FEATURES: Roundtable Discussion #7 – April 2008 (Command & Conquer Modding Special)

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It’s Roundtable time again. And rather than cover the news topics like we have done in past months, we are dedicating all the questions to modding for this month’s edition. Listed below are the people participating on the panel for this month.

Question 1) What are your thoughts about current state of the C&C3 modding community and how does the release of Kane’s Wrath affect it?

Banshee: Command & Conquer 3 is a new game and, unlike most of the other C&C games, it actually took some months to become moddable. I really don’t consider gamedata.ini editing as modding, so the real modding only started with the release of the mod SDK back in the end of august. So, in about 8 months, only low class mods were released and the big TCs are still under production. There are few tools to make the modding task less arduous and most of them are not necessary or doesn’t even help at all. Something that delays mods are patches and even the release of Kane’s Wrath, which made some C&C3 mods go silent. Back in the old school modding times, you had access to the ini files instantaneously, but now we need to wait EA to release the XMLs and EA still need to make a new mod SDK for Kane’s Wrath. I think a lot of modders are already waiting for a mod SDK compatible with KW. This kind of dependence really delays mods and converting the current code for the new expansion might require some serious recode. For 8 months, it is not doing bad, but I had higher expectations for it.

Mastermind: I think that overall the state of the C&C 3 modding community is pretty good. Kane’s Wrath, with its unfortunate lack of an SDK isn’t really a factor. There’s a vocal minority complaining about the mod support, but I think in general things are going well.

Smurf Bizkit: When we were making the first version of ‘Blitzkrieg 2’ for Generals I could look around and see a half dozen other conversions all progressing at a steady pace. Years later, when we were making ‘Mideast Crisis 1’ that number had grown to over a dozen conversions. Now, while we are well into development of ‘Mideast Crisis 2’ I only see one other conversion with similar progress. One.

Phoib: To me, the modding community seems frighteningly quiet. In the days of Generals, there was literally popping up a new mod almost every day. Now it’s very, very quiet. I personally do not think Kane’s Wrath will affect it, especially since there is no Mod SDK available for it (yet). In the past, we didn’t need the SDK to start modding, but thanks to the new setup of the engine (which has many advantages!) we cannot start modding without a SDK. If a Mod SDK isn’t released soon, modding for Kane’s Wrath will be virtually stillborn.

jonwil: The community seems to be fairly active with a lot of people creating mods. Some people complained that modding C&C3 was “too hard” and that EA should have kept it like Generals or RA2 but having done maps, mods, tools, hacks and edits for C&C games since Tiberian Dawn, I haven’t found it to be harder, just different. Plus there are a number of tools being developed that aim to make C&C3 modding easier (including my own “mod project manager”), all they need is for more people to use them and give feedback on how they can be improved. As for Kane’s Wrath, I think we are seeing a drop in mod activity because everyone is playing it but I think once everyone is past that, modding will continue. The future direction of the community depends on how much help it receives from EA.

Nyerguds: I’ve looked around a bit on ModDB, and I’ve seen some truly beautiful C&C3 mods there, but I kinda doubt they’ll switch to KW right away when the mod devkit is released. The special units seem to have some new logics, but I don’t know if it’ll be enough for existing mods to move to KW. It’s obvious though that new mods will want to use all the possibilities they can get.

Question 2) What are the main obstacles that you see for the current C&C3/KW modders and modding community?

Banshee: When I went to the C&C3 Community Summit back in december 2006, I was informed that the game would be using XML files and that the dev team managed to seriously speed up the game loading time with that. I played the alpha version there and I was satisfied with the loading speed. When I heard about the XML files, I thought it would be something like what EAW uses, where you can understand its contents and edit it with a text editor. But what EALA did was to introduce the ‘Closed Source Modding’.

Only the author has access to his code and he can edit his mod. Nobody can rip mods (theoritically, although some tools from jonwil may allow some things to be ripped). From this point of view, it looks like a good thing. But it also brings some bad consequences: lack of samples. Even if there are tutorials out there and a sample with the mod SDK, people tend to learn tricks from other mods by looking at their code, not necessarily ripping it, just adapting what was learned to their needs. In C&C3 you can’t do that anymore.

Old school modders had tools to extract the game graphics and re-colour them or even change its shape. Even Generals had a fan made W3D importer that you could bring back the model to 3ds max or you could take its texture and change it entirely. C&C3 is a bit harder with this kind of thing. The old W3D format was based on chunks. Each chunk had a bit of data related to something and even if they change it, the old format would still be valid, except that it wouldn’t use the new features. With the whole new format being based on compiled XML files, this kind of thing no longer happens. We have no clue on which chunk a data belongs to and if the order of something changes, your program won’t understand any resource made with this new format. So, I think this kind of change with XML files being encoded made the game very unfriendly for those who build mod tools.

The whole dependence on the XML files that comes with the mod SDK is another obstacle that I mentioned in the answer of the first question. And the BuildMod.bat tool is simple to use, but it’s only simple to use if your mod has no problems. Once it tracks a problem with your code…your headaches have just started. But, truth to be said, there is no C&C game that has ever debugged anything for the users. The only exception (and not a great one) was Tiberian Sun, which could debug problems when loading the maps, although the messages had nothing to do with what it was loading. Only experience would make that messages useful.

Another obstacle would be the massive requirement of having XML files for every asset in the mod, even cameos. In TS, you only needed a CAMEO=MYCAMEO (as long as there was a mycameo.shp somewhere) kind of code in the code related to the unit/building image to add it.

This is a perspective from someone who makes mod tools like OS BIG Editor. I actually tried to decode this whole .bin/.relo/.manifest/.imp mess. I managed to understand how it worked, but there are over 100+ formats to decode inside it. The schemas that come with the mod SDK may give you a tip of their content, but it doesn’t give your the order, which you have to find out on your own. For this reason, I gave up to add a feature to read these files in my program. It is a suicide mission.

Mastermind: The biggest problems facing the modding community are more or less the same problems the games industry is facing. It’s getting harder and harder to make mods, mostly due to the continuing growth in the number of art assets and everything else required. It’s reached the point of being pretty much impossible for a single person to do a large mod in a reasonable amount of time, and there’s just not any easy fix.

Smurf Bizkit: Infanticide. The newbie modders, the ones who grow up to eventually make total conversions; do not exist for C&C3. If Red Alert had this high of a barrier to entry, I would have never started modding. The obstacle is that in order to even start modding C&C3, new modders need to download an over 100mb package, find and download several files needed but not included in the SDK, and then read through the imposing array of documentation just to even get the mod running. As a reward for all this effort, every tiny change made to the game will require a compile before testing. The irony is that while both C&C3 and Generals have the same amount of modding depth, all you had to do for Generals was download a 1mb file and put it into the game’s directory.

When Generals was in development, EA had several community members on the team (most importantly Deezire) who could suggest things like “Hey, could you not throw all that data into one huge rules.ini?” (yes they almost did that) There is no one at EALA during development of new titles that has the slightest clue as to what modders need, or want. Instead, nearing the end of development they come to modders and ask “Ok, we’re done now…how can we help you?” This leaves us with a high quality SDK, but with an unfriendly engine.

Phoib: The perceived absence of many mods affects modders the most. With many mods, there is a large pool of people to recruit from, to help with the really demanding projects, in particular Total Conversions. Also, with no SDK, there is no modding for KW.

jonwil: The main obstacle is the lack of technical information and examples. I would like to see EA release more technical information on the C&C3 engine as well as more examples (most notably I wish EA would release the source files for at least one single player mission, to serve as a proper example of how such missions are built but there are a number of art samples that I would like to see released too). Obviously there are some things I wish EA could release that they cant legally release (the stuff related to the Flash based UI and the stuff related to the MP3-derived audio codec in particular) but there is a lot they CAN do for the community.

Nyerguds: Well, the fact KW doesn’t have a mod devkit is definitely one. As for my personal experience in the team of the Tiberian Dawn mod, there’s loads of trouble with things like bringing back old style tiberium growth, docking to buildings and the old pay-to-fix repair bay.

Question 3) Based on this topic posted on the Official C&C 3 Forums, does the modding community need an SDK for Kane’s Wrath at all?

Banshee: All unit data, behaviour, weapons, etc… are under the .bin/.imp/.manifest/.relo (b.i.m.r.) files, which are generated by the AssetBuilder tool from the mod SDK. Each asset has its own file structure and I assure you that many of them has changed with Kane’s Wrath, due to the requirements of all the new features used in the new units. Is there any human who would decode 100+ different types of file and build a tool to organize all of them in these b.i.m.r. structures? Nobody has patience to do that, because they would take ages doing it. So, I assure you that a mod SDK for Kane’s Wrath is the only way true modding can happen to that game.

Mastermind: I think there certainly is a demand for the SDK, but I agree with Apoc almost entirely. For the total conversions, there’s really not all that much in Kane’s Wrath that’s absolutely critical. Plus, it reduces the available audience, since no expansion pack ever has 100% adoption. So, no, I don’t think we need an SDK, but I think it should be a high priority for EA still.

Smurf Bizkit: No, the better option would be to just quickly patch the some of the KW modules back into C&C3. Those few bits of logic (like the improved APC code) are the only reason why most modders would want to switch to KW in the first place. The only downside is that balance patch makers would have to find something else to occupy their time with, prior to the RA3 beta.

Phoib: Personally, for me KW holds nothing new, nothing that I would consider porting any of DS existing projects over. So, yeah, I agree with Apoc. Focus on the C&C3 mods, release those first. As a side note, I am puzzled in how to use KW’s models in C&C3 mods…

jonwil: I think that calls for a SDK for Kane’s Wrath are more about people wishing to use the new functionality such as the global conquest mode and the fix that allows multiple squads in an APC than about wanting to mod KW per se. I personally want a SDK for KW so I can learn about the new features and write new tools that work with KW.

Nyerguds: Yes, I do think so. I personally wonder which new features KW would add to modding. TW modding can go pretty far, and most of the new units can probably be made in TW itself too, but some of these probably have some new logics that modders will want to use.

Question 4) What are the most promising C&C3 mods and, which of them you expect to be released in the next 2 years?

Banshee: I’m rooting for at least three mods: Asylum, Tiberian Sun Rising and Middle East Crisis 2. I believe MEC2 will be released in less than 2 years, but I’m not sure about the other two. The crew from MEC2 are really focu$ed on their job and they’ve got a lot of progress already. Mastermind and Assassin are very busy people, but they are very competent modders. There are other mods that would be interesting if they are ever released, such as Galaxy At War and Only War 2 (both hosted on Revora) which are also quality work.

Mastermind: I’m a little biased, being the guy in charge of solving hard problems on Asylum. However, I’m willing to go on record and say that I’m almost certain that we’ll very likely have a reasonably good idea of a release timeline before 2010.

Smurf Bizkit: First up, our own mod, ‘Mideast Crisis 2’ will be released before the summer hits. Aside from that, I absolutely love Asylum and hope to see it released soon as well. I honestly don’t expect to see any other major mod release for C&C3, most will engine hop to RA3.

Phoib: I am biased here, but Mid East Crisis 2 of course! There is another DS project that will see the light soon, and which will be released in the coming year as well. Personally looking forward to Red Alert Revolution as well, but I’m doubting if it will be released on time…

jonwil: I think that Mid-East Crisis 2 is the most promising C&C3 mod so far, its looking like one of the best mods I have seen for any C&C RTS to date.

Nyerguds: I’ve been quite amazed at the terrain transformations in Dune: Arrakian Wars, which really makes it look like you’re in a higher quality version of Dune Emperor. Then of course there’s Tiberian Sun Rising… I haven’t seen much activity on the mod lately, but I sure hope it’ll get finished. And of course, I’m personally involved in the Tiberian Dawn mod, which seems to be progressing very smoothly, and which has some really awesome models.

Question 5) How do you think that Red Alert 3 will affect the existing C&C3/KW modding community?

Banshee: I think a part of C&C3/KW modders will shift to RA3. What goes next, it really depends on the RA3 engine and how moddable it should be. I think it should continue the trend of the “Closed Source Modding”, so it shouldn’t be much different from what we are seeing from the current C&C3/KW modding community.

Mastermind: It’s a little hard to predict. The community seems to be steadily shrinking with each new game, and it will also depend on the timeliness of the SDK. If the SDK is delayed as much as the C&C 3 one, I think we’ll see the use of RA3 as a platform shrink compared to C&C 3. It’s just getting harder and harder to do a mod, and I don’t think RA3 is going to change that all that much.

Smurf Bizkit: Provided that people can mod RA3, we’ll see the usual migration to the latest C&C engine available.

Phoib: That’s really a shot in the dark now, and it really depends on the speed with which the RA3 SDK is released. The faster the better for RA3 modding. That, and we currently know very little about RA3 modding, or gameplay.

jonwil: I think we will continue to see people who mod C&C3/KW. They are 2 different games with 2 different story lines and 2 different gameplay and graphical styles. People will mod whichever game they feel comfortable with modding.

Nyerguds: I honestly have no idea.

Question 6) What kind of features that you think that will attract modders to work with the future Red Alert 3 engine?

Banshee: Considering that I don’t know much about this subject, I speculate that the engine won’t be much different. There are few noticeable features however. One of them is the grid for buildings. In TS and RA2, it was actually an easy thing that simplified things. But it limited buildings to few foundation types as well, which restricted the size of the structures. Grid works well with 2D objects. I don’t know how it would work with 3D buildings. If it would help, since it actually helps with path finding issues and colision detection, or if it would be a pain in the ass, since you would need measure each building and unit when exporting them and test them in game countless times. I guess it depends on how ‘smart’ the game is. Also, the feature that will attract most modders is the naval battles.

Mastermind: Naval combat for one. The naval focus of RA3 will open up a lot of new areas for modders to work with. Otherwise, the general improvements of the engine should be another big draw. Hopefully a lot of the features from modding C&C 3, particularly the XML “code” will carry over.

Smurf Bizkit: Sorry, I’m not going to answer the question. Instead, I’ll answer the more important question “What should EA do to attract modders to RA3?” For that we’d need any one of the following; let mods run without being compiled, clone Blizzard’s map editors, let RA3 mods work on the PS3, make it easy for C&C3 mods to port to RA3, or hold a mod contest like Epic’s ‘Make Something Unreal’. Unfortunately, that is all unlikely to happen since EA (one of the largest video game companies in the world) and the EALA RTS team (consistent developer of million-selling titles) can’t seem to get the time or the resources to give modding that kind of priority.

Phoib: Naval perhaps, but I learned from Blitzkrieg 2 that it can be very hard to actually get good ships.

jonwil: I think that if it has good mod support (and good mod support from earlier in the life of the game than was the case with C&C3) modders who like the gameplay and graphical styles of the game will mod it.

Nyerguds: From what little I’ve seen, the RA3 engine doesn’t seem that different from the Tiberium Wars one. The fact naval support is inbuilt might attract modders, though since I’m not a coder I really don’t know how hard it is to reproduce that in TW. I personally just hope they’ll go back to a self-spawning resource, like tiberium and ore has always been in the older games. The TW tiberium growth system sucks.

Question 7) With the releases of C&C3 and Kane’s Wrath and the announcement of Red Alert 3, what does the future hold for the old school C&C modding?

Banshee: I think they’ll still be strong. These newer engines are more flexible, but they are more bureaucratic as well. They require a lot of menial jobs that old engines didn’t require. Also 2D is already enough for many people, as far as I could see. There are still strong Tiberian Sun and Red Alert 2 mods being made. One sample is TAKTICS, which should bring a part of the Mario universe to YR and they’ve released a trailer on their terrain recently, which is fantastic. Tiberian Odyssey is another fantastic looking mod and Return of the Dawn is a very successful and fun mod, even cooler than similar mods done in 3D engines. Tiberian Sun and Red Alert 2 are games with a well established community, with a good set of modding tools and YR’s functionalities are expanding thanks to Rock Patch and derivatives. Generals also has a strong community that survives well in places like E-Studios, specially for being the only C&C 3D engine that still has the ‘Open Source Modding’ policy. And there are still strong Generals/ZH mods such as Shockwave and Contra. Renegade still has future, if Tiberium has no modding support, like Medal Of Honor: Airborne. And even if Tiberium supports mods, I won’t be surprised if the Unreal Engine becomes very complicated for many people.

I don’t think there will be any decadence of these games in the next years. Back in 2003, I managed to resurrect the remaining of the Tiberian Sun modding community with PPM and they are still very alive nowadays. If the game is flexible, easy to mod and attractive, it will live for a long time. I believe that from the old games, RA2/YR should be the one who will live longer.

Mastermind: I don’t think that it will change things all that much. The community will probably continue to shrink at about the same rate it has been doing for quite a while. For the most part the people who are still modding RA2 aren’t likely to jump ship and move to RA3, or anything. There’s just a huge disconnect between RA2 and any later game, the third dimension being the biggest change.

Smurf Bizkit: I have to admit, the activity in the retro C&C modding community has surprised me. It makes since though, games like TS and RA2 allow a single person to make a total conversion (while it takes a large team to do it in 3d). Due to that, and the fact that the graphics of those engines age really nicely leads me to believe that they might outlive Generals’ and C&C3’s modding communities even.

Phoib: Modding will always evolve, move to the newer engines. As an example, despite the fact that Blitzkrieg 2 is still being worked on (yes, there will be a 3rd major release) 90% of DS is working on C&C3 related stuff, so.

jonwil: I think the future is still bright. People are still working on mods for RA2 (such as the excellent Super Mario Bros mod and the RockPatch enhancement patch) and Generals as well as Renegade.

Nyerguds: Personally, I believe the TS and RA2 modding community still has a lot to show off. Just recently I made a new TS/RA2 mod tool for IcySon55 to help him fix a small but annoying cosmetic bug in the creation of custom terrain for his TAKTICS mod. As for really old school modding, well, all’s been rather quiet on the C&C1 / RA1 front recently, but my friend Ultraq is working on a tool set that will finally allow people to edit pretty much every file type in C&C1 and RA1, and even Dune II. I’ve been getting involved in Dune II modding on the Dune2k forums recently, and even wrote a complete units and structures editor for it. It’s really fun to do, since it’s so similar to the old C&C1 stuff I know so well.

Disclaimer: The views expressed by each individual in the Roundtable Discussion are their own, and do not reflect the official view of CNCNZ.com, unless otherwise stated.

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