Updated: Sep 14, 2020
Welcome back, everyone. Thus far in Gaming Highs, we have covered mods ranging from the humble Unofficial Patch to the highly ambitious Source Ports (the topic of the last article). In this, the seventh and final episode of our mini-series on mods we will investigate the other top-tier mod categories; Total Conversions, Overhaul Mods, Unofficial Expansions, and Mega Mix Sandboxes. Let’s dive in.
What is a Total Conversion?
A Total Conversion (TC) is a mod that uses an existing game and its engine to create something new.
Original Intellectual Properties
Some modders use TC’s to bring their original Intellectual Properties (IPs) to life in a way that would otherwise be prohibitively expensive, time-consuming, or difficult to create.
Using an existing free-to-use (for non-commercial products) game engine is generally far easier, quicker, and more affordable than creating one from scratch. What’s more, it will allow the modder to concentrate on telling their stories and designing their TC’s gameplay, instead of having to spend valuable time coding an engine from scratch first. (Which they might not possess the required programming knowledge to do anyway.)
By using an existing engine and its developer tools, a TC can allow a lone modder to create a game that would otherwise require a whole team to create from scratch. Several members of the FreeSpace 2 Source Code Project community – Hard Light Productions – have used the FreeSpace 2 Open engine to create original IPs. These are as diverse in tone and gameplay as the semi-realistic hard-sci-fi themed Solaris, and the anime-inspired Space Combat Sim / Visual Novel hybrid Wings of Dawn.
Freespace Open - Solaris
Freespace Open - Wings of Dawn
Existing Intellectual Properties
More commonly, however, a TC will involve re-creating and implementing an existing IP in a new engine. These existing IPs can be anything from video games, films, TV shows, graphic novels, books, and even other mods. These TCs may make use of the said IP’s assets, such as; music, sound, dialogue, artwork and characters, etc.
Notable TCs that do this include two Lord of the Rings TCs, Third Age – Total War, a Lord of the Rings TC for the turn-based strategy game Medieval Total War, and Last Days of the Third Age for the third-person RPG Mount and Blade Warband.
The Last Days Of The Third Age Warband (URUK Gameplay) (LoTR Mod)
Recreating Older Games
Some Total Conversions aim to bring older games up-to-date via newer game engines - similar to the previously discussed source ports. The main difference between the two being that a Source Port will usually attempt to recreate a specific game (for example Black Mesa recreating Half-Life) whereas a Total Conversion may attempt to recreate a franchise as a whole.
A notable example of this is Wing Commander Saga (WCS). WCS uses the FreeSpace 2 Open engine to recreate the Wing Commander universe. The Wing Commander franchise was arguably the first mission-based Space Combat Sim, and FreeSpace 1 and 2 were no doubt heavily inspired by it.
It is perhaps fitting then that the grand-daddy of SCSs has been brought up-to-date in the more advanced engine of the game it inspired. To quote a certain Sith Lord “The Circle is Now Complete”. Oh, and if you are wondering, yes, there are Star Wars Total Conversions too – lots of them.
Wing Commander Saga
Real World Events
Some TCs are themed after real-world events, such as WW2 and Vietnam. These may make use of real-world assets to enhance immersion and authenticity. These might include period appropriate music, photographs, images of newspapers, and clips from propaganda films, news footage and radio broadcasts.
VietDOOM Alpha v0.1 (2019)
What Was the First Total Conversion?
I’m not 100% sure on which TC was the first, but Aliens TC for Doom ’93 is a likely candidate. Why? Because Doom ’93 was the first major release that was designed to be moddable and had an extensive modding community.
Aliens TC, as its name suggest, is a Total Conversion for Doom ’93 based on the 1986 sci-fi action horror film Aliens. It made liberal use of the film’s iconic sound effects, music and dialogue.
Aliens TC predated the officially licenced retail game Aliens Trilogy. Therefore, Aliens TC was the first opportunity most gamers had to experience the horrors of LV426 from a true FPS perspective. (Not counting the 8-bit Aliens ’86 game or Aliens vs Predator on the largely unsuccessful Atari Jaguar console.)
Aliens TC for Doom
“I like to keep this handy…for close encounters”
“There’s No Other way…”
In some cases, a TC may remain the only way to experience an IP in a specific genre. Two standout examples of this are based on the FreeSpace 2 Open engine. These are the Battlestar Galactica (BSG 2004) TC Diaspora: Shattered Armistice and the Babylon 5 themed TC The Babylon Project. These arguably remain the best Space Combat Sims in these universes. In the case of Babylon 5, The Babylon Project is likely the only Space Combat Sim devoted to the franchise, as the retail game Babylon 5: Into the Fire was cancelled before it was released.
Diaspora Release Trailer
Take that, toasters!
The Babylon Project
Prerequisites and Conditions
Some IPs are more easily TC’ed than others. Generally speaking, if an IP is broadly similar to something already depicted in a game then it should be easier to create a TC based on it. For example, Lord of the Rings is essentially European medieval era warfare with some added fantasy elements. Therefore, it is a ‘ready fit’ for a game depicting European medieval warfare – so long as that game also fits the criterion below.
Although a TC can theoretically be based on more-or-less anything, in practice it requires a base game that is highly mod-friendly. Ideally, it should include developer tools and a publicly available source code. This is why such a large number of TCs are made with a comparatively small number of game engines.
Historically, games and game engines featuring full mod support have been somewhat scarce. This also applies to the other high tier mod categories we will investigate below.
The Third Age Total War - Intros & Factions (Lord of The Ring Mod)
Genre Conversions (GC)
Genre Conversions take a game in one genre and re-create it in a different genre. Sometimes this becomes a two-way street, with two or more games swapping genres, creating an almost synergistic effect. An excellent example of this are the FreeSpace and Homeworld franchises. FYI the FreeSpace games are Space Combat Simulators (SCSs), whilst those of the Homeworld franchise are Real Time Strategy (RTS) games.
FreeSpace: Fleet Command is a TC of Homeworld set in the FreeSpace universe. In this, players get to experience the ‘big picture’ and command an entire fleet of ships.
FreeSpace 1 Era
Beams beat all!
FreeSpace 2 Era
Surprise MotherLovers! Now we have beams too!
Pilot Academy is a FreeSpace themed mod for FreeSpace 2 that allows the player to experience the combat of Homeworld from the more personal perspective of a lowly fighter pilot.
Homeworld 1 Era
Homeworld 2 Era
There is also a Babylon 5 themed TC for Homeworld 2 called Babylon 5 War Without End.
Babylon 5 War Without End
If you are wondering why FreeSpace, Homeworld and Babylon 5 keep showing up together it is due to all three franchises sharing broadly similar ship classes, ship sizes, technology levels, weapons etc., which makes it relatively easy to convert one game into the other and vice versa. Indeed, the video below pits FreeSpace 2 era ships against Babylon 5's Earthforce by importing assets from The Babylon Project into FreeSpace 2.
FreeSpace vs Babylon 5
If the B5 side consisted of Minbari and First Ones as well the battle may have gone a little differently methinks.
Unofficial Expansions (UE)
Another high-level mod category are Unofficial Expansions. These seek to expand upon an existing IP, sometimes in the form of an unofficial sequel, prequel or sidequel (i.e. happening at the same time as the original.) These may feature new and improved content as well. The superb FreeSpace: Blue Planet is an example of an unofficial sequel.
Blue Planet: War in Heaven Act 1-3 Post Meridian
Mods of Mods
An interesting phenomenon in high-level mods are Genre Conversions of other mods which are themselves a high-level mod. This ‘high-tier mod of a high tier mod’ is perhaps best illustrated by Homeworld: Blue Planet, which seeks to re-create the universe of FreeSpace: Blue Planet in the Homeworld 2 engine, and Sins of a Blue Planet, which aims to do something similar in Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion. Both are in development at the time of writing.
Sins of a Blue Planet
Overhaul mods seek to alter and improve multiple aspects of a game to an extent that goes far beyond what a simple mod or addon would. Some of the most ambitious rival both Source Ports and TCs in their complexity and scope. The main difference with Overhaul mods is that they use the same engine as the base game – or an enhanced variant thereof.
The devs of the notorious MISERY mod for S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Call of Pripyat describe it as a ‘Full Concept Modification’. It well deserves that title since almost every aspect of the vanilla base game has been altered in one way or another. It also introduces brand new assets and survival simulator gameplay mechanics.
In addition, MISERY falls under several other categories, some we have investigated previously. One of these categories is the Cut Content Mod since it reintroduces previously cut features, such as enemies – specifically Zombies and rats, and the looting/skinning mutants mechanic which was present in vanilla Shadow of Chernobyl but had been removed from vanilla Call of Pripyat. It is also a Graphics mod as it improves the game's graphics considerably, whilst also giving it a more sombre tone.
MISERY Gameplay Teaser
Sandbox Mega Mix Mods
This, in turn, led to the sandbox/megamix mods Call of Misery, Dead Air, Return To The North and the extremely popular Anomaly. These combine the maps from all three retail games, adds two more, introduces MISERY mechanics and many new features, game modes and the ability to tailor the experience to the individual’s liking.
Examples of variables that can be altered include the player’s starting location, starting loadout and faction affiliation (i.e. whose ‘side’ their avatar will be on.) These sandbox mods now have a vast list of addons too, which enables players to tailor and enhance their individual experiences even further.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Anomaly 3.0 (New Features!)
And that brings us to the end of our deep dive into the wonderful world of modding. We have seen modding from the most minor alteration of a .cfg file up to the Total Conversions and Source Ports that put many retail AAA games to shame. Modern Game Engines, such as UE4 and Source 2, are designed to be extremely mod-friendly, so the future of modding is looking rosy indeed.
But those are just my thoughts, what are yours? Do you enjoy mods, or do you prefer to ‘play vanilla’? Have you created a mod yourself? If so, was it solely for personal use or did you release it into the wilds of ModDB or Nexus Mods? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.
Iain is a 40+ author and gamer from England, who started his gaming journey on the Atari 2600 36 years ago. His specialities include obscure cult classics, retro games, mods and fan remakes. He hates all sports games and is allergic to online multiplayer. Since he is British, his body is about 60% tea. He can be reached via Twitter at https://twitter.com/IainBaker17
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