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THE MODIFICATION OF MODS: PIRATES, VIKINGS, AND KNIGHTS II by Carlton Stevens

August 17th, 2008

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“THIS GAME IS FUCKING BROKEN”

That’s the first thing I saw when I logged into the server. Right after a burly axe wielding Viking flew across the map from the explosion of a giant barrel of gunpowder. The fact that the pirate that threw it was also dead from the blast did not seem to relieve any of his stress.

”PIRATES R FUCKING OP”
”stop crying”
”FUCK U”


I slipped my finger to the escape button. My eyes widened, as if I had walked in on an angry mother beating her child with a phonebook. But I paused and thought to give it a chance. There were far worse communities that I had to bare witness to in the online gaming world. This one wasn’t very different. Later, I would learn that it was a bit different, but Pirates, Vikings, and Knights II’s community can also be seen as the stereotype of the FPS world. It has everything you have come to love, hate, and laugh at when you utter the words “online FPS.” This isn’t a bad thing, and though the game may seem like the usual rowdiness you would see with any video game’s beta development, the people behind the scenes are a lot better organized than some of their more brazen consumers.

Bob “Crazytalk” Speirs is one of the developers of Pirates, Vikings, and Knights II. Along with many others he’s helped the creation process of the long in development Half-Life 2 modification move further and further to completion. “You could call me a leader of PVK II. HaVoK and I started the mod about 6 years ago, which is how long it’s been in development. I mostly handle the website and have done quite a few weapon and prop models, as well as some mapping.”





And Speirs and the rest of the development team have done a good job. Simple in its execution, PVK II is incredibly addictive. Picking either of the three teams the title holds, you go through various game modes against each other. My favorite game mode, Booty, involves the three teams vying for the control of six chests of gold. It was the first thing I played, in the first server I went into, and my first experience with the game.


I was cornered, clutching a chest filled with gold and the remaining points for my team. Between me and winning was a Heavy Knight, a fully armored tank of a class with one very big sword. Being a Pirate Captain I had alternative solutions, but I had no ammo for my blunderbuss and my trusty parrot was gone. Throwing the chest at the Heavy Knight, he dodged it and lunged forward. I unsheathed my cutlass and the two of us circled on the top of a giant waterfall. Slipping in and out, parrying, blocking, both our swords flew back and forth. Below us all three teams clashed in a rain of sparks and gunfire. But this little dance was just between me and this huge lumbering gaggle of armor. I parried perfectly, stunning him, and with a strong swipe he fell in a heap off the top of the waterfall and into the shallow water below.

I picked up the chest while laughing maniacally. I just had a sword fight that could have been straight out of a movie. And I won.

And then I was hit in the back of the head with a throwing axe.


“The sword fighting is what we focused on from the start,” writes Speirs. “We’ve gone through many changes throughout the process and are very happy with what we’ve got so far. There are still things that are subject to change, but for the most part we like where we’ve taken it. I would love to see more melee combat in games that doesn’t simply rely on attacking and dodging. To me, having a good system of multiple blocks, parries and attacks is important to a good melee combat system.”



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Making PVK II’s gameplay particularly thrilling is the swordplay. It requires timing, patience, and a bit of luck. Even in a frenzied clash of four or five people in one spot you still have to be aware of what everyone can do and how to approach the situation with a bit of skill and finesse. Not many games would dare try to tackle first person online sword fighting for various reasons (the biggest being the possibility of lag disparity between players). Yet it’s this type of gameplay that create those memorable moments that you love to tell to your gaming friends or just relive in your head over and over. Couple this with the mod (eventually) wanting up to eighteen classes, and you have something that’s very much an ambitious undertaking.

It kind of made me wonder why anyone would try for something so ridiculously large in its goals, and not just release what is already a pretty good mod. Speirs answers that concern fairly confidently. “There are many times in a patch development when some people just want to release, but we’ll spend more time polishing and tweaking. We feel its best to shoot for the best with each patch and take the same philosophy with our plans for the future. Everything on the site is subject to change and most of the things planned will change as we focus on them for implementation. But as long as we have more to strive for, the game will continue growing better and better with each release.”


The Viking didn’t really stop complaining. After the powder keg explosion engulfed him, he more or less turned the whole game into a dog pile of arguments and hasty debates. For awhile the players opted to respond with a quick “shut up fag” or “wtf deal with it”, but eventually people started arguing back, most of them filled with some sort of generic gamer rage and just a general frustration with the constant chatter in the chat window.

”WHAT THE FUCK KIND OF GAME HAS A INSTANT KILL”
”its not instant you can get away from the barrel or knock it back.”
”Not when pirates spam the thing like they are now.”
”CHEAP CUNTS”
”omfg jus go cry on the boards!!!”

This is when I knew I would have to ask Speirs about the game’s community.



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Online community is important to almost any online game, but considering PVK II is a mod it’s especially crucial. Modding is an aspect of video games that is inherently mired in online interaction. Forums, IRC channels, and websites are meeting grounds and creative cauldrons for these games. A game like PVK II, one that has been in development for six years and is based off an earlier mod for the original Half-Life is going to rely heavily on community by default.

“The online community is very important to us,” writes Speirs. “It’s impossible to catch everything (flaws, crashes, etc) with beta tests, as there’s just not the same volume of people playing. Once we release to the public, you’ll have an average of 100-300 people playing at all times. With this amount of volume, you’re far more likely to catch the bugs and other things that 10-15 testers, testing 3 days a week, hadn’t come across. We also receive tons of suggestions from the community, many of which we find valuable in our decisions on what to do with a certain aspect of the game.”

An argument most often found in online communities is that of balance. Any class based game online, from World of Warcraft to Team Fortress 2, will have forums littered with debates about balance and the “fairness” of the classes in the game. The argument in my first game was inspired by the Pirate’s Skirmisher class, which as a special can pull out a giant barrel of gunpowder, light it, and then throw it for an area effect explosion. It’s these type of things online gamers become infuriated over and vehemently argue until they’ve mashed their hands into bloody stumps on the keyboard.

“Balance can be frustrating, but in the end we release a well balanced mod,” starts Speirs. “There are times when the complaining is warranted, but for the most part you’ll see it from all angles. One guy will complain that class or team A is too strong, then another will complain that that same class or team is too weak. No matter how balanced a game is, players are generally going to focus on the class that they’re playing without looking at it from a third person perspective. I used to do it a lot too before I saw things from a developers point of view.



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“Now when I’m playing a game and find myself dying a lot, if that feeling of “˜Hey this class is too weak!’ starts creeping up on me, I’ll stop and look at the situation again. Most of the time you’ll find that you just need more practice so you can keep up with the better skilled players!”

The complaining is something I think every dedicated online gamer does. I’ve done it hundreds of times. And though it’s hard to look at it from a developer’s perspective, I can certainly sympathize with the idea of constantly going through heaps of complaints and suggestions.

The Viking that threw the axe at my head was still overpowered, though.


Mods have to face a lot of the same trouble bigger games have to, but since they’re doing it out of a form of passion and personal interest, it’s a lot of stress for little reward. One has to consider the things these mod developers have to deal with on a regular basis. A sometimes overtly passionate and volatile community, updating and refining the game based off community response and testing, and even the competitiveness of other mods using the same game engine.

Competition seems to be something that Speirs sees as motivation rather than a detriment, though. “Sure, I think all mod teams see other teams as competition. But to me this is a great thing, because it helps drive the creative process to better your mod as much as possible. This isn’t competition in the sense that you’d wish your competitors to lose (though some fans feel this way). This is competition in the sense that you see mod X releasing something awesome and go “˜Wow! What do we have to do to top that!’ Everyone benefits from a little friendly competition.”


Mods for Half-Life 2 are a dime a dozen considering the ease of Valve’s game engine, and though there are certainly the inspirational success stories of games like Team Fortress and Counter-Strike, it’s pretty gullible to hope your mod ““ no matter how good ““ will lead you to a success in the video games industry. I asked whether Speirs and his team were doing it all for eventual plunging into the major video game industry, and his answer was a bit surprising and rather inspiring.



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“Most of our team is already employed in the gaming industry. For those of us that aren’t and even those who are, this is a great thing to put on your resume when looking for a new job. I think it’s safe to say we all aspire to get paid for the same work we’re willing to do as a hobby.”

What’s particularly great about what Speirs says is that it really is sort of an overflowing of video game passion. Working in the industry isn’t quite enough for some of these guys, so they pursue their leisure in even more video games. It’s the sort of thing you like to hear about filmmakers who just watch other people’s films in their spare time, or help others develop film techniques. Mark Healey did it when he made Rag Doll Kung Fu while working for Lionhead Studios. It’s a way to understand, perfect, and enjoy every avenue of the thing you love to do.



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“Stick together guys, this will only work if we’re all together.”

I hear the guy keep yelling to stay close over the voice channel. We’ve lost at least five games of Last Team Standing, a game mode focused on nothing but each team fighting and at least one member of one of the teams still standing at the end of it all. We’re all incredibly frustrated, but determined. Wielding my throwing axe I look at the group of five Vikings leaping off the steps beside me. Above us the crumbled roof of the cathedral glows with a light sheen of the clouds and sky outside. Our group clashes with the distracted Pirates, their backs turned as they had focused firing their guns at the charging Knights on their flank. My first throwing axe hits the spine of a running Skirmisher and I can’t help but grin.

”Someone take out those fucking archers,” scrolls along the chat window.

I swing to look and sure enough an arrow hits me in my side. My shield and sword are armed quickly, and I head towards them while holding it up. A few arrows slam into the shield as I make my way towards them. Looking to my right I see a fellow Viking ““ a Berserker armed with an axe and sword ““ running by my side. The Berserker lets loose a howl, signaling a special ability that boosts his attack speed and health. Crashing into the group of three archers he proceeds to tear them up with a flailing of sharp steel. I bash one of the archers with my shield and follow it up with a hard slash across his stomach. He falls to the ground, dead and done.

I turn when I hear the sound of a lit barrel. It lands right beside me, the Skirmisher that threw it leaping away.

It explodes in my face and I fly across the map.

I sigh, shaking my head, breathing a little heavily while looking down. But when I hear the sound of a horn blowing I look up, and sure enough it says “Vikings Win” right in the center of the screen.

”FUCK YEAH!” is yelled over voice chat. “That was awesome.”



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It’s great gameplay moments in mods like PVK II that made me a bit upset with how little attention games like this get. That’s what made me even want to write this article. I had a theory when I started playing PVK II and a few other mods. Basically, I figured the reason I only saw a handful of servers on the server list even remotely close to full was because PC game mods were dying (even though a bit of this can be contributed to the game’s beta status). It felt like they were on their last leg, and barely noticeable to gaming at large. Mods nowadays (particularly ones based on the FPS) feel like a lost appreciation, a desire and niche left from the older days of online PC gaming. I ask Speirs about it, whether he thinks modding is falling by the wayside. Speirs doesn’t really agree with my sentiments.

“I don’t think the modding scene will ever die, though the process will become more advanced as engines advance. For example, making a mod for Half-Life 1 as compared to Half-Life 2 is a huge difference. But as long as there are games to be modded and players with creative ideas, I don’t see the modding community ever dying out.

With fun and creative gaming experiences like Pirates, Vikings and Knights II, Speirs just might be right.


Thanks to Bob Speirs for taking time out of his schedule to talk to me, and also thanks to the PVK II community, who provided some great gaming and reading.