For almost as long as there have been first-person shooters, there have been mods. Upon its release in 1993, Doom was immediately hacked apart and creatively reassembled by its demon-slaying legion of fans. Programmer John Carmack planned for this, storing the data for the game's art, levels, graphics and music in WAD ("Where's All the Data?") files that were accessible to anyone who purchased Doom, but separate from the game's underlying engine.
That "hacker ethic" lives on today. Some of gaming's dominant genres began life as modifications of existing games. The first battle royale, the first MOBA, and the first auto chess game all started out using the assets of established titles, while altering their rules enough to create something meaningfully new.
Valve Software, creator of Half-Life and founder of Steam, has historically had a particularly keen eye for clever mods, often going so far as to bring their creators on board as full-time employees. "I think Valve really understood the value of mods," says Roy Orr, lead designer on the recent VR hit, The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners. "Because when you think about some of Valve's biggest games in the world for PC back in the early 2000s, many of them had their start in the mod community: Team Fortress, Counter-Strike and Day of Defeat, to name a few."
As a student, Orr—like many other now-professional game developers—got his start modding Half-Life 2. Orr repurposed many of the assets from the base game, like the grassy shoreline, dock machinery, and seawater of Gordon Freeman's ride along the coast, plus a City 17 government building, to create a new experience called "Crimson Dawn," which is set in a flooded city. It was a simple project, but Orr was just one of many budding game devs who used Half-Life 2 as an opportunity to experiment with the basics of building virtual worlds.
Almost 16 years later, the mod scene around Half-Life 2 has continued to produce new work. Early breakthrough hits, The Stanley Parable and Dear Esther, are among the games that originated as Half-Life 2 mods before their expansion into full retail releases. So when Valve revealed Half-Life: Alyx last November, it was unsurprising that its stated plans included mod support.
"A set of Source 2 tools for building new levels will be available for the game, enabling any player to build and contribute new environments for the community to enjoy," the company wrote on the official Half-Life website. "Hammer, Valve's level authoring tool, has been updated with all of the game's virtual reality gameplay tools and components."
This won't be the first time modders create environments that are playable in VR, of course. For example, a PC copy of The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim VR is compatible with most PC Skyrim mods. Still, there are some big distinctions between building a mod for PC that happens to be compatible with VR, and building a mod from the ground up with VR in mind. Perhaps the most important is that dedicated dev tools like the ones provided by Valve are far more optimal for a VR environment.
Denny Unger, CEO and Creative Director at Cloudhead Games, the studio behind Pistol Whip and Aperture Hand Lab—a tech demo designed to show off the unique finger-tracking capabilities of Valve's Index controllers—elaborates, "The biggest benefit of dev tools built with VR in mind is an implied set of functionality that pushes best practices and hard-won solutions. Many of us have spent upwards of seven years understanding and designing these rulesets for VR design. You aren't starting from zero in terms of understanding how to handle basic interactions and locomotion (some of VR's trickiest subjects). So for those wanting to jump in and play around, tools like these offer users a tremendous head start."
Orr likewise notes that using Unreal Engine 4, which also includes built-in VR functionality, provides shortcuts that attempting to build a VR game without specialized tools would not. "A lot of the benefits come in the game's technical performance; some of the most basic interactions in VR, like interacting with your hands, may be taken for granted using tools built for VR, but dev tools that aren't built for VR may have a more difficult uphill battle."
This could make Half-Life: Alyx an inflection point for user-created VR content. It's already one of the most important VR launches in history, riding both a wave of advanced technology and strong reviews. It represents one more step forward for a genre that at times has struggled to take hold among mainstream gamers, dogged as it has been by issues with locomotion, expensive headsets, and other problems.
For that reason, Half-Life: Alyx an important ambassador for VR. It also represents an accessible way for anyone who owns the game to tinker with VR, and "create some truly bizarre stuff we can all learn from," Unger says.
Will Half-Life: Alyx Allow the VR Modding Scene to Soar?
If Alyx's quality is roughly on par with the series' previous games (which both routinely crack top 100 games of all time lists), Alyx's significance may be in teaching a generation of amateur designers best practices for VR. Orr sees this moment as an opportunity for an expansion in "VR literacy." As modders become increasingly familiar with VR, they "will learn how to create content with VR in mind from the start... experimenting and trying out crazy ideas that just may work."
Still, for Robert Yang, the developer of Radiator 3, an "obscenely gay" VR experience, there is reason for pause. Yang remembers the breathless anticipation that awaited Half-Life 2, and the surprising results that followed.
"The transition to Source 1 was a big event, [accompanied by] a deep feeling of anticipation. Valve opened an official dev wiki, there was talk of retail Steam distribution, and there was hope that the new tech meant HL2 mods would be even more creative and compelling than the Cambrian explosion of HL1 mods," says Yang. "It's the next Counter-Strike! Valve would hire all of us!
The legacy that Half-Life 2 actually left behind is deeply strange by comparison, Yang says. The walking sim. The "quirky cult multiplayer experimentation [of] Garry's Mod." Black Mesa, "the only big 'retail' 'total conversion' mod that actually persisted through sheer force of will." All great, Yang notes, just not what anyone would have expected in 2004.
Of course, it would have been impossible to imagine the strange things that Half-Life 2's legion of modders would do with access to Source. It's likewise difficult to imagine what the future has in store for Half-Life: Alyx. It's a blockbuster game by VR standards, but what impact can a game—even a universally acclaimed one—have in a market that remains niche?
Yang predicts that Half-Life: Alyx may ultimately be a make-or-break moment for VR, and thus, a make-or-break moment for VR modding. After all, the VR medium still has plenty holding it back: how it doesn't record well via video; its general "jankiness" (Yang's word, not mine), the hurdles of body presence in general.
"That's why Half-Life: Alyx is exciting. A team helmed by some of the FPS genre's founding fathers, staffed with some of the most talented game developers in the history of the industry, sitting on a budget of basically infinite money... are trying to save a dying VR industry?! It's the first time in a long time that VR games have suddenly offered a new cultural narrative. It's the make or break VR Jesus moment. If Valve can't do it, then who can? So it either has to usher in a new golden age of widespread VR prosperity... or it has to die for our sins."