A decade of horse armor

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion had its 10th birthday over spring break. Bethesda Game Studios’ followup to their 2002 Morrowind introduced voiced characters and brought greater balance between combat styles (as well as removing spears, never to be seen again). However, Oblivion‘s greatest impact was horse armor.

April 3rd, two weeks after Oblivion‘s launch, marked the release of the Horse Armor Pack. Players who forked over $2.49 were given the ability to purchase two new sets of armor for their horses. The armor had no effect on gameplay, it simply changed the horse’s appearance. While not the first-ever downloadable content (DLC) or microtransaction, it was notable for selling well despite much ridicule.

In the days before Oblivion, conventional wisdom dictated that enabling users to create more content for your game would increase its value. Game developers would create tools and documentation to enable users to create modifications, or mods. Mods are typically new levels, items, or entirely new games (referred to as total conversions), released non-commercially. This style of game design was pioneered by John Carmack and id Software.

id’s earliest major success was 1992’s Wolfenstein 3D, one of the first first-person shooters. The game gathered a cult following eager for more levels. In these early days of bulletin boards, fans programmed tools to create new “maps.”

Seeing the potential, Carmack created the WAD (Where’s All the Data?) file for id’s 1994 followup, Doom. WADs contained levels, graphics, and most of the other data needed for a game. Fans ran with the WADs, creating tens of thousands of new levels (Doom mods are still being produced to this day). While most WADs contain a single level, “megawads” could contain more content than the original game.

Doom also introduced the world to total conversions, or massive mods, changing every aspect of a game except for the engine. The first total conversion, Aliens TC, changed Doom‘s theme and setting to James Cameron’s 1986 science-fiction epic. In a 2007 interview, Carmack talked about the first time he saw a Star Wars mod for Doom:¬†“Seeing how someone had put the Death Star into our game felt so amazingly cool. I was so proud of what had been made possible, and I was completely sure that making games that could serve as a canvas for other people to work on was a valid direction.”

In 1996, id again revolutionized video games with Quake. Quake introduced many new techniques for rendering 3D graphics, and was one of the first multiplayer games to be played over TCP/IP, the cornerstone of the modern internet. In magazines and on their website, id advertised mods and total conversions as a key reason to buy their new game. Quake spawned many mods, most notably Team Fortress which has become a game franchise moving tens of millions of copies.

Horse armor represented a new school of selling games. While mods increased the value of the original product, they now became competition as well. Fewer people will pay $2.49 for two sets of horse armor when there are hundreds of options available for free, or pay $15 for four multiplayer maps when there are 11,000 at their fingertips.

To their credit, Bethesda have continued to release mod tools. Their games, even post-Oblivion, are known for massive community support. Over time, the developers have put modding utilities at a much lower priority, releasing them later in their titles’ lifespans. Fallout 4 was released almost 6 months ago and there is no release date or estimate set for official modding tools, likely as an attempt to drive DLC sales.

Ironically, id was purchased by Bethesda’s parent company, ZeniMax Media, in 2009. John Carmack, the final remaining id founder and the father of the game modding community, left to become CTO at Oculus VR in 2013. A reboot of Doom is set to release in 2016, with no mod support. It’s okay though, there are plenty of horse¬†armor sets, paint schemes, consumable items, and more DLC to buy.