Mod is Dead: World of Warcraft's CTMod

Today's interview is part of Mod is Dead, a continuing series featuring an examination of user-created mods and an appraisal of the state of the mod community. Last week's installment included an interview with Valve's Adrian Finol and John Morello.

With dozens of buttons, boxes, numbers, and meters presented to its users, playing World of Warcraft is no easy juggling act. In an act of foresight, the designers at Blizzard left the user interface of its massively popular MMO open to modding from the start, allowing dedicated users to slowly add in everything from extra buttons to in-game tic-tac-toe.

If you've spent enough time in Azeroth to get repeatedly "owned" by a raid boss, you are probably already familiar with Tucker Smedes' work. Co-creator of the CTMod add-on pack, he is partly responsible for designing CT_RaidAssist, the group-management mod that made it possible for raid leaders everywhere to regain their sanity.

Of course, as is the case with many popular mods, Blizzard liked the idea so much they implemented their own version. I asked Smedes what it's like designing mods for a game that changes so rapidly, and whether or not it was ultimately rewarding to have his popular mod cannibalized by the game he supports.

Shack: So what does CT stand for?

Tucker Smedes: My name is Tucker Smedes, hence T.S. My partner on the CTMod project is Cide, which is where we came up with CT: Cide & TS.

Shack: When did you get into World of Warcraft modding?

Tucker Smedes: Before WoW was released. I was given a beta account from one of the great developers I met at E3, and have been playing since. I had come from EverQuest, and there were limited UI modding options there that I had taken advantage of. I wasn't content with the buff display WoW implemented from the start, as I wanted them listed vertically with names being displayed, so CT_BuffMod was created.

Shack: How did the greater CTMod project get started?

Tucker Smedes: Cide and I met while he was working as a forum moderator for a now-extinct fan site, and I had written some articles for their parent company when I was at E3. I expressed interest in creating a more useful UI, and he learned to code.

Shack: What kind of coding work is involved?

Tucker Smedes: All WoW mods are done using XML and LUA. It's fairly simple for anyone with a coding background to use. I'm able to edit it a bit myself, but still not able to write it from scratch.

Shack: Is every CTMod component created by you guys, or do you incorporate other mods into the CT package?

Tucker Smedes: In terms of mods, only Cide and I [have worked on them], with the occasional user submission with a bug fix, change, or addition. There have been two non-CT mods added to our download packages over time; CombatStats and MovableBags. Everything else was designed and coded by us.

Shack: CTMod is different in that it is maintained by a small, consistent group. What advantages (or disadvantages) do you think this allows you over other open-source style mods?

Tucker Smedes: There are small advantages, in that if a mod has several components, all would be coded the same way, and the look and feel of all mods should stay consistent. However, over time I've changed my opinion on this a bit. The major disadvantage comes into play if someone is busy, loses interest for a time, or just has too much to do. Cide hasn't wanted to code much since last year, which really makes it impossible to make any changes or updates. I can't code myself, so I end up relying on him to want to fix a bug or make a change. When a project has multiple coders working on it, if one isn't going to fix a bug, another can, and I see that as a huge advantage with keeping things up to date. It has crippled our projects over the past several months.

Shack: How much planning goes into the design of each mod?

Tucker Smedes: I keep an ongoing MS Word document with my notes for various mods or projects, and at present time it is 11 pages long. We've had development versions of CT_RaidAssist2, CT_Timeline, CT_SuperBar, and a few other mods for months now, some over a year--but without constant development, they become stagnant. CT_RaidAssist became the most-used user modification of any game ever played, but development fell off on it, and it became outdated and error-prone. It really does become nearly a full time job to keep mods updated, and if you aren't looking to spend at least several hours a week just to make sure no bugs arise, it's very difficult.

Shack: CT_Raid in particular has been quite popular. Could you explain the development process it went through?

Tucker Smedes: I've been a guild leader of a raiding guild for a long time, and I wanted to implement some raid tools to make raids easier and smoother. At the time there were two other raid UIs a few people used, but I never bothered installing either--they just didn't seem like what I would want or need. So I designed one based on what I wanted. Since the development of CT_Raid, Blizzard has implemented pull-out raid windows, the ready check, buffs on the raid frames, main tank targets, /rw (raid warning, raid say), raid leader chat, and other features from my design.

Shack: Do you remember the point where the mod really took off?

Tucker Smedes: It had been pretty popular from beta on really. There were only a few options for worthwhile mods coming into release; ours was continually being updated and worked on, and the design was dominant. When we moved CTMod to its own web server, it crashed two different servers within the first three days of its move. When we released CT_Raid, it basically increased multiple times. Every raid guild was using CT_Raid, and it had been published in--at last count--18 magazines worldwide, being used in over 100 countries. I only wish the development could have continued like it started.

Shack: Do you have any kind of relationship with Blizzard?

Tucker Smedes: I have met and talked with several of the developers over the past few years, and Cide maintains communication with a few as well, but that's about it.

Turn the page for Smedes' views on Blizzard cannibalism, "cheating" mods, and the WoW modding community. _PAGE_BREAK_

Shack: Is it frustrating or flattering when Blizzard incorporates pieces of your mod into the actual game?

Tucker Smedes: It's both. I like the fact that my ideas are obviously liked by the players, and considered worthy of putting into the game itself. However, at the same time it basically makes all the work we've put into something go to waste. CT_PetHealth was a great example of this. We spent weeks developing CT_PetHealth, which was a simple, yet complex, mod to display the health of players' pets in your group. Within about two weeks of the release of CT_PetHealth, Blizzard announced they would be adding pet HP bars to the party UI.

They've adopted the "add name to mail input field" option from CT_MailMod, and will be implementing Mass Mail from CT_MailMod in either patch 2.3, 2.4, or the expansion. They've added buff timers from our BuffMod, additional hotbars from BarMod, tooltips on items in mail, instant quest text display, buffs on the target frame, and probably more I can't think of right off the top of my head.

Shack: When you were creating CT_Raid, did it occur to you that it might fundamentally change the way the game is played? Has it been interesting to watch how Blizzard has addressed the issue of mods that can decrease the difficulty of the game?

Tucker Smedes: We knew based on the success of previous mods that CT_Raid would be a big hit--we just didn't know how big. We felt that "decursing" via pushing one button over and over--like we built into CT_Raid--really did decrease the difficulty of the game. With that being said, it also made the game somewhat fun again. Having to do a fight like Chromaggus in Blackwing Lair, where certain classes spent the entire fight targeting, hoping for line of sight, curing, and repeating, just wasn't fun for anyone. Fortunately, Blizzard has realized their mistakes in putting things like that in, and don't do it nearly as often, or at least not to that extent anymore. I'm glad that auto-curing like that prompted them to realize how much everyone hated those encounters, and I do feel the game is better now because of it.

Shack: Has Blizzard ever expressed displeasure over any aspect of your mod that has drastically changed the game?

Tucker Smedes: One-click curing as I mentioned before, and one-click healing whoever had the lowest health (EmergencyMonitor) were things that Blizzard has blocked the functionality of due to making the game "too easy." They've worked with us for most mods though.

Shack: Is there a line that has to be drawn as a modder, or is it up to Blizzard to tell you when something has moved into the territory of "cheating"?

Tucker Smedes: Every so often you'll see a mod that tries to do something it shouldn't, and for the most part those are squashed rather fast. There were times we could have added more functionality to a mod to make it do things that weren't exactly the intention, but we always strayed away from that. Blizzard gives quite a bit of freedom to the players/modders, despite the limits they put on it all.

Shack: What is your appraisal of the WoW mod scene right now? Have things stagnated?

Tucker Smedes: There isn't a lot that hasn't been done. There are fancy unit frame mods, fancy heads-up displays, tracking mods for loot, auctions, mail, expenses, tradeskills--virtually everything. For a "new" mod to emerge, it would have to be either a remake of something else, or a groundbreaking idea no one has come up with yet, and I don't think there are many opportunities for the latter. I've seen more and more "remake" or "continued" tags on mods lately, as authors tire out and leave their mods untouched, until a fan of the mod picks it up and starts where the original author left off. This type of mod is good in that it keeps things alive, but the code often deteriorates, and slowly becomes outdated and erroneous.

Shack: How difficult is it to constantly update the mod after a new patch?

Tucker Smedes: Since about the 2.0 patch, roughly 9 months ago now, Cide has only done minor updates to various mods to ensure they still function. A few mods received a recode several months back, but far less has been done on the mods than I would like. I'll emphasize that having multiple coders really would be a good thing.

Shack: Tell me about CTProfiles. What was the idea behind it, and why did you discontinue the project?

Tucker Smedes: CTProfiles was also coded by Cide, designed by me, and we had another coder on the project at the start. It was created to allow you to profile your gear, either for display purposes, or for theory-crafting. Many people used it to display gear sets for resist gear, pvp gear, and custom sets. I designed it with theory-crafters in mind. If I get this piece of Tier 5 gear, and this other non-set item, my stats would be greater than these two pieces of Tier 4, for example. There are a lot of items in-game now, and more continually being added; as a raider, PVPer, or just a casual player, finding the best set of gear for you can be its own game. Other profiling sites, the [Blizzard-created] Armory included, are far insufficient for this type of thing.

The project was put on hold for the same reason mods have gone without major changes: no coder. CTProfiles boomed for quite some time, but again when maintenance proved it would be a daily thing, both coders on the project lost interest. I spent about four months talking to other coders and trying to find anyone interested in picking up the project, but none were either willing or able to do so, thus I had to put it on hold.

Shack: What are some of your favorite mods outside of CT? What kinds of things have they accomplished that you can appreciate as a fellow modder?

Tucker Smedes: My recent favorite non-CT mod would be Examiner. I used SuperInspect for a long time, but it fell to the same fate hundreds of other mods have, and went without updates. I still use Titan Panel and find it useful, and SCT [ScrollingCombatText], even though Blizzard implemented their own version. As a raider I also still use ItemRack, but I find it problematic, and am hoping Blizzard's release of a gear-swapping UI in the upcoming patches works well.

The biggest thing a modder can do is make sure their mods stay updated and bug free. Countless mods have rose and fell over the months and years. Some become popular then fall off; some never make it to a fully fleshed out state and die before they reach their full potential. I've worked with several independent developers over time and I see the same thing nearly every time. A good idea can only be made better if it's continually worked on.

Shack: Any future plans for CTMod?

Tucker Smedes: Winter is approaching and that's usually when Cide resumes coding on various projects, so I'll be getting my notes out and going over what I think needs to be focused on first. I'd still like another coder or two to work on mods with us, but it's rare to find one willing to commit the time to it. Blizzard is still implementing more of our features in future patches, so if we can focus on a few "trouble spots," it might be more likely we'll see some content updated in a timely manner.

Shack: Anything else you'd like to mention?

Tucker Smedes: I'd like to express thanks and appreciation to our millions of users around the world, and furthermore express my apologies for updates that haven't come or have been slow to arrive. I wish I could code to help keep things updated better. If there are coders looking for a full time side-project, feel free to contact me via the CTScreens site. I'd love to get things updated if I could find another coder or two. Or if Blizzard or any other companies are looking for a designer that can't code, I'd probably be interested.

Think the mod you play is under-appreciated? Have some feedback you need to get off your chest? LFG? Nick@Shacknews.com