Balance and Compatibility in Modding

Whenever I post a mod – or a list of mods – for any game here on Odin Gaming, I unfailingly get two questions from readers:

  1. It looks great and all, but is it balanced?
  2. Is it compatible with <some other mod>?

These are reasonable questions to ask. My initial reaction to answering these questions is to answer them with significant context and preamble. I generally filter my response to be a little more literal and with a little more faith to the intention of the questioner; answering these questions is part of the point of this blog, after all.

To put myself at ease, though – and hopefully to do the modding community a bit of a service, while I’m at it – I hope to lay out that context and preamble in this blog post.

Balance

To begin to answer the question “Is the mod balanced?”, I first pose the question “Should the mod be balanced?”.

My experience has showed that there are two major reasons why a person starts modding:

  • They want to practice some computer skill (e.g. programming, digital art), perhaps with the specific intention of working their way into the industry.
  • They want to tweak their gameplay experience to match their own preference, with the benefit to others being secondary.

That’s not to say that there aren’t reasons besides these, just that these appear to be the big incentives to me.

Modding is necessarily done for free. Because it’s done for free, it’s often the case that the direct gain from the product (i.e. the mod) is more of a motivator than it would be if the modder were being paid (where there would be indirect financial gain). If a modder were paid, there might be more focus on user-requested features.

All of this is to say: a mod is produced because it’s fun for the modder (more often than not). Popular mods are so because they’re fun for many more people than the modder. For lots of mods, it’s the case that balance is not a significant contributing factor to the fun.

So, should a mod be balanced? No. A mod should be fun. Balance might be a concern to some modders, but I don’t think it’s a requirement of a successful mod. Look at Dawn of War: Ultimate Apocalypse for a great example of a mod that’s well-known to be terribly balanced but nonetheless so much fun to play.

Of course, if it’s a criterion of yours that a mod is suitably balanced, it’s your prerogative to not download that mod!

AI and Mod Balance

A related concern to mod balance is to what extent a game’s AI is able to utilise a mod. In this instance I refer to “AI” as that portion of a game’s program which is capable of playing the game; its intention isn’t to execute particular game mechanisms, but to exploit them in a manner similar to a human player.

Many games don’t need to worry about a human-emulating game AI, so the question of AI with regards to mods and mod balance doesn’t enter the discussion. Some genres, however, do invite this question, and they just so happen to be the focus of this blog – strategies, including grand-strategy, 4X, and RTS titles.

There is a broader discussion about game AI, a portion of which I’ve previously shared. Putting that aside for now, I’d like to consider the challenge facing game devs and modders when it comes to strategy game AI.

A game developer is not able to anticipate all possibilities that might be explored by a modder. Right now, game AI is not in a place to be able to adapt in any significant way to content added by mods. The best we can hope for is opening-up of the game AI to modders so that they might alter the AI to better support the content they add. Game developers are getting better and better at supporting modding but AI remains one of those areas that remains relatively closed for a lot of titles, perhaps in part due to its complexity.

Compatibility

Compatibility is the bane of a modder’s life. In an age where modding is increasingly common and accessible (to both producers and consumers), many modders choose to consider interaction with popular mods or mods with which they anticipate their own mod to be commonly paired, not just interaction with the base game.

But once more, should a mod be compatible? Should we expect compatibility? Again, the answer is “no” – a mod is produced because it generates fun for the modder. It just so happens that many modders have fun making their own mod compatible with other people’s mods, but I don’t think it should come to be an expectation.

I also don’t think it’s a burden to place on the modder to state to what extent their mod is compatible with others. As it happens, I do see this a lot, which is really a credit to the community.

Compatibility is really a question to answer for the consumers. They will, after all, experiment with many more mod permutations between them than the mod creator will be able to. I might go further and say that it’s the least that the consumers could do, having received a mod for free, to inform the creator of their findings.

Determining Hypothetical Compatibility

This besides, it’s still a reasonable question to ask when trying to choose between dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of mods that potentially do quite similar things. I think there’s a lot a player can do to hypothesise as to whether a given mod is compatible with another mod.

Below is my own reasoning process when I need to guess at mod compatibility (i.e. before trying them out).

  1. Has the author of either mod reported incompatibility with the other? If so, you can pretty much bet on them being incompatible.
  2. Have any players reported incompatibility (in either mod page’s comments or feedback)? This can be a strong indicator of conflict, but it depends on the player’s exact setup as to how seriously the comment should be taken, especially if the evidence exists in isolation. (More players reporting incompatibility means it’s more likely it actually exists.)
  3. Do they affect the same area of the game? If so, there’s an increased chance of conflict.
  4. Do they affect the same mechanism, or do they add more content to existing ones (even if it’s similar content)? In the former case, they’re highly likely to be incompatible. In the latter, you’ll often find they can work together.

Determining Actual Compatibility

If you want to go one further – and do a solid for the mod authors and the community – then you can try out the mods together and see what happens.

To do this in the most effective manner, try following these steps:

  • Use no other mods in your load-out but the two for which you’re testing compatibility.
  • Play for as long as possible to determine if the combination introduces rare instability.
  • Pay particular attention to the specific game areas that the mods affect.
  • Report your findings to the authors!

Compatibility Patches

Sometimes an awesome person will make two previously incompatible popular mods compatible. If you’re looking at two mods and pondering the question of compatibility, it can be worth doing a web search for “<mod name> compatibility patch” or “<mod name> add-on” or similar search terms.

Closing Remarks

As consumers, we shouldn’t stop asking the questions regarding balance and compatibility of mods. I believe we should, however, keep the above in mind, keep being respectful of the motivation of the modders who are doing their work for free, and give some useful – and unassuming – feedback to help the mod authors and the players consider the role of a given mod in the greater game ecosystem, in terms of both compatibility and balance.

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