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One modder's journey from tinkerer to pro game developer

January 27, 2017 | By Alan Bradley

January 27, 2017 | By Alan Bradley
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More: Console/PC, Indie, Design, Video



One of the longest-standing and fundamental draws of PC games has been the ability for users to reshape their favorite games through modification.

But mods, which began as a shadowy, even pseudo-legal pastime for only the most hardcore PC enthusiasts and have grown into a celebrated tradition embraced by casual fans and developers alike, serve another purpose for some of their most dedicated purveyors. For a lucky few, they’re an entree into the world of proper game development.

Such is the case for Nick Thomadis, whose complex, highly lauded Total War mods under the pseudonym "Darthmod" have earned him wide recognition both in and outside of the Total War and PC mod communities. Thomadis is living the dream of many mod designers, recruited by a game development startup to create his own strategy games from the ground up.

But his dream began very humbly, with simple curiosity about the building blocks of his favorite games.

“I remember myself ‘modding’ when the word was not widely used in PC gaming,” Thomadis says. “My first mod was for Shogun: Total War. Inside the installation folder there were some gameplay files that could be edited with a text editor or other program. I was intrigued by the possibility of changing the gameplay of one of my favorite games, so I started to explore all those files, edit and experiment with their effects.”

After that initial discovery, Thomadis was off and running.

“I quickly became very interested in doing this minor tweaking that would result in major improvements for my own gameplay experience. For instance, I found the Shogun muskets too weak, so I tuned their firepower to be more realistic. Eventually, Shogun became the number one game I played, because I was able to fine tune it however I wanted.”


Shogun: Total War

Thomadis, who has a background in coding and a degree in mathematics, found cracking open game files much easier than a layman, but he says that regardless of experience the key to successfully modding is taking joy in the work.

“‘Solo act’ is a good phrase to describe modding. Most of the time you’re alone, in front of a PC, looking at numbers, data bases, strange looking files that don’t open with a known application, trying to figure out what they do. As you experiment, you lose hundreds of hours restarting, breaking, installing, uninstalling the same game, with the single purpose of improving it. It’s not a job, and the only people who can really appreciate this demanding procedure are the players who enjoy what you worked for--certainly not your girlfriend. Your background doesn’t matter if you don’t have a passion for problem solving and gaming. I had passion for both.”
 
Around the turn of the millennia when Thomadis first started experimenting, game communities were still in their infancy and his work remained confined to his own PC. That didn’t last long, though.

“The next early mod I remember was for Medal of Honor, a game I played all the time with my friends via LAN," he says. "I didn’t like the fast pace of the original game and tried to give a more realistic feel. After doing some tricky packing and unpacking of game files, I started adjusting various gameplay parameters.”

At first, it was just Thomadis and his friends enjoying his mod, but it soon caught fire, and he’d see it in use online and in internet cafes in his home country, Greece. “This felt rewarding, to share something and see it being enjoyed by so many.”

Spurred by this newfound popularity, Thomadis continued his work, cranking out mods for games like Pro Evolution Soccer (his first attempt at modding a console game), Star Wars: Empire at War, and the sequel to Shogun, Medieval: Total War.  

“For all those games I modded mostly for my own pleasure," he says. "This early experience helped me learn the basics: how to balance lots of gameplay parameters to work together in an enjoyable way.”


DarthMod's version of Rome: Total War

When Rome: Total War was released in 2004, Thomadis knew he had to mod it. His excitement when he mentions the third Total War game is palpable. “It was the game I’d always dreamed of," he says. "It had immense potential. But I didn’t like so many things about it. I consider Rome: Total War the real starting point of expanding my modding skills and sharing my work with a large community.”

With one of the largest and fastest-expanding mod communities of any series of its era, the Total War series attracted a number of talented young coders looking to breathe new life into their favorite games.

“Modding is a creative hobby that can feel isolated and monotonous," says Thomadis, "but on the other hand it can also develop spectacularly, fueling projects that are collaborated on by hundreds of even thousands of people.”

He experienced the exhilarating growth of modding and the communities that sprang up around it first hand during his nine consecutive years of working on Total War related projects.

“The ‘DarthMod’ mods became full overhaul projects, altering not only the gameplay and AI of the original game but also the music, sound effects, and graphics, and offering features such as the ability to switch to various type of campaigns and gameplay modes via intuitive game launchers," he says. "This never would’ve been possible if I didn’t collaborate and correspond with many other talented modders.”


DarthMod's version of Medieval II: Total War

And it’s not just a matter of contributing work to a project; collaboration also fuels that most vital resource, the passion to keep pushing forward. “In the end, there can be so many people involved in a mod directly or indirectly that it can really feed your hunger to be creative.”
 
But passion has a dark side, particularly online when social filters don’t apply and the buffer between interlocutors can exaggerate an already toxic discourse. Thomadis discovered this in dramatic fashion when his offer to collaborate directly with Creative Assembly (the studio behind the Total War franchise) was turned down, and he was denied an invite to a modding summit as a result of some of the intense interactions he’d had in the community.

“This is something that I’d really like to forget,” Thomadis says. “Creative Assembly is a large company with many employees whose products reach millions of players. Modders then were having significant influence on the players’ community. I was one of the most popular and due to being very passionate about the Total War games, I often overreacted and spread negativity about things I considered wrong. I tried to help, but in an exaggerated (and probably wrong) way. They had every right to not accept me, but I grew up. Now I try to remember only the positive moments, the fun I had modding their games.”

It was a low point both for Thomadis personally and for the Total War mod scene, and led to him withdrawing from that community completely, much to the surprise (and in some cases outrage) of his fellow modders. But as is often the case, sometimes from the lowest lows are born the highest of highs.


Thomadis' game Ultimate General: Civil War

“When I retired from Total War modding, I was really starting to consider making my own game," he says. "I started to approach a few developers to share some game ideas, but before any progress was made, the CEO of Game-Labs, Mr. Maxim Zasov, approached me and offered me a position with his startup company. That was an opportunity I could not miss, and so I soon began to design my first game.”

Thomadis quickly discovered that creating a game from whole cloth is a much different challenge than working with pre-existing material. Instead of being able to simply tinker with individual systems, he suddenly found himself responsible for creating all of them from nothing, as he put his efforts toward the Ultimate General series.

The two games in the series thus far, Ultimate General: Gettysburg and the recent Ultimate General: Civil War, drop players into the role of Union or Confederate commanders during the American Civil War and offer deep simulations of some of the most important campaigns and battles of that conflict from a high-level strategic perspective.

“Even after you create graphics, sounds, and game mechanics, you still have no game," he says. "If you don’t produce a competitive AI, the game will have no life. Creating and balancing the AI mechanics together with the programmers is the most demanding process, and the most rewarding.”


Ultimate General: Civil War

And to his mind, that’s the key differentiator between modding and developing; greater challenges, guiding the development of an entire game from the ground up, yield greater rewards. “In game development, you can try to make whatever you want, unleash your creativity to the limits, which is much more satisfying in the end.” 

His efforts have been rewarded, with the first entry in the Ultimate Generals series, Gettysburg, selling nearly 300,000 copies according to Steamspy, and the follow up Ultimate Generals: Civil War already approaching the 30,000 mark despite still being in Early Access. Gettysburg has garnered an impressive 84 Metacritic average, with critics praising its astute blend of deep strategy with accessible controls and a highly legible interface: all of which are hallmarks of the Total War series.


Ultimate General: Civil War

All the years of solitary toil, all the countless hours spent laboring on someone else’s work, have finally paid off. “My life has changed for the better; I have a dream job," he says. "When someone accomplishes what I have, how can they not be happy?”



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