I had the pleasure of interviewing Scott Reismanis, founder and CEO of mod.io. Mod.io is building a platform that gives studios fully integrated and cross-platform mod solutions for their games. We discuss Scott’s history with Mod DB, why modding has failed to cross the chasm, why and how that might change, and how mod.io will be part of the solution. I learned a lot and expect you will too - enjoy!

On Mod DB and the Evolution of Modding

UGC is Growing
Source: mod.io

Aaron Bush: To kick things off, I'm curious why you've dedicated your entire career to modding. What drives that passion and that desire to stay dedicated to modding over decades?

Scott Reismanis: 20 years ago, I was a competitive first-person shooter gamer who absolutely loved the mainstays of the industry: Doom, Quake, Half-Life, and Unreal Tournament. And in almost every first-person shooter at the time the primary mode was deathmatch. They all had different flavors of deathmatch, but it was really just deathmatch. Mods completely flipped this format on its head. The classic example is Counter-Strike. In Counter-Strike you went from very singular-focused deathmatch gameplay, to this mod, which introduced weapon classes, loadouts, squads, objectives, time-based, and round-based gameplay. They literally added five innovative pieces to the puzzle.

Game shooters at the time were iterating on one piece of functionality, whereas mod creators were iterating on ten. For me, that was like, "Oh my god, this is absolute insanity. I can't believe what they're doing is working." They would quickly refine the ideas that worked and my friends and I were always trying to find the latest and most innovative mods to play. 

In 2002, when I launched Mod DB, it was so hard to find that content; it was scattered all over the internet, with little organization or structure. I liked IMDB and thought, "If movies have a database, why don't I launch a mod database and give creators a voice and a place to collaborate?" That's what sparked my journey. I absolutely loved the highly dynamic and innovative nature, and the community loved it, too. Plus, I got addicted to building, and the feedback loop that occurred every time someone shared something new on the site was awesome.

Mod DB was purely a hobby in the early days, but as the number of creators and mods grew every year I realized there's an opportunity to make this my life's work. So I stopped my job and focused on Mod DB full-time, and never really looked back.

As you reflect over the past decade, what are the key ways in which you've seen the modding community evolve?

In the early days of UGC and mods, the only way an amateur game creator could release a title was to mod an existing game. Back then, mods were mostly total conversions; they completely changed the gameplay of the title they were working on, whether it was DOTA in Warcraft 3, Team Fortress in Quake, or Counter-Strike in Half-Life, etc. These total conversions were pivotal moments that transformed the games they were built off of.

What happened next is that game engines, like Unity and others, started rising to the fore. All of a sudden, these mod teams who couldn't commercialize their work due to licensing reasons started publishing their ideas as standalone titles. Some of my favorite studios did that. I love Chivalry and Insurgency, and they started to spin out and create their own games built on various engines. This was also a time when digital distribution for standalone PC games took off, which added another tailwind for these creators.

Modding actually took a backseat for a period of time, because that talent shifted to the indie space. Meanwhile there was a lot of pressure from consoles and mobile, and PC wasn't a very popular place to play games at the time. 

Then the next wave of modding started to take hold. Because of the increasing accessibility of content and digital distribution, simplified modding like cosmetics took off. They no longer needed to be total conversions. All of a sudden you could create just a vehicle, a new skin, an emote, or a sound pack and find an audience. Modding once again adapted, and creators could just change their favorite games in small or meaningful ways. Larger breakthroughs like PUBG certainly still existed, but modding went cosmetic and a bit more mainstream. 

I think we're going to see the next iteration now, where modding goes full circle. As studios adopt better strategies for UGC and mods, it's going to encourage players who were creating standalone games to return to UGC, because the rewards will be there.

Why hasn't modding fully gone mainstream yet? What obstacles have held it back, and what needs to happen to push modding across the chasm?

This is something that we're trying to solve right now. Modding has largely taken a backseat, because it's almost a secondary consideration to just shipping an amazing game. Studios haven't necessarily had an easy way to address and solve modding, because it introduces challenges that the game studios aren’t naturally suited to solve. 

There's some non-negotiables if you want to do modding. To make it safe, moderation and curation are important. To make it work, discovery and servicing the best content are important. To make it powerful and impactful, community and collaboration are important. The studio has to orchestrate and organize all these things really well, and handing over some creative control to users is a big decision.

For modding to cross the chasm, two things must happen: One, a platform needs to exist that can make all those non-negotiables easy and accessible. For the studios that just want to explore and experiment, they need to know that there's a fantastic platform solution that they can test, trust, learn from, and work with over time. Second, that platform must build modding use cases for others to use it. It needs to provide tangible numbers that show that introducing modding leads to growing engagement, player counts, and enjoyment. Telling that story is incredibly important. 

Because modding has been kept at arm's length, studios are kind of enabling it, but they're not officially bringing it in-house. It's on third party sites like Mod DB, Nexus Mods, and others, which means studios haven’t been able to properly measure the impact. We're trying to change that and think that'll really shift people's thinking.

On Building Mod.io

Source: mod.io

That's a perfect segue to talk about mod.io, which you co-founded in 2017. Piggybacking off of those obstacles and potential solutions, what exactly is mod.io solving? Can you explain how it works?

Whereas on Mod DB anyone can add any game and submit content, Mod.io is about establishing official relationships with game studios and enabling them to take control and ownership of their UGC opportunity. The goal is to make UGC accessible for their players anywhere that their games are shipped and released, by providing technology that works in-game and out, that handles everything that’s needed to run a successful creator community, from submission to curation, to events and analytics, to discovery and one click installs cross-platform. 

This solves a couple things for studios: One, it means almost any game can adopt modding. Whether your game is small or large, we make it easy to explore the potential and benefit from our laser focus on making UGC a strong driver of growth for our partners. Two, it means that content creation can be simple from drag-and-drop mods to complex total conversations. Studios can decide that and because the UGC being created is accessible in-game, it benefits all players and opens up new possibilities of interaction.

It's a different way of thinking. We’re helping studios harness and capture the success that they’ve had to keep at arm's length previously, because no services exist to help them properly support it.

How does mod.io make money?

The Roblox model is top of mind. They have a strong creator community and a player base that benefits from the perpetual content economy that’s being setup, where they can personalize their characters and engage in experiences in endless ways. Creators who make mods for Roblox can commercialize their work and continue to iterate on it. We want to help studios achieve similar endeavors. 

We’re building a platform that allows studios to pursue the business model that makes the most sense for them. If they want to allow their creators to trade and sell content, we'll support that. If they want to provide patronage for their top creators, we're there to support that functionality, and in doing so, we’ll help studios manage the full compliance and logistics. 

We also work with larger studios on white label solutions that allow them to deploy their own modding ecosystem and infrastructure. We charge on a usage-type basis for that. Our platform solves all the hard bits for them so they can focus on the game itself.

What makes mod.io different from Steam Workshop, which has existed for a long time?

Steam Workshop is a great product. In a way, it kickstarted the next generation of mods. Previously you had to have a large enough audience to support a critical mass of modders and players willing to find their mods in various places online. As a result, modding was largely the domain of big games. Workshop, which was integrated and accessible on Steam, changed that. 

The primary difference between us and them is that we're agnostic to stores and platforms. We have games that use mod.io on Xbox, PlayStation, Epic Games Store, Steam, Oculus, iOS, Android... pretty much all the platforms. That's important because we want studios to be able to move across platforms, not only with their multiplayer experience, but also with their creator community.

Beyond that, we don't create our own games, we're singularly focused on helping studios make UGC succeed for them by leading innovation and making our discoveries available to our gaming partners to enable how they please. We’re also focused on building a platform that can be embedded in-game and out, so studios can engage with their creators and players even when they are not playing the game. Over time we want studios to see who their top creators are, what content is trending so they can better understand what players want and quantify the value and the impact of modding. So we're going to continue to differentiate ourselves through all these specialist features and high levels of personalization. 

It looks like you've potentially built a compelling win-win-win-win situation for studios, modders, players, and yourself. Can you break that down just a little bit more and explain how exactly mod.io levels up the modding experience for each of those respective groups?

That’s right, we're building a system that balances the needs of all those different parties. 

Flexibility is one key piece. At the platform level we're helping bring UGC to places where it hasn’t been before. It has always been on PC, but now we're helping studios bring UGC to consoles, mobile, and beyond as well. That's a major shift, and players absolutely love it when mods are suddenly available somewhere they hadn’t been before.

On the studio level, we’re helping teams better work with and unlock upside from their communities. We enable studios to deploy modding and integrations wherever they want, whether it's on Discord, their homepage, or in-game. We also allow studios to choose how deep they want to go with modding. For example, they may just want to allow their community to start submitting and sharing content vs. necessarily doing an integration. Over time they can deepen their involvement as they see fit. Our architecture is very open, and we're almost as modular as the games that we want to represent. We see our role as creating a system that allows game studios to be in control. If they want to monetize content and allow people to trade, that'll be an option that they can turn on and do. We want to provide guidance, help, and input, but ultimately how a studio chooses to unleash modding is something that they're in control of.

For the players and the creators, it's all about bringing mods to more places, which sparks so much joy. For the creators, we want to build tools that in time will reward them and allow studios to help their creators potentially make a living off their passion and projects. Modders love seeing people play, engage, and work with their content, so we want to provide systems that allow them to truly see that via metrics, comments, and discussions. 

Ultimately, the players are the ones who benefit most, because as modding happens in more places, they're getting access to more content for their favorite titles from more creators who are putting more time and energy into it. It’s self-reinforcing because when studios invest in enabling creators, creators work to better please and engage players. This in turn benefits the studios. Everyone gets rewarded. I appreciate you saying it's a win-win-win-win, because that’s certainly what we think is the strength of UGC.

Your team has been building this platform for a while now. How would you describe the current state of the business? What are you focused on?

We’re currently building a system that's very easy for studios to integrate. The game studios are best equipped to solve gameplay things — including mod creation and mod consumption — but we’ll solve everything else. We want to provide a solution that, in a matter of days, enables studios to have an interface for players to browse and download content that works everywhere. We're focused on that whole integration side and making it a joy for developers.

That's easier said than done, because there are so many platforms to support. We've got the next generation of consoles out, they all work slightly differently, so having an architecture and system that works in all the key places is a big undertaking, and it's something that we're continually working on and getting better at. 

Then there's the dashboard side. We want modding to primarily happen in-game and to be accessible, because that's where most of the engagement happens. However, equally, we want to provide communities a way to engage with their favorite creators and content on the web when they're not in a game. Studios can brand and personalize how this works to suit their own objectives, and we’re putting a lot of focus on building the proper tooling and metrics for it.

We’re really excited about these key focus areas.

On the Future of Modding

Source: mod.io

Let's talk about the future. If we snap our fingers and zoom forward ten years, how do you think the modding industry will look different from today? And how do you see a larger, more mature mod.io fitting into that vision of the future?

Right now game studios are keeping UGC at arm's length, because they can't quantify the value. In ten years' time that value will be well-known, it'll be repeatable, and studios can confidently pursue modding as a business model enhancement. Studios will see modding as a powerful way to bring their communities together, no matter where they're shipping, and they’ll have the tools to bring it to life.

Ten years ago, we saw the shift where the top mod creators essentially became indie developers. I see that shift now happening in reverse. The top mod creators will become Twitch celebrities and influencers who are respected by the players and the game studios. Studios will want the top creators working for them.  As game studios get better at working with the creator community and allow them to commercialize their work, the top mod creators will become more successful than ever. 

Indie developers will say, "Why don't I create a mod for a game that has five million players who crave even more content?" and they’ll stick with that ecosystem because it's rewarding for them. We'll see this transition back, where the top creators realize, "Indie game development is complex. You've got to build everything from scratch and convince people to buy it. Whereas I can just adapt a game that I love with a prevalidated audience and reach tons of people that want what I’m creating." That's a major shift that we think will happen and look forward to.

Part of why UGC is so popular these days is because the barriers to entry for creators are falling as the spectrum of creator tools is widening. For example, on one side is the Unreal Engine, on the other side is Fortnite Creative, and in between are various other tools. Will modding as it’s traditionally viewed move toward a similar spectrum over time that enables extreme complexity, extreme simplicity, and everything in between? And my question behind that question is will new platforms — whether from mod.io or others — greatly increase the number of modders? Or will it mainly just take the consumption of mods mainstream?

I think more creators will play a role, because game studios are going to experiment with making it accessible. Our advice has always been to “never underestimate the ability of the creator community,” because, given the right tools, time, and incentives, they can solve anything. To give you some examples, SnowRunner is a game that we work with. To figure out how to create a vehicle for that game, creators need to reference a 40-page highly technical PDF document, but that high barrier to entry hasn’t stopped a diverse array of creators from making amazing content. There are also extreme examples like Grand Theft Auto, where there's no official mod support yet people have entirely reverse-engineered it to create role-playing-like experiences. 

So you don't necessarily need to dumb down creation for it to work for your game. People will find ways, as long as you give them the right tools and examples to learn from. However, there are also games that we work with, like Space Engineers and Totally Accurate Battle Simulator, where content creation is entirely drag and drop in-game, and they get several thousand pieces of content submitted daily. That's the other end of the spectrum, and players love that, because it makes creation part of the gameplay. 

It depends on the game, and you don't necessarily have to move in a specific direction. The harder content creation is, the less content you get, but what you do get is really high caliber, dynamic, and amazing content. Sometimes the more you dumb it down, the more you're limiting your best creators. This is definitely something for game studios to explore, but there's no ultimate right or wrong answer. 

You mentioned that it’s currently tough for studios to quantify the impact of adding modding to their games, but can you make your case for why it will likely create more value than if it were to be ignored? What have you observed from other companies?

My observation over a long journey of working with hundreds of games is that modding is a multiplier of success, not a creator of success. In essence, adding mod support is a chicken and egg problem. You need a volume of players to entice creators who will then amplify that player community. A studio should always focus on building an incredible game first and then introduce UGC after.

Second, modding doesn't have to be for every game. If your game is heavily narrative-driven, modding might not be a good fit. But if you're interested in modding, you shouldn’t underestimate your users and view that as a barrier to entry. You can provide one example mod, and people will figure out from that example how to create content. You can start simple, see where that takes you, and then build more into your game and your workflow over time. Studios should be more open-minded and think about that.

To quantify the impact, it depends on the game. In multiplayer titles, modding can be simply about the cosmetics: it's about personalization and allowing people to express themselves. Or it could be about amazing level design among other things. In single player titles, modding is about expanding the universe. For example, Skyrim has continually reinvented itself over ten years through UGC, and the world continues to build on itself.

It's hard to quantify the impact, but a strong modding community is an amazing thing, because they'll do things you didn't think your game was capable of doing, and they'll do it at a pace that you didn't think was possible. They'll push boundaries. If studios want to ask questions or learn more, we’re happy to provide our opinion on how modding might work for them based on our experiences and observations.

The Skyrim example is a great one. If you’re a studio, what are the best practices for getting started? How should companies think about taking their very first step?

First, always create a few example mods. Try to show the dynamic range of content that can be created for your game, and let your community have full source and access to it so that they can see how that's done. Learning from examples is often the best tutorial. 

Second, build tools that enable content creation and submission. Mod.io solves submission, and the more that studios are prepared to open up, and the more accessible they make it, obviously the better they’ll become. The games that have handled modding the best are the games that give more access to their players. 

For example: Arma led to DayZ and PUBG, Minecraft has had countless pieces of content created out of it, Half-Life led to Counter-Strike and Team Fortress, Warcraft 3 led to DOTA, and DOTA in turn led to Auto Chess. The one thing these games all have in common is their high level of moddability.

That said, there are other games, like Space Engineers, where content creation happens in-game, is super simple, and has vibrant and strong communities. There's no one size fits all answer. Figure out what works for you, how far you want to go, and focus on enabling that really well. Then build on that, using the tools that make you comfortable, and make discoverability easy for your players. 

On Career Reflections

Source: mod.io

On your journey from Mod DB to mod.io, how have you improved as an entrepreneur? What have you learned, and what do you appreciate more now?

Reflecting back, I wish I stayed more focused on what I felt was most important. I always loved mods, but then I got drawn into VR and other things along the way. As an entrepreneur, always focus on what your strengths are and leverage them as much as you can. For me, that's helping studios understand how modding can best serve them and building a system that enables them to succeed. 

I believe it's important to surround yourself with people who share your belief, vision, and passion as much as you do. Everytime you bring on a new team member that shares that enthusiasm, passion, and knowledge, it's a really good thing. For me, it's always the people and the alignment that really helps you take that next step on your journey.

As you look back on your career so far, what are you most grateful for?

I'm most grateful for starting Mod DB in 2002. It was purely a passion project. I just wanted to find and play mods, so I created a place to enable that. Doing that led to a site that still reaches four million people monthly who seek content for all manners of games. It’s allowed me to gain a ton of knowledge, build mod.io, and work with a ton of amazing investors and games. Seeing studios achieve more with mods is a dream come true, and I'm extremely thankful for everyone who's given me that chance and opportunity over the years.

There's any number of things that I could’ve done in 2002 that might’ve been a fad and might’ve faded away, but my work on mods and UGC has lasted the test of time. It's been there for almost 20 years now, and it'll be there still in 20 years' time. 

Scott, this was super interesting. Thank you for taking the time to share your insights, and best of luck building mod.io!

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