Modding: Amateur Authorship and How the Video Game Industry Is Actually Getting It Right

By Wallace, Ryan | Brigham Young University Law Review, January 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

Modding: Amateur Authorship and How the Video Game Industry Is Actually Getting It Right


Wallace, Ryan, Brigham Young University Law Review


I. INTRODUCTION

The video game industry is one of the largest entertainment industries in the world. In 2012, the global video game industry posted revenues of $78.5 billion.1 Although this revenue falls short of the $88.2 billion brought in by the global movie industry last year,2 the growth and strength of the video game industry is amazing considering that the industry is not even fifty years old,3 and has, arguably, only hit its stride within the last twenty years.4 As an example of the vast earning potential of video games, this year Take-Two Interactive Software's Grand Theft Auto V smashed sales records and reached $1 billion in sales within three days of its release;5 James Cameron's Avatar, the highest grossing movie of all time,6 reached that milestone in seventeen days.7

However, despite the commercial success of this relatively new media form, video games were only fairly recently recognized as speech worthy of protection under the First Amendment.8 While the artistic and social utility of video games continues to be fiercely debated,9 this Comment does not attempt to engage in that debate. Instead, proceeding under the assumption that video games are a valuable method of speech and artistic expression, this Comment examines one avenue of game creation that gives private individuals access to this method of speech known as modifying a game, or "modding."

Modding is the process of altering, adding to, or deleting video game code to change the way that a particular game is played.10 Modding can cover a wide variety of actions. For example, private individuals can simply change game artwork through a process known as "reskinning,"11 or they can introduce new content, such as levels, characters, items, or objectives.12 Even more drastically, a modder could remove nearly all of the original game content, substitute in new content, and essentially create a new game. This process is known as "total conversion modding."13 Some total conversion mods have become massively popular and successful games in their own right, including Counter-Strike, a mod of the Valve game Half Life,14 and Team Fortress, a mod of the Id Software game Quake.15

Modding provides numerous benefits to the video game industry. First, modders create new features and content that video game consumers, also known as "gamers,"16 enjoy. However, beyond simply benefiting those who play the games, new content benefits the original developer of the game because it extends the life of the modded game, can spark interest in the original product, and can even incentivize new people to purchase the game just to play the mod.17 Most, if not all, mods require that the original game be present on the hard-drive of the computer running the mod for the mod to work.18 Therefore, people interested in playing a particular mod must first (presumably) purchase a retail copy of the game, making it possible for a popular mod to drive the sales of an original game. Second, modding provides a constant stream of ideas and innovations that game developers can draw from when creating new games. As Craig Peterson, a video game developer for Valve, has said:

[T]he right way to approach community involvement is not in a developer [to] customer relationship, but more as a collaborative approach, where there are some parts of the product that we'll build, and other parts that the community will build, and that the lines between those parts will continually shift.19

There is some proof that Peterson's collaborative approach can be extremely successful in practice. In fact, entire genres of video games have been created through modding.20 For example, the genre of games known as multiplayer online battle arenas, or MOBAs, was first created and made popular by mods of Blizzard Entertainment's Starcraft and Warcraft III. The most popular MOBA, League of Legends, now has over thirty-five million players and is the most played game in the world.21

Finally, through modding, private individuals learn valuable programming, game design, and artistic skills that are valued by commercial game developers. …

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