Todd Howard, the president of Bethesda Game Studios, understands the value of mods. For him, the user-generated content is just a natural extension of what gamers have been doing in RPGs since pen-and-paper games first came on the scene.
“I think it goes back to when people think about roleplaying games, they think about making their own adventures. You know back to Dungeons and Dragons even,” he tells Newsweek during an interview at this year’s E3 gaming convention in Los Angeles. “It's just part of what we've been about for a very long time.”
For the upcoming release of Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Special Edition, a souped-up version of the 2011 game of the year coming to Xbox One and PS4, Howard and his team at Bethesda made the decision to include mods as part of the release. It’s an unprecedented level of industry recognition for a subset of the gaming community that has toiled in relative obscurity for years. User-created mods are nothing new on PC, they’ve been around since the halcyon days of Quake in the mid-90s, nut this content never made it onto home consoles. That finally changed this year when Bethesda launched them for its latest release, Fallout 4.
“We're finding quickly with Fallout 4…we were worried. Worried is the wrong word. We didn't know how many people would (make mods) because you have to do it on PC. So you have to have the PC version,” Howard says. “And it turns out there's a huge crossover there of people who do have both.”
Those people have wrought one of the biggest mod booms ever seen. According to Howard, nearly 20 million Xbox One gamers have downloaded mods since the launch of the program. It’s a staggering number, but Howard isn’t surprised that the interest is there. Mods might be old news for PC gamers but for console owners this is uncharted territory.
“PC's had it for awhile in a lot of places, understandably, so there's a hunger on console like 'hey we can finally do this!' he says.
The content in mods is as varied as the creators themselves. Gamer culture isn’t always known for its levity and maturity, and the same is true with mods. There are plenty of NSFW mods to go around, and Howard jokes there are teams at Bethesda dedicated to “flagging content for boobies.” Since the company hosts everything through its own Bethesda.net site it has to make sure that the mods that get shared aren’t inappropriate or full of licensed content from other games or movies or TV shows.
“There are dedicated full-time people to get rid of nudity. Interesting email debates keep happening. ‘Does this cross the line? Does this? Does this?'” he says.
The decision to host mods on their site was born out of a fiasco from last year, when Bethesda partnered with Valve to try to institute a system on Steam where gamers could pay modders for their work. It sounds like a good idea in principle, but it didn’t work. Accusations of plagiarism and legal issues over licensed content, alongside a lopsided revenue split that favored the companies, resulted in a firestorm of internet pitchforking and public outcry. The program lasted about a week.
“We did [get criticized], understandably so. I think we deserved it. I was telling people I think we went right to the ultimate, just totally open and whatever goes, goes. But it's like blasting someone into the vacuum of space without astronaut training. It tore the community apart like it would tear a spaceman apart,” he says, adding, “if something doesn't go well we'll keep at it. I think it's important to try stuff.”
Currently, Bethesda is trying to get mods onto both major platforms but has only launched on Xbox One so far. Microsoft has a natural foothold in the PC world thanks to Windows 10 and the company spent a big portion of its E3 press conference to talk about all the ways Windows and Xbox will work together in the future. But Sony fans shouldn’t fret, because Bethesda wants mods on all consoles soon.
“We work with platform holders. We worked with Microsoft on how the system would work, that helped out a lot. We're working with Sony right now, but there's hurdles to get over with things like storage. And we need certain licenses. Because the modders are being like a pseudo-developer so you get some tricky legal things going on there,” he explained.
In spite of the challenges, Bethesda plans to support free mods for both consoles for both Fallout 4 and Skyrim Special Edition. Howard feels this dedication is central to Bethesda’s identity as a company, as a place where new ideas are given a chance to succeed. Console mods are just the latest first in a series of firsts for Bethesda.
“We were the first to do expansions on consoles. The first do DLC. It’s something that we're hoping we're breaking the ice for lots of people and the platform holders get more comfortable with it,” he said. “That's a big element of it, so the next step is not just for us but for everybody.”