How Modding Communities Are Paving The Way For User-Generated VR & AR Content

The acceptance of modding communities hints to the growth of a collective economy across global creative and innovation-based industries.

“Hold on tight to your IP.” With the exception of open-source software, this has been the motto for companies developing and building original ideas and content. In the gaming industry, however, this movement to open-source started to make sense when a wave of user-generated content evolved into some of the most successful versions of modern gameplay. As the VAR (virtual and augmented reality) industry grows—searching for a grassroots approach to consumer adoption, modders are sitting comfortably on a gold mine of innovation and creative solutions. 

What would happen if we merged modding into a more official route of collaboration? What if startups and tech giants found a symbiosis between internal workforces and modding communities as a new type of collective economy? 

Castle Smurthenstein (Image Credit: Apple II Bits)

Modding 

Modding is the act of modifying hardware, software, or virtually anything else to perform a function not originally conceived or intended by the designer. It has been a hit in PC gaming as early as the 1980s when the game Castle Wolfenstein was modified to become Castle Smurfenstein with the introduction of a mod that replaced enemies with Smurfs. Famous PC game mods that have more recently made headlines include Skyrim (with over 40,000 mods), Fallout 4, Doom, Half-Life, and Counter-Strike.

These games all share the most desired traits of any release: popularity, community, loyalty, engagement, longevity, and monetization, just to name a few. One widely-known mod is a game mode referred to as “battle royale.” Players drop into an open-world environment and battle it until only one player (team) remains. In less than two years the battle royale genre has exploded in popularity, fueling the development of hit games such as Fortnite and PUBG. VentureBeat reported that PUBG Mobile, a popular mobile version of the original PC release,surpassed $1bn in revenue in 2019. Meanwhile, Neilson’s SuperData tracking reports that Fortnite made $1.8bn in 2019

Though the immersive entertainment industry is still relatively new, mods have already become a huge part of VR gaming. Last week at VRScout’s HQ, I tried out a Blade and Sorcery Star Wars mod called The Outer Rim, which introduced a handful of famous Star Wars weaponry to the VR medieval fantasy physics brawler, including lightsabers, imperial blasters, and thermal detonators, just to name a few. At one point I found myself aboard an Imperial Cruiser playing through a custom-built campaign complete with new environments and objectives.

There are also dedicated modding communities for the following VR games: Synth Riders, Beat Saber, Skyrim VR, Fallout 4 VR, and many others. These mods are handbooks for the original creator studios, to guide the direction of future content and collaborations. In an industry where developers are still learning how to tell narratives in an entirely new medium, modding communities are playing a more important role in providing invaluable feedback on what works and what doesn’t. Following these mods closely can save studios time and money in potentially costly wild goose chases. 

This luxury of user-generated content is made available through creation kits and game development kits (GDKs) that aid game development for a community of in-the-field fans. Spurred by personal interest and social points—fans have fans too—these independent creators get so-called “bragging rights” and potential jobs with game studio overlords. It’s a win-win situation and a solid structure that puts originality and innovation at the forefront of a creative economy. 

AltspaceVR’s Daily Spotlight Event (Image Credit: AltspaceVR)

MMOUGG (Massive Multiplayer Online User-Generated Games) 

Slowly but surely in today’s news cycle, we see MMOGs evolving in VR that point towards a future in which games are entirely user-generated; a decentralized creative network if you will. Platforms like Sinepsace, AltspaceVR, vTime and Somnium Space are softly molded platforms that can quickly adapt to change. They identify with a shift towards spaces that can comprise of all the best foundations of social media, government, user-generated content, social engagement, and commerce. 

These MMOUGGs go against the traditional concept of game studios by enabling the creation of completely original content by an external workforce/user base. Given that the user base is strong and that the tools are consistently maintained as professional-grade, these models are attracting users who seek a more active role in the consumption of content. 

(Image Credit: Twitch Inc.)

In a similar fashion as to what Unreal Engine offers to round up users, these above-mentioned platforms are free to use but come at the cost of royalties or in-game purchases. On this note, the Twitch Game Developer Playbook is a worthwhile download to explore. Like many principles in gaming, the ones outlined in this Playbook apply very well to growth and consumer engagement principles in B2C markets. 

So where does the game studio end and the developer platform begin? Where does the workforce end and the user base begin? This shift in organizational structure is a convergence between developers, fans, social platforms, studios, as well as the real and virtual. It’s a foundation for a new era of crowd-sourced IP.

Collectives

This shift to collective or crowd-sourced IP is certainly not without its pushbacks. There’s been a resistance to the emergence of collectives, where talented individuals with a common interest and a variety of skills gather under one umbrella to put their capabilities to good use in a community-centric environment. Perhaps it’s the age-old fear of herd mentalities— crowds without purpose—that have brought on this negative connotation to emerging collectives; or, their general association with being underpaid and overmined. 

The Nexus VR Modding community (Image Credit: VRScout)

Comparatively, modding communities are very goal-driven, accustomed to operating in command—team or rank positions—and have established checks and balances. These exist within the modding communities and in external systems such as platform rules and state/ federal laws. It’s a complex, but reliable model because of its openness and accessibility. Anyone can join, anyone can contribute, and the best contributions will be recognized and rewarded. It’s a fast-acting group of problem solvers from which the VAR industry, startups, and tech giants alike can learn a great deal. These communities consist of a large number of people who share their knowledge or opinions with one another as a collective intelligence; a hive mind of sorts.   

Creative collectives are striving to reach a similar sense of drive and direction as modding communities, and we are only just now learning how to tap into this seemingly-endless talent pool. Behance, Made with Unity, and the previously active Red Bull Collective Art are all evidence of this attempt to understand a collective economy. If we can harness its potential in the same way that gaming studios are evolving their relationship with modders, there’s a great opportunity for a paradigm shift in the way we create VAR content en masse. 

A Collective Economy 

IRL, failure is not an option, and gamers take there modding just as seriously. They live and die by strategically adapting to shifting circumstances, leveling up and forever challenging themselves and those around them. It’s a competitive environment that mimics the crashes and booms we see IRL.

Rec Room (Image Credit: Against Gravity Corp.)

A recent conversation in Kent Bye’s podcast Voices of VR episode “Rec Room:” Social VR World Building Platform on PC, Console, Mobile, & VR sums this up wonderfully. Bye describes how the principles set up in immersive experiences can enforce positive user behavior and user thinking about new technology and mediums, collaboration, and open-source innovation. In this sense, MMOUGGs are already driving the movement towards a collective economy focused on proper behavior and user care; user-generated content will only flourish in communities where the original creators are respected. 

With the key goals of companies and creatives alike being mass adoption, rapid expansion, monetization, accessibility, and inclusivity, there’s a lot we can learn from modding. The acknowledgment of these communities by game studios and their potential to spur the growth of the VAR industry is paramount. 

Changes will need to be made to the structures on which we operate in order to adapt to this digital era. Finding a way for modders, creatives, innovators, and fans worldwide to become a more formal part of a company’s structure will be a big part of building successful and valuable IPs.

By Anne McKinnon

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