down a foundation from which I can start to work towards my digital portfolio. The toolset’s learning curve, as I have mentioned throughout the rest of this reflection, has been rather steep for me and real breakthroughs come when I have written out the tasks in a way that makes more since to me than following the tutorials as someone else has written them. Proficiency with Bioware’s toolset and NexusMod’s mod management system is my goal for the future, with my end aim being a complete and complex mod created, finished, and distributed for beta testing by the end of summer 2015. So what does my proficiency level look like at the end of this semester? I am now comfortable creating and managing modules, opening areas, exploring “placeable objects” and setting some of the variables, and am starting to tread into the realm of scripting (with character generation scripting logged happily in my notebook for future reference…if what I discovered actually works and I haven’t messed that up somehow). I am still working towards understanding area transitions (for backwards and forwards movement) and further exploring object variables (with special attention on linking environmental sounds and music to specific objects, such as a fire making a crackling noise), with my future focus now shifting towards the generation and placement of non-playable characters (to someday act as quest givers, enemies, and people needing to be rescued).

The second outcome — Managing, analyzing, and synthesizing multiple streams of simultaneous information — was a bit non-traditional compared to how I understand the tasks of managing, analyzing, and synthesizing information since most of the information I have been working with for this project has been technical rather than theoretical like I am used to. As well, the information is coming from sources that are unusual for me since I am looking more towards tutorials and demonstrations from wikis and YouTube videos, as well as modders’ personal websites and modding community forums. A lot of the information is solid, but does not make much sense for me as a beginning modder until I had explored different virtual spaces for the information I was looking for and then compiled what I learned into my notebook, creating a clearer sense of the tasks I would need to accomplish as I began piecing together my mod. More experienced modders have a way of throwing around technical jargon that makes sense to other modders, so I had to break down what I was reading, look up definitions and colloquial uses, and then try to apply what I was reading through practical tasks in my own module, though some of the more complex technical information still gives me small panic attacks (such as the scripting of events and the list of variables that are embedded within placeable objects). Much of my project for this semester centered on research, compilation, and synthesis as I tried to wade through official instructions, users’ workarounds, and my own notes with multiple tabs open so that I could play YouTube demonstrations while I tried to follow along in text tutorials and tried for practical application in my mod. It was, and still is, an extremely messy process, but I am learning what type of information gathering works best for me.

The third outcome — Analyzing and applying multimedia scholarship and theory — is more recent than the other two outcomes I have been working towards because this final reflection is where I have really started to think about how multimedia scholarship and theory can be applied to modding. As I mention above, Lev Manovich’s take on software studies has been tremendously helpful for me in terms of this project because it helps to peek “under the hood” of video game software as I work within the modding toolset. For the last twenty years or so, my attention has been primarily focused on the user interface of the games and my own experiences within the gamespace. Though my interests have since branched into the narrative structures of the game, I was still centering on the players’ experiences with the games narratives and only recently a greater curiosity about how studios are using the mechanics of the game to increase players’ interactions with the narratives (dialogue wheels and action-reaction changing the gamespace and other characters’ reactions to the playable character). This project has given me the chance to slow down and really think and explore the ways in which the underlying software drives our experiences with the game as well as the developers’ affordances and limitations when making the games, especially what has been included and excluded (intentionally as well as unintentionally). Modding might be far easier than building a game from scratch (which sounds like hell on earth and someone else’s problem for now), but it lets me see how some of the programming actually works, which is far more than I knew before I started. I am interested in seeing how software studies and possible worlds theory can be linked together since they may potentially have links in regards to inclusion/exclusion (though one is technical and the other is narrative-driven).

The one course outcome that I would like to work towards as I move further into my digital portfolio project would be Build relationships with others to pose and solve problems collaboratively and cross-culturally. Because the video game industry is such international industry (with games being developed in countries like Japan, the US, Australia, France, Scotland, England, and some others I cannot currently think of) and a fanbase that is even more international, modding and modding forums are site of cross-cultural relationships as well as spaces for collaboration. Modding might seem like a solitary endeavor in which one person is devoting attention to build, but that is too limited a view. A modder is taking the work of a group of people (game studio) and tinkering around with the toolset to give that software a new shape to share with others or for personal use. Sites like NexusMods are digital spaces in which people of different demographics and programming experience can come together to share their work, discuss issues and interests, and explore other people’s ideas and projects, which is all centered on the fandom of a certain game (of which the Dragon Age series is just one). As I entrench myself deeper into the world of modding, I want to become part of these fan communities, building relationships with other modders as we all learn the processes and share our growing skills. Modding is as solitary an endeavor as a user wishes it to be.

Learning

Because my multimedia project centered on modding with gaming software, I used Bioware’s official Dragon Age Origins Toolset as it promised a lot of support from Bioware’s wiki as well as gamers’ forums and YouTube videos demonstrating and explaining (at least some of the time) their experiences and skills with the toolset. While the toolset itself was not user-friendly for those new to modding, I am actually very grateful to Bioware for having such software available for free to players because the studio grants access to in-game areas, environmental features (such as fog), objects, and music, which saves the modder from having to build objects and landscapes from scratch. The toolset also allows for the integration of the mods into actual gameplay, which allows modders to show off and distribute their work to other players as well as allow other players to enhance their gameplay by picking and choosing the mods they want to incorporate into their game. Along with the toolset, I also downloaded Bioware’s Dragon Age Character Creator software, but that ended up being a waste of time and computer memory because the character creator was designed and released as a kind of teaser for gamers before the original game had been released. My hope had been to create a character who could be used in my mod since I was unsure of how a character would be generated in my mod if it is a standalone and not to be integrated into the main gameplay for the actual game. Instead, the character creator let me customize a character who (so far as I know) cannot be imported into my mod in the toolset, which caused frustration rather than becoming a workaround solution.

After playing around with the toolset and muddling through my first attempts at making a mod, I have come to an understanding that modding on a laptop offers fewer affordances for users than a desktop. My laptop is by no means a gaming laptop; I bought it for writing papers, storing research articles, listening to music, and crawling through the interwebs, so it lacks game-related capabilities, such as a decent video card. While the toolset does not require the same capabilities that a digital game would demand, I had to download a copy of Dragon Age Origins on to my laptop before I could even run the toolset, which slowed down my laptop considerably and sometimes caused serious lag for me when I was working in the toolset this semester. A desktop computer would not only offer greater computing power, but also something as simple as a mouse (rather than a touch pad and a touch screen) as the toolset would only allow users to change the direction of where they were looking if they had a mouse. My laptop did well enough for initial forays into the realm of modding once I had access to a mouse for my computer, but a desktop may be necessary as I tread further into modding projects.

Because I am so new to modding (even after a semester of wading through the learning curve), I started my project by watching official and unofficial demonstrations and tutorials on YouTube (my Learn Tech and Reflect Annotations entry has a I list of the resources I spent time with initially and returned to again and again), looking to see where would be the best place to start in learning how to use the tools. I also spent quite a bit of time looking through Bioware’s official wiki for the toolset, familiarizing myself with technical jargon and the types of mods users could create. Once I downloaded both Dragon Age Origins and the toolset, I thought I was ready to dive into the toolset, but the stark simplicity presented by the toolset and its palette threw me off. It felt a bit like culture shock to see the backend of software when I was so used to navigating final products (the games themselves) and there were times when I lost confidence that I could even start a modding project let alone keep up as the tasks became more complex. It was then that I started going back through the wiki’s tutorials and jotting down small activities in an order that I could follow; for example, when I was learning how to open a module in which to work, I had read the directions regarding hierarchies and opening up areas within my new module, but it was not until I had a concrete list of tasks in order written in my notebook that I was able to successfully open a module and bring up an area to cast as my character’s starting point. Just as I was writing my own instructions to myself based on the wiki’s instructions, I did the same with YouTube tutorials, crawling through the available videos to find ones for beginners rather than the more complex mods that seek to enhance overall gameplay (I especially avoided “head morph” tutorials since they were not at all relevant to what I wanted to learn for this project and would have just confused me further). When I became stuck on certain tasks, I turned to modding forums on sites like NexusMods to fill in the gaps of my understanding, with other beginners’ questions being especially helpful since they ask questions I had not even considered for the software. However, I admit, the forums were not always as helpful as I would like because there were some answers to questions that were far and beyond how well I understood the software.

This was the source of my gaming culture shock,

This emptiness was the source of my gaming culture shock.

My notes on the "Adding Travel between Areas." I can admit that my notes end where I got lost with these instructions since my link between two areas failed.

My notes on the “Adding Travel between Areas.” I can admit that my notes end where I got lost with these instructions since my link between two areas failed.

Example of NexusMod forums for the Mod Building Troubleshooting. Image captured from the NexusMods website.

Example of NexusMod forums for the Mod Building Troubleshooting. Image captured from the NexusMods website.

While I still feel like I know next to nothing about the Dragon Age Origins Toolset, I am starting to understand that gaming software follows laws (physics, area boundaries, character behaviors, object behaviors) set up to keep everything from imploding into glitches and technical chaos. While there were certain elements in the toolset that seemed like I could manipulate them in a way that was different from the actual gameplay, such as linking together two areas that were in separate dungeons in Dragon Age Origins or scripting characters to fit the mod being built, there were other elements that had permanent values that were not manipulable, such as water staying in the riverbed or a hut standing in an area. One of the major things I am learning is how to navigate the toolset’s menus and understanding that different functions become available depending on the task at hand, such as placing an object versus linking two areas together. For example, when I was placing the Altar of Andraste and the Urn of Andraste, it opened an option to raise or lower the objects that was not available when looking at the menus for the general area. As I move forward, I have to remember that while there may be limitations to what I can do with tools provided by the software, there are also affordances granted to users for how they shape placeable objects in their modules. Another task I am working towards learning is the scripting feature, figuring out which elements would require scripting (characters, objects that would be plot points in a quest, and other things I cannot currently think of). The Bioware wiki tutorial describes “scripting” as “a programming language with a syntax similar to C. This tutorial assumes a small amount of programming knowledge but hopefully it will be possible even for one with no experience to pick up the basics here.” I admit, that sounds promising, though I am in the process of making a list of what would require scripting in the mod, but then I look at the actual tutorial and break out into a cold sweat.

This is my second area looks like in Dragon Age Origins Toolset, with the various options and menus.

This is my second area looks like in Dragon Age Origins Toolset, with the various options and menus.

This is what an object menus look like.

This is what an object menus look like.

Screen capture of the official Bioware Dragon Age Origins Toolset wiki.

Screen capture of the official Bioware Dragon Age Origins Toolset wiki. If the author said he/she assumes only a small amount of programming, I wonder what the assumption of a decent amount looks like.

As I work towards my digital portfolio project for my program, I am going to continue mucking about in the Dragon Age Origins Toolset as well as exploring modding communities to better understand both the software and the communities that spring up around that software. My ultimate goal is to have become so familiar with the toolset that I will be able to make a mod that can encompass several quests and feels as if it could integrate seamlessly into the game as a way to further my research with possible worlds as a theoretical model and to create a mod to serve as a work sample of what I can do with software if I ever apply to the Bioware studio. If I am motivated enough in the coming months, I may be start branching out to other studio’s modding toolsets to see if my understandings of the basics translate over into other software or if there is a steep learning curve with every toolset. This branching out could serve me well in the future to round out any skills I gain as gaming engines are constantly evolving and interfaces promise to become more and more intuitive for users of all levels. Moving forward, my next goal with the mod software is to be able to successfully link together multiple areas to create a map large enough to contain a full quest complete with characters speaking to one another, triggered events that has at least one cinematic clip (metaphorical fingers crossed that I could stage that bad boy), and an achievable end in which the player battles his/her way through some kind of monster to acquire some object of power. Yeah, here’s to eternally resilient optimism. *kan-pie*

So what have I learned now that this semester draws to a close? As I worked through learning as many of the basics to modding as I could over the course of this semester, I learned that there are different ways to be a digital writer. Before I started this PhD program, I had a pretty specific idea of what it meant to be a digital writer, which was that the writing done on the computer was the same as writing on a typewriter or in a journal, but with a nifty copy/paste option that was uniquely glue/tape free. The only difference I saw was in the distribution process, rather than seeing it in the distribution process and the production process. Now that I am more familiar with New Media studies, I have come to understand the ways in which the limitations and affordances provided by the interwebs and computers have changed how we think about writing and what we think we can do with writing. However, it was in messing with the toolset that I realized that digital writing can happen in the backend of software and is not always readily visible or accessible to the people who are only seeing the finished product. As someone who wants to become a storywriter for a video game studio, a lot of the writing I hope to do in the future will be embedded amidst the coding, with certain types of dialogue being triggered by certain actions, decisions, and outcomes. The digital writing that happens with a game is just one piece of the game design process and the studio’s writer(s) have to be in conversation with the programmers, artists, voice actors, and so on to make sure that what they are writing can actually occur. A few years ago, when I started seriously thinking about the possibility of working in the gaming industry as a storywriter, I never thought about how different writing for games would be compared to short story/novel writing or screenwriting; I did not think about how the writing would have to match what could be done with programming and physics engines, and take into account the player experience in crafting multiple threads of dialogue and actions/reactions from a single event followed by a sequence of similar events that branch out further. Having worked with the basics of modding, I have a better understanding of where narrative fits into the production of games, though I still believe narrative is just as important as gameplay mechanics and is often intertwined in those mechanics. I am interested in seeing how collaborative the writing process is when working with another person on a mod and, on a much larger scale, working with a team of writers alongside other departments to create a video game as a single text. I got a sense of that while looking through modding forums, such as the NexusMods website, where people would pose a question and receive feedback on workarounds or links to other mods that attempt to correct issues.

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