How mod.io helps studios build a deeper bond with their players and creators – “Modding is very much a multiplier of success”

Scott Reismanis, founder and CEO of mod.io

Three of the four biggest titles on Steam right now, were, in their earliest incarnations, mods – fan-made games built atop the foundations of another. Riot’s most popular games are directly derived from two of them. To suggest that mods are an afterthought or inconsequential to game industry success is a delusion. For it is mods, with their constant updates, lively communities and customisations, that were very much the original live service games. It’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that we might one day view mods collectively as the prototypical – and perhaps utopian – gaming metaverse, able to transpose and combine IPs across boundaries that publishers are averse to cross. Where else but in a mod can you pitch Star Wars and Star Trek ships against one another, or find the iconic weapons from Aliens fully realised in Doom? Crudely given form 20 years ago, these are the dreams of metaverse evangelists today.

Also crudely realised 20 years ago was mod DB, one of the first websites devoted to collecting, curating and archiving mods for popular and not-so-popular games. From unofficial patches that fixed games that their developers had moved on from, to character skins and full-blown total conversions that might render an underlying game unrecognisable, keeping up with developments in user generated content (UGC) was a challenge that a young Scott Reismanis sought to overcome.

“It was so hard navigating through Planet Half-Life and all the dominant gaming sites and modding communities were fragmented all over the place” he remembers. “So I decided I had to remedy that, selfishly, by creating a community where people could collaborate and share what they’re doing. And that’s really why mod DB was born, just to be a database of mods. Inevitably, as these things have a way of doing, the community took over and it’s been on a life of its own and just grew and grew and grew.”

After later setting up the digital indie storefront Desura and indie DB, Reismanis returned to mod curation by establishing mod.io in 2017. This was during a time when mods were starting to become more mainstream on console, having long been the preserve of the PC gaming fraternity. Together with the growing demand for crossplay and cross-platform play, with players wanting to progress regardless of the platform, Reismanis saw an opportunity to champion greater integration and accessibility for user generated content – to have a mod work seamlessly regardless of whether it’s on PC or console, and with as few issues as possible when combined with other mods.

Space Engineers (above) is one of the biggest games that mod.io supports

“One of the beautiful things about the previous and the newest generation of consoles” says Reismanis, “is that each of them have got their own really incredible UGC-type games and experiences, whether it’s Super Mario Maker on the Switch, or Dreams and other games on PlayStation, or Minecraft and Microsoft Flight Simulator on the Xbox. And once I started to see those games emerging on those platforms, and that there were so few developers that had actually been able to accomplish modding in a cross-platform manner, I thought that was a really awesome and unique selling point to be able to build a solution around.”

The key, it seemed, was to bring people together, not just the UGC creators and the players, but also the publishers of the games that the vast majority of mods require to be able to work. No mean feat, when you consider that the relationship between mod developers and IP holders has rarely been a collaborative one. On that point, Reismanis believes that the fact that so many studios have kept modding at arms length for so long has been detrimental for games and their fans. “It’s been very hard to measure the impact of modding on gaming. Because they are generally free, there’s really no clear way to point at a mod and say that it drove up game sales. Of course, there’s heaps of examples and evidence of that, but that’s really where mod.io aims to step in.”

“Mod.io is very much focused on official partnerships with gaming studios, and helping them build a stronger bond with their creators and players. Community is so important to studios these days. They know that it’s no longer about just shipping a title and then moving on to the next one. It’s about working with the players to create an engaging live service-type title.” For Reismanis, nothing creates community better than mods. “Mods are a really awesome way of pulling fans together, no matter what platform or device they’re on, and unifying them around something they love, which is finding and exploring new content for games, whether it’s on Xbox Games Pass, or on Steam, Epic Game Store or wherever.”

Reismanis cites the success of Roblox as the platform that really took the concept of UGC to heart and allowed creators to “go pro.” With mod.io Reismanis wants to provide studios with the tools they need to make it a no brainer to embrace mods to the same degree. “That comes down to metrics and dashboards and tools that show them how many of their players are engaging with content and what types of content are trending in their ecosystem. So that they can identify and help elevate their top creators and content, make it official in their game and really just learn. Because the creativity of many is always going to outweigh the expertise of one. Mod.io is about enabling that.”

mod.io wants to make mods just as accessible to publishers as they have been for players

That’s all very well of course, but holding up Roblox as a trailblazer in the realm of UGC is also problematic when you consider how much player-created content exists in the Roblox ecosystem that willfully crosses those IP boundaries that publishers are usually so keen to protect. Reismanis responds by saying that it’s not for mod.io to curate what UGC can and can’t be available: “Each studio is able to set up their own policies for what creation they permit, what creation they encourage, and then we can help them implement that policy and start growing their creative community. It’s just about having a platform that can help moderate and manage content and can let it run when it’s permitted.”

It’s telling that Reismanis wants to nurture relationships between publishers and UGC creators similar to the way that influencers are managed, in the sense that mod creators are often first and foremost fans. “For the majority, the reason why they mod is because they absolutely love the game. They actually see themselves as more creative types than a consumer type. They mod just because they just want to learn game development, and because they derive enjoyment from seeing people play and experience what they’ve created. I think it’s a real shame that most UGC creation is on the edges of games, and there’s really no real way for studios to really engage with their community, except on a case by case basis, which means most of them put it in the ‘too hard’ basket. That’s why it’s all about accessibility for us.”

SnowRunner is apparently the most popular game on mod.io. Take from that what you will

Currently mod.io supports more than 80 games, including the likes of Mordhau, Space Engineers and SnowRunners. The fact that UGC for each one is accessible hassle-free regardless of platform is impressive, but next to the volume of titles supported by Steam’s Workshop, suggests perhaps that many more companies are hesitant of the service than have embraced it.

“Modding is definitely growing year by year. It’s a really interesting thing, though, because modding is very much a multiplier of success. It’s not necessarily something that will create success on its own, because you’ve got to have that passionate community that really wants to extend the game and personalise it in different ways. It’s never going to be something that fits every game because modding is really challenging to support. It lives completely outside of the realm of what a game developer is normally expected to do.”

Reismanis admits that when you invite and support fans to mod a game, you are relinquishing some control over it, which means having strong support and moderation systems in place to manage what UGC is put out. “One of the biggest barriers that studios face is that it’s just so hard to ship a game. ‘How do we do modding, where do we start?’ And so we’re building Unity and Unreal plugins that just drop in and work, and can work on PC and cross-platform. We can take responsibility and really assist with moderation and community, as we’ve got a lot of expertise and experience doing that over a multi decade period.

“Ultimately, it all ties into our belief that modding makes amazing communities and leads to really emergent, incredible gameplay when enabled.” The challenge for Reismanis and the wider mod.io team is to get that belief across, and of course provide the metrics and stories to back it up. “Making that more and more known to more of the industry is a really exciting challenge for us and we’re not going to really stop until we see modding as a bigger driver of success for more games, and something that studios start thinking about very early on in their development lifecycle, rather than seeing it as a value added at the end. So, it’s a bit of a shift, but it’s one that I would say is certainly accelerating.”

About Richie Shoemaker

Prior to taking the editorial helm of MCV/DEVELOP Richie spent 20 years shovelling word-coal into the engines of numerous gaming magazines and websites, many of which are now lost beneath the churning waves of progress. If not already obvious, he is partial to the odd nautical metaphor.

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