Mass Effect Legendary Edition Has Sparked A "Modding Renaissance"

Mass Effect Legendary Edition has been out for over a month now, so if you’re reading this article, you’re probably already aware of the drastic improvements it made to the original games. While I still think Eden Prime’s rework is a bit rubbish, the overall changes to visual fidelity and integrity are irrefutable, while gunplay, traversal, and just about every other system have been smoothed out to a remarkable degree.

With all of that in mind, you’d think a lot of the mods designed for the original trilogy have been made redundant. Why change the aesthetic when it’s already been changed for you? Why mess with loading times, or gunfeel, or anything else when all of it has been consciously redesigned for a facelift worthy of 2021 kit? As it turns out, the Mass Effect modding community reckon this new, revamped edition of BioWare’s iconic space opera has loads more potential than the original games did. It’s better, sure, but that just gives modders an even bouncier springboard to launch themselves off.

“The process of remaking an existing mod will be different depending on each type of mod,” Ryan ‘Audemus’ Ainsworth tells me. Ainsworth helps manage the single largest Mass Effect modding community in the world, which he’s been an active member of for around three years. He also led development of the famous A Lot of Videos mod, which upscales every cutscene in the original trilogy to 4K resolution. “Under the hood, the games aren’t all too different, so while there are some things that have changed, no experienced Mass Effect modder is going to be lost looking at these new files.”

Before Ainsworth and his fellow modders can do anything, though, an entire new toolset needs to be designed and implemented from the ground up. At this point, veteran modders will begin rebuilding beloved mods for Legendary Edition, although this will likely require quite a bit of time because there’s no simple copy/paste function available. Ainsworth compares it to rebuilding a house by laying each brick one by one – while you can certainly look at the original structure for reference, you’re still manually repeating the entire process by hand.

And as Ainsworth explains, modding goes way beyond HD textures and bug fixes. “I could go on for hours talking about them all,” Ainsworth says. “Some of our users have gotten so used to playing the trilogy modded that there are certain things they consider ‘essential’ to their playthroughs.”

It’s strange, then, that a lot of these “essential” mods never made the cut for Legendary Edition. We know that BioWare consulted modders while developing the Mass Effect remasters, although in Ainsworth’s eyes there are still quite a few heavy-hitters missing, which he reckons were probably chopped for budget and scope reasons.

“With a remaster you have to be careful about how far you push things because you only have so much time and budget to make these changes,” Ainsworth says. “It wasn’t until later on in Legendary Edition’s development that they realised they needed to bring [the first] Mass Effect up to par, and that decision resulted in the game being delayed all the way from October 2020 to May 2021. So there are simple things they can do, like backporting some Mass Effect 3 casual outfits or adding some new hair options to the character creator, but I suppose you have to draw a line somewhere, right? Otherwise it becomes an ‘if we’re adding this in, why not add this in too?’ situation that snowballs.

“On the other hand they’re obviously not going to look at the ending mods and change the ending because for them it comes down to artistic integrity. If they admit the ending was fundamentally bad writing, that can be quite embarrassing for them publicly, especially since they already tried to patch it up with the Extended Cut DLC. So while I wish they’d done more, I can understand their reasoning as to why they didn’t.”

Regardless of this decision, ending mods will be added to Mass Effect Legendary Edition in due course, as well as mods for seven unused same-sex romances, a cut quest about hanar wars, and a ditched Mandalorian-esque mining planet called Caleston, which later became Therum. Ainsworth explains that the community is still in an assessment period right now, documenting the changes made in Legendary Edition while their programmers dig into the files and put together the new modding toolset – once that’s done, though, it’s game ball. “I can tell you that the remaster has injected a lot of excitement into the community due to all the new possibilities,” Ainsworth tells me. “Once the toolset is ready to release and we can actually start making proper mods that edit the game packages, that’s when we’ll start really seeing how things have changed.”

This is a monumental undertaking in and of itself. Ainsworth notes that the Mass Effect modding community is filled with talented people, although it’s nowhere near the size of the scene surrounding Bethesda games. Building an entire toolset for three massive games with a smallish team of volunteers is no easy feat.

“My main contribution to it has been with icons and graphics since I’m a graphic designer in my day job,” Ainsworth says. “What I do understand though is that in order to create these new tools, we basically have to reverse engineer the files that the games use. We have to figure out how to decompress, view, edit, and recompress the file back into exactly the same format as before so the game can read it. We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of lines of code.

“Thankfully, a lot of the code that our existing tools use doesn’t have to be thrown out. These are remasters, so while there’s a lot we have to figure out, not that much has changed under the hood. This means that what some thought would take many months or even years is actually being done in a matter of weeks. At this point we’re already able to parse the majority of Legendary Edition’s files, and so we’ll likely have our tools ready for internal testing very soon.”

As I discussed in a separate report published three weeks ago, Ainsworth and the rest of the community have already noted that lots of previously unworkable content can now be reimplemented into the game. Mass Effect 2 and 3 in particular use a newer version of the Wwise audio engine, which is what allows for officially cut romances and quests to be readded in an unofficial capacity, “That’s just scratching the surface,” Ainsworth tells me. “There’s a lot more we can do now that simply wasn’t possible before.

“Our community is also able to use this opportunity to ‘remaster’ our own mods. Some mods were made back in 2014 and 2015 on much older versions of the toolset, or with limited modding experience. With the newer, more advanced and robust tools, combined with years of new modding experience and feedback from the original mod, the original work can be remade even better than it was before.”

Interestingly, many of the original authors for some of Mass Effect’ most famous mods will be coming back to remake them in Legendary Edition. Ainsworth notes that certain mods have been on Nexus for eight years, and that some devs haven’t been present in the community for a long time, but the vast majority of popular mods will be reworked – even if they’re not completely remade, their features will be implemented in some shape or form.

“Though this will take a very long time – years even,” Ainsworth says. “While we’re likely to see a lot of new faces join the community, the veteran modding scene is very small and tight knit, and so we’ve already started talking to each other about how we’re going to handle this. Some mods might get handed over to another author to remake with the original author’s blessing. Some will get remade by the original author. And of course, some may be reimagined as an entirely new (but similar) mod by a new author.

“We have the utmost respect for the wishes of our fellow mod authors. If one of us wanted to recreate someone else’s original trilogy mod in Legendary Edition, we’d reach out to the original author and ask for permission. If they say no or don’t respond, that’s the end of it. However, just because someone made a happy ending mod for Mass Effect 3 doesn’t mean that someone else can’t also make one. The difference there is that it would be another mod author approaching the same mod concept rather than the exact same mod. To use a strange but also very apt example, it’s like the movies Friends with Benefits and No Strings Attached. They’re both movies that have the same concept and similar execution, but they’re still two different movies.”

It’s intriguing that Ainsworth uses the happy ending mod as an example here, because Mass Effect 3’s controversial conclusion is actually what led to the birth of the modding scene in the first place. On one hand, Ainsworth attributes the enduring vibrancy of the community to the fact that he and his fellow modders just adore the Mass Effect universe, although as he puts it, the genesis for the whole group “all comes down to Mass Effect 3’s infamous ending.”

“We owe our modding scene to the people who decided they disliked the ending so much they wanted to build modding tools that would allow them to change it,” Ainsworth says. “And I can’t overstate just how extraordinary this feat was. ME3Explorer is one of the most advanced and robust fanmade modding toolsets ever made. While Unreal Engine 3 is generally quite moddable in principle, BioWare’s custom version of the engine is not very mod friendly at all, and so the skill level required to make mods for the trilogy is quite high. You really have to be dedicated to learning how to do it if you want to get anywhere. That dedication, in my opinion, says volumes about how much love and passion we have for Mass Effect.

“When people think of ending mods, most of them are probably referring to MrFob’s ‘Mass Effect Happy Ending Mod.’ This is the landmark mod that kickstarted our whole community, but it would be fair to say that it hasn’t aged well. I don’t wish to insult the mod, but it’s highly ambitious and uses fan recorded VO and cinematics, which obviously can’t blend seamlessly with the cinematics made by a professional triple-A studio. About a year after MEHEM, JohnP released JAM (JohnP’s Alternate Mass Effect Happy Ending Mod – yeah, the names started getting out of control lmao), which was essentially the same concept, but took a ‘less is more’ approach, subtly recutting the ending to achieve the same result without the new fanmade cinematics and voiceover. It’s generally regarded as the best ending mod out there and the one that’s often cited as why people can’t give up their modded Mass Effect 3 in favour of the remaster (other notable ending mods include Less is More Endings and Indoctrination Theory Ending Mod).”

As Ainsworth says, though, it could take several years for some of the larger mods to be remade. All of the people in the community do this in their spare time, and the current catalogue of mods spans several thousands of hours of collective work. “For medium-sized mods, depending on the author it could take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months, and for small mods it’d probably only take a few days,” Ainsworth says. “My hope is that this time next year we’ll be well on our way, but we’ll have to wait and see.”

“My mission statement in the community has been all about unity,” Ainsworth says. “As a community, we’re far more united than we were a few years ago, when most modders were working in relative isolation. We have an opportunity with this remaster to start fresh, with a new modding toolset and united direction on where we want to go as a community. Having everyone together under one roof, sharing ideas and knowledge, helping each other out with problems, working together to create mods, all of that makes us greater than the sum of our parts. It elevates us to do things we never thought were possible before. If we can continue to build on that as our community enters this exciting modding renaissance, I think we’ll be in for a very bright future.”

Ainsworth firmly believes that modding is an essential part of the PC gaming world across the board. From devs learning how to code to the fact that modding communities “keep the lights on for games in the long term,” Ainsworth reckons players all over the world should be grateful for the fact that this kind of creative freedom exists at all. As he puts it, you obviously get a few ego-driven primadonnas who stir up drama, but it’s the same in any community – there are good apples and bad apples.

“I do wish that some publishers were more openly supportive of modding though,” Ainsworth says. “It can be quite demoralising for us to spend so much time pouring our hearts into modding to get ignored. I personally don’t think there’s that much of a difference between modding and fan art – you’ll see the social media accounts of games tweeting out fan art and cosplay all the time but you’ll never see them acknowledge modding, even though it arguably does more to keep the brand alive than fanart and cosplay (I don’t mean to sound dismissive toward fanart or cosplay – they’re amazing).

“It’s interesting, because when the rumours of Legendary Edition started circulating last year, we were all extremely nervous/upset about it because we were convinced it was going to kill the modding community. But this remaster has more modding potential than the originals did. So now there’s actually a ton of excitement about all the possibilities in front of us and we can also use this opportunity to go back and do some remastering ourselves. Rebuilding a huge mod from the ground up is daunting but it also gives you an opportunity to think ‘Okay, what worked when I made this? What didn’t?’ and use what you’ve learned since then to make it even better than it was before.”

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