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The Magic of Skyrim Modders

The Magic of Skyrim Modders

This is from the August edition of Play Underground’s monthly digest. In this edition, we focused on level editors (but wrote about some other cool game things as well :P). This edition is available for our patrons starting at $5 a month. If you aren’t a patron, $6 via Ko-fi will get you a copy.

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“ Falskaar ” mod page on the Skyrim Nexus

Falskaar” mod page on the Skyrim Nexus

The other week I saw someone joking on Twitter about how useless gamers are — how they provide nothing and exist only to consume games and hand money to the corporations and studios that shell them out.

I’m all for making jokes about gamers every now and then (because, as we all know, they don’t deserve rights), but even so, I found myself wrestling with that idea. Not to be all “GAMERS RISE UP!” but I genuinely believe there’s something special about the video game community. For one, there’s tons of fantastic fan artists who draw literal masterpieces in tribute to the games they love. Then there’s the speed-running community, a group of fucking geniuses who constantly think up new ways to outwit games and flex their superhuman dexterity just for the hell of it. But I’m most moved by modders--gamers who develop and share modifications to their favorite games with no questions asked.

One of the most influential video games of the past decade has been, without a doubt, Bethesda’s Skyrim. Released in November of 2011, Skyrim became an immediate hallmark of every RPG-lover’s library with its expansive open world, engaging role-playing opportunities, and “endless” quests. The last known statistic of Skyrim copies sold was from 2016 which stated that Skyrim sales reached 30 million copies--a number which can have only increased in the past three years — putting it in the rankings for one of the top selling video games of all time. Skyrim has managed to stay alive and relevant over the years--reaching 7 different platforms through ports and slightly prettier re-releases — but I believe it owes that relevance most of all to its vibrant modding community which was enabled by the release of the easily accessible Creation Kit.

As of writing this article, the Skyrim Nexus on Nexus Mods, one of the most prolific modding sites of all time, has 55,481 results. This number doesn’t even include exclusive mods on the Steam Workshop, Bethesda’s site, or mods on consoles like the PS4, Xbox One, and the Nintendo Switch. Yes, I said the Nintendo Switch. Although Bethesda made it clear they had no intentions to support mods for their games on the latest Nintendo console, modders have actually taken it upon themselves to do so. Suffice it to say, Skyrim modders don’t fuck around.

Screenshot from Skyrim Nexus

Screenshot from Skyrim Nexus

Before I go on, I will acknowledge that, yes, many of the mods are not of the highest quality, and, yes, a decent number of them are boob- related, and that can sometimes make people dismissive of the community entirely, but there are still thousands of great mods on display made by talented and dedicated people. These mods include UI overhauls, next level graphics, armor sets, texture updates, player homes, business opportunities (I personally loved building and running my own lumber mill), hours of brand new quests, voiced companions & NPCs, and fresh animations. The range of stuff available is endless and impressive--a pool of content that will leave anyone satisfied. When I say you’ll want for nothing, I mean it sincerely, especially if what you want is a bunch of hot men to fight over you. Seriously.

But of all the free mods on offer, one of the most impressive types of mods are what the community refers to as “DLC-sized mods”. These are massive undertakings the size of--well--official DLC (Downloadable Content) expansions, made by players, not developers.

One of the first, most popular DLC-sized mods for Skyrim was made by a 19-year old with a dream. Alexander J. Velicky spent an entire year crafting Falskaar, a DLC-sized mod which added nearly 25 hours to the game, a new map one third the size of Skyrim itself, and new quests, characters, and history. “I had some people help me out with a few models and textures, someone wrote a book or two for me,” said Velicky in an interview with PC Gamer, “but otherwise all content was implemented, written and developed by me.”

By the grace of his dad, Velicky was able to live with all expenses paid at home so he could work on the passion project he believed was the first step to landing an industry job. And the kicker? He did it. Although his “2,000 hours” of work didn’t land him a job at Bethesda, he did get a full-time position at Bungie, and after Falskaar’s success, the bar only got higher.

Falskaar wasn’t perfect, even Velicky admits that, but it was still a smash hit. Let’s players all around recorded their experiences with it, community boards exploded with excitement, and it acquired over ONE MILLION unique downloads and over 100,000 endorsements on Nexus Mods. There had been mods before Falskaar which added new areas and quests like Beyond Reach, Lost Colony of Akavir, and Shadow of Morrowind, but none were quite as popular or quite as large. It was like the big bang of Skyrim’s DLC-sized mods.

Helgen Reborn  mod page  on the Skyrim Nexus

Helgen Reborn mod page on the Skyrim Nexus

This isn’t to say that Velicky inspired other creators to make DLC-sized mods, as many had already been in the process of making or releasing their own projects long before Falskaar dropped (the infamous Wyrmstooth mod came out in 2012), but rather that the community finally started taking them seriously and recognizing how capable Skyrim modders were at creating adventures of epic proportions.

A culture of following progress on trending DLC- sized mods has developed--a culture I have taken part in myself, following forums, checking Youtube pages for teasers or livestreams, and even joining official mod Discord servers. Some projects have earned large enough followings before their releases that the creators would drop smaller portions every now and then, like with Luftahraan--a planned city and quest mod which had been in development for 18 months with no end in sight. Archon Entertainment--the team working on Luftahraan--elected to upload one of the included dungeons to reward loyal followers supporting the project and prove that they hadn’t stopped progress, though it was only shortly after that fans were met with disappointment when the team lead could no longer commit to working on the mod and it all fell apart.

Some DLC-sized mods made entirely new areas with unique stories like Forgotten City and Project AHO, others made attempts to open up the world just outside of Skyrim like Moonpath to Elseweyr and Beyond Skyrim, and even others expanded on the present state of Skyrim like Helgen Reborn (a mod I cannot recommend enough). One mod, Enderal, even abandoned Skyrim altogether, instead using the engine to make an entirely new game.

Lately, the demand has curved towards using the Skyrim engine to recreate older Elder Scrolls games like Morrowind and Oblivion. One of these projects, Skyblivion, was, in truth, part of the inspiration for this piece. I’ve been following progress on the mod for almost two years now and find it so inspiring how the team behind it has been working tirelessly for no pay. They literally cannot ask for any donations due legal reasons so most of the developers are working on Skyblivion in addition to having full-time jobs or going to school.

I briefly interviewed one of the Skyblivion devs, who goes by Lorex, about his experience. For reference, Lorex primarily works with xeditor (merging files and cleaning .esps/.esms) and landscaping. He’s also the soon-to-be interior design lead. He only started modding 4 months before joining the Skyblivion project and became a volunteer after watching one of the mod’s livestreams, stating, “I wanted to work on my childhood game.”

In the past week, the Skyblivion team dropped a new teaser trailer, and to give you an idea of how big the following for this mod is, the video garnered over one million views in three days. On working with the Skyblivion team to make such a huge (and hugely popular) project, he said, “It’s interesting. I understand a whole new level of pressure. People rely on you and you rely on them. It’s like a small city building a village, you need everyone to do their part.” He mentioned that one of the greatest challenges is having to learn new skills on the fly to be able to help others on the team out, but added that “being an active member willing to learn outside their comfort zone [...] is an extremely good thing.”

When I finally asked my burning question, which was why commit to something like Skyblivion at all, Lorex had this to say:

“I’m working on it to create a new and improved version of Cyrodiil. A lot of the community is a younger audience who have never experienced Oblivion when it was released. So it’s really cool to hear a younger group say, ‘I can’t wait to experience Oblivion for my first time!’ But to the readers I should say this: PLAY THE ORIGINAL. Then compare. You’ll have an insane appreciation for our work, I promise.” He mentioned that he was thinking of using his newfound experience to one day make a completely new game with some other people on the project. He continued, “I’d love a creative director position one day or a simple level designer position. This industry seems like my calling in life, to be honest.”

And for all beginner or even aspiring modders, Lorex’s message is: “Open the creation kit.... and GO! I mean this. It’s what I did, and look where I am now.”

Skyblivion has been in development since 2012, and fans tracking its progress have been anxious for a release date for a long long time. As for an answer... well, Lorex didn’t have a clear one--which came as no surprise to me--but he did offer some hope, mentioning that the end is “possibly in sight.” Keep the faith!

The modding community, in my eyes, has always been about gamers giving back. Whether they’re giving boobs or giving incredible gaming experiences (not mutually exclusive), there’s no denying the creativity, passion, and dedication of the Skyrim modding community, and any modding community for that matter. Nexus Mods hosts content for 766 games, and beyond that there’s surely even more games with niche communities working to make their favorite title even greater. We’re more than just consumers! We’re people with passions and interests and the capability to do great things if we set our minds to it. If you’ve got a drive within you to create and expand upon something that you love, don’t be afraid to give it a try--the results might be more rewarding than you can imagine.

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