One of the most anticipated games of 2015, Bethesda Softworks’ Fallout 4 has had a lasting effect upon the gaming industry. The company behind the game have had a long and proud association with ‘modding’, opening their games as far back as the original DOOM in 1993 to be modified, enhanced, and generally messed around with by the players. This has until now been more or less the exclusive domain of PC Gamers, but the opening of a new modding community on Xbox One and PS4, through Fallout 4, has prompted a contentious debate about the future prospects of modding on consoles.
The Internet provides an inexhaustible and inexpensive medium upon which to distribute content designed to enhance pre-existing games, through adding more variety and thereby more replay value. Modding is therefore increasingly prevalent among the modern generation of gaming enthusiasts, to the extent where it can even affect the commercial success of some titles and their studios, allowing its appeal to continue long after the game is first released. Bethesda in particular have been supportive of ‘modders’ for years, often releasing developer tools to assist gamers in this endeavour.
The promise to bring mods to next-generation consoles was a part of Bethesda’s promise to fans of Fallout back in the announcement at the E3 showcase in July 2015. User-made content on consoles had, at that point, only been seen in titles such as Little Big Planet and Super Mario Maker, and had never made the tectonic leap to AAA-rated games like the kind that Bethesda produces, except on PC platforms. For a AAA title to give console gamers the ability to modify and enhance the game beyond its ‘vanilla’ (factory original) setup would be to introduce a new and almost unprecedented level of immersion.
Upon the release of Fallout 4 on 10th November 2015, PC gamers gained the ability to download Bethesda’s Creation Kit software, and through it the modding community was immediately able to create entire libraries of new content for the title – from texture refinements, to new customisable options for player characters, to the substitution of enemies known as Deathclaws with 3D models of Thomas the Tank Engine, to name but a few. All of these were available for download from the Nexus, the go-to area of the web for PC modders to upload and share their content.
It took a few months for Bethesda to bring that same world of opportunity to consoles, beginning with Xbox One this summer, and with PS4 promised to follow shortly thereafter. Whether or not Bethesda wanted to use the Xbox launch of the Creation Kit as a means of sandboxing the release and testing its suitability for consoles, it is well worth assessing what emerged from the introduction of mods to consoles. Crucially, while it opened up brand new opportunities for console gamers that levelled the playing field between them and the ‘PC Master Race’, it also uncovered a few fundamental challenges.
It is vital to note that the central challenge of bringing mods to consoles lies in the limitations of the platform compared to PC – not every mod would be able to run on a console, even if they could performance-wise. When Xbox players first gained the ability to use mods in their Fallout 4 gameplay, this issue became immediately, painfully, obvious. Owing to the compatibility problems between PC and console formats, Bethesda hosted mods from the Nexus that were compatible for consoles, in order to protect gamers from content that could potentially damage their systems and wouldn’t work for them in the first place.
However, this did not disrupt the fact that for the first time, console gamers felt that they could enhance their gameplay of Fallout 4, and reap the benefits that PC gamers had enjoyed, overlooking the issues of incompatibility. Some of the most popular player-created mods designed specifically for use on PC platforms received requests to be made available for Xbox players, and when these were not realised, the mod designers received threats and harassment; Bethesda was accused of scamming console gamers.
There was also a spate of piracy reported as a result of this – users reported the theft of content from the Nexus, which was then uploaded to Bethesda.net, where console players can access them for use in their games, all without the permission of the mod’s original creator. Even this would not solve the problem that incompatible mods would still cause the game to break and risk damaging the games console.
The reaction to mod theft by the developer has been to direct victims to file a DCMA takedown request, but this has proven to be an onerous and bureaucratic process, especially when modders often lack a method of verifying that the content was originally theirs.
The critical flaw here – it would be an unfair stretch to call it a failure on Bethesda’s part, because of the legal framework in which they have to operate – is in misinformation on the part of the users. Criticism coming from the PC community was levelled at console players for not understanding the restrictions in hardware and software; this is what forced a permanent wedge between their ability to create and share mods across all platforms, and which resulted in such toxicity that ultimately gave rise to the occurrence of mod theft.
In the wake of this rocky start, fears that PS4 players would experience similar hostility arguably dodged a bullet when, after months of negotiation with Sony, occasional updates from Bethesda, and the mad patience of the patrons of the third major gaming platform, it was announced in September that Sony would not approve user mods to be played through Fallout 4 “the way they should work”.
It appeared that the debacle on the Xbox One had forced Bethesda and Sony into a stalemate over how mods should function on the PlayStation 4.
The latest news, however, as of earlier this month, is that Bethesda’s ongoing negotiations with Sony have resulted in a compromise: “you will not be able to upload external assets with your PlayStation 4 mods, but you will be able to use any assets that come with the game, as most mods do,” announced Bethesda on 4th October. “By creating a Bethesda.net account, you’ll be able to browse and try mods right from within the game.”
This announcement should come as welcome if lukewarm news to gamers; mods will come to Fallout 4 players on the PS4 after all, but they will not be able to upload any external content, limiting them to what they can design within the on-board Creation Kit. Automatically, this rules out certain mods that might have added new dimensions to Fallout 4 on PS4, including the addition of new customisable options, such as weapons, constructible items and clothes, which would have had a notable impact on diversifying gameplay options.
In the absence of an official explanation by Sony as to why this compromise had to take place, there are a few possible reasons as to why external content might be such a contentious issue. The first has to do with concerns over hacking. This would be somewhat keeping in character for Sony, who have hardly been timid when it comes to stopping hacks or their potential causes in the last couple of years.
The aforementioned piracy of Nexus mods that tarnished the Xbox release might have been an influencing factor here, and while consoles’ mods are limited to 2Gb of memory, the PS4 operating system’s similarity to Linux gives it incredible potential for modding, surpassing the potential of even Windows systems. This, more than anything, may have given Sony cause for concern over handing over public access to developer-exclusive benefits, as it could offer avenues for hardware exploits the likes of which were seen in the wake of conflict between PC modders and the over-eagerness of Xbox gamers.
Besides, as Fallout 4 producer Todd Howard told Newsweek during an E3 interview, “there's hurdles to get over with things like storage. And we need certain licenses. Because the modders are being like a pseudo-developer, you get some tricky legal things going on there.” These legal and policy-based conundrums could still be shackling Sony, resulting in this compromise.
In addition, there is the question of inappropriate content that could come as a result of external content being used in Fallout 4 mods. Some of the most popular mods in the PC Nexus community stretch into adult content: mods that allow nudity or otherwise overtly sexual content to appear in the game, for a start, are something that both Microsoft and Sony would rather avoid getting involved in facilitating where possible, and so these mods are largely banned from Bethesda.net’s own library of mods for console players. Again, in the case of Sony, this would be in keeping with their efforts to keep its closed platforms free of such explicit content, as was showed by their closing of Ustream support to consoles, as it had become tied to suggestive ‘Playroom’ streams going back to the PS4’s launch in 2014.
However, in Bethesda’s original message on PS4 mods, back when their website announced Sony’s original refusal to support mods in September, the developer’s position was made clear on the subject of what content should be approved or not, expressing disappointment that players would not be able to “do anything they want”. In particular, considering that Fallout 4 carries an 18 rating anyway, the case could be made that the people playing it should be entitled to view the adult content that modders have created. The flexibility of modding is ultimately meant to give players the freedom to experience it or not, depending on how they want to enjoy the game. Ultimately, though, Bethesda have to play ball with the requests by Sony and Microsoft if they want to give gamers the ability to mod the game at all.
While the Fallout 4 modding disputes have been frustrated by issues of content piracy, clashes between gaming communities, and an apparent lack of communication, this ultimately represents the first major foray into modding that games consoles have experienced in big-budget, AAA games. There is potential for console gaming to build upon this in the future, and to make modding a really feasible option for console gamers, and Fallout 4 stands as the first of many such experiments to come. Before this happens, however, there is substantial work to be done on trying to provide gamers across all platforms with the same materials as PC gamers, whilst also outfitting modders with the author-friendly tools that they need to protect both their content and themselves for when the community turns toxic. On top of that, there are certain key differences – hardware and legal restrictions being chief among them – that either cannot be reconciled or have become too entrenched, and may require a new approach.
Quoted Bethesda, “modding has been an important part of our games for over ten years, and we hope to do even more in the coming year for all our players, regardless of platform.”