Mods and Money Part 1: Stefan Gagne

DLC is becoming more and more widespread in the gaming industry these days.  It serves as a way of keeping valuable staff busy and employed by giving them smaller projects to work on between major releases.  It lets development teams add in content they had to cut from the original release.  It gives gamers new ways to enjoy their favorite games.  That would all be moot if they didn’t also generate quite a bit of money.  It seems like only a matter of time before a company takes the next logical step and starts partnering with its modding community to sell User Generated Content for a profit.  If and how they should is a topic that generates a lot of strong opinions from fans of the modding community.

The idea that folks can create their own content for a game and then, via the magic of lawyers and contracts, sell it for a profit is an exciting one.  Some folks see it as an opportunity, while others are insistent that it will herald the doom of the wonderful, weird, and, most importantly, free modding community for their favorite games.  Rather than expounding on our own gin-soaked opinions on the issue, it seemed to a good idea to interview members of the game development and modding communities to get their, hopefully, less alcohol-addled viewpoints in a series we have unimaginatively titled Mods and Money.  I was going to call it “Modding at the Altar of Mammon:  A Descent Into Madness”, but the editors helpfully pointed out that I’ve tried to name every article I’ve submitted that and it’s already the name of a trendy black metal band.

Today we mine the skull of former Neverwinter Nights modder and current author Stefan Gagne for sweet, sweet knowledge.  The interview in full is below:

Josh Rodriguez: Hey folks! I’m Josh Rodriguez and today I’m talking with Stefan Gagne, creator of the award-winning Penultima and Elegia Eternum series of mods for the Bioware’s Neverwinter Nights. Why don’t tell us a little bit about yourself and what you’ve been up to since then?

Stefan Gagne: I’ve been up to all sorts of fiascos and doings and goings on since then. It’s been, what, like a decade since then? Two main things I’ve been doing are writing online novels, and working on a casual fishing game. One has been quite successful, the other has not, but hey, it’s all worthwhile. I’ve also written some “module” style stories in the MMORPG City of Heroes, which picked up a few awards and things.

JR: Tell us a bit about your other projects.

SG: City of Heroes has a UGC system called the Architect. It lets you create NWN-style modules… standalone story arcs with enemies to fight (design your own or use stock ones) and characters to encounter and dialogue to write. I’ve won a few awards for my arcs there, which have always been very story focused. Unfortunately a lot of people use it as a DIY MMORPG grind tool to earn fast XP, so some shine has come off the system, but it’s worth the risk to explore the possibilities.

The other big project is the 7Seas Fishing Game. It’s a casual-style social game, where you buy a very low cost fishing rod (one dollar) and can fish free forever — or purchase consumable bait, to earn XP, and catch cooler fish. We use Second Life as the platform to build on, which means that we also can sell Fishing Area Kits, which let folks set up their OWN fishing areas and earn a commission on sales, letting the game spread virally.

It’s fantastically successful. Not, like, quit my day job successful, but it works well. The platform is kind of unstable and the community has a very vocal 5% of jerks, which is a shame, but it’s still been good for me. And I’ve applied a lot of the game industry’s standards here, such as monetization, free to play, and social networking.

JR: Not bad at all. Now, Neverwinter Nights was a game built around the idea of folks creating their own content for it and, of course, it developed an extensive community dedicated to that. What drew you to get involved in creating your own content for it?

SG: I’ve been interested in “construction kit” style platforms for a long time. When I was a kid tinkering around on my Apple //c, I had two toolsets I did a lot of work in — Adventure Construction Set from EA, and Garry Kitchen’s Gamemaker. I always liked the idea of middleware tools that provide a game-friendly platform to build on top of. I CAN program, I’m decent at it, but not good enough to build both a game and an engine to power that game.

Neverwinter Nights is an extension of that toolkit concept. It provided a low bar of entry — you still had to script and design and craft the adventure, but the raw materials and an engine to power them were provided. On top of that, it encouraged MODULES rather than just MODS (i.e., modifications), stand-alone games which didn’t have to be connected to the existing game in any way beyond the raw resources. Very, very powerful and not too difficult to use.

JR: What you created was fairly extensive. How much time did that take? What skills did you have to develop to see it to completion?

SG: I think if you play the games I made in the order I make them you’ll see pretty plainly the skills I had to develop — specifically how incredibly bad I was at it when I started (penultima) compared to where I ended up (hex coda). Storycrafting came easily, but combat balancing? Hoo boy, combat balancing was difficult…

NWN was married to the D&D system, and I never fully grasped it enough to really make balanced combat. When someone is approaching your game with any number of classes of builds, making something appropriate for everybody while navigating the labyrinthe of D&D 3.0 (was it even 3.5?) is a chore and a half.

Overall the time it takes to finish a really complex story with plenty of nonlinearity is a bit bonkers, even with a lot of the work done for you in terms of raw resources. That’s why I eventually threw in the towel; the games were getting so complex and in-depth that they really needed a TEAM to build them. Not one dude.

JR: I remember the announcement you made about not being able to finish Hex Coda, but after trying my own hand at modding, I could see how complicated things could get. Did what you learn carry over into your professional career?

SG: Hard to say. It’s not like a lot of the skills directly apply to some other discipline; it helped me become a more disciplined and structured writer, since I had experience laying out a story across a game format. Experience working in a third party scripting language helped me with my fishing game, since I was familiar with using a mix of basic coding and high level object control. But overall, being good at making NWN mods makes you good at making NWN mods. It’s the overall growth of yourself that matters in the long run.

JR: Now, you said that the project had gotten too big for just one fellow to complete. What about the rest of the NWN mod community? I’m sure there were plenty of folks who would have worked with you had you asked.

SG: Probably, but I’ve never really enjoyed managing group projects. The natural unit of my flock is one; I’m very hands on and protective of my own ideas, and dislike being a boss. Bad combo for wrangling a team. By that point, I’d been doing NWN mods for about five years or what felt like more, and I really needed to do something else with my life for personal reasons, as well. It was just time to bow out and refocus.

JR: Completely understandable. Five years is a long time. Bioware was one of the first companies to really experiment with the idea of premium optional content for their games. While they eventually adopted the DLC model common today, I understand that they were playing around with other ideas as well. You’ve actually got a pretty unique perspective on that, though. How were you involved?

SG: My memory is crusty, but I do recall one module they contracted a community member to create, so that they could sell it as DLC. That was going to be the vanguard of a new wave of UGC… Bioware playing publisher for fan content. I was signed on to develop a game for that program, as well. In fact, it was the HeX coda.

Unfortunately, after some starts and stops and difficulties along the way, things didn’t pan out. A combination of bad memory and an NDA means I can’t go into much detail; it’s just a rough road to plow, when you’re working with lisenced IP and a new concept to gaming in general. Bioware took some big risks to make it happen and it’s unfortunate it didn’t work out.

In the end, I got the rights to the game back so I could release it for free. But since I’d already agreed to and designed it with a trilogy in mind, and at a professional level of detail with promised additional art resources and such… it was just way too much for me to finish up by myself without that expected support. It’s unfortunate, but hey, things happen.

Dragon Age was another opportunity to try the grand experiment, but they decided to roll with “toolkit for the modders, paid DLC from Bioware, done” approach instead. And since then we haven’t had any companies (that I know of) trying to follow the road of paid UGC.

JR: The Skyrim Creation Kit came out yesterday and, with it, Steam Workshop integration. After reading through the content upload agreement, folks noticed that there was verbiage in there that allowed for the uploading of user-created content for money. It’s limited to just Team Fortress 2, but it got some folks talking. There’s a reliable and widely-used distribution system that integrates nicely with the existing game and a precedent. Now there’s quite a bit of discussion about the effects that monetization could have on modding community. You were in the unique position of actually being involved in a program to do just that, so I’d love to hear your thoughts on it

SG: I’m completely in favor. The entire industry is tilting towards independent game developers — two guys in a garage can make a hit game which sells millions. It’s rare, of course, but the point is that it is possible. Bioware came very close to making it happen, but they were clearly too far ahead of their time. Now’s the time to sieze upon the idea of amateurs turning pro.

Skyrim is a bit of an odd duck, since if it’s anything like the Fallout mods I browsed, you’re more likely to find “look at this awesome sword” or “Tifa Lockheart as a companion!” type mods than a full MODULE type mod, like NWN had, or like Bethesda’s various DLC expansions. But no doubt there are teams working on proper quests with new maps, new encounters, maybe even acting. And those guys deserve some coin for their efforts. I’m glad it may be happening, at last.

JR: One of the big concerns that pops up is the idea that monetizing user created content will destroy the modding community in general. That the competition for a few extra dollars will somehow break the existing system. How do you see it?

SG: People sell software, but that hasn’t stopped open source releases. Heck, people sell games, but now free-to-play is becoming completely viable. People sell music but bands are cluing in that giving away songs is a terrific way to drive money towards concerts. Myself, I give away my fictional work online, my novels — and sell deluxe editions with bonus content. And some folks give away their creative work just BECAUSE. It’s how they wanna roll.

I don’t see paid UGC killing off free UGC. It’s never happened in past situations where selling creativity is a viable path, and it won’t happen this time. No matter how easy Valve/Bethesda make it, there will always be folks who want to get their work out to the widest audience possible. Maybe as a resume item. Maybe just for kicks. Who knows? But one can’t kill off the other.

JR: The Android and Apple app store fronts have shown that a relatively unregulated and unmonitored market will lead to a lot of copy-catting and shoddy work. I think there’s a reasonable fear that monitized UGC may lead to the same sort of situation. Do you see an optimal way handling that?

SG: I’m not much of a marketing executive. I don’t have a miracle solution for that problem, and I do agree it is a problem — I think it’s disgusting what 6Waves did, ripping off Triple Town. But I also don’t think fear of that sort of thing is worth throwing out the entire idea of paid UGC. That’d be like tossing the whole game industry out on its ear because someone can release a game a lot like one you’re developing. In the end, that’s what we’re talking about here; the games industry. This is just a new avenue into it.

JR: And, having seen down that road first-hand, do you have any thoughts on how a company can correctly take advantage of a paid-for UGC model?

SG: At this early stage, I think Bioware’s original approach is a good one — have a gatekeeper, a quality control, who contracts out the work to specific developers. That’s step one. That ensures high quality content in the channel to begin with. Next, open it up wider, so that you still have gatekeepers but you aren’t hand-picking the developers. Finally, start working on community moderation as a means of gatekeeping, similar to how the XBLiG channel does things. I don’t know if that’s the magic bullet, but it’s A solution.

Bioware’s original NWN plan may not have worked out, and it’s a darn shame, but I’m still glad they were willing to put their necks out there and try it. It’s better than waving the white flag of surrender simply because it’s a daunting prospect. You don’t traverse the Oregon Trail without a few folks dropping dead of dysentry, and you don’t forge ahead in the future of independent game development without some bumps along the way.

JR: Excellent. Any final thoughts for our readers?

SJ: We’re entering a transitional period, in which the traditional boxed game publishing methods are evaporating before our eyes. Now is the time to sieze upon what Could Be, rather than how things Always Have Been. Paid UGC is going to have some serious issues at the outset, but don’t give into fear. Solve the problems as they arise.

Personally, I’ve been going with various spins on the free-to-play model in my own work. For instance, the stories I mentioned, which are free to read, but have retail versions with bonus content. As a game enthusiast I’ve tried to work the patterns I’m seeing in the industry in other areas, and it seems to be working. And when it doesn’t work? You still learn something.

JR: Thanks a lot for your time, Stefan.

Stefan’s main project right now is Anachronauts.  If you’ve got a copy of Neverwinter Nights and want to check out his mods, you can snag them here.

One thought on “Mods and Money Part 1: Stefan Gagne

  1. I think we first need to see more games allowing themselves to be modded. Otherwise, good read. It got me wondering whether there’s bread in being a “modder for hire”.

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