Games Today Shut The Door to Tomorrow’s Devs

The biggest games in the world are based off experiments by young game designers modifying other games, but large gaming companies are closing off their games. What gives?

“Wait, that’s my game.

It’s 2004 and Warcraft3 is one of the hottest games in the world. Like many teenagers, I spent all summer thinking about Warcraft, but I wasn’t playing. I was coding.

I was coding my own Warcraft 3 maps and putting them on the internet. And now, scrolling through the game list, I found it. Someone was playing my game. Everyone has a moment when they discover what they love doing, and that was mine.

Of course, most people were not playing my game. Mostly, they were playing Defense Of The Ancients or DOTA.

DOTA was a Warcraft3 map made by an anonymous developer named IceFrog* that combined roleplaying and strategy elements into a new genre. It was wildly popular with millions of players.

The catch? IceFrog was about 20 years old building DOTA with a volunteer crew. I was 14 with zero programming knowledge.

We were both using Warcraft3’s Mod (short for Modification) Tools to build our games on the Warcraft engine along with a large community of other developers. We called ourselves modders. Our games used the same art and controls as Warcraft3 but introduced completely new gameplay.

Mods allowed young people with no connections or experience to build games that they otherwise had no business making. For many, myself included, seeing my game played by others helped kickstart a lifelong love for programming and a lucrative career to follow.

This was made possible because Blizzard (Warcraft3’s publisher) had published not only the game, but also the tools their designers used to make the game. They included a visual programming language, a map building tool and thousands of unit and building models. They even had online gaming capabilities that allowed anyone who owned Warcraft3 to host and play a map that they had downloaded.

As Warcraft3 was one of the most popular online games in the world at the time, modders had an instant distribution network. That network, more than anything, allowed allowed DOTA to go viral.

Millions of people were playing the game, organizing tournaments, giving suggestions and donating to IceFrog to continue the development. IceFrog eventually went to Blizzard, asking to be hired to develop DOTA into its own game. Blizzard declined, but a few years later Valve hired IceFrog to make DOTA2. Meanwhile, League of Legends was created by Riot Games, offering streamlined gameplay very similar to DOTA’s.

Building off DOTA’s gameplay, League of Legends and DOTA2 would go on to become some of the most popular games in the world. Their competitors for the throne- Fortnite and PUBG, both were based on a mod from a solo developer, who made a zombie battle royale game called DayZ.

A visual comparison between DOTA built on Warcraft 3 (left), League of Legends (middle) and DOTA2 (right)

Modding video games has historically been a vital way for games to engage players on a more creative level while also prototyping new ideas. Warcraft 3 was a testing ground for entire new genres of games. DOTA pioneered the Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (or MOBA) genre, leading to games such as League of Legends and Heroes of the Storm.

It was also the basis of Tower Defenses and Base Defense games which were precursors to games such as Plants vs. Zombies and Clash of Clans.

Notably, all of these games relied heavily on the mod engine to execute difficult to program parts of Warcraft3 such as pathing, AI unit control, buying items and building structures. Not only were these games created in the Warcraft3 editor, they arguably wouldn’t have existed without it.

For 14 year old me, prototyping games without having to worry about art, algorithms or online networking was magic, I was hooked. I was using the exact same engine that Blizzard’s designers had used to make their campaigns.

Warcraft’s GUI programming editing was a portal for programming.

This pattern has been repeated many times. Brand new game genres start off as rough but addictive prototypes like DOTA and are slowly polished into great games through user feedback and hard work. But game studios find it difficult to invest resources in unproven game ideas, especially since the ideas are so hard to recognize. DOTA and League while incredibly popular are also incredibly obtuse and difficult to describe to newcomers.

Mods have provided a framework for young developers to try out and prototype new games. DayZ was one such game, developed by Dean Hall as a mod to ARMA2. It has a simple premise, survive in an open world with zombies.

Brendan Greene (known by his username “PlayerUnknown”) would then take DayZ and create DayZ: Battle Royale and start the Battle Royale genre. Much like IceFrog, Brendan Greene went on to take his mod and create PUBG (Player Unknown Battle Ground).

PUBG went on to become one of the most popular games in the world, surpassed only by Fortnite, which took its concept and polished it out, much like League of Legends did to DOTA.

Despite the success of DOTA and DayZ, AAA game studios have stopped supporting mods all together, preferring to become gatekeepers of their content. Blizzard themself have no modding capabilities for World of Warcraft or Overwatch. League of Legends, Fortnite and PubG have no mod framework whatsoever, despite being originally inspired by a mod. All of these games do have internal tools used by designers to build the maps and games. What’s lacking is the priority of including these tools in the released games.

There may be strategic reasons behind this. In many ways, Blizzard including design tools in Warcraft 3 lead to the creation of some of their biggest rivals such as Riot Games.

However, this seems like a particularly shortsighted form of gatekeeping because it also cuts off a pipeline for young and inexperienced people to get into game design and programming. Riot and Blizzard have hired many of the Warcraft3 modders as full-time employees, but where will the next wave come from?

In fact, we should all care about this because good modding engines are a way to involve young people in programming without their having to first have a deep engineering background.

Minecraft has arguably the most popular modding framework, but lacks the ease of a GUI environment and a rich model library. Scratch is a great programming language for kids but since its not built on top of a true game, it doesn’t have the content and depth to create games that are playable by the entire world.

Unity makes creating a standalone game easier than ever, but mod engines are about making it easy to transition from playing a game to making a game. Mods come with a distribution network and built-in assets that make it that much easier to get started and share your game.

These days bootcamps often introduce students to HTML, CSS and Javascript as their first programming experience. In contrast, my first programming experience was creating a Warcraft3 character I had made up whose main ability was to smash the ground around him in different ways. And I still remember it.

If we want more diversity in programming and game design, we need to create ways for them discover programming on their own, just as much as we need bootcamps and schools.

Games are the best way to accomplish this. Gamers are lured in by the promise of experiencing a new world and playing new characters, and gradually drawn into making their own games. Game studios should embrace this, and not kill the goose that laid the golden egg.

If you’re working on something like this at your company, please feel free to reach out, I’d love to talk. thariq@media.mit.edu.

*The actual chain of ownership of DOTA is convoluted, given that it was a hobby project started and picked up by many people, you can read more about that here: https://liquipedia.net/dota2/Dota_History/Part_1. IceFrog was the one who really took DOTA allstars to the next level and made DOTA2 so I give him the most credit.