I sometimes like to go on about how PC gaming is superior to consoles. Okay, fine, the mere mention of a comparison between them will probably send me off on a rant. I think consoles are obnoxiously expensive given their extremely specialized functionality. As I type this, I am also: looking up information related to this article, browsing two other gaming sites I write for, chatting with my wife on Gmail, installing The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, downloading Oscuro’s Oblivion Overhaul, and downloading The Dark Mod (I’m also watching a classic comedy and drinking a Dr. Pepper, but those are receiving something less than my full attention).

A PC gamer's response to console gamers complaining about framerates

Overstimulated? Probably. But my point is that the PC is the pinnacle of versatility when it comes to home computing devices. If you’re a casual gamer and all you need is a good, fun distraction after a rough day on the job, or you just like to connect to friends over Microsoft LIVE and blow the stuffing out of each other for a while, then maybe you don’t need a computer that can run games (but you still probably have one, even if all you use it for is the internet, right?). On the other hand, the Xbox 360 has a triple-core processor running at 3.2GHz each, but the system only rarely uses all of that processing power at once. That strikes me as extreme overkill, like grabbing your BFG 9000 to open a troublesome can of beans — and guess who’s paying for that extra tech in your console (hint: it’s not Microsoft). But I suppose the system needs to be powerful or people would piss and moan about the slightest decrease in framerates on a device specifically made for gaming. I guess sometimes overkill is the only way to be sure. What I’m getting at is that my PC (in combination with the internet, which exists because of PCs) can basically do anything I want it to do (it is, in fact, a functioning replicator), especially as related to games. And at last, we come to the main subject of this article.

In addition to all of the above, I’ve also been mucking about in the mire of YouTube, apparently. Anyway, since anybody with enough motivation can learn the coding behind a given computer program, PC gaming is privileged with being the platform where gamers can become developers without actually being employed as such. Mostly this takes shape as user modifications, or “mods.” It should come as no surprise that the games that have the largest and most active modding communities remain popular far longer than they otherwise would have; mods dramatically increase a game’s replay value and, in some cases, create an entirely new game. I’d also like to add here that, in my experience, the most highly-acclaimed titles more frequently have very vital modding communities — some examples include the Elder Scrolls, Half-Life and Thief series, and basically any game that runs on the id Tech 3 or 4 engines (Quake III and Doom 3, respectively — both really great, really stable engines). Why that is, I couldn’t tell you; there’s probably a number of reasons, engine stability, code accessibility, and the game’s quality and popularity being among them (e.g., you won’t see anybody modding the movie tie-in Iron Man game — it sucks, bee-tee-dubs).

I’m going to introduce you to one particular mod today, and more importantly, to the fantastic community of gamers/modders/developers/wizards who participate in it. Some are all of the above at once. It’s called The Dark Mod, and it’s one of the best examples of what’s known in the biz as a total conversion — it builds a new game on top of an existing engine. In this case the engine is id Tech 4. The Dark Mod (henceforth referred to as TDM) is based largely on the Thief series in that it illustrates a medieval steampunk world full of scum and villainy (between which the player is generally caught). The only requirements are a fully-updated copy of Doom 3 and a connection to the internet so you can download TDM’s fileset.

Given that Doom 3 takes place on a high-tech research base on the surface of Mars, the developers of TDM basically had to create a new resource base for the game, including textures, AI, models (the stuff you see in-game; tables, chairs, etc.), and everything else they needed that wouldn’t carry over from Mars circa 2145 to pseudo-Europe of the Middle Ages. Much of it needed to be made from scratch, obviously, which means there’s also a whole crew of modelers on top of the folks already needed to just edit the engine’s code to more accurately fit their end vision of the world. The only appropriate word to describe this task is “overwhelming,” and the more I get into the nuts and bolts of mapping for TDM, the more I appreciate exactly how overwhelming it is.

Which brings up mappers — the crowd that actually constructs and populates a level that can be distributed as a finished product. Doom 3 comes with a functional level editor, which could be used to construct TDM maps itself with a bit of tweaking, but these folks went one step farther — they created their own editing program, called DarkRadiant. I’ve tried my hand at several modding programs in the past, and I never had the patience for their sometimes extremely steep learning curves. DarkRadiant, however, is by far the easiest level editor I’ve ever come across, made even easier with tutorials and a wiki written by the community itself. You need to know basically nothing about coding to get started with this program, and what you do need to know you can learn as you go, working up to more and more complex constructions and situations in your levels.

All of these people, many of whom participate in every step of the creative process, are very active on their forums and are more than helpful to any newcomers. I recently asked a friend who is interested in anarchist theory about what an ideal post-capitalist, post-government society might look like. After first exceeding the character limit for a single comment on my Facebook wall, he then summarized by saying, “An anarchist society would be like the Dark Mod project. Individual fans come together freely to form a new online community. Everyone has access to the mod/toolkit, an individual downloads it and uses it to create desired missions, and then the missions s/he designs during leisure/work time are given back to the site so that other people can download them and use them as they see fit.”

So, essentially, it’s a community where everyone contributes whatever they can, and whatever they’re most skilled in doing, and the project comes together in a very organic and cooperative manner. This sort of gaming community simply isn’t possible anywhere else but through a personal computer over the internet. I mean, what are the odds that you’d find enough people to produce something like this all living in roughly the same geographical area? Slim, methinks — unless you pay them, in which case you’re a game development studio, not a community of modders. That’s not to say a development studio isn’t its own community; after all, every workplace is a community of some sort (whether you like it or not). But it blurs the line a bit between “professional” game developers and a few guys who like to mess around and make something way cool out of some computer code in their spare time.

Check them out if you have any interest at all in the Thief games, Doom 3, or modding in general. You won’t be disappointed. They’ve produced over 30 complete missions in less than a year since the mod was released to the public.