Firaxis understand that the modding community adds a lot of value and longevity to their games - or at least, that’s what their rhetoric suggests. Ahead of the release of Civ V, the studio said it would be “the most moddable Civ ever”, while of Civ VI, they promise it has been “designed from the ground up with deep mod support in mind.”
If that turns out to be true, it's good news for all of us; Dota and Counter-Strike are living proof of what great games can emerge from modding communities. But even though the game has been out for a month, Firaxis's claim is still untested; we’ve yet to see the toolkit that they will release for modding Civ VI.
Before that happens, we thought we'd ask some of Civ’s best modders about their hopes and expectations for Firaxis’s latest. Just how serious are Firaxis about supporting modders this time around?
The Civ VI toolkit isn't out yet, but some modders - some of whom we speak to here - have already made stuff. Check out the best mods for Civ 6 so far.
Civ 5: the "most moddable" ever?
We began by asking if there was anything they wanted to achieve with the Civ V modding toolkit, but couldn’t. There was an immediate consensus around graphical modding, with all five of our modders identifying it as a problem. Deliverator, a specialist in graphics mods who has already released 28 new units for Civ VI, was particularly scathing: “support for graphical mods was effectively non-existent for Civ V. The graphical tool Firaxis did provide, called Nexus, was incomplete, broken and unexplained.”
Sukritact, a skilled artist and Lua scripter whose work can be found in many popular mods, says modders had to rely on third-party tools for any 3D modelling, such as units and tile improvements. "It really was cumbersome, and custom animations were difficult to the point of being impossible." JFD, author of dozens of custom civs and tweaker of game mechanics, has many more examples of graphical touches that have given the community headaches. Customising Natural Wonders was a sticking point for a long time, and his own efforts to repurpose the Great Barrier Reef and Krakatoa models as reefs and volcanoes - which doesn't sound like it should be too hard - was in fact extremely frustrating. “There is a distinct lack of custom graphics in mods, be it animated leaders, unit models, etc, compared to Civ IV,” he says.
Deliverator is also quick to praise Civ IV for graphics modding. “Everything graphical was easier - and therefore, more fun - to mod with Civ IV. You could reskin units and see the changes instantly using the Nifskope tool. With Civ V you have to edit the model file to do a reskin and you can’t see the results without using the pretty useless Nexus Asset Viewer, Blender or the game itself."
Beyond graphics, the second major criticism of Civ V was how inaccessible many of its functions were. Sukritact and Tomatekh, one of the most prolific makers of custom civs, say “a lot of stuff was needlessly hardcoded”, putting arbitrary restrictions on modders when it came to designing things like unique units and abilities. Certain attributes were booleans instead of modifiers; if you wanted a unit to confer a combat strength buff on its neighbours, say, you were forced to pick from the quantities Firaxis had created - you couldn’t write your own value for the buff you wanted to confer. “Modders had to find creative ways around this, usually using complex sets of invisible dummy buildings added to cities, or dummy policies, or running bits of code over and over each turn,” says Tomatekh.
“Civ V was also missing a lot of obvious Lua hooks,” he continues, meaning modders couldn’t use scripts to do something at certain points in the game. “There was no real way to monitor combat and trigger Lua abilities when a unit died, or killed another unit, etc... it really limited a lot of ideas I had for new civs.”
Will Civ 6 do better?
Sukritact agrees on this last point. “All I really want to see codewise is Firaxis exposing as many functions and values to the Lua as possible.”
This speaks to the distinction between the SDK and the moddability of the game itself. In Sukritact's words, “Civ V’s SDK existed purely as a means to package files together into a mod and upload them onto the Steam Workshop. All the mods I made for Civ V could have been done without the SDK. Civ V’s SDK was not a development tool, it was a packaging and distribution tool.”
Modders are already making stuff for Civ VI without a toolkit, but there are some things that an SDK would make easier. For example, Tomatekh says "we've found it impossible to add new art icons at the moment. We're hoping that this will be addressed with an official [SDK], but it's worrying how complicated it currently is."
The Civ VI SDK could also stand to be more accessible than its predecessor. "A built-in game editor would be fantastic," says Tomatekh, whereas JFD wants to see "an informative and comprehensive reference guide to the API." An API, or application programming interface, bundles together lower-level operations and presents them to a programmer as intuitive tools or objects, which can then be used to build software. It's a bit like your email client giving you a button to click to send/receive messages, when beneath that button lies a ton of complex code.
In Civ V's toolkit, there was no guide to the API's building blocks, and the community essentially had to assemble a Wiki through experimentation. "Some kind of reference to all the methods and events that are available to us," says JFD, would be welcome.
Ultimately though, if the SDK is awkward to use, you get the sense these guys will find a way to cope. The SDK is secondary to making the game itself more open to their fiddling. The modders say we're still in 'too soon to tell' mode, but Deliverator cites our interview with Firaxis senior producer Dennis Shirk as an encouraging sign that Firaxis are taking at least graphical modding seriously: “[Even] if you’re a highly skilled modder, it was extremely difficult to work on leaders, and our elite units in the game, so we’re paying special focus to that,” says Shirk.
Deliverator's ambitions run much further than reskinning units, however. “I was part of the team that developed the Dune Wars mod for Civ IV,” he says. “We were able to completely transform the terrain to recreate a desert planet: removing the sea, editing the heightmap to make the landscape more interesting and completely reskinning everything."
You've never seen this kind of thing in Civ V because "it was either too difficult or impossible to modify the necessary art", says Deliverator. So-called 'total conversion' mods, which aspire to change the game on almost every level, were much poorer in Civ V than in IV because of this. Mods have even been modded (modceptio - nope), and here Deliverator mentions Dungeon Adventure, a version of "the phenomenal Fall from Heaven II", which converted one of Civ IV's most famous mods into a dungeon crawler with several map levels.
"One of my biggest hopes for Civ IV," says Deliverator, "is it will support these kinds of complete overhaul mod, that rework the whole game into a science fiction or fantasy context, effectively making it into a completely different game. That will be the true test of whether it has been ‘designed from the ground up with deep mod support in mind,’” he says, referring to Firaxis's bullish promise ahead of release.
Mods in multiplayer
Other than that promise, Firaxis have shared little about what modding in Civ VI will look like other than that mods will be enabled for multiplayer (as they were in Civ IV). Since this is all we've really heard from the game's developer, we asked the modders about it, and got a pretty lukewarm response.
"People seem quite happy playing the vanilla game in multiplayer, but I guess having the option for a fun shorter game is a good thing," says Deliverator, noncommittal. Tomatekh agrees: "I find that most people actually want to play the standard game in multiplayer." Of course, they're speaking about people who are already content to do this, rather than those who are hesitating to get involved in multiplayer because of the commitment it entails.
Firaxis have clearly hypothesised that such people exist and are numerous, but modders don't seem in any great rush to cater to them. Sukritact hopes for nothing more than that "modded multiplayer will make mods popular as a whole".
TPangolin, who ran the original AI Battle Royale, admits that "I doubt any of us in the community have really thought about pursuing that path, mainly because the implications of where that path leads haven’t truly sunk in yet." He is one of the few who shows clear excitement about where it could lead, however. "Sure, you can have scenarios that focus on different eras and have different overarching themes, but what hasn’t really been thought too thoroughly about is how deep and customisable we can make these scenarios."
Here, TPangolin imagines a multiplayer game based on the manga series JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, in which "you play as one of the Stardust Crusaders on their travels." He plans to replace Japan's music with soundtracks from the four parts of the Bizarre Adventure released thus far, "alongside battle initiation music, of course."
It sounds like TPangolin is envisioning a total conversion mod that remakes Civ VI into a co-operative turn-based hero battle game. Perhaps Civ VI's modders could sire a new spin on the MOBA genre? Whether through Counter-Strike or Dota, modding communities have proved time and time again that they have the ideas and the ambition. "There’s a lot of potential for multiplayer mods," says TPangolin.
Long-term community support
Sukritact calls for documentation and tutorials to make Civ modding more accessible. “If [Firaxis] can make a hub for new modders that links players to basic 3D modelling, programming and other such tutorials, you have a way of easing people into modding, as well as ensuring that a higher quality of mods will be produced”. Speaking from personal experience, I relied entirely on the community to learn the basics (anyone interested in modding Civ V should check this thread on CivFanatics).
Beyond support for beginners, a more helpful SDK and a more moddable game, there was clear desire for better communication from Firaxis. Tomatekh, in particular, was vocal on this point. “Honestly, at times it feels like Firaxis doesn’t even know the modding community exists,” he says. “There’s no real communication to ask what [we] need, so patches come adding Lua hooks that are useless and a lot of stuff remains hardcoded. It took both expansions and a patch in Civ V for us just to be able to add custom music.”
TPangolin suggests “that Firaxis and 2K take a look at Creative Assembly (Total War series) and Paradox (Cities: Skylines) and how they operate with their modding communities.” Both he and Tomatekh suggest a modding showcase, featuring the best mods on Firaxis’s Facebook or website, would be a great start; Firaxis’s XCOM 2 team have already done this, and indeed are officially collaborating with the Long War modders, so there’s no reason the Civ team couldn’t at least offer a showcase. But there’s a clear desire for them to go further.
“A bunch of the more well-known Civ V modders tried to get in contact with Firaxis for Civ VI both before and shortly after release and didn’t get any response,” says Tomatekh. “Of course, we understand maybe they can’t talk about certain stuff, but it really does seem like if you’re not a YouTube streamer (even one that obviously has no clue about the game) then Firaxis doesn’t really care.”
Despondent as this may sound, Tomatekh is clear that there’s no malice involved. “I am grateful to Firaxis and really do think that they try to cater to modders, just that they do so in their own little bubble.”
An SDK can be patched, so even if it's no good when it releases, it can improve with time provided Firaxis is willing to engage more with the modding community. Of course, if the game is as structurally impenetrable to modders as Civ V was, there may be little that an SDK can do to change that. Despite this, it'll still say a lot about how serious Firaxis are about mods in Civ VI, because it'll contain the tools Firaxis intends for modders to use. If the game really has been "designed from the ground up with deep mod support in mind", its toolkit will reflect that, and we should know quite quickly just how big the modding community can start to dream.
We'll reach out to the modders once again when they've had a chance to play around with the SDK. Hopefully, the news will be good, and we'll all be playing co-op manga dungeon crawlers by this time next year.
Special thanks to our five modders:
Deliverator helped to make the Dune Wars total conversion mod for Civ IV and developed many workarounds for modding graphics in Civ V, notably Nexus Buddy, a community-made 3D graphics tool. His Moar Units mod for Civ VI already contains 28 additional unique units with new models, and is regularly updated.
Tomatekh is one of the most prolific civilisation makers in Civ V, having made dozens of custom civs and added new religions to the game.
Sukritact is an artist and scripter whose custom assets and Lua code can be found in the work of many top modders, besides his own custom civs. He has also made maps and tinkered with the UI and Civilopedia.
TPangolin is known for his Colonialist Legacies series of mods. These featured the first fully voiced and animated 3D custom leader screen in Civ V, Henry Parkes of Australia, made by his teammates Ekmek, bernie14 and Wodhann. He also ran the AI Battle Royale, a spectator version of Civ V in which AI civs, both custom and Firaxis-made, duked it out for global domination. Firaxis ran their own version to promote Civ VI.
JFD has made dozens of custom civilisations for Civ V and a large-scale overhaul of its statecraft systems, named Rise to Power. He is working on an equally far-reaching religion mod for Civ VI called Rule With Faith.