This article was originally published in French on Ubisoft Stories.
A Cultural and Artistic Movement in its own Right
Rene Stakenborg joined Ubisoft almost a decade ago as a pipeline technical director at Ubisoft Montreal on franchises like Assassin's Creed and Rainbow Six. In 2020, while he was working on Watch Dogs: Legion, his producer mentioned a collective he didn’t yet know about: NOMAD Group, a global network of modders who work to bring user-generated content (UGC) to AAA games.
“He believed I was a good fit, so I tried to learn as much as I could about them. I joined the project almost two years after it started,” says Stakenborg. As part of the collaboration, Stakenborg learned he would work with people outside Ubisoft and allow them to modify and enrich Watch Dogs 2 and Watch Dogs: Legion – basically, to mod the game. “I recently presented a talk about this project at the Ubisoft Developers Conference, which was rather unexpected for me,” adds Stakenborg. As many developers know, projects of this type – a collaboration between a videogame studio and “modders” – are rare.
“Modding”, the process of altering pre-existing aspects of a game, fosters players’ creativity and extends the scope and content of the games. Mods are often created by fans and can range from small changes and tweaks to gameplay to complete changes in environments and worlds.
“There were discussions from the development team on the artistic aspects of this project,” Stakenborg says. “Preserving the integrity of Watch Dogs: Legion's single-player campaign was our main concern when discussing how the mods were going to interact with the game. This has always been a source of discussion when we talk about creation and art, and some developers were very excited about it.”
Nevertheless, there are certain reservations about it in the industry – modding is perceived by some as the alteration of an original work and a diversion of its primary purpose. “The desire to preserve a creation as we intended and created it is totally understandable,” says Mathieu Bardot, communication coordinator in the Ubisoft Open Innovation Accelerator, a team that works with indie developers to build positive synergies. “However, no matter what modders create, the base game is still available in its entirety. Modding offers additional possibilities and, why not? Sometimes it can be a source of inspiration for developers. It can be a new building block and the logical continuity of UGC.”
At an event in 2018, Enguerrand Pinot, a member of NOMAD Group, met Nicolas Pouard, VP of Ubisoft’s Strategic Innovation Lab, and presented his group's ambitions. At the time, NOMAD Group was working on a modded prototype of Watch Dogs 2, with the goal of developing a multiplayer mode. The game seemed ideal to them: a AAA open-world with an urban environment and a high potential for encounters and adventures. Several exchanges followed with different Ubisoft teams before the Open Innovation Accelerator team officially picked up the project. “Our team's mandate is to identify innovative and independent projects or players with a desire to potentially partner with Ubisoft,” explains Bardot. “Modding is innovation. It makes it possible to evolve the technique, in terms of tools and game design, while giving more opportunities to players.”
Forming a New Type of Partnership
Understanding a game, diving into its code, and enriching the experience even further are the passions of modders like Jan Schmitter and Martin Kammersberger, from Germany and Austria, respectively. They met while working on mods for Grand Theft Auto V, and they’ve both been involved in modding since a very young age; Martin started when he was 10 years old. They began learning to mod using Garry’s Mod, a physics sandbox game developed by Facepunch Studios. Using this, they were able to manipulate and modify assets from Counter-Strike and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. “We decided that we needed to form a united group, and not just continue as people living in different corners of the planet, competing in the creation of mods,” Kammersberger explains. “We wanted to bring together people who have the skills to reverse-engineer, and there are not many people who can do that. We also needed public representation as a group to collaborate directly with publishers.” Together, they founded NOMAD Group in 2015. Today, in addition to Schmitter and Kammersberger, the group has five other members from the United Kingdom, the United States, Ireland, and Germany – all volunteers who carry out ambitious modding projects. “From our point of view, modding is a way to show our passion and respect for the games created by the studios,” adds Schmitter.
After several workshops and discussions, Ubisoft and NOMAD officially launched their partnership around the Watch Dogs franchise at Ubisoft Toronto, which had already considered the possibility of promoting UGC. It was agreed that NOMAD would first finish the mod (specifically Script Hook, a plug-in that allows installation of their mods in a game) of Watch Dogs 2 before getting started on Watch Dogs: Legion.
“It took some time because it was a first for Ubisoft, but we managed to find a way to make the project possible under the right conditions,” Kammersberger recalls.
On the Ubisoft side, everyone agrees that the collaboration was largely facilitated by the precise plan NOMAD provided, which detailed its ambitions, production chronology, and necessary tools. NOMAD also proved they could adapt to the operation and requests of Ubisoft. “They were very professional from start to finish,” Mathieu recalls. “They understood very quickly, and there was a real exchange of knowledge with them.” Ubisoft Toronto invited NOMAD to meet the Watch Dogs: Legion team, familiarize themselves with the game before its release, and participate in a workshop.
During the development of Script Hook, Stakenborg acted as a liaison between NOMAD and Ubisoft, helping modders find the right contacts and files while ensuring information security on protected servers. “For example, NOMAD developers experienced issues while working on a specific animation – the state of the character wasn’t changing when it should’ve been,” he explains. “So, I contacted part of the team that had worked on this code to discuss it with them directly. They were all excited to get involved, even though they had a AAA game to finish from home during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
“When you start reverse-engineering, you have to combine several talents and techniques to understand what's going on in the code,” Kammersberger explains. “I was very curious to see how everything was implemented in the code and if there were unused pieces or elements. It was fascinating to observe how the team created the game, and it taught us a lot of techniques to improve our own code.”
Thanks to this unprecedented collaboration, NOMAD was able to set up invincibility mods, including the Noclip mode, which lets the camera and player pass through physical obstacles; a cinematic camera; and the ability to stage-specific actions. Players can also adjust their heat level, in-game weather, time of day, and even slow down time to make slow-motion sequences. Some ideas are drawn directly from players and their suggestions on social networks. “You can spawn in-game items with the map editor, like your favorite car or a drone,” Stakenborg says.
Opening up to the Community
Watch Dogs: Legion's Script Hook was released on April 14, 2021, and feedback was immediately positive, with players praising NOMAD and Ubisoft's openness to this type of project. “Having invested a lot of time on it, it was a great satisfaction to see the players download it, share feedback, and show their support,” says Schmitter.
Since then, Ubisoft and NOMAD have released early access to Watch Dogs: Legion UNITED, a multiplayer platform that allows players to host dedicated servers, play collaboratively, and customize the Watch Dogs universe with custom scripted game modes.
“UGC is a vector of reflection and action for Ubisoft,” says Bardot. “The partnership with NOMAD is the logical continuation of our desire to innovate with UGC. The positive reception of this mod shows that they want to get more involved in our worlds. It is a discussion that we must continue to have, and a way forward.”
For more on tech innovations within Ubisoft, check out how For Honor made testing a celebrated player experience or listen to a podcast series on how Ubisoft La Forge is forging the future of games with its R&D network.