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A spaceship leaves Hopetown at sunset in Starfield.

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The race to mod Starfield

Starfield already has more than 700 mods just hours after release

Image: Bethesda Game Studios/Bethesda Softworks via Polygon
Nicole Carpenter is a senior reporter specializing in investigative features about labor issues in the game industry, as well as the business and culture of games.

By the time Starfield was officially released on Sept. 6, Bethesda Game Studios’ anticipated role-playing game already had hundreds of mods available — everything from a graphics upscaler to a script that added all apparel items to your inventory. Modders created all of these from scratch, largely during the game’s five-day early access period, and well before Bethesda intends to release its official mod support. To say that modders are excited is an understatement; Bethesda games hold the top five spots for mods on popular repository Nexus Mods. The community was roaring to get to work on Starfield.

One of Starfield’s big community efforts is the Starfield Community Patch, a collective endeavor spearheaded by several prominent modders who intended to fix bugs and tweak settings in the game. This mod isn’t adding content or improving visuals extensively — the Starfield Community Patch is an evolving project designed to make “vanilla Starfield,” or Starfield as the developers intended, a better experience. You won’t find any new planets here.

“Bethesda games are absolutely massive,” popular modder Alex, who goes by Simon Magus and is known for his Simonrim series of mods for The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim, told Polygon. “There are always going to be a few bugs that slip through the cracks — and even just insane things you would never expect to find in a normal development process.” Alex described a Skyrim bug that he and a friend fixed this year, a weird scenario where dual-wielded spells didn’t quite add up to the correct damage. “The Starfield Community Patch is a project that’s trying to fill in the gaps, the reality that Bethesda has to, at some point, move on to The Elder Scrolls 6.” It’s the spelling errors, inconsistent percentages, bugs, and missing tags on items that the Community Patch aims to fix.

An astronaut in the cockpit of a spacecraft sitting on a planet in Starfield. Image: Bethesda Game Studios/Bethesda Softworks

The project’s mission statement emphasizes the idea of communal ownership; no one person will really own the patch. (There will likely also be other unofficial patches designed to target the same issues — specifically, perhaps, from the team that did popular Skyrim and Fallout 4 patches.) But there are four modders who are leading the effort: Alex, Nexus Mods developer Tim “Halgari” Baldridge, software developer Justin “Noggog” Swanson, and Nexus Mods community manager Mike “Pickysaurus” Watling. The core Community Patch team has been working for months, well before Starfield’s final delay.

A tool called Spriggit, which Swanson created, has made it easier for the team to collaborate. Spriggit converts mod plugins to plain text, which then can be uploaded to GitHub, where the community can work on mods in a transparent way with a viewing history. “Spriggit is going to change the way collaborative modding is done,” Alex said. The Starfield Community Patch uses the MIT License, an open-source software license that allows anyone to do anything with the mod.

“We want it to be open and remain open,” Baldridge said. “While two of the people of the four-person team running it are employees of Nexus Mods, we’ve tried to code it so that not even Nexus can take ownership of it. We don’t intend on ever letting that happen.”

The Starfield Community Patch team also intends to keep Bethesda in the loop with the bugs or problems it finds, too. The modders are hoping the game’s developers will make the changes to the official base game.

A ship flies through space in Starfield Image: Bethesda Game Studios/Bethesda Softworks

Though the Starfield Community Patch is a collaborative effort, there is some competition in the modding community as a whole — a race, if you will — to dive into modding a game like Starfield. People want the thrill of being first. But they aren’t necessarily in competition against each other; instead, they’re racing to understand Starfield enough to change it. Modders are hoping to find the right spots to dig in and to see where they can add value to the modding community, whether that’s with something like a graphics upscaler or a goofy mod that simply adds a hat from King of the Hill.

Days after the premium edition of the game came out in early access on Sept. 1, modders Ian Patterson and Stephen Abel released the Starfield Script Extender, which lets players modify Starfield’s code. It’s become essential for modders, because Starfield’s official mod support, like its creation kit, will not be available until sometime after launch. (Bethesda hasn’t announced the exact timing it will release these mod tools, however.)

When Starfield entered early access on Sept. 1, Baldridge said he was first curious to open up a hex editor to look at Starfield’s archive structure to see if it was close to Fallout 4. “I suspect it’ll be fairly close,” he said before launch. Baldridge said his skills are in writing code and creating tools, like Wabbajack, the automated mod installer he created, so he expects to leave it to others in the community to start reverse engineering Starfield. “That’s taking what Bethesda has written in the game and ripping it apart to try and learn enough about it that we can start to extend it and write our own tools,” he said.

When Bethesda releases its official mod creation kit, modders will be able to do even more. “Aside from going in and editing the code of the game, we can build anything that Bethesda can build,” Baldridge said. “Skyrim is 10 years old,” he added. “You hit a lot of limits [in Skyrim], and you come to certain points in the engine, just the way computers work and the mathematics involved, that it just can’t handle anymore. They’re going to have to remove those limits to build a game this size. It sets us up for a lot of cool stuff we can do.”

Watling, who’s modded Skyrim and Fallout 4, is eager to take on Starfield’s modern engine. “Starfield’s scale makes all kinds of things possible,” he said. “I will be interested to create new worlds to explore as a separate mod project, but the community patch is focused on smoothing out bugs in the main game. I’ve played most of the way through the main story now and I’ve only encountered a handful of (fixable) problems, so I predict the Starfield patch will be smaller in scale than those for previous Bethesda titles.”

A character from the game Starfield looks into the distance, which contains a snowy mountain and a planet. Image: Bethesda Game Studios/Bethesda Softworks

Alex, who is more interested in creating gameplay mods as opposed to tools, said he’s first looking toward Starfield’s perks, guns, backgrounds, and characters. You can change numbers on perks, or adjust background rules for enemy toughness, like tweaking some numbers to make the whole game slightly more challenging, he said. “I want building your character to feel good,” he said. “That’s something I focus on a lot in my stuff for Skyrim, that your character starts as a pathetic little nobody and over time it feels really good to become a super powerful Dragonborn — or a space pilot in this game.”

Alex told Polygon that he doesn’t feel like he has to rush. “Don’t forget that this stuff takes time,” he said. “What we’re trying to build out is a foundation so that people can use this patch for the next 10 years.”