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Why Super Metroid's Hacking Community is Still Going Strong
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Why Super Metroid's Hacking Community is Still Going Strong

July 24, 2013 Article Start Page 1 of 6 Next
 

A strong community can mean the difference between success and mediocrity, even for a well-made game. From fan magazines like Nintendo Power to modern conceits like in-game chat and game-based forums, past and current developers and publishers have made at least some effort to foster communities based around their games. Community is becoming even more vital as social games, persistent multiplayer games, and mobile games enter the same space as traditional single player games.

There are a multitude of tried-and-true methods for fostering a game community. Many developers put years of work into maintaining a game, releasing new content to keep players coming back. Other developers add a multiplayer component, hosting matches between players or adding a social layer to encourage players to interact with each other. These and more tactics have been known to work as long as the developer in question keeps up with the community.

But what happens when a developer moves on? Multiplayer servers are shut down, updates cease, and developer-curated community websites fall into disuse. If a game is good enough, there will always be fans -- they can be found scattered across various websites and forums, still helping the occasional new player or praising their favorite game from their past.

But these stragglers are just a shadow of the former community. The core community has died, and even previously dedicated fans will spend more of their time elsewhere. It may take a while, perhaps even a few years, but most game communities dwindle away after the developer moves on.

There are a few exceptions to this pattern, though. Occasionally, with the right conditions, a game's community will significantly outlast its developer's involvement. No game proves this better or more succinctly than the classic Super Metroid -- not only does it have a robust community nearly 20 years after its release, but the community also formed organically long after the game's original release.

Super Metroid's New Community

The community in question, which was once a subset of the more generic Metroid fan forum Metroid2002.com, now exists as a ROM hacking community. It chiefly revolves around Metroid Construction, a website, forum, and IRC channel created in early 2009 as a college project. Although ROM hacking isn't unique to Super Metroid, the Metroid Construction community is active, prolific, and accomplished, producing hacks that rival the source material in originality and complexity.

The community's daily activity far outstrips many more typical game communities, particularly when considering the age of the game itself and the relatively narrow focus of the community. There are no new players posting to ask about cheat codes and secrets, nor even are there speedrunning hopefuls discussing sequence-breaking tactics. The Metroid Construction forum does cover ROM hacking for other Metroid games -- plus, incidentally, The Legend of Zelda -- but the Super Metroid hacking sub-forum is by far the most active, with literally thousands more posts than any other game in the franchise.

As one may guess from this level of activity, the Super Metroid hacking community has created a multitude of new hacks -- nearly 100 complete, playable hacks are listed on the Metroid Construction website. These aren't 100 slight variations on the original game, with minor tweaks and cosmetic changes. Many of these hacks are radically different from their source material in terms of graphics, level design, and even gameplay mechanics.


Super Metroid: Redesign,
pictured right, is one hack that drastically alters the layout from the original, pictured left.

So the Super Metroid hacking community is active, self-starting, and unique among Metroid games. The question is, then, how exactly does it sustain itself? How does it attract new members and daily activity? For answers, I asked members of the Metroid Construction forum to explain their reasons for joining the community. Their responses, while unique to each individual, shared key elements that pointed to the community's success.


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Comments


Daniel Martinez
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I love this game.

Thomas Happ
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Thanks for this article! Your points have been noted ;-)

Kale Menges
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It's a shame that Nintendo has never really bothered to seriously invest in the idea of user-created content for their primary franchises. I mean, can you imagine something like Little Big Planet but for old-school Mario or Zelda or even Metroid? With a tool like the Wii-U controller or the 3DS's touchscreen, one would think Nintendo might have an opportunity to win back some of their long-time, "hard core" fanbase somehow.

Jonathan Murphy
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Actually that's not entirely true. Back in the early to mid 2000's Nintendo was interested in the mod community. There was a Zelda-like engine they could have legally closed down, but they let it stay. Years later we have mods for Mario, Mega Man, Sonic and many other games because Nintendo chose to look the other way.

Should Nintendo have done more? It's difficult to say. Their recent hands on approach to Let's Play has ruined their reputation. Don't forget the Smash Brothers controversy they created at EVO. Until Nintendo learns to work symbiotically with their communities it's better they remain hands off.

Jason Carter
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Ah, ZQuest was how I got into game design as a kid.

It's kinda cool they didn't shut it down. It's not like anyone is releasing them to compete with Nintendo.

ken adams
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i have always loved games with the chance of user generated content, those games are more likely to last than fixed content ones, however those games are an endangered species with all the in app and paid dlc frenzy of these modern days

for example, mirrors edge is a great game but you can finish it in merely 6 hours, it could have become an excellent game if it allowed user generated levels and its future would have been assured, do you think half life would sell as much as it does without the extensive moddability it has, not a chance

theres several games that their success and relevance rests purely on the shoulders of the modding community they have

Jorge Ramos
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Growing up my first real experience with video games was early on at a store that had a setup of a TV with an NES playing Super Mario Bros. While it was initially setup more to sell the TV, it certainly got enough people's attention on the console and moving units about as quickly as they got 'em in if I remember right.

Now, even back then I could tell the imperfections in some games... some being unnecessarily difficult (looking at you, Battletoads), short, or having design choices that basically mandated an additional investment in the form of a Game Genie and/or a turbo controller (or two).

Super Metroid was literally the first game that was completely flawless to me, in every sense of the word. Atmosphere? Check. Tight controls? Check. Quality Graphics? Check. Fun? Triple Check on that one.

Needless to say, I was happy as ever both when Nintendo finally released the game on the Wii Virtual Console, and further still when my fiancee not only had her SNES still, but a copy of the game on cartridge. :)

Victoria Earl
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Thanks to everyone for reading!

If you'd like to see the full range of responses, here's the link for the thread: http://forum.metroidconstruction.com/index.php/topic,2319.0.html

Many, many thanks to everyone at the Metroid Construction forums for contributing their stories. I loved playing the hacks and writing this article.

Peter Christiansen
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The Super Metroid modding community is really an interesting case study. While I can certainly think of a few other games from that era that still have thriving communities of modders, like Doom, these communities endured primarily because of all the support from the developers. Doom was designed to be easily modded, excellent mods were showcased by the developers, and some modders were eventually hired on by id.

Super Metroid, on the other hand, was not designed to be particularly friendly for modders, nor were modders given any kind of recognition or support by Nintendo. The only thing that the developers did to encourage this kind of dedication (as you point out) was to create a virtual world that challenged players to try to uncover its secrets. I can't think of any other game that has inspired such a long-lasting community of modders in such a way.

Great article! It was some nice insight into a modding community that I wasn't familiar with.

Wyatt Epp
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Funny... from what I've seen, the Super Mario World community is in a similar state, but I honestly hadn't heard anything about Super Metroid modding. I wonder what other active niches I've missed?

Reverend Ted
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The article suggests a number of reasons that a robust modding\hacking community has developed around Super Metroid, and proposes a number of things developers can do to foster such...development, but I feel like little was said about what incentive a developer might have for doing so.
Certainly, it may be gratifying to know that your creation (hopefully a labor of love) has fostered such a response by its fans, but otherwise why bother?
Valve seems to have found one formula for directly profiting from, and simultaneously encouraging, community engagement.
Excellent article about a fascinating subject.

Victoria Earl
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Good question! Direct monetization of modding communities can be pretty difficult, and is usually rare - Valve had to build and maintain a player-to-player market to do so. I don't know there's a way to keep the money coming from modders without some maintenance.

The main benefits of a modding community boil down to attracting more people to the game, helping people remember the game for longer, and adding value to the game. This is especially important for the traditional payment model - how much more likely are you to pre-purchase a game for full price if you played and loved the previous one in the series? Many, many people discover their favorite franchises and developers by taking a chance on a bargain bin (or Steam sale) game. Modders can help attract new people by keeping the game up-to-date - Oblivion is a good example of this. To a lesser extent, mods that make it into the news cycle can get new people interested in the game through the mod.

Modding communities also keep current fans interested - most developers can't manage a game a year, and if a game doesn't stay in people's minds, it's that much more marketing dollars needed to remind them how much they loved it. Keep a modding community going, and you'll have a core of people who not only remember that great game you made, but are also heavily invested in it. Chances are they'll be interested in your next game, too.

Finally, modders are essentially volunteer content creators - the more they mod, the more valuable the game is. Think about how many people bought Arma II just to play the DayZ mod. It's an extreme example, but less ambitious mods add up - I've heard more than one person express gratitude for Skyrim mods that "fix" perceived design issues, or add fun extra content. All of those things make the game more competitive... and all without a single extra man-hour on the developer's part.

Rosstin Murphy
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This is relevant to my interests.

Jeremy White-Zeager
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Very interesting article. I love to see this level of dedication to developing fan-created content for a game. I think my favorite example would be Baldur's Gate and its sequel. I've installed and played a lot of the mods developed around those two games - the community has given them practically endless replay value.

I have to wonder though if these kinds of communities will become less likely with the fact that so many games are being released with readily available modding tools (e.g. the Steam Workshop). It seems that this trend could spread the fanbase too thin for any single game to attract a substantially large hacking community. Hopefully, it will just encourage more gamers to start modding and make it more accessible to people with a high level of creativity but less technical skills.


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