Part 4: Modding 101: Load Order
So, there you are, all set. You’ve downloaded your Skyrim Mods and stuck them in C:\Program Files (x86)\Steam\SteamApps\common\Skyrim\Data, or wherever your Skyrim Data folder is on your computer. You open up Steam, and launch the game through the built in launcher and…
After you finish cursing my name and all of my future progeny, you try again, this time looking into your Data Files and you see this…
I mean, more or less. This is the built in Data File Manager for Skyrim, and… well, if you’re only using the official DLC, it’s just fine. Great, even. It’s also great if you really, really know what you’re doing – it has all the features a Mod Manager really needs: the ability to activate or delete a file, and the ability to adjust Load Order.
What’s Load Order? What’s a Mod Manager? Oh, crap. I skipped a step, didn’t I?
Load Order: The Order In Which Mods Load
So, it’s basically right there on the tin. Load Order is the order your mods load in. This might seem irrelevant at first glance, but it’s really, really not. You see, with any Mod collection big enough, you’re going to run into conflicts. That is to say, you’re going to have more than one mod that tries to change the same thing. So… what happens then?
Depending on what’s going on, there are three possibilities:
- The Mod loaded last wins! Yay! Except you lose the benefits of the other mod, which may or may not be cool, depending on what it is.
- The conflict gets too big, and the game crashes! Booo!
- Things go really, really badly, and…
So, what can we do about this? Well, fix the load order of course! You go through your mods using a variety of tools, figure out exactly which files they modify. Then you make a spreadsheet on LibreOffice, filling in the information you have gleaned, and use the organizational tools inherent in spreadsheets to spot the conflicts. Once you have compiled that list, you go through them and decide which mods you want to override others, and, using your advanced scripting skills, you figure out what’s causing the crash. From there, you use the built-in tools for the game to put the mods in the appropriate order. You then launch the game, see what’s working, then quit out and adjust the mod order based on that information.
Yeah. That’s… that’s not going to happen. Even if you know what you’re doing, that’s way too time intensive for most people – and I don’t know what I’m doing. Err, that is… I mean…
Ahem… the last sentence notwithstanding, there are a lot of different ways to handle load order. Different mod-friendly games handle mods differently, and there are loads of different tools available to help you out. From managing long mod lists more effectively to getting things in the right order, there are lots of different things you can do that don’t involve any tools at all. So, what are we waiting for? Let’s dive into Mod Order and Management!
The Easiest Stuff First
Have you ever heard of the Unix Philosophy? There’s a lot to it, but one of the main points is this: Do one thing, and do it well. As design philosophies go, it’s a pretty direct one. So how does it apply to our situation? Simple: use as few mods as you can to achieve your desired results.
For instance, there are a fairly large number of Class mods for Torchlight II. Find the class you want and use that mod, and don’t add a bunch more on top of that that you won’t use. Alternately, get one of the mod packages that includes all the classes you want.
Similarly, World of Warcraft has a large number of addons designed to rid us of the ugly griffins we’re forced to look
at on the power bar. There are also a number of addons designed to fix the inane built-in Bag/Inventory UI. There are loads of Minimap addons, quest tracker addons, and so on, and so on. You sort of get the impression that a large portion of the WoW user base is unhappy with the User Interface in general. You would be correct in that impression. Me? I just like tweaking things. But I digress…
Basically, use one mod per thing you want to modify. By using single mods to take care of your needs, you can minimize conflicts. It might seem obvious, but it’s a fantastic first step. If you have only a few mods, and none of them have anything to do with each other, load order can become irrelevant. Which is awesome.
This is easier to do with some games than it is with others. For instance, the aforementioned World of Warcraft has a modding community that, by and large, makes single purpose addons. There’s no reason to use Bagnon if your’s using Combuctor, for instance – it just becomes a matter of preference, or which one has the features you need. Most Action Bar addons have an option to remove the Griffins, or remove them automatically. Using Gatherer and GatherMate2 is largely redundant. You get the idea, I’m sure.
In other games, things get a bit more fuzzy, though. Fallout 3, Fallout: New Vegas, and Skyrim, for instance, often have mods that have overlapping feature sets. So… what about that? How do you handle those with ease, grace, and elegance? Well…
Load Order Organizers
LOOT and BOSS (and similar tools) operate through a database of mods for Fallout 3, Fallout: New Vegas, Oblivion, and Skyrim. The database contains a listing of conflicts and preferred load orders. They read your installed mods, look for conflicts, and provide a report of conflicting mods and mods with known stability issues. It then provides a suggested load order to minimize conflicts and maximize stability.
Now, these tools aren’t perfect. They often identify problems that aren’t really problems. They look for things called “clean edits” that involve mods being “cleaned” with special software. That sounds great in theory, but after spending hours “cleaning” mods, I’ve never seen an improvement in performance or stability. Moreover, LOOT can only detect known mod conflicts that are within it’s database.
The guys and gals running the project do a great job of maintaining the database, but there are a preposterous number of mods out there, and there are frequent updates to existing mods. It’s a lot to keep track of, and the creators of LOOT and BOSS are only human. Although LOOT does have a certain amount of in-depth error detection beyond the database, it can only do so much.
So, it’s good practice to read as much as you can about the mods you’re installing in addition to using these tools. Most mod descriptions include a list of potential conflicts, and some even state which specific files they’re modifying. Avoiding those conflicts in the first place is a big help.
There are other problems as well. LOOT and BOSS only work for recent Elder Scrolls and Fallout games – they won’t help with other games at all. Keeping mods up to date is important as well, because updates are frequently made just to take care of bugs and improve both stability and performance. So… what now?
Mod Managers Are Awesome
Now we get to talk about Mod Managers! Yay!
A Mod Manager is a piece of software that checks mods for updates. They can also be used to modify load order easily, and can be used to download mods directly from the servers they support. Essentially, they’re like the Data File thing I had a picture of at the beginning of this article, except with more robust features.
Mod Managers are often (although not always) built to work in tandem with a particular web site and/or game. For instance, the Nexus Mod Manager works primarily with the Nexus Mods website, and the Curse Mod Manager works through Curse.com. Both of those sites also create the software that bears their name, and require you to make an account before you can use their managers for anything other than taking up space on your hard drive.
One of the more interesting additions to mod management is the Steam Workshop. A place to find, share, and download mods, the Steam Workshop works with many games on Steam, including Torchlight 2, Skyrim, Portal 2,
and Left for Dead 2… and it just occurred to me that large portions of my Steam collection are sequels. Huh.
Regardless, the Steam Workshop provides a platform that allows you to search and install mods, and then keep them up to date, all with a single click. It’s pretty cool stuff, and a load order manager would be the only thing I’d add to it. Well, that and an increase in the size limit for the mods themselves. There’s a robust and helpful community there, too, so that’s also nice.
If you’re getting the idea that there are a lot of Mod Managers out there, well… there aren’t. I only know of about 10, most of which only work for a single game or game series (there’s a bizarre number of mod managers that support Fallout games, by the way). They all work more or less the same way, though.
And Then There Are…
Some games handle things a bit differently. Whether they come with a more robust data file manager, or they just ignore load order and hope for the best, these titles are frequently easier to work with.
Torchlight 2 uses its own mod manager, and only allows 10 mods at a time. This greatly reduces the possibility of load order problems and instability. It also forces you to choose only the mods you absolutely need. Their system could be greatly improved by support for Profiles (i.e. if I want to play character A, I use this set of mods grouped together in Profile A, and there’s Profile B for Character B, and so on), but it’s otherwise a pretty good system to keep Load Order issues to a minimum.
Starbound just kind of throws mods together in a jumble. This isn’t nearly as bad as it sounds, however. Built from the ground up to support Mods, Starbound handles conflicts well, and most of the time the mods work together even if they seem to modify the same things. Moreover, the Starbound modding community works together to minimize conflicts and they often create compatibility patches for their more popular mods.
Then there’s Minecraft… which I’m not really going to talk about because a.) the rest of the Internet has already done that, and b.) I don’t really play it for reasons that would make me sound like an idiot if I shared them (I get lost easily…).
I’ve Rambled Long Enough…
SO, there’s my massive diatribe concerning Load Order and Mod Management. Load order is very important (except when it isn’t) in maintaining game stability and getting all your mods to play nicely together. If nothing else illustrates that, look at the many tools people have created to make mod management easier. It’s also worth noting that almost all of these tools are free.
Where does that leave us? Well, with a lot of modded games to play, of course! Stay tuned, faithful gamers! student 20 is about to play a lot of games… and spend a fair amount of time staring at the BSOD. Which looks so friendly on Windows 8!
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