The "Total Conversion" (TC) of a game has a long and auspicious history in the gaming world. Once games became sophisticated enough to require megabytes of extra files for sounds and graphics, the stage was set for modders to begin their work. The first modders hacked into games like Doom, Quake, and Starcraft, changing graphics here, bitmaps there, character models, etc. Today, the modding community has come a long way from the Nude Raider crowd of the past. Game companies today are often run by the gamers of yesterday, and whether simply for a love of gaming or a love of increased sales, they court the gaming community like poodles in heat.
The mod and the total conversion, however, differ mainly in the degree of change to the underlying game. If there were to be a clear delineation of what makes a total conversion, it would perhaps be the storyline. The in-depth storyline is the feature of games that varies the most widely. The most stunning eye candy can only sustain gameplay temporarily, but a great story will carry a gamer through even mediocre graphics just to find out what happens. Classic games like X-Com are excellent examples of this. The initial distraction of the simple but elegant bitmapped graphics are quickly lost during the first night mission to raid a downed UFO, and that's where total conversions will either rise to the occasion, or collapse in Anachronox-like agony.
The most radical conversions basically strip the game engine down to its bare essentials and rebuild it from the ground up with a new story, characters, graphics, and sounds. A great classic example of this is the They Hunger series of TC's written by Neil Manke for Half Life, which strip out the modern science fiction theme and create a storyline set in the mid-1900's involving a meteor strike and people mutating into evil zombies. There are themes for Half Life that have gone even further - turning it into an auto-racing game, an arcade game, capture the flag, the old west, military simulations, and many more.
There is not a set definition for the different levels of modification to a game, but the common use of these terms clearly defines them in most instances as:
- Mod - A tweak that changes the game dynamics, updates items, adds components, affects the game interface, updates or changes graphics, allows additional actions, or otherwise modifies the gameplay experience without changing the underlying theme, backstory, and main characters of the game. Dungeon Siege is probably the most modded game on the market currently. (Example - The billions of mods for Dungeon Siege, or the many mods for Morrowind)
- Partial Conversion - A major change in the game's dynamics or theme, but retaining significant portions of the game's identity, gameplay, and structure. (Example - Diablo II - Lord of Destruction)
- Total/Full Conversion - A use of essentially the core structure of a game only. The resultant game shares no intentional common identity except at the code level.
(Example - Harold Stibbins Discworld mod for Max Payne or Street Racing for Half Life)
Half Life and the Quake series (especially II and III) are probably the games with the most total conversions to this point, but the season of static games has passed, and the future appears to be full of games specifically suited to modding and total conversions. Dungeon Siege, written by gaming lover Chris Taylor is one of the most moddable games ever released, and it is completely intentional.
The newest trend is to include the game editor, either as a download or included on the CDROM, with the game. This allows the purchaser not only to play the original game, which has bee (hopefully) play tested by a crack team of professionals, but to take that game and modify it to increase its replayability. RPG's like Morrowind and Neverwinter Nights come bundled with the editor on disc. Dungeon Siege uses GMax, a free program which allows the creation of new 3D models for import into a mod or conversion. As game companies learn that gamers value the ability to tweak, modify, and convert their games, the release of new games will be accompanied by ever-improving tools and software to allow them to accomplish this. The world is a wonderful place if you're a gamer!