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'Mods' squad adds new life to old games

Like thousands of others, Dan Ternes is a fan of the shoot-'em-up computer game Unreal Tournament. But unlike most others, he wasn't quite satisfied with it. Nothing against the game as it stood, you understand; he just thought it lacked a certain something. Bigger, badder firearms, mostly.

So Ternes, a 17-year-old high school student in Charlotte, N.C., did something about it. He created a new weapons package for the game called Codename: Gatling. "It's just a simple modification of the basic weapons that are in the game," Ternes said. Like using mathematics to change the way the game's laser beams zap across the screen. Simple stuff like that.

Ternes didn't keep his bright ideas to himself, either. He's published Codename: Gatling on the Internet, to modest acclaim from fellow players who've tried it.

Most of us would rather just blast aliens and be done with it. But for others the real fun lies in reinventing their favorite games. They're called "modders," and they matter to the world's leading game companies, which regard these dedicated hobbyists as some of their most valued customers.

It was a lesson first learned by id Software, the legendary Texas producer of "first-person shooter" games such as the Quake and Castle Wolfenstein series. Ten years ago, id introduced Doom, which became one of the most popular PC games of the decade. While most critics focused on the game's relentless violence, there was a more significant reason for the game's enduring popularity. Id gave the players tools so they could add new characters or weapons, or move the game out of its claustrophobic caves to new locations.

Soon hundreds of modified versions of Doom were zipping around the Internet. Among the more popular was one in which the game's alien monsters were all transformed into the hated purple dinosaur Barney. The US Marine Corps even created a version for use in training recruits in small-group tactics. A decade later, you can still find websites devoted to the game and its sequel, Doom II. Id has followed the same modder-friendly policy with its Quake and Wolfenstein games. And nowadays practically every major maker of PC games produces titles that are open to player modification.

"It certainly adds to the longevity of the title," said id software programmer Robert Duffy, the company's chief liaison to the modder community. Game companies make no money directly from the mods. But they can keep selling their older titles longer, with help from hobbyists who keep the games fresh by writing new mods. Besides, the existence of an avid modder community means a built-in audience for the eventual sequel. Id hopes to take advantage of this; the company is currently at work on Doom 3.

Many modders such as Ternes do it for fun. But others are driven by the desire to become full-time game developers. For them, modding is sort of a digital job interview.

After four miserable years of high school, William H. Wheldon III of Weare, N.H., had no interest in attending college. "I found that normal school just wasn't for me," he said. He took a job in a retail store but dreams of a career in computer game design. "I'm a grunt by day, but in the few hours I get off, I enjoy my `real job,' which is creating content for games."

With help from a friend studying computer science at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, Wheldon, 21, is working on Fatal Arts, an Unreal Tournament mod that puts away the ray guns and turns it into a hand-to-hand combat game. Wheldon hopes their work will impress some local game development firms. "We feel that one day one of us will find ourselves working our dream job, making games for a living."

It could happen. Some of the best modders have won jobs at mainstream game publishing houses. To design its online hit Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory, id Software hired a team of British modders called Splash Damage after seeing one of their mods of the id game Quake 3.

Sometime the mod itself becomes a blockbuster. In 1998, a humans-versus-aliens shooter called Half-Life was the hit game of the year. But a Canadian college student named Minh Le decided he'd rather play a shooter featuring special forces soldiers versus terrorists. He and a group of friends used Half-Life's modification tools to create a version called Counter-Strike, which let gamers worldwide link up over the Internet in a series of savage digital gun battles.

Le and his team gave away the software, of course; game companies don't allow modders to sell their work. But when developers at Valve Software, the creator of Half-Life, got a look at Counter-Strike, they decided it was too good to give away. Valve bought the right to sell Counter-Strike at retail. It's now one of the world's most popular online games.

Most modders won't get this lucky; most won't care. Said Dan Ternes, "a lot of what I do begins with, `Wouldn't it be cool if?' " Even if they never earn a dime, that yen for the next cool thing will keep gamers busy cranking out the mods.

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