Spore showed the way. The thinking behind its sharing and viral propogation of user created content was near spot on.
Now we look to Valve, and the Steam Workshop , and realise that mods and user-created content is again at the heart of PC gaming.
Back up. Mods have always been important to PC gaming, but the scale of those mods has changed. The theory is that gamers' expectations have risen along with technology: as our PCs become able to handle prettier and prettier landscapes, the amount of work required from an individual modder to create something comparable to a commercial product increases. So total conversions are near impossible to create. It's much harder to make a Counterstrike, Dota or Quake Fortress today.
But modding isn't just about the banner projects. It's about the smaller items. Tweaks to balance. Cool new dungeons. A reskin. A new level.
In the eyes of deep communities games that arrive 'finished', are anything but. Given the right tools, players love to build upon what game developers have already created. The problem is proliferation and discovery.
I remember when I first started playing Quake Fortress. The download over a 56k modem from a fileserver at Barry's World. The horrendous download. The weird arcane installation. Things aren't much better today: to mod WoW's interface we have to drag and drop files into strange folders, or trust Curse's client to do the job. For Oblivion mods, we're fiddling with data files and the Nexus client.
I believe PC gaming should be for everyone. I think modding contains some of the best of PC gaming; it's a strand of what we play that is so very, very special. But it's obtuse, hard to understand, and kind of a bitch to use.
Spore, and the Steam Workshop show what can be achieved. Modders now have the ability to have their creations downloaded directly into the game after just a single click. That's just the start. Creations are rated, tagged and filtered via the community; ensuring that the best rises to the top. Comments threads help creators respond to their subscribers. Community creators get to help players by picking collections and themes. Games get better. Everyone wins.
In the next year or so, I have high hopes that modding will become more important to us than it ever was. I sincerely hope that Valve introduce the Workshop, not just to Portal, but to Left 4 Dead, HL2DM, and Counter-Strike (in all its forms). I hope, too, that the Total War team, the GTA team, the ArmA team, and many others are watching what happens to Skyrim and Portal, and how modding extends the lifespan of the game, and creates unbelievable loyalty in the audience. I shiver in excitement at the possibilities of how Maxis could apply the Spore model of sharing creatures to SimCity: with a vast database of new buildings that can be seamlessly imported into the Glassbox engine.
But there's an issue that as a community, PC gamers need to consider. With the Steam Workshop and Team Fortress 2, Valve have the billing mechanics that now allow modders to charge for their work. In TF2's case, Valve told us that the best TF2 modelers are making hundreds of thousands of dollars from their work. Personally, I think that's a great thing for us. I love the idea of modders supporting themselves making games better. But at some point, you may well be asked to pay to download a mod.
How will you feel when that happens?