If you ask someone outside of the Elder Scrolls fan base what their favourite Skyrim mod is, odds are they’ll name either the infamous mod which turns dragons into Thomas the Tank Engine or the one which turns the same poor creatures into bombastic wrestler ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage.
There’s nothing wrong with this, after all, take a cursory glance at the sections of sites like Nexus Mods dedicated to Skyrim’s numerous editions on any given day and you’ll see your fair share of funny and wacky little mods which add things like a sword made of garlic, Despicable Me’s Minions or Yorkshire Tea to the game.
However, in between all of the surrealist humour and the waves of sexually explicit content that would make the average BDSM dungeon look tame in comparison, you’re guaranteed to stumble across a few impressive works that’ll leave you wondering how much time and effort were expended in making them.
Shining A Light On Skyrim Modding’s Masterworks
One mod which had this effect on me recently was Skyrim Together Reborn, a huge project which has brought co-op multiplayer for up to eight concurrent players to the decade-old RPG’s special edition. This is a very complex thing to have implemented, with the mod’s website stating it as having required: “a long development process of over five years, a complete rewrite of the (game’s) code base, and countless hours spent overcoming various obstacles.”
That’s a lot of work and sacrifice for a small group of developers working out of passion and for little to no money. The main reason they cite for doing so is simple. “For years, Bethesda fans around the world have yearned for a multiplayer experience in their favourite games”, says the team’s website, adding: “many felt as though The Elder Scrolls Online and Fallout 76 simply didn't fit the bill, providing more of an MMO experience than a co-op one, and thus the Together Team was formed."
So, put together a developer that hasn’t provided what its fans want in existing releases and a few modders willing to put in the tremendous effort to fill that gap with their own work and, bingo, you’ve got yourself a very impressive mod with a deep and interesting story behind it. This is what I was thinking when I reached out to the team behind Skyrim Together Reborn to try and talk to them about what they’d created.
After managing to get version 1.2 of the mod up and running, modder Cosideci demonstrated just how much of a collective team effort it was, saying: “Sorry, but we don't really want to do interviews and such. We feel it's not about us individually, it's just something we created. We don't like to talk too much about ourselves.” I came away thinking that this was an admirable answer, but also paused to look back at the Skyrim Together mod’s Discord server, through which I’d approached the developers.
With just over 86k members, around 30k of which are usually active at any given time of the day, this space is a hive of constant activity, with scores of players firing a barrage of questions about the mod and supposed issues encountered in getting it to work at the developers, who answer many of these queries personally. It’s a community the size and enthusiasm of which most indie games would kill for, powered purely by passion, rather than any kind of financial incentive.
Trying to Get Into the Modders’ Mindsets
This certainly isn’t anything new in the Skyrim modding space, with projects like Beyond Skyrim and Skyblivion having attracted communities just as large during their lengthy developments, but it got me thinking about what motivates modders to become the figureheads of these monolithic undertakings. Historically, many have justified the hours whittled away and the stress of being beholden to a horde of fairly demanding players via a desire to work in game development, or, more specifically, to work at Bethesda Softworks.
For some, this dream has become a reality thanks to their efforts in modding, but for those like the Skyrim Together team, who seemed to me not to be seeking any kind of attention from game studios or anyone else, this potential reward doesn’t seem to be the goal. Even as someone with a pretty fervent passion for Bethesda games, I was left wondering why, in this situation, you’d put yourself through the rigours of a big project for free, rather than just developing a string of smaller, but still very good mods doing other things.
This is the answer I’d been seeking to gain by speaking to the developers, but left to my own devices, the only solution I could come up with is linked to an issue I alluded to in my recent discussion of Starfield’s prospects. These modders probably knew that if they wanted co-op multiplayer in an Elder Scrolls game, their best bet for achieving that goal wasn’t to ask or wait for Bethesda to make or facilitate something that scratched this itch, it was to spend five plus years of their lives making it themselves.
Creating Cool Things in the Content Chasm
This is the crux of the issue. Despite re-releasing Skyrim more times than I care to remember, the fresh content that Bethesda has offered Elder Scrolls players not open to dedicating their lives to MMO The Elder Scrolls Online over the past decade has been lacklustre. From the controversial Creation Club to the mediocre fishing minigame thrown into the game’s Anniversary Edition, there hasn’t really been anything truly substantial for these players to dig their teeth into.
In the gaping content chasm this has created, mods like Skyrim Together and Skyblivion have arisen to prove without a shadow of a doubt that a significant portion of the massive fanbase Bethesda has built for its flagship fantasy series want things like a co-op Elder Scrolls experience or a remaster of Oblivion and would likely be willing to support these with their wallets.
Despite this, the developer has refused to capitalise on these ideas or offer anything else of note outside of the aforementioned ESO. It’s declined even to loan the IP out to another studio to produce a Fallout New Vegas-esque game designed to tide over the powerhouse franchise’s hardcore audience until The Elder Scrolls 6 eventually arrives.
A huge, passionate community like the one that surrounds The Elder Scrolls should be viewed as the ultimate blessing a game studio or publisher can hope for. However, in this case, it feels increasingly to me like something to be celebrated is being forced to serve as an underappreciated crutch propping up a series whose current custodians are only interested in using it to push players into the highly lucrative MMO or mobile gaming space while they work on other projects.
Taking the consumer for granted is certainly nothing new in gaming, but at this point, when I see modders like the Skyrim Together team going to such an effort to make these massive projects and engage with other members of the community who want to play them, I can’t help but feel as though Elder Scrolls fans deserve a bit more in return for their enthusiasm. You and your friends may be in it together when you fire up this latest modding masterpiece, but it increasingly feels to me as though Bethesda and its loyal RPG fans no longer are.