Part 1: Modding 101: Backitup, Backitup
- Insert Funny Heading Here
- Modding Safety – Backitup
- Remember 7Zip?
- Other Beginner Tools: Mod Managers and Setting Tweakers
- Beyond the In-Game Tweaks
- Mod Managers
- More to Come
Ahem… #Metahumor. Alright, now that I have that out of the way… For our first lesson, we’re going to talk about important tools for modding, proper modding practices, and really basic stuff like that. If you’ve never done any sort of PC game modding, this is where you want to begin. Five things before you start, though – and take this to heart:
- Neither I, nor Nerd Bacon, nor mod creators, nor anyone but you is responsible for damage you do to your computer. Lost saves, screwing up your game install, and getting severe headaches are all hazards you accept when getting into video game modding. It’s the nature of the beast.
- You will almost certainly loose saves, have to start a new game, and accidentally make your install unstable (or even unusable) at some point. Again, it’s just a thing that happens. I’m going to go over a few tricks to fix things quickly, although that’s not always possible. Most of the basics are safe enough, but you’re messing with the core files of a game – unexpected things can happen whenever you do that.
- The Modding community, by and large, has a decidedly anti-piracy stance on the games they make mods for. As a consequence, many major mods will not work on pirated copies of games. I won’t help you get them to work, and neither will anyone in the modding community. In fact, if you try to post problems caused by pirated copies to modding forums, they will call you on it, and may ban your account even for asking. Just buy the darn game already. All the ones I’ll be talking about are older and/or available for minimal cost.
Mods can kill your framerate, even on a powerhouse system. The more mods you have, the more likely the game is to play poorly as a general rule. If you experience framerate drops after installing a mod that make the game unplayable or unpleasant to play, uninstall the mod. While other tweaks can sometimes fix the issue, this is the only guaranteed fix, and other tweaks are probably just putting off the inevitable in any case. This is especially true of lighter weight and older hardware. Your work laptop wasn’t meant to render HD texture mods. It just wasn’t.
- Any game you intend to mod must be fully installed and up to date. You must also run the game, without mods, at least once. You don’t have to play it for more than a minute or two, but you do have to get it up and running. This allows the game to create needed files for settings and configuration. This is a step that cannot be skipped, ever.
Okay, so, are we ready to get started? Fantastic. Now, back your games up. Back up your saves, all the relevant data files, and so on. This is an important first step to modding, and a pretty good idea for all computer activity.Backups aren’t to completely remove headaches; nothing will do that. Instead, they’re to make your life easier if something goes awry.
Depending on your situation, backing it up can mean a couple different things, but basically, it means making copies of important files and storing them somewhere. This is where archival software becomes your best friend.
To be clear, archival software allows you to take several files and compress them into a smaller single file that you can easily restore. I strongly recommend 7zip for this purpose. It’s completely free, and it’s fantastic software. It can be downloaded and installed in a few minutes, and it will make all your back-ups smaller and easier to manage. In this article (and any other one I write), all of my references to compression, decompression, and making archives refer to the methods used with 7zip.
Now, what you do next depends on how much storage space you have. If you have plenty (via a massive hard drive or an external backup), then backup the entire install folder for the game you’re going to mod. If you don’t, you’ll have to skip this step.
Finding the install folder can be tricky, and varies from game to game and from source to source. If you’re using a default Steam setup, your games will be in the C:\Program Files (x86)\Steam\SteamApps\common folder if you’re running Windows 7 or 8, and that’s what I’m going to deal with here. Similar install paths can be found for other services and OSes or with installs from discs.
Find the folder for the game (in this case, \Fallout 3 goty) and right click on it. The pull down menu will have a 7zip line – mouse over it and select the Add to Archive… options. 7zip will open a new windows, thusly. Unless you really know what you’re doing, set the Archive Format to 7z, and then leave all the other options alone. In a few minutes, 7zip will copy all of the files within to a 7z archive. Take that archive and put it in a safe place, preferably an external drive. Don’t just leave it where 7zip makes it, or things can get confusing.
Whether you have plenty of storage space or not, the next step is the same: backup the save and settings files. Again, the location of these files can vary. Many games, however, place them in a folder that you don’t need Administrative privileges to modify. This is a good thing: you don’t
want a game to have admin access unless you can’t avoid it. With a Steam install, Fallout 3 goty saves and settings can be found here: C:\Users\[USERNAME]\Documents\My Games, where [USERNAME] is your actual Windows user name. In the image, you can see that my Username is Watts. Yay! Were friends now! Now repeat the procedure for making a backup I described above.
And there you go – everything you need to restore everything back to pre-modded states. If something goes horribly wrong, you can just delete the original install/settings folder and replace it with your backup. Easy peasey. Oh – if you don’t have enough space for the full backup I suggested, you may have to just deinstall/reinstall the game if something goes wrong – and you can do that even if you have lots of space. Depending on how you installed the game and your internet connection speed, that might be the better option anyway.
As a final note, if you take nothing else away from this, remember the following: before you make changes to any file included with the original install of the game, backup that file. Setting files, executables, whatever. Backups are your friends. Your best friends – and I mean “help me hide the body” best friends, not “that guy is a jerk for calling you a nerd” best friends.
So, you’ve got a backup going on, or you’ve resigned yourself to having to occasionally remove and reinstall software. Now… how do we start modding?
Two tools designed to make your life easier when modding are Mod Managers and Setting Tweak tools. These two tools, which are sometimes combined into a single app, serve very different purposes, so let’s break them down. Setting Tweakers are the most straightforward, so we’ll talk about them first.
Most games only offer a few settings in their option menus. Things like resolution and volume control are almost always present, for instance. Most games, however, have many other settings that can be tweaked. This usually involves modifying a text file using something like Notepad (or Notepad ++, my personal favorite). Hand tweaking
your game’s setting files is well beyond the scope of this article. In order to do so, you need to find a tweaking guide tailored to the particular game you’re messing with. Even games on the same engine (like Oblivion and Fallout 3, for instance) can have very different settings files, so no single tutorial page can cover the whole process.
Some enterprising modders have endeavored to make this a bit easier for you, however, by creating setting tweaking software for specific games. For instance, Skyrim Configurator allows you to change your Skyrim.ini file with relative ease and safety. It even makes a nice backup, so that you can restore everything to normal if you mess it up. Which you might.
Generally, these tweaking programs will provide information about each setting, and offer to make backups to roll back to. You’ll have to look for them for each game, though. Doing a simple Google search for [NAME OF GAME] configuration tool will work most of the time. Be careful with these tools: they can easily render your game unplayable if you’re not paying attention.
Best practices would involve making your own backup of the files involved. Finding the files can be a challenge, but going to the official forums, modding forums, or Steam forums for the game and doing a search can usually help. To make the backup, find the file(s), and do the same backup procedure I discussed before.
Mod managers are a whole other ball of wax. There are lots of these out there, many capable of managing your mods for several games. Websites that specialize in mods often create their own mod managers (see Nexus Mod Manager, the Curse Client, and the Starbound Mod Manager for examples). Steam even has a rudimentary mod manager built into the Steam Workshop.
Mod managers are an absolute necessity for beginners, and they’re outstanding tools even for the most experienced. These applications put the mods in their proper place, which makes installing them a lot easier. Mod managers also allow you to change the order in which the game loads the mods, and keep track of all files installed by the mod, making removal and deactivation as simple as a click or two. Many can also manage downloads for mods, and can check for new versions of the mods, allowing you to use the most up to date and stable versions of the mods.
Over the course of these lessons, I’m going to make modifications to Fallout 3 Game of the Year Edition, Torchlight 2, and Half-Life 2, among others. You’ll see a variety of mod managers, and also see the difference they make in installing mods. I always use mod managers whenever I can – they just make everything easier, including troubleshooting.
So, the first lesson comes to an end. We’ve covered making backups, tweaking tools, and mod managers. The next lesson will cover finding mods and Fixpacks and Unofficial Patches- those mods designed to make your game more stable. We’re going to hit these up first because they make everything else a lot simpler – making a game more stable helps if you’re going to be duct-taping content to it, after all.
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