Skyrim & Modding

Ive recently been inspired to start playing Skyrim again, and (for the most part) Im loving it. Ive decided for the very first time to NOT go a primary mage as my character… Im sticking with the battle-axe or warhammer (both two-handed weapons), specialising in heavy armour, and backed up by (of course) archery. And I gotta say its tough compared to my mage characters… This is odd because everyone I speak to and everything I read indicates that using a mage is harder but with my trying to stick to a purely physical character Im having to hit that magic reload button far more often than Im proud of.

Ive also picked the side of the Imperials this time round. My first play through was on the side of the Stormcloaks and it was absolutely AMAZING. Ive never actually had so much FUN with a storyline before, so hopefully the Imperials will be just as interesting. Worringly, Ive already given and received an axe back from Ulfric (the leader of the Stormcloaks) and from memory I was quite far into the Stormcloak story when this happened, and its seemed to occur much earlier with the Imperials.

Now personally, Im an avid PC gamer. While I can respect consoles and their place in the gaming ecosystem, I prefer the flexibility given to PC gamers, specifically around modding and customisation (both of the visual/audio side of things as well as the gameplay). Which brings me to the purpose of this post… Im not entirely sure what to think of modding in Skyrim (specifically modding the appearance of Skyrim). Once upon a time, a mod simply meant you download a file, click Next a few times and BAM theres your mod installed and that was it. In my opinion Skyrim kind of takes a step forward and a couple of steps back with its modding community and processes, so let me explain…

Step Forward: The Steam Workshop (Skyrim Section). While not entirely a Skyrim thing, this is one of the most important things to happen to any modding community, ever. Having a large centralised database of mods, clearly documented and relatively well tested is a match made in heaven. The amount of new content (and Im talking completely new quests and storylines, texture mods far in excess of anything Bethesda have created – even with the HD Textures pack – as well as the hundreds of tweaks) is staggering, and I dont think its possible to go through the entire library in a single persons gaming lifetime (gaming lifetime is the amount of time spent actually gaming, not the entire persons life), and it just keeps on growing. This is amazing, and the community that Valve have built around its Workshops is definitely something to be admired.

Step Backward: As is always the case with large centralised databases of mods, inevitably comes the compatibilty issues. One of the most frustrating things I found when I was trying to mod Skyrim was the amount of FAQs posted on the relevant mods Steam Workshop page saying “oh, if you use this be sure to disable X and tweak Y to Z.”. And by tweaks I mean INI file changes…

Ok… So how many people just went “OHHHH INI TWEAKS THOSE WERE THE DAYS LOL”… Well they’re still alive and kicking in Skyrim and I really do think this is a Bad Thing (TM). As soon as you start tinkering with the internals of an INI file be prepared to lose your changes/controls/settings… many times…. from reverting to a version that doesnt crash your game on the loading screen. And when you get OTHER mods not functioning correctly from an INI tweak you made from the popular new mod you tried out a few weeks ago? Well, lets just say its almost easier to delete all the relevant files and validate the game’s local files from steam to get a fresh copy. Oh and then there’s this thing called “Steam Cloud” which lets you save your preferences in games (ie. INI Files) even if you delete it… LET THE FUN COMMENCE (to be fair, this didnt happen to me with Skyrim, just CounterStrike: Global Offensive, but boy was it aggravating). Usually if you get to this point its actually easier (and quicker) to uninstall the game and redownload a vanilla client from Steam.

Step Sideways: Skyrim’s Steam Workshop introduces this concept called ‘Collections’, which essentially form a list of mods the relevant user has cherry picked from his favourite collection and has said to the world: “Look how awesome this collection of mods is everyone!”. Now in theory, given the modular nature of the Workshop this is awesome. Whats not so awesome is the install processes for these collections that go with it. My personal ‘favourite’ is the S.T.E.P. mod (Skyrim Total Enhancement Project).  It is – I shit you not – a THIRTY PAGE guide on the installation of a massive collection of mods. This is (stuffing around aside) an amazing accomplishment by the creators of the project, but I find the idea of spending several hours trying to get a collection of stuff working together not so attractive. And once you start getting into specifying “Load Order”… well, it was at this point I actually gave up and said ‘Screw it, I’ll just use the HD textures mod Bethesda gave me for free’.

Large Step Backwards: Something to be REALLY REALLY SUPER DUPER CAREFUL about when modding Skyrim, is that mods can potentially corrupt your save files. Because your save files (for some reason which I still cant quite fathom) use/reference content from the mods, once you remove them you run the risk of not being able to load the game. I actually had this happen to me, and in large part is why Im not entirely happy with the Skyrim modding process.

So as you can see I have some mixed feelings about the whole modding experience in Skyrim (granted, mine wasnt exactly stellar). Still, it would be nice if there was a way to streamline the entire process without having to resort to 30 page install guides.

I just want to make one thing clear: I am in no way disparaging the Skyrim modding community, nor disrespecting the people that have put SO MUCH time into creating the amazing content both on the Steam Workshop and scattered throughout the web. I truly think it is amazing what they have done, I just find myself as a user frustrated by all the stuffing around to get things working. Not only that, the mods I was trying to install were display enhancements, hence the requirement in some cases for INI tweaks. The quest mods seem to be a click and forget type experience, which is what I’m getting at with this blog entry… This is how I want my display mods to install.

Steam & Windows 8

I stumbled across a Windows 8 app the other day which blew my freaking mind. ‘Pin Steam’ provides proper (at least until Steam gets its stuff into order) integration for your games and the Windows 8 Start Screen. He does charge US$1.49  for the privilege, which to be honest raises my eyebrow a bit, but if you like your Windows 8 start screen with a bit of gaming style, this is definitely the app for you.

You can find the app on the Microsoft App Store here.

I find a lot of hate out there for Windows 8, which I really cant understand. I’ve been using it as my primary OS for quite some time now, and I have had hardly any issues. There was a bit of an adjustment period, but once I got a good handle on the basics, I actually felt Windows 7 was a step backward in terms of UX (I have no doubt professional UX guys would disagree with me here, but hey thems the breaks). In terms of gaming there’s been no issues whatsoever… People moaning about Windows 8 and gaming performance I must remind you about the jump from XP to Vista… now THAT was a debacle. If I’m only losing a few frames per second, I think I can live with that while AMD and nVidia get their drivers optimized (which I think they’ve done an outstanding job of doing already).

Steam’s ‘Big Picture’ mode (available if you are in the beta for the Steam updates, of which I most certainly am) is amazing, and oh so beautiful. And to be honest does feel a LITTLE like its own personal shot at imitating the look & feel of the Windows 8 Metro (yeah yeah, I know) interface. From what Ive seen of it, Big Picture would be perfect for Valve’s mysterious ‘Steam Box’, which isn’t really a ‘thing’ yet. (Valve’s attempt at the console market I suppose).

If I was to be brutally honest though, ‘Big Picture’ is actually more beautiful than anything Ive seen from Metro thus far. I’ll be very interested to see the public reaction once Valve releases Big Picture to the masses.

One for the gamers!

Evolution at work!

I have decided that, in addition to my technical blog, I will be starting up a gaming blog. There will not be anything really formal about this (don’t expect any editorial-like articles 😛 ) but I will try to be as coherent as possible 🙂

I will be blogging about games in general, mods to my favourite games and anything else geek-ish I find of interest. Im hoping this will be an outlet for my inner geek, so join me wise reader in a journey of awesome 😀