TWENTY years ago schoolyard fads revolved around clothes and music. Now they are as likely to involve video games. The latest must-have is “Fortnite Battle Royale”, a lighthearted multiplayer shooter in which up to 100 players parachute onto a continually shrinking playing field, hunt each other down and compete to be the last one standing.
It is wildly popular. One estimate is that it had 45m players in March. A match broadcast on YouTube, and featuring some of that site’s stars, attracted more than 1.1m concurrent viewers, making it one of the most watched streams ever. Other big publishers, such as Activision-Blizzard, are pondering jumping in with clones of their own. Parents blame it for unfinished homework and for corrupting their children’s oh-so-pure minds. Some schools have tried, mostly in vain, to prevent students from playing.
Moral panics are tedious things. But “Fortnite” is interesting for a good reason. It shows the long-established influence within video-gaming of hands-on tinkering, in which players take existing products and splice together “mods”, or modifications, which change how the game is played.
The “Quake” series of first-person shooting games, the earliest of which was published in 1996, were some of the first programmed with mod-friendliness in mind. Fans transmogrified them into everything from a snowboarding simulator to a video-game version of “The Matrix”, a science-fiction film. Some mods become as popular as the original games on which they are based.
Just occasionally a mod eclipses its parent game. One example is PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG), which started life in 2013 as a modification of ARMA 2, a military simulation. The mod was written by Brendan Greene (aka PlayerUnknown), an Irish graphic designer, and became so popular that it was released in 2017 as a stand-alone game. It made more than $100m in its first three months on sale. “Fortnite” is the most popular of a rash of PUBG clones—more popular, in fact, than PUBG itself.
It is not the first time this has happened. One of the most popular games of the past decade is “League of Legends”, which boasts more than 2m daily players and professional tournaments that offer millions of dollars in prize money. Its roots also lie in “modding”. And almost two decades after it was first released, about 440,000 people a day play “Counter-strike”, a tactical shooting game built atop a game called “Half Life”.
This tinkering culture is not unique to video games. Music has remixing and sampling; publishing has fan-fiction. But modding is bigger than either in its scope. Big mods are serious software projects, requiring programmers, artists, level designers and more, all of whom give their time free. Many in the games business got their start in modding, disassembling their favourite games, sculpting them into something new and learning about digital artistry along the way. Worried parents might reassure themselves with the thought that, if their children get interested enough, their hobby might one day turn into a career.