At January’s WildStar press event, I had the opportunity to chat with several of Carbine’s developers about something near and dear to my heart: modding. During my personal demo, Jeremy Gaffney remarked offhandedly — twice! — that people don’t really want to play the UI; they want to play the game. I know that he’s right about some people, and I’m glad game developers are devoting resources toward designing a seamless blend of UI and gameplay that makes actually healing party members as fun or more fun than playing Grid-style healer whackamole. But whackamole or not, I do want to play the UI. I want to tinker.

Fortunately, WildStar intends to accommodate me in a huge way. Read on for the scoop on WildStar’s planned modding tools, player councils, and player-generated content.

Troy Hewitt, producer and community director at Carbine, and David Bass, Carbine’s senior community manager, let me pull them aside to talk addons. “The idea is that nothing in the UI is untouchable,” Bass said to lure me in.

Why would I talk to the community dudes instead of, say, a programmer knee-deep in lua? Because modding is all about the community. Hewitt made his opinion clear: “I have always personally held the belief that UI mods for World of Warcraft are more responsible for the accessibility and the popularity of the game than anything. There are lots of people who are purists, but MMOs are technical beasts, and UI mods create an opportunity for people to enjoy the game in the way that they want.” Player-generated content, he contends, is “the wave of the future.” PGC normally refers to systems like the game’s housing and social mechanics, but addons can also create a sense of ownership in players on a meta level.

Not a rocket on a pig

Though mods for WildStar were always a part of the design docs, Hewitt dreamed about engendering a massive modding community for WildStar, though he expected (but did not meet with) some measure of resistance. After all, the very existence of mods is proof that someone out there finds the original design lacking, which could be taken as an insult to the programmers, so asking programmers to facilitate modders in trying to improve the patently unassailable original work is an exercise in geek diplomacy.

Plus, the idea of bringing a high level of control to player modders can be “frightening” because while a modding system will assuredly tap into the “helper” mentality of MMO players, the MMO fanbase is made up of more than just helpers. “You also have a whole host of people who are looking to do something just for the lulz,” Hewitt admitted. “That’s a challenge, but I’m not afraid of that challenge.”

And neither is Carbine. The studio developed proprietary UI modding software under Lead Client Engineer Jon Wiesman, who previously worked on EverQuest’s UI modding code and who already shared Hewitt’s vision of the perfect modding platform. In fact, Hewitt credits Wiesman with mainstreaming UI modding in the era of WoW; he calls Wiesman “the grandfather of the moddable MMO UI.” Both men believe that if properly managed, player mods can be more asset than hindrance and that mods make MMOs “sticky.”

“At the end of the day,” Hewitt told me ruefully, “the people who are playing the game understand the systems better than the people who made them. And that’s a bitter pill to swallow for designers.” So why not turn the players loose and effectively crowdsource the UI?

See, Carbine’s software isn’t just meant to aid players; it’s also intended to help the designers themselves. A lone UI dev can become a bottleneck to creativity as every other system dev must work through her just to scratch out an idea in a test environment. But if everyone has access to and training on the UI tools, then the design process is that much easier — and faster, which is the part that matters most to players hungry for content. Consequently, most of Carbine’s developers go through Hewitt and Wiesman’s “UI University” to train on the lua-based Apollo and Houston tools and learn to play in the interface universe without strictly being lua programmers themselves, even those designers whom Hewitt called the “slap-a-rocket-on-a-pig” creative types. The UI bits they whip up might not be pretty, but they work for testing purposes. Besides, Carbine can always “make it pretty later.”

Making it pretty

Ultimately, player modders will be using nearly the same tool to create their own mods and make the game’s interface pretty, too. “This is a dev tool,” Hewitt confirms, one akin to something like the Elder Scrolls Construction Kit. So how will you get those mods loaded into your WildStar client come launch? Carbine considered hosting UI mods on the official site to act as a gatekeeper against potentially problematic mods, but in the end, the studio opted to not reinvent the wheel. Instead, its plan is to partner with a major modding site like Curse.com for testing and (non-exclusive) hosting purposes. “As much as I would love to say, ‘look at this great thing we built,’ it is more economical and more responsible to work with a partner who knows what he’s doing,” reasoned Hewitt.

I may not be an interface purist, but I still wondered how Carbine will deal with player-created mods that don’t explicitly break any rules but still manage to hurt the community WildStar is hoping to build — like DPS parsers and gearscore mods that generate elitism and fracture playerbases. Hewitt hopes that players will understand that if a mod should happen to nudge up against the game’s “social contract,” the devs can’t let it stay. He thinks transparency on the part of the studio will mitigate some fallout over such mods, but Carbine isn’t stopping there.

In fact, Hewitt has grand plans for an advisory committee made up of dedicated players — some elected, some selected — to help shape the modding community of WildStar’s future. Gamers familiar with similar systems in EVE Online, Star Wars Galaxies, League of Legends, and soon even Lord of the Rings Online will grok the sort of player council he’s proposing. Eventually, these tribunals will represent all aspects of the game, from PvP to tradeskills, and will engage in direct contact with the developers themselves, individually and during conference calls. “We want to get to the point that if we see an issue in the game we don’t understand, we can pick up the phone and call one of these player experts,” David Bass explained.

Image of me when my mods aren't loading correctly

And don’t think the councils will be made up of Carbine-butt-kissing yes-men; as Bass quipped, that’d just be boring. Hewitt stressed the importance of including dissidents, griefers, and malcontents: “Too often, gamers are disenfranchised because they don’t feel they’re being listened to, but other times they’re disenfranchised because they’re right and have no venue to express it. Sometimes they have identified something that is just too difficult to deal with [on the development end]. But we can’t ignore it… that’s a mistake.”

I also asked the pair about in-game player-generated content more structured than housing and economy, like PGC systems in Star Trek Online or EverQuest II. I didn’t expect a concrete answer, but in fact, Hewitt surprised me by suggesting Carbine is considering a system that sounds a bit more like SOE’s Player Studio, one in which player artists might add peer-reviewed content to the game, though the team doesn’t have planned a specific tool for it, let alone a monetization scheme. As with the mods themselves, the studio believes it has a long way to go until it’s settled upon fair compensation for player-created work that keeps both the community and the lawyers happy.

“But that’s where we’re headed,” Hewitt told me. “Maybe not this year, not at launch, but the year after.”