A Fallout 4 Modding Story

A Fallout 4 Modding Story

I’ve downloaded 9 tools to make one mod! I don’t think I’ve ever had to download so many tools to make one thing work before. 

That was me talking to a fellow modder (who was teaching me yet another undocumented feature of gamebyro) when I was once again complaining about Fallout 4’s mod pipeline – I had been doing that a lot about it since I started using it. This statement was a punctuation for the two month long project to realize a seemingly simple goal: adding a single conventional firearm into Fallout 4. I ran a gamut of emotions in my personal quest to make one mod work in Bethesda’s Fallout 4 – a game they marketed as a current gen, modder friendly RPG. After going the distance and actually making a mod from concept to release, I’ll be happy to refute both those claims, at least on some level.

Fair warning, this is a wordy piece, but it does have nice pictures!

Prelude – Picking a Project, Choosing a Timeline

I just want  to start by saying that I like Fallout 4. I’ve got close to 400 hours in it. I pre-ordered the version with the pip-boy because I knew going in that dollar-per-hour, I was still going to get my money’s worth and then some. I was first exposed to the franchise when I bought Fallout 3 not long after launch and it was the game of my summer – my whole summer. I’ve wracked up well into the 4-digit range of hours for both Fallout titles and Bethesda RPGs.

I like Fallout 4’s weapon modding system. I think it’s fun and added a lot to the game. One thing I didn’t like is that it meant that a few classic guns got merged or omitted as they became variants of other base guns, like the plasma and laser pistols, or more apt to this article, the classic sniper rifle.

The Sniper Rifle was always my favorite gun in Fallout 3 and New Vegas – the Gobi Campaign Scout Rifle was a gun I’d make a b-line for on new character runs once I got the required lockpicking skill to open the chest, and the Reservist Rifle was something that always found its way into my inventory in Fallout 3. It was a mid-to-late game replacement for the hunting rifle, and although it wasn’t the most powerful sniper on the block, it was versatile enough to be a good gun to have on hand. Fallout 4 had a different approach: the hunting rifle, when fully modded, filled the role of the sniper rifle – and if you didn’t like that, you could mostly transform the combat rifle into a ‘sniper’ if you slapped a scope onto it. The hunting rifle looks like an impressive sniper, but the stats make it worthless late game. Even with expensive .50 ammo, it has half the damage output of other guns at lower calibers, and is useless unless you always get the drop on your enemy. Late game relies too heavily on the slightly overpowered Gauss Rifle (which is true to FO3, I suppose) but the FO4 version of that gun feels more like a massive cannon then something you should be able to stealth around with. I like the gauss rifle, just not as my main sniper.

This mod should be fun to make, it’s useful, and I have a personal interest in getting it done!

So for the sake of making swiss army knives out of a few guns, Fallout 4’s designers sacrificed a specialist gun that was, up until that point, iconic to the series. Aside from Fallout Tactics, every Fallout game has had generally the same sniper… except 4. I feel that far harbor’s lever action rifle is an admission of the loss, with its low fire rate and incredibly high damage (and broken reload animation???). With a clearly missing slot ripe for the taking in the base game, I found a good opportunity to make a lore friendly weapon mod that pays homage to the old series and fills a gameplay void that suits my personal playstyle. This mod should be fun to make, it’s useful, and I have a personal interest in getting it done! Prefect opportunity to really put everything into a project.

Although the idea peculated for a couple of months, I decided to hold off until it seemed that the stars aligned for it.

  • Wasteland Melody released a Chinese AK weapon mod that had all the hallmarks of what I wanted out of my mod. The success of that mod and its scope meant that the mod I wanted to make was possible.
  • The creation kit was in beta, but out there. There were official tools for modding this game! I figured that it should make things easier.
  • In order to stimulate the mod community, nVidia partnered with Bethesda in offering up a very attractive mod contest, where finalists would win a graphics card and  winners could get $5-10k! It was a tight deadline, but sometimes a little motivation is good for making a project actually happen. Given my window, I risked burnout, but could avoid it if I paced myself and made forward progress weekly.

Modeling and Texturing

I started working on the model in late April. I started by building my references – I decided that with Fallout 4’s mod system, it would be very possible for me to not only make a 1:1 recreation of the guns from Fallout 3 and New Vegas, I could also make the ‘mods’ necessary to have a close representation of the Sniper Rifle from the first two Fallout games. What really made this project easy for references, though, is that I could just go into New Vegas’s archives and extract the mesh and textures to get the base mesh almost exactly like the old one.

rev_sheet

My goals for the mesh were pretty simple and my direction was clear – take the existing design and translate to a current gen environment. Take some artistic liberties where things don’t make sense or could be improved, but keep the critical things like silhouette and first/second glance look the same. This was the approach that the Bethesda art team took for the other ‘translated’ art in Fallout 4. I love the more detailed work the artists did for things like the 10mm pistol, the Protectrons, Sentry Bots, and the like – they look like they always have in your mind’s eye, but with enough artistic license to have some of the models make more physical sense. I think those are good intentions worth copying.

Modeling

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A direct reference made matching the larger shapes easy!

The tool of choice for this project was 3dsmax, with a little zbrush sprinkled in – I wanted to use something that had the importer/exporter functionality to Gamebyro without third party tools. Start to finish, the modeling phase took about a week for the base high and low poly.

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High poly Render – 3ds Max

I finished the baking for the first texture map over a weekend – I kept most everything floating geo, so most of the work was in the explosion and combining all the individual bakes into a single texture map. I’m pretty handy with photoshop action script, so most of the monotonous work of recombining bakes was automated.

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Bake of first texture sheet

Next phase was a second texture sheet for mods and magazines. Most of the objects on this one weren’t going off of a solid reference; this set was more open to my own interpretation. This is a rare opportunity for most gamedev, usually you have to keep in tight guidelines or are following a reference to a T. Modeling, sculpting, and baking this set took another week.

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This was me having a little fun with shapes.

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Dipping into ZBrush

On projects like these, I try to push myself to try new things, this project was no different. I decided to explore polysculpting – I intentionally chose some hard surface that would be best served with a highpoly sculpting pass, and the best tool for sculpting is zbrush, which is a tool that I need to learn to work better in anyway. I tried sculpting my basic shapes and texture for the wood stock and grip. I watched a few tutorials on youtube, tried a few different techniques, and I can say that although it’s not the best wood sculpting ever, I feel like I could take some lessons learned on this project and apply them the next time I try it. I also tried to leverage the recently popularized proboolean -> dynamesh workflow for a few weird things that would have been very difficult to model traditionally. I ended up using the results for the trickier button insets over the trigger and the weird shapes in the stock. Apart from those few cases, I still got better results with the tried and true methods of control loops and good poly flow below a turbosmooth layer.

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Fore: 3dsmax highpoly, Mid: Post-sculpt zbrush import, Far: Boolean Export to zbrush

Another notable bit of pain caused with zbrush I/O is that the resulting exports from zbrush are huge – it’s not like storing 100MB OBJ files are really a big deal, but dealing with them is way more cumbersome then a mesh with a turbosmooth layer on the stack.

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Exploded submeshes for normal baking

All that said, things like this were made easier with boolean+zbrush.

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In the end, with a good bit of effort, I ended up with some very clean bakes ready for texturing.

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Texturing with Quixel

With the mesh done and my maps baked, I moved on to textures. I chose dDo for this project because I wanted to give the the texture painting tools a real workout – I previously modeled an oil barrel and gave them a spin with that, but a cylinder isn’t much of a challenge – this is a bit more complex and a good test of its muscle.

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If you’ve read my previous thoughts on the Quixel suite, my opinions haven’t changed. Cliff’s notes: It’s easy to get good results fast, but it’s about as stable as standing on a pyramid of crystal wine glasses.

This project was another practice in balancing speed and what I wanted to do with the instability of a program built entirely on top of photoshop.

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First pass texture after an hour or two of initial setup

A word to the wise – do not try and inject custom masks into quxel’s internal mask PSD. While I was working on this project, the feature was there but kind of broken, but was a suite update that addressed masks not being recognized. The update fixed the issue and then some, because the custom mask I put into my project was additively inserted into every single masking layer (even the ID masks!). So this grime layer I made in PS with traditional brushes because a super ‘all of the everything in all smart materials’ sandwich of mess that forced me to remask everything and retouch every dynamask after a re-import.

fo3_sniper_tex3

Here’s a neat tip for shoving custom masks into dDo: You know that gradient map? Well I bake my gradient maps externally and strip out the one or two useless gradients (usually left to right and sometimes front to back) and replace them with whatever I want. In this project, since I was working with two AO bakes (exploded AO and static AO taking overlapping geo into account), I stored my top-bottom gradient in red, a combined AO in green, and a metal wear mask in blue – from there on, regardless of how broken custom masks in dDo are, you have a few critical extra dynamask inputs ready to go.

While we’re on the subject of custom masks, I ended up going with a custom curvature mask at the end of the day because I wasn’t getting the edge response I was expecting. I used  xNormal’s photoshop plugin on my input normalmap since this is a highpoly bake – look at the results between normal->curvature and 3Do’s baked curvature:

Combined_curves

Your curvature map is incredibly important in dDo, it’s the cornerstone of materials with procedural edge wear. Getting it right can have a dramatic impact on the quality of what the application will give you.

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Above: Generated with 3do curves, Below: Generated with xnormal curves

As you can see above in things like the paint wear, the results are way more dramatic and ‘edge aware’ then with the old curvature.

dDo’s new painter software mostly served one purpose on this project: airbrushing out masking errors along UV seams. Seam fixing is a feature that has been desperately needed since texturing has been a thing – at face value, it’s not the most glorious sounding tool in the world, but it’s incredibly useful. The 3Do viewport navigation can be a little janky at times and it’ll occasionally paint through thinner surfaces, but the brush tools are a very welcome addition. I also used them to give specific first person areas a bit of TLC and a human touch.

One nice thing about dDo is that you can easily swap out all of the foundational stuff to create a clone project quickly. Edit a few lines of xml to point at the correct mesh and run the reimporter and you’re halfway to having a second texture ready to go! Need to make a variant texture? Duplicate the project folder and change all your metals to carbon fiber! Want to hold onto a neat material combo you made? Save it as a custom smart material for other projects! That’s the reason why dDo is a time saver in the long run.

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Carbon Fiber variant texture work
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Desert camo variant texture work

Texturing was ongoing, and I had to tweak and revisit it constantly until the last days before release, with a few revisits in post release patches. The bulk of my initial material definition had to be re-tuned to look decent ingame. Most of that was due to the weirdness in Fallout 4’s engine and the way it handles shaders, which I dig into later in this article.

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The ‘promo shot’ as taken when I thought the textures were done.

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…and after about 2 weeks of tweaking.

Let’s talk about turning this marmoset render of a model into an actual gun ingame!

Enter Gamebro, Exit Sanity

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Tutorials abound!

Full disclosure: this is the first time I’ve ever officially modded a Gamebyro game. I spent my formative years learning another notorious mod pipeline – the source engine. I don’t do much in it now because I got tired of fighting it to get results I liked, and ‘graduated’ to indie development where you use engines like Unity and Unreal where there are environments that generally bend over backwards to make your art ‘work’. I think when you’re truly enthusiastic about a game, you have the free time, and if the developers even throw you small a bone for modding, dealing with bullshit isn’t that big of a deal. For some, that’s the challenge they like about it.

I thought the Source Engine was bad, but this project has given me a new perspective on just how bad pipelines can be.

Gamebyro has been a cold dip in a bathtub full of ice, a reminder why I don’t spend so much time modding anymore. Even if I have a passion for a game and the project at hand, I just don’t have the time I used to. I thought the Source Engine was bad, but this project has given me a new perspective on just how bad pipelines can be.

At the beginning of the article, I talked about how I waited for them to release the ‘same as in the studio‘ official tools – the Creation Kit (CK) – to avoid the headaches of using tools that had been hastily adapted from older games on the engine from third parties. Sounded like solid plan. It was not a solid plan.

I allotted myself a solid month to do the import – I knew second and third hand that the toolset can be unruly – but I didn’t account for the fact that the creation kit would last no more then 5 minutes without crashing to desktop. This is after a 1-3 minute load time. I figured, hey, if I can’t get the code side stuff to work right now, I could at least get the meshes into the engine and see how that part of the workflow is – after all,  the official 3ds Max plugins were released and part of the development kit.

Mesh Importing

I had the community built .nif (gamebyro’s binary model format) exporter that had recently been adapted from Skyrim and worked in my copy of Max (15). It had a great deal of settings with a variety of functionality and relevance to this specific branch of the engine, but I was able to get a barebones mesh into a format that opened with the barebones CK mesh previewer. I also managed to make some headway and get my textures to show up. They looked pretty terrible, but at this stage, I was just happy that they were showing up.

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There were issues though – with the tools I had, I couldn’t import default meshes and export them back while retaining the properties.

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Combat Shotgun receiver destroyed after an import/export using Bethesda tools

As seen above, just importing and exporting a receiver broke things like mesh hierarchy for animations as well as the attachment points that are critical to ‘assembling’ the gun from a collection of mods in real time.

No big deal, I thought, I can just use the official tools Bethesda released! Nope. They only work in Max 2013. I learned this the hard way – I copied the files from the installer into max 2015 and it broke the UVW Unwrap modifier. I had to roll back my copy of max to undo the damage. I luckily had the max 13 installer from when I had a student copy and did the ‘try me’ 30 day trial to just do this project – Autodesk doesn’t allow you to buy those keys even if you wanted to. You can’t even buy them on ebay from the questionable grey market anymore. There are no legitimate ways for a new user to use the official CK modeling toolset unless you already owned a the correct version of the several thousand dollar 3d development tool that went off market 3 years ago. I get that Bethesda has this implied statement that the CK and its supporting tools are studio tools and they’re therefore optimized for their specific work environment, but you need to realistically meet the community half way on something like this – partner up with the guys that already built unofficial .NIF I/O tools for current and/or free modeling packages and give them some support to make them work as more complete solutions!

There are no legitimate ways for a new user to use the official CK modeling toolset unless you already owned a the correct version of the several thousand dollar 3d development tool that went off market 3 years ago.

So with my evaluation copy of 3ds Max 2013 in hand and its environment completely hijacked with new toolbars and buttons from Bethesda (all completely undocumented, sans one .txt file that roughly explains how to install the tools and that most of what you’ll see is now deprecated to some extent) I got to work re-exporting things. Still no embedded bone structures, no hierarchy, nothing to make a functional mesh file from max.

I hit a dead stop.

At this point, I’d like to thank the Facepunch Fallout thread and a few of its users for their help – DeEz gave me a crash course in using Nifskope – the only tool that allows you to do the work you need to to generate working models for Fallout 4. It’s community made, and its development has been slowed by the lack of documentation or support from the studio – the same issue will crop up for every other tool I mention in this article.

After some experimentation and support from a friendly expert, I managed to replace the mesh of an existing receiver with my own by ‘injecting’ the target .nif with the triangle data from a dummy export .nif using Nifskope’s block level copy and paste. If it sounds convoluted and counter-intuitive, that’s because it is! Nifskope is a program with a lot of love put into it, and I don’t blame the creator for UX issues – for a community tool, it’s pretty top notch.

fo3_sniper_ingame0

As much of a pain as that process was, it was a step by step template for what I was going to be doing for every sub-object in this project. This was a tedious and time consuming process that I did incrementally over the course of three weeks.

FO4Edit and the CK

With my meshes and textures functional, it was time to start actually making a mod. After asking around, the consensus was that to make a specific type of mod, you should download and deconstruct another mod that already does the things you want your mod to do. I was in luck here – there is a similar mod that checks all the check-boxes I wanted to achieve – Wasteland Melody’s Chinese Assault Rifle – an excellent mod that had me convinced that my goals were achievable. The art is good, the mods on offer were robust, and the project integrated into the game and its world with no conflicts. It’s everything a mod like this should be, really. So I started reverse engineering it and learning the ropes in FO4Edit – another FO3-Skyrim cornerstone tool that has mostly complete Fallout 4 support. It’s not technically designed to be used as a replacement for the CK, but it became my cornerstone. It didn’t crash every time I inspected object modifications or quest events, which is more then I can say for the CK.

fo3_sniper_ingame1

After a solid weekend of work, I finally got a few chunks of the gun ingame, and I noticed my first round of major problems. As you can see from the shot above, the scope takes up half the screen. The less obvious but still clear issue is that the textures look uniformly metallic and lack really strong definition.

Let’s rant talk a little bit about Fallout 4’s shaders.

Current Gen, Bethesda Style

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It took a week to ‘downgrade’ marmoset to get a close approximation to the CK previewer. 

Working with the CK and looking at how its systems are laid out, you quickly get the impression that the engine is stretching and twisting to conform to some of the systems of the game it powers. Legendary modifications add ‘enchantments’ to guns, there are still references to swords in the melee tables and there are all sorts of little references to a fantasy game here and there poking out from under a coat of post-apoc FPS paint. The material and rendering system is a good example of something that has had features bolted on for a decade, causing it to turn into an interesting pipeline chimera.

I can’t say if Bethesda just implemented the programming/math side of PBR, but I have a strong suspicion that it was at best used as a marketing buzzword.

When Fallout 4 was announced, one thing that piqued my interests as a game artist was the inclusion of Physically Based Rendering (PBR), which implies the adoption of the newer texture map standards of metalness/smoothness maps, or at least energy conservation in a gloss/spec pipeline. I can’t say if Bethesda just implemented the programming/math side of PBR, but I have a strong suspicion that it was at best used as a marketing buzzword. The texture and material system is still gloss spec (which is a red flag, but not a deal breaker) but the real ‘this is not PBR’ signposts are:

A ‘specular’ checkbox and multiplier: In the material editor, there is a checkbox that sets whether the materiel has ‘specular’ or not. I’ll hand Beth the benefit of the doubt and say that there are always weird shaders that are non-conforming to any unified material system (skin, hair, and car paint are usually unique shaders with special rules). That said, the multiplier number is not PBR. Energy conservation in textures means, basically, that there well never be more light reflected back from a texture then there was hitting it in the first place, this slider breaks that fundamental rule. This is a last gen holdout that should be dead.

Ambient Occlusion in specular textures: This means that natural shadows hitting complex shapes will never reflect light back. In last gen games, ‘baking AO’ into the maps was an easy way to compensate for lack of high detail dynamic lighting since generating ambient occlusion is computationally expensive. I wouldn’t say that it’s the worst thing ever, as a little AO baking can give your textures a little more depth, but it just doesn’t qualify for a modern engine as it breaks the concept of physically based rendering. Just because, say, the cavities in a complex object look black all the time because it’s always in shadow doesn’t mean they’ve been painted black with an airbrush or spray painted with dullcoat.

Environment Mapping: Okay, look, every game can’t be GTA (re: the portion about the environment cubemap). That said, Fallout 4’s implementation of environment mapping on objects is the worst I’ve personally worked with since I started authoring content for games.

That’s a harsh claim, I know, but it was kind of shocking when I peeled back the curtain on this. After looking at materials, I noticed that Fallout 4 used a single static texture for it’s environment mapping slot, mipblur_default_outside1.

mipblur_DefaultOutside1
Cubemap sides compiled to a single image
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The above reprojected as a spherical cubemap

It’s a fair representation of a generic outdoor commonwealth location. I thought that it probably used this as a fallback when local reflection overrides weren’t available, but nope, most guns use this texture for reflection data at all times. Indoor, outdoor, day or night, in the glowing sea or sanctuary, they’re reflecting some version of the above image. This isn’t overly apparent at first glance for a couple of reasons – the texture is dynamically recolored based off of ambient light, and dynamic highlights from point and spotlights are added to the mix in realtime, making this texture a ‘base’ more then the sole reflection lighting data. Still, location based cubemaps have been a thing since around the days of the source engine in 2005, and realtime cubemap rendering is something that is achievable now on consoles, as evidenced by and admittedly ultra-high budget GTA 5, a game that was released in 2013. That said, the core mechanics that make the system doable in that title are in place in Fallout 4 – namely the ultra-performant LOD environmental meshes that are used to bake the cubemaps. I’m not going to pretend that even with that step done realtime probes are easy to implement, but art and assets wise, the hardest part of the technique is done already.

This is more of a prime example why using a decade old engine is hurting Bethesda more then it is helping. I understand wanting to get the most money as possible out of something as complex as an in-house engine, but there’s a point where you need to take what you’ve learned and use it as the foundation for a new house, instead of haphazardly building another floor of a skyscraper constructed with evolving techniques over the course of years.

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The scope glass needed to be split into a sub material with different reflective properties to look non-metallic.

As a side effect of the above, tinted conductive surfaces like copper and gold need to have their own cubemaps – if you dig in the cubemap selection for FO4, you can see variants of the mipblur texture that have been pre-tinted for special use cases like copper bullets and brass shell casings. The workaround is to model your mesh in a way that allows you to split off pieces based off of surface type and give each sub surface ist own material file and surface properties. Once again, this is something that was common practice in early 200X, but is super hacky and outdated in modern engines and pipelines.

It’s easy to sit here playing armchair game developer and go ‘why wouldn’t they address this???‘ when I’m not the one under the gun to meet budget and time constraints.

At this point, I’d like to give kudos to the Bethesda art team for working around all this and making it not painfully obvious. It’s easy to sit here playing armchair game developer and go ‘why wouldn’t they address this???‘ when I’m not the one under the gun to meet budget and time constraints or used to a specific studio pipeline. A lot of people may enthuse about game development, but many don’t understand what it actually takes to make a game today. Even as someone that’s been modding since 2000, I’ve only been a ‘gamedev’ in earnest for over a year. I am slowly learning that things aren’t as clear cut and simple as they appear on paper or in the file archives of a released title. The experience when you have all the time in the world and resources you can scrap together with no one to answer to is different then making a product, even if the end result is similar.

In short, Gamebyro 2015 is not current gen, and in some ways, it’s not even last gen.

Home Stretch

As I shaped and changed my meshes and textures to work with the game they were going into, I started to feel the pressure of the deadline. When something is not your first or even secondary task for the week and you’re scrapping together time, even editing a few entries in a program can start to weigh you down. Fighting the CK to do it every step of the way wasn’t helping, and getting weird results or bad responses for unknown reasons to work done was causing what could be a few minutes of work into a few hours.

One key thing that I wanted in my mod was the ability for this gun to show up organically alongside other guns in the game. The mod I was going off of had this ability, but deconstructing it turned out be be an adventure all its own.

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Random drop I found after adding the gun to leveled lists

Essentially, Fallout 4 handles the bulk of its live and interactive events as ‘quests.’ Your companion has something to say about a place? It’s a quest that triggers a voice line if its conditions are met. There’s an adjustment to the environment that happens dynamically? Quest. Something needs to happen after the beginning of the game? It’s probably a quest. Quests as scripting shells are the answer to way too many questions when it comes to making the game function. The core of these shell quests are: Run, wait for event, pass variables to and trigger an external script, and end.

For adding guns, Wasteland Melody triggered a quest that runs at the beginning of the game and executes a script that dynamically adds the gun to the end of the existing leveled lists of guns and stops executing. It seems simple to write, but when it’s your first time experiencing things like the CK, the structure of the game, and Papyrus (the proprietary scripting language) as a whole, it was daunting and confusing. I managed to adapt and create a version of the script to my own end by not straying too far from the path laid out. In the process, I ended up with another two or three scripting tools (community made) to do the work.

A lot of high level documentation that works for this game is actually for previous entries like Skyrim and Fallout 3 that just so happens to still work in 4.

Cookie, from the Facepunch forums, helped me set up custom materials with a unique mod slot, something that I had been scratching my head with until I asked for his help. It wasn’t hard to implement once he told me how to do it (creating a new keyword to link it all), but there’s no documentation that I know of that explains why it works or the limitations of the keyword system. A lot of high level documentation that works for this game is actually for previous entries like Skyrim and Fallout 3 that just so happens to still work in 4.

Another thing that requires some crazy hoop-jumping is setting up legendary weapons. There is a video tutorial on this (that someone linked to me after the release), but CK crashes when I edit quest modules, so I haven’t been able to get this to work. In order to meet the deadline, I compromised and put the most important legendary weapon (the gobi campaign scout rifle) in a chest directly as kind of a pseudo-legendary weapon. When I get some time, I’m going to try and hammer on this some more because this is my last major missing component from my personal project goals.

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All I want is a legendary star!

With everything functional (to some level) and tested (to some level) a day before the contest deadline, it was time for me to release the gun!

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Release

Saturday, July 2nd, was release day. It didn’t take me a few minutes to release everything, it was literally a running 13 hour campaign to get everything out and correct.

I started the morning by going ingame to take final promo shots for the release at the Nexus. After doing that and checking that everything was working, I packed it all up and went through the process of releasing a file there, writing up a readme and picking the images I wanted for the mod. With the nexus out of the way, I moved on to Bethesda.net.

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Control your Data

Okay so I’d like to pull my soapbox back out for a minute and talk about mods and (re)distribution. This next bit is going to be targeted for people making their own mods. If you want to skip it, I won’t be mad if you scroll down to the next section (Bethesda.net)

I’ve been making and releasing mods for over a decade. I was 13 years old when I volunteered for a job as a mod reviewer for a FilesNetwork site, and got to review and test some of the first mods ever made for Doom 3. Since then, I’ve moved on to making my own work, and I’ve seen or tried every way of trying to ‘control’ the distribution and reuploading of my content across the internet for a long time. This is something that many authors on sites like the Nexus are dealing with for the first time, and, if you’re in that group and willing to listen, I’d like to impart some experiential knowledge.

If you release something publicly anywhere, you loose control of your data. It’s not a question of if you can shut down your download or not, if it gets transferred wholesale to another person on the internet, it’s out there forever. Somebody will keep a backup, somebody will have a copy. To put it another way: you can turn off the faucet, but you can’t put the water back in the pipe.

It’s not a question of if you can shut down your download or not, if it gets transferred wholesale to another person on the internet, it’s out there forever.

You can’t stop people from uploading your work on another site, be it with or without your knowledge, or claiming themselves as the author. If there’s a copy out there, the potential for this always going to be non-zero. You can play whack-a-mole and shut down these re-uploads at a great cost of time and energy. I’ve tried that. it just breeds resentment for all parties involved and it sours your opinion of people. It sucks the joy out of your hobby.

What you can control is how your data is presented and beat them to the punch. The best way to combat third party re-uploads and piracy is to provide more official outlets to your content. You know where pirates won’t upload your file? Where you’ve already officially uploaded it. This isn’t an opinion, it’s a tested and true fact. It’s true of games as a whole, and it’s true of mods for those games. When the product is free, ‘pirates’ are just an untapped audience, people that want what you made – those that reupload your work elsewhere are trying to share your work with people they feel you are ignoring. The more malicious ones might staple their name on it, but nothing deters this more then your official and proven true version already uploaded to the same site for the users to choose over fake copies. I’ve seen commenters call these kinds of people out if they know that it’s not genuine. People that download ‘stolen’ mods usually don’t know better, or are getting the product they want at the place they want. When you upload your files to the other platforms yourself, you grow your presence and open up to a new audience. You get to control how your mod is presented. You get to pick the best possible light for your hard work. You get to answer questions, field reasoning behind concerns, and listen to people that have genuine praise for your work. It doesn’t matter if there are dumb comments, the internet is full of those. Burying your head and the sand and thinking that’ll make your problems go away is not going to make that stop.

When the steam workshop first went live for garrysmod, the dynamic between it and Facepunch was very similar to Bethesda.net and the Nexus today. In the long run, no matter how established a third party site is, you can’t beat an ingame mod distribution system for sheer numbers. Bethesda.net opens up completely new avenues for people interested in your work to enjoy it. Console gamers are, last I checked, people that have played and enjoy the same game you have played and enjoy, and are willing to pull up their sleeves enough to try modding their game. This will likely be their first experience, and yeah, they may not have realistic expectations. Poorly written and thought out comments do not need to command your attention. It’s up to you to filter what’s important from what’s not and keep a level head when approaching inexperience and poorly formed expectations.

When I went from actively trying to shut down my mods that had been uploaded to the steam workshop, I was literally spinning my wheels to stop people from… downloading my work – work I wanted people to download in the first place. When I embraced the steam workshop and controlled the presentation of my mod, I consistently hit the top of my release categories and grew my audience. I have fans and downloaders that in some cases create and present their own work based off of mine, and I feel that in some small way, I helped to improve the landscape of the community. I feel proud more proud of that then I do about the number of downloads of views I ever got, which was a literal order of magnitude higher then I ever saw releasing in a closed environment. These kinds of results prompted me to write about this and advocate this position for modders and content authors not just today, but 3 years ago on this very blog (at the bottom, in 10. Release). This position isn’t a theory for me, I’ve seen and benefited from the extra effort in releasing things in multiple places time and time again.

The only way to ‘win’ is to beat them to the punch.

To sum it up, you can’t stop people, the only way to ‘win’ is to beat them to the punch. The added bonus to that is that you also get to control the presentation of your work. You’ll be happier, and you’ll get more good exposure in the process. In the end, you need to really figure out why you not just make mods but why you release them. If you can answer that, then ask yourself, what’s wrong with bringing your work to even more people? If 1 out of 100 people that downloaded your mod say your mod is dumb, the other 99 are probably enjoying it.

Bethesda.net

Releasing on Bethesda.net was straightforward and integrated in the CK. Given the tool’s track record for me, I was worried, but it all just worked. Mostly. It seems that in some situations, it may not include the content .ba2 if you try and release cross platform and reuse the packed files you have on hand. Just pack it all up from scratch for every platform, don’t let it ‘use existing .ba2 files’. The audience on Bethesda.net is huge for the XBox, and I’d be willing to bet it’ll be huge for the PS4 when it goes live. The PC group is small, but easy to include if you’re already going through the trouble. The interface for editing the description for your mod is pretty clunky and you’re limited to three picture/video links, but as long as it gets the mod out there and in a usable state for users, I’d argue that’s the most important component.

Reception

When I release anything I always kind of weigh the odds of success beforehand, and try and guess at how it’ll do. I didn’t have much to go off as this was my first mod for this community, and I really poured out a lot of work to make this one happen.

It was excellently received on the Nexus. It hit the top files in two days and topped it in three. The DKS-501 held the top spot until the Friday after release, and finished July as second place for file of the month, being beat out in the last days by an excellent team effort weather total conversion mod. For a single standalone weapon mod, that’s great reception.

The DKS-501 held the top spot until the Friday after release, and finished July as second place for file of the month.

On Bethesda.net, the PC version went mostly unnoticed, and the PS4 version is technically unreleased, but it’s done great on the XBox. I looked at numbers for similar mods, and it seems to be tracking right in range for a good weapon mod. At the time of writing, despite its status as average to above average in that space, it’s got three times as many views and twice the number of downloads as I have on the Nexus, even given its popularity there.

modking_nexus

I got a lot of comments and was able to break comments down into 5 categories.

  • Substantiated bug reports – these came in quick at first given that I released with a few bugs. The nexus picked up on them fast and a few very helpful commenters managed to even hammer out a few of them before I had a chance. XBox players caught the same ones, most had the same attitude, and both sites had a few people that were real jerks about it.
  • Install issues and minor niggles – Bethesda’s client has a lot of weird partial install issues tied to how it handles uploads, but both platforms had general tech support questions. A couple nexus users nitpicked a few inconsequential things. These were luckily in the minority.
  • Thanks for the mod – I got a lot of praise. (!) It’s always nice to read a comment simply saying thanks, and that was in no short supply on both sites. I’m happy people are enjoying the mod.
  • I want more! – I got a lot of these everywhere, but boy does the Nexus want a Wattz 2000 laser sniper rifle. They also want interoperability with mods I had never heard about. These can get a little annoying over time if it’s the same ones over and over again, but I view them as pluses given they want to see you do more, which implies they liked what they got!
  • Discussions about balance – A few people on the nexus had some very interesting things to say on weapon balance and it was fun engaging with them and explaining my approach and reasoning. For those good points people bring up, I still continue to modify and tweak the files.

One thing that is really cool about this mod community is that they have a ton of video reviewers out there. When I went to sleep on Saturday, I woke up on Sunday to four videos made overseas specifically reviewing my gun! Man, that was cool. Here are a few of my favorites:

The nVidia Mod ‘Contest’

I was going to write up a ton here, but I think this article is gone on long enough and I have nothing good to say on the subject, and writing a rant won’t change things.

Conclusion

I can wear the fact that I’ve made a successful mod for a gamebyro game like a badge of honor.

Despite the ups and downs, as a whole, this has been a good experience. It was a real trial by fire that pushed me to my limits, and the reception from the community made it all worth it in the end. Coming out of this project, I can wear the fact that I’ve made a successful mod for a gamebyro game like a badge of honor and I can walk away with a deeper appreciation for the mod community that has revolved around these games for years. Art side, I was able to leverage and refresh my highpoly modeling skills, and try out new techniques. This time using zbrush was better then my last, and I’m hopeful that next time will be better still, walking away with lessons learned this time around.

fo3_sniper_cos
Another legendary material – the COS Sniper rifle from FO:NV

I hope to release at least one or two more updates to the mod to make up for what I missed and what I had to cut, and I’m deeply honored that it has started to weave itself into the colorful tapestry of common Fallout 4 mods.

I want to try my hand at making the Wattz 2000 – a laser rifle variant using the same receiver, but I can easily see myself teaming up with someone talented/experienced on the ‘modding’ side of gamebyro so I can focus on the art.

wattz_wip1
Back to blockout!

Who knows. It’s obvious there is an audience for this work, and many are eager to see more. That said, modding simply can’t take up as much time as it used to for me, I’ve got too many responsibilities that take priority.

If you have Fallout 4 and want to try the mod, here are the links to the released project:

PC/Nexus:

http://www.nexusmods.com/fallout4/mods/15909/?

Xbox One:

https://mods.bethesda.net/#en/workshop/fallout4/mod-detail/2138699

PS4:

https://mods.bethesda.net/#en/workshop/fallout4/mod-detail/2139175

Artstation (3d Preview):

https://www.artstation.com/artwork/PEnry

Post-Release Media:

classicsniper_singlerifle

fo3sniper_singlerifle

gobi_singlerifle

308_preview

If you actually read through all this, wow! Thank you for reading!

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One thought on “A Fallout 4 Modding Story

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