Saying that modding is one of the great advantages of PC gaming is an understatement. Mod(ification)s take many forms, from ‘unofficial’ patches that fix problems developers can’t or won’t deal with, to adding in totally new content or modifying existing content. Sometimes though, they go a step further and radically change the way a game looks, plays and feels, like the Super Skyrim Brothers mod for Skyrim, which exchanges the grim barbarians and frozen tundra of the latest Elder Scrolls for bouncy, colourful Mario cuteness.
Sometimes, mods make the base game inarguably better than the ‘vanilla’ version of the game. If you play Minecraft, when was the last time you played it completely un-modded, without even a simple texture pack? (Yes, yes, I know some of you do, but you’re weird). Other times, the mod changes the base game so much that the resulting collision between paid-for programme and bedroom coding becomes a whole new thing all of its own. Counter Strike and Team Fortress were both originally ‘total conversions’ of Half Life, while Defence of The Ancients began as a Warcraft III mod before mutating into an entire new genre. Today we’re looking at a mod which not only spawned two of its own, divergent mods, but also arguably defined the entire Battlefield series as it stands today – Desert Combat for Battlefield 1942. As they say, from tiny acorns do mighty oaks grow…
Chronologically, the story begins around the late 1980s with an Amiga demo scene group, composed of five Swedish friends, known as The Silents. Now, for those of you whose memories aren’t 16-bit, the demo scene back then revolved around creating elaborate audio-visual demos that pushed the hardware to its limits, or found new, increasingly impressive ways of doing things that mainstream developers struggled with. In part, the demo scene stemmed from the practise by pirate groups of appending flashy intros to the beginning of their cracked releases; little show-off screens that listed the crackers responsible, and sometimes even keyboard shortcuts for built-in trainers and cheats. (A lot of now-legitimate artists, programmers and musicians got their start this way). Eventually, the intros became so elaborate that the crackers started making unique ones, divorced of any pirated software. But the demo scene also had a strong legitimate side, as home coders and bedroom programmers began making their own games and demos and self-distributing them. Back then, pre-Internet, demos were exchanged on 3.5’ diskettes, purchased from hastily-photocopied catalogues distributed at fairs and markets, as well as from phonebook-like listings in the back of magazines. Tobias Richter, now a famous German digital special effects artist, has roots in making elaborate Star Trek animations that would sometimes span several diskettes(!).
Winding forward to 1992 through a haze of parallax scrolling and Paula-produced 4-channel beats, our five Amiga-loving, demo-making Swedes – Ulf Mandorff, Olof Gustafsson, Fredrik Liliegren, Andreas Axelsson and Markus Nyström – are at university together in Växjö, Sweden. It’s here that a big piece of the puzzle appears, with the formation of Digital Illusions CE in May 1992. (According to my research, the CE doesn’t denote some kind of Swedish business entity, nor is it Conformité Européenne (the EEA quality mark for products), so it’s probably safe to assume that it’s just there to create the snappy ‘DICE’ shorthand). The team’s early projects included the popular Amiga and Super Nintendo Pinball Dreams / Fantasies / Illusions games (Pinball Fantasies made it to MS-DOS too), and by the end of the 1990s, various racing and pinball games for Windows, the Sega Saturn and PSX. 2000 was a particularly productive year for DICE, which saw them produce 2 rally games, a NASCAR game and a licensed equestrian title, but it’s 1999 that we want to look at for the next stepping-stone on the bullet-riddled path to multiplayer mayhem. This is the year that Refraction Games, another Swedish outfit, gave the world the now-legendary Codename Eagle.
If you look at the bullet points for Codename Eagle, you could be fooled into thinking you were reading the Battlefield 1942 box: an online WW2-era FPS with infantry and vehicle spawns, large, open maps, a single-player campaign and online CTF, DM and TDM modes. That’s because BF 1942 is, at its heart, the next iteration of Codename Eagle. Refraction had had a very specific goal for their first game. At the 2001-2002 EA product lineup at their Redwood City, California headquarters, BF 1942’s producer and former Refractions man Lars Gustavsson described that goal as “creating the ultimate multiplayer gaming experience”. Although they knew they had come close with Eagle, they felt that it could still be much better (in truth, it was quite a mess in places). So late in 1999, with Take-Two Interactive preparing to publish Codename Eagle (in the UK and Europe in November ’99 and in the US four months later), half the Refractions team sat down to polish and finalise the code, whilst the other half got down to work on what would eventually become Battlefield 1942. They had built their own engine for Codename Eagle, Refractor 1, and with that game out of the door in time for Christmas, the whole team turned their attention to building Refractor 2.
Help arrived in January 2000 when DICE acquired Refractions, and together they would spend the next two years building and polishing BF 1942. With EA lined up to publish and busy milking the publicity cow, interest for Eagle continued to remain high, with customer feedback from the previous title proving valuable to the BF 1942 team. The Refractor 2 engine was a ground-up re-write, and a lot of effort was expended on getting the handling and feel of all sorts of land, sea and air vehicles just right, at the same time as having good, tight traditional FPS code for the infantry. The team took a realistic approach to the graphics, but gave the controls a more arcadey feeling that made the game easier and more fun to play. As Gustavsson noted at the product showcase, “We strive for as much realism as possible while still delivering a fun gaming experience. The realism is there since we all love a good-looking game and we have chosen a style that doesn’t force you to study the manual for hours before playing. Why make it harder than it has to be? Good fun is what we are aiming for!”