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Are Publishers Taking Too Much Advantage of Modders?

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Are modders hurting games?

Just asking that question leaves a bad taste in my mouth (and a target on my back). We all love mods, myself included. It’s one of the biggest appeals of PC gaming. Mods can add expansive, appealing content like new weapons and armor, new characters, even new zones. They can be serious in tone or lighter, making a dire game downright silly. After all, who doesn’t want Thomas the Tank Engine in their Skyrim game?

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Does this look like the face of mercy?

Mods can even patch broken features, fixing issues in a game that the developer can’t. Or won’t. And here’s where we start running into trouble. At what point do modders start doing the publishers’ jobs? And at what point do publishers just…let them?

Let me get one thing straight off the bat, any criticisms I am about to level at modding in general are not aimed at modders. I know modders are passionate about what they do. Most of them do it for love of a game or gaming in general, or to challenge themselves in a field they hope to one day be employed. I hold no contempt for modders and love what they do.

But when I see modders doing the work that publishers should be doing, I just worry a bit that these hard-working, dedicated souls are going to be taken advantage of and downright abused. This was an underexplored consequence of the Steam paid mods fiasco several months ago. I have no qualms about modders getting paid for their work. I take umbrage at Steam and Bethesda getting paid for the modders’ work, however, particularly at the split that was being offered. Especially when some of that work fixes bugs, improves graphical quality in their games, etc. You know, things we would expect Bethesda to do for the price of admission that we’ve already paid.

But Bethesda isn’t nearly the worst offender in this regard. In fact, I rather like Bethesda as a company. No, for me, the worst example of this is EA.

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Challenge everything…except our undying hatred of your terrible business practices!

I’m a huge fan of the Sims. There. I said it. Revoke my hardcore gamer license. Part of it is because no other company will touch the “life sim” genre. So the Sims has no competition for me to turn to when it continuously kicks me in the crotch and makes me beg for more. The Sims is far from perfect, but it’s the only thing I’ve got to scratch that particular itch.

The Sims 4, however, finally broke me of this habit by stripping away just about every aspect of gameplay we’d gotten used to and throwing us very little “new” in return. I think almost all of what the Sims 4 gave us could have been done in an expansion for the Sims 3, but that’s neither here nor there.

Anyone who has played the Sims as much as I have knows that to enjoy the game to its fullest, mods are needed. My experience with the Sims 3 was so intensely enhanced by mods that I doubt I would have played it at all without them and my game would have been all but unrecognizable to someone who didn’t use mods.

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And of course watching your Sim pee, which is of dire importance.

The Sims 4 is turning out to be no different with mods already being released that add playable schools to the game, colleges, hotels, apartments, traits, jobs…mods are expanding on a game that even many hardcore fans were complaining was bare bones right out of the box. Mods are adding things that we traditionally associate with expansion packs from EA themselves.

But at what point are these modders hurting the games that they love? I readily admit that I would have stopped playing the Sims 3 months, maybe even years before I finally uninstalled it for good. That means EA got a lot more money from me, not because of any hard work on their part (in fact, they all but refused to acknowledge some long-running and persistent bugs in the game) but because of the (free) work of some diligent modder (love you Pescado and Twallan). I’m not sure if I’m up to the point where I think EA is consciously banking on the hard work of these hard-working few, but they certainly are reaping the benefits when the answer to “how do you fix this bug in the game?” usually results in a response of “download this mod.”

And honestly, it really wouldn’t surprise me to find that they are consciously reaping the benefit of these mods and putting off the “free” work of fixing the problems in their game in lieu of delivering us more methods to suck our wallets dry. Before you scoff, let me remind you that Warner Brothers’ response to the buggy Arkham Origins’ PC release was to tell us they were too busy working on more DLC to fix the problems. It was only after Steam had a refund policy in place that they were suddenly on the side of the angels with the abysmal Arkham Knight PC release.

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Maybe Batman’s new crusade should be to avenge the credibility of his games’ PC ports.

I’m not entirely sure where I’m going with this. I know EA threw those of us who bought the Sims 4 a bone with some free extra content, but all of those things were stripped from the game and were gameplay features we’d come to expect from the base game experience…except toddlers, of course, which are still absent and still one of the most widely-requested features. And even still, this felt more like a desperate attempt to silence the waves of displeasure at the bare bones experience they delivered to us in the latest installment of their much-beloved yet highly-abused franchise. And the fact still remains that some of the best and most innovative features of the game come from modders, not EA. And, like the Sims 3’s underwhelming story progression, modders are still expanding and improving on EA’s own gameplay mechanics.

Which means EA won’t have to.

Of course, I think it’s silly to beseech modders to stop doing what they’re doing and I would never do that. That is not a world that I want to live – or game – in. Modders add countless hours of fun to games that we already love and, at its core, there’s nothing wrong with that deal. I love the idea that we can get more out of games than we could have years ago. And some of the mods are such high quality that they put the original work done by the game’s team to shame (which is a fact worthy of some scorn in and of itself).

But in an industry where EA feels like it’s ok to completely strip down one of its biggest franchises every decade or so and sell it back to us piecemeal, where DLC and expansion packs are becoming so ubiquitous that we’re almost disappointed if we don’t hear news of one months after a game’s release, I worry that developers are going to start quietly leaning more and more on modder support to provide the experiences that they can’t…or won’t.

What about you, esteemed reader? Do you think I’m being tin foil hat-wearingly paranoid? Or do you agree that modders make it so developers can get away with doing less? Do you feel like developers are or will start abusing modders? What about Steam’s much-maligned attempt to charge for mods? Sound off in the comments below.

Writer, journalist, teacher, pedant. Reid's done just about anything and everything involving words and now he's hoping to use them for something he's passionate about: video games. He's been gaming since the onset of the NES era and has never looked back.

E3 2019

Gender and Race Representation at E3 2019

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E3 2019 Diversity (Deathloop, Wolfenstein Youngblood, Star Wars Jedi Fallen Order)

Despite making up around half of the gaming population, women remain underrepresented in video games. More Hispanic and Black people refer to themselves as “gamers” than white people, yet minorities remain a rarity in modern titles. E3, which recently came to a close for another year, is gaming’s largest annual event, demonstrating the interests of the industry. Therefore, the statistics from E3 are a fairly accurate representation of the industry as a whole. OnlySP has broken down five of the main conferences from E3 2019 to see how each publisher represents women and people of colour in the games showcased, as well as their presenters.

Some of the shows from the event—the PC Gaming Show, Kinda Funny Games Showcase, EA Play, and the Devolver Digital Big Fancy Press Conference—have been excluded. Previously released games receiving updates or trailers at the event, such as Fallout 76 or Final Fantasy XIV Online, were also excluded from the statistics.

Each conference is broken down into seven categories for gender:

  • Male: where the game features only a male protagonist (Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order)
  • Female: where the game features only a female protagonist (Wolfenstein: Youngblood)
  • Player Choice: where the game allows a fully customisable character (The Outer Worlds)
  • Both: where the game allows the player to control both a male and female character, but not customise their preference (Marvel’s Avengers)
  • Ambiguous: where the protagonist’s gender is unclear (Ori and the Will of the Wisps)
  • None: where the game does not feature a gendered character, including racing games (Microsoft Flight Simulator)
  • Unknown: where the game’s protagonist is yet to be revealed (Elden Ring)

The last five categories are repeated for race within games; protagonists whose race is evident are identified as such.

Microsoft

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Microsoft kicked off the main press conferences this year with far more games than the conferences to follow. Out of a total of 29 applicable games, almost a third featured only male protagonists. Thankfully, female representation is not totally out of the question—with 24% of Microsoft’s games allowing full character customisation and 10% featuring both male and female protagonists—but only three games with a sole female protagonist is a disappointing statistic.

Unfortunately, representation among the presenters at Microsoft’s conference does not inspire much hope either, with two of nine being women (one of whom appeared alongside a man). This is sadly representative of the company as a whole, with women making up only 26.6 percent of Microsoft’s employees.

In terms of race representation within its games, Microsoft is not achieving great results. While nine of the games showcased featured Caucasian protagonists, only one had an African-American lead. Thankfully, at least, Microsoft is still allowing the player to decide the race of their character in 21% of its games. Microsoft’s presenters were also mostly white—mostly American, with two Brits, one Canadian, and an Australian—with only one African-American presenter.

While Microsoft’s representation at E3 is better than most of the conferences that followed, it still has a long way to go.

E3 Chart - Demographics - Microsoft

Demographics of protagonists in games shown at Microsoft’s conference.

Bethesda

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Bethesda’s conference was short on new titles this year, with only six upcoming games showcased, but it had the strongest showing in terms of character representation. Only one of the six titles—Doom Eternal—featured a single male protagonist, and, that aside, the game is shaping up to be something special.

Both of the upcoming Wolfenstein games—Youngblood and Cyberpilot—feature female protagonists, and while two female-centric games is not a hugely impressive statistic, as an overall indicator it is quite impressive when compared to Bethesda’s other games. Two of the six games—Commander Keen and Deathloop—allow the player to select between a pre-determined male or female character; and in the case of Deathloop, both characters are African-American, so Bethesda’s representation expands beyond gender. However, only one title with a confirmed non-white character is not a very impressive statistic.

The same praise cannot be applied to the presenters of Bethesda’s conference, either; only two of the 17 presenters were female—one of whom has become a bit of an icon following the show. Of the 17 presenters, more than half were American, with only two Japanese presenters, two French, one Swedish, and one Puerto Rican–American. Considering Bethesda’s support of women and minorities in the past, seeing such little representation among its staff is a disappointing statistic.

E3 Chart - Demographics - Bethesda

Demographics of protagonists in games shown at Bethesda’s conference.

Ubisoft

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In regard to giving the player choice, Ubisoft easily beats the competition, with three of its eight new titles featuring full character customisation and two allowing the player to select between a male and female character. Diversity of representation, however, ends there; Ubisoft did not showcase a single female-led video game during its E3 showcase this year. Of the three games allowing character customisation, two—Rainbow Six Quarantine and Roller Champions—are multiplayer games; and of the two allowing both male and female, one is Watch Dogs Legion, which lets players choose between dozens of characters in their operation. Whether or not such a concept will lead to positive representation is yet to be seen. While no games from Ubisoft star an African-American in the leading role, hopefully the developer can achieve positive diversity by taking notes from its 2017 title Watch Dogs 2.

For its presenters, Ubisoft is better than its competition, with females making up four of the conference’s 14 on-stage personalities, but that statistic is still disappointing. If 29% is the best that the industry can do, it still has a long way to go in the years to come.

E3 Chart - Demographics - Ubisoft

Demographics of protagonists in games shown at Ubisoft’s conference.

Square Enix

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Square Enix may have had the most disappointing press conference this year in regard to gender representation. Of its 14 games, not a single had only a female protagonist, while over half centred around males. To the publisher’s credit, several of these games feature, in some segments, playable female characters, but to have so many male-centric games without a single sole female protagonist is incredibly disappointing.

Thankfully, five games shown at Square Enix’s conference allow the player to select between a male or female. However, even in some of these games, representation is not entirely clear—only one of the five main playable characters in Marvel’s Avengers, for example, is female, as is only one of the three in Outriders.

Unfortunately, the disappointment of diversity is only exemplified with the conference’s presenters. Only one of the show’s nine presenters was female, with her appearance taking place at the very end of the show alongside a male presenter. Square Enix has a long way to go with its female representation.

E3 Chart - Demographics - Square Enix

Demographics of protagonists in games shown at Square Enix’s conference.

Nintendo

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Historically, Nintendo is not known for strong female characters—Princess Peach is the figurehead for the damsel-in-distress trope—but it has made strides in this area with strong characters such as Zelda in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Unfortunately, none of these characters have been allowed to represent their own video game, constantly being shadowed by the male protagonist.

While six of the 17 new Nintendo games shown during its Direct this year featured male protagonists, not a single game featured a female protagonist. With three games allowing full customisation and six giving the choice between male and female, not all hope is lost with Nintendo, but diverse representation is better than customised representation. Being forced to take on different perspectives—as females must do when playing 35% of Nintendo’s games—is more beneficial to the player than choosing to play as an undefined character.

Nintendo only had three presenters during its presentation—deputy general manager Yoshiaki Koizumi, president of Nintendo of America Doug Bowser, and general manager Shinya Takahashi—but seeing some more representation of its female staff (as it does rather well during its Nintendo Treehouse live stream later in the show) would be encouraging.

E3 Chart - Demographics - Nintendo

Demographics of protagonists in games shown at Nintendo’s conference.


Overall

As a whole, E3 2019 was rather disappointing. While a third of the games showcased at the five conferences above featured only male protagonists, only 7% featured female protagonists. While developers are improving in regard to player choice—allowing either full customisation or the selection of a male or female character—diverse representation is a necessity moving forward, and the industry needs to look at improving.

Presenters Demographic

Demographics of presenters at the five conferences during E3 2019.

In terms of race representation, the statistics are even more abysmal. While an Americanised show is expected due to the location of E3, some diversity would be appreciated; with over half of the presenters being American, the companies are failing to demonstrate their diverse talent. The same can be said about the games; as seen below, 27% of protagonists in games are Caucasian, while 3% (only two games) feature African-Americans as lead characters. As aforementioned, developers are seeing improvement in allowing players to customise or select their characters, but specified diversity is a change that the industry requires.

E3 Chart - Games Demographics

Demographics of protagonists in the games showcased at the five conferences during E3 2019.

The industry has a long way to go.

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