From 'Smurfenstein' to 'Fortnite': A Definitive History of Video Game Mods

With 'Fortnite: Creative,' modding may reach its biggest audience yet.

This week, Epic Games released Fortnite: Creative, a new mode for the video game phenomenon that gives players access to their own island where they can easily manipulate objects, build their own environments, and invite friends for private games. Players are already using it to build everything from wacky race tracks to perfect recreations of iconic video game levels.

In the world of Fortnite, this might feel revolutionary, but it’s just the latest step in a long history of video games fans taking the things they love and turning them into something new. In the gaming world it’s called “modding,” and it’s come a long way in terms of accessibility and popularity over the past 37 years.

Even now, modding — which is essentially what Fortnite: Creative is — thrives thanks to sandbox titles like Skyrim and Grand Theft Auto V. But the history of modding arguably begins with Castle Smurfenstein, a mod of the 1981 Muse game Castle Wolfenstein on the Apple II that swapped Nazis for blue Smurfs.

From that point, modding took off, especially with games from id Software (which inherited the Wolfenstein franchise after Muse’s 1987 closure). John Carmack, a co-founder of id Software, was (and still is) an advocate for open source software, where copyright holders over a source code gives users the right to change and distribute their versions of the software.

This is why id games like Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Quake (besides being very good) became ground zero for the modding community, with unofficial Batman and Ghostbusters games made by fans using Doom as the basic skeleton.

It’s actually staggering how many of the most popular games were born out of modding. Esports staples like Dota 2, along with multiplayer favorites like Counter-Strike and Team Fortress 2, all originated as modded games. PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, which popularized the battle royale genre that gave rise to Fortnite: Battle Royale, was a mod of 2013’s ARMA 2.

Ghostbusters Doom
'Ghostbusters Doom,' a popular mod of id Software's revolutionary FPS game 'Doom' reskinned to become a 'Ghostbusters' game.

But modding, however popular, is a specialty skill that requires a working knowledge of coding. For a lot of people, that’s just too much work. Games began including sandbox tools during the 2000s, such as in 2002’s Neverwinter Nights, a BioWare game that included “Aurora” — an in-game feature that allowed players to create quests and cutscenes.

In 2007, following the popularity of Rooster Teeth’s Red Vs. Blue — an animated comedy that uses the Halo video games — Bungie included The Forge for its blockbuster Xbox 360 shooter, Halo 3.

What Fortnite: Creative is to Fortnite is what The Forge was for Halo fans. With an immense player base, Bungie allowed its community to go into its dozens of multiplayer maps and organize the environment to their liking. Limited by a “budget,” players stopped shooting each other and instead worked together to create new maps and games that kept them playing long after they finished the (kinda short) story mode. Heck, thanks to a versatile first-person camera, players could create their own films inside the game (a practice called “machinima”), though it did require a few additional tools and software.

When "Grifball" debuted, Rooster Teeth produced an explainer video walking players through the rules of the game.

The most popular creations were featured by Bungie, which encouraged the community to get really creative if they wanted those fifteen minutes of gaming fame. Rooster Teeth, already known for Red Vs. Blue, also created a popular game, dubbed “Grifball.” Basically a form of lethal hockey that used the game’s insanely powerful Gravity Hammers, Grifball took off and was turned into an official multiplayer game in almost every new release of a Halo game.

After Halo 3, more games included similar tools to The Forge. Ubisoft’s FarCry 2 and FarCry 3 and Valve’s Portal 2 all included robust map editors. In 2008, Sony released the puzzle platformer LittleBigPlanet, from Media Molecule, which placed a major emphasis on custom content that users could share online.

Even Nintendo got in the action. 2008’s Super Smash Bros. Brawl for the Wii featured a level creator that allowed gamers to share custom content among their friends. In 2015, Super Mario Maker was released for the Nintendo Wii U (a port for the handheld 3DS came in 2016) which allowed Mario fans to build their own levels and share them online.

Because people can be very sadistic and very creative, some of the most viral stages in Super Mario Maker included your usual crop of “mega difficult” levels. But the community also created unexpected stages like an actual Jurassic Park parody, a stage where you actively have to avoid eating mushrooms, and hilarious troll levels that let you kill Bowser without effort.

For 'Super Mario Maker,' Nintendo produced this gameplay walkthrough guide in 2015.

Modding and in-game customization thrive in 2018. It’s just as easy to obtain fun mods for Skyrim. (Ever wanted to see a dragon with the face and voice of Randy Savage? Or Thomas the Tank Engine? You can!) as it is to create and share your very own level of Super Mario World.

Fortnite has had an unbelievable journey from generic zombie shooter to worldwide smash hit. It’s the kind of game that comes once in a generation, but with its new Creative mode, it has the potential to live through several more. Now, it’s just up to the fans to figure out where Fortnite goes next.