How to install PC game mods: A beginner's guide

These tools let you add better graphics, fix bugs, tweak gameplay, and more.

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What is PC game modding?

Modding is about fine-tuning games to suit your tastes, making changes and alterations to games based on whatever you (and mod creators) see fit.

You could change something visual, you could change how your character gains power, or you could swap out the entire game soundtrack for a fan-made orchestral version. Some folks are picky about the lighting; others may change up the game’s difficulty in ways that the default Easy to Hard scale doesn’t quite fulfill; and some may just be patching some buggy parts for the benefit of the game’s fan community.

While specific mods out in the world will have some crossover, we’re going to break mods down into four major categories:

  • Aesthetics
  • Technical
  • Gameplay
  • Content

Types of PC mods

Aesthetics

The most popular mods for the most popularly modded games tend to be aesthetic mods that tweak the look and sound of a game. For many, it’s about making things prettier, more realistic, or to push their hardware a bit further than the game can on its own.

Take Skyrim, one of the most heavily modded games of all time, and take a look for some of its mods. The most subscribed mod on Skyrim’s Steam Workshop is a water retexture mod called Pure Waters by Laast. At NexusMods, the most downloaded Skyrim mod is a high resolution textures pack called Skyrim HD - 2K Textures. Skyrim has so many amazing visual mods that it’s easy to see why all kinds of games are finding new life through HD remakes.

But a picture is worth a thousand words. Here’s Skyrim running unmodded, but with Bethesda’s HD Texture packs installed…

v1 Kevin Casper

Vanilla Skyrim.

…and here’s Skyrim with a slew of graphics mod installed: Climates of Tamriel, Natural Grass Texture Floor, Pure Waters, Realistic Lighting Overhaul, ENB, RealVision ENB, Skyrim HD - 2K Textures, Static Mesh Improvement Mod, Skyrim Distance Overhaul LOD Improvement, and Ultimate HD Fire Effects. Click the images to enlarge them if you want to bask in all the improvements.

m1 Kevin Casper

Modded Skyrim.

Audio mods are only popular in some games, but they can do interesting things. Fallout 3’s GNR Enhanced adds theme-suitable music the radio and improves some of the immersion in the scripts of Three Dog, the game’s radio DJ. Other audio mods focus on quality, such as swapping out the sounds of the various guns in the games for what’s considered more accurate, higher quality versions. Towbie’s Realistic Weapon Sounds for Fallout 4 is a good example.

But there’s also a reverse side to aesthetic mods, especially visual ones. Some mods focus on decreasing visual quality, to allow games to run better on underpowered hardware or simply increase the frame rate for a more buttery feel. Many competitive players reduce graphical quality just enough so that the important details are still visible, but the framerate can be as high as the hardware will allow it to be. If a game’s options don’t quite cover what you need, you’d look to something like Torcher’s Texture Optimization Project for Fallout 4.

regrowth overhaul Spiffyskytrooper

Spiffyskytrooper's Regrowth Overhaul mod adds a lot more green to Fallout 4's postapocalyptic wasteland.

On this note of frame rate optimization, we’re getting dangerously close to what we’re calling technical modding.

Technical

Fixing bugs and enhancing system compatibility are the key reasons for technical modding. Sure, it may feel like every classic game is getting an HD remaster this week, but not all fan favorites are so lucky. A supportive modding community can help add a much-needed layer of modern polish.

For example, the legendary isometric RPGs of yesteryear—like Baldur’s Gate, Fallout, and Planescape Torment—were designed for 4:3 display ratios and resolutions in the 640x480 through 1024x768 range. Nowadays, most gamers are running 16:9 ratios supporting 1920x1080 and higher resolution. Playing the older games on modern monitors results in ugly black bars surrounding the picture, or worse, visual stretching and distortion. To fix this, mods like the_bigg’s Widescreen Mod change how the game scales up for higher resolution, though you may need to pair it with something like GhostDog’s Planescape: Torment UI mod. GhostDog’s mod tweaks the UI and text in classic games running at modern resolution, so everything can be seen, readable, and not wildly warped.

Here’s how Planescape: Torment looks running windowed at default resolution on a 1440p display…

pstv Kevin Casper

…and here’s Planescape: Torment in 1440p resolution using the aforementioned mod duo. Big difference, eh?

psftmf Kevin Casper

Some mods take aim at player-discovered bugs. Bethesda’s games are notorious for their (sometimes unsettling) bugs, and many Elder Scrolls modding guides start by pointing to community patches that squash them or fix hardware compatibility problems. Other games, such as Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic: The Sith Lords,  may contain unfinished content, causing some weird dead ends in gameplay and storytelling. Communities have banded together to resolve these in different ways, such as The Sith Lords Restored Content mod, which utilizes unused assets in the original game as well as original efforts to effectively close off the loose ends.

But this kind of mod taps into the gameplay and content of its game, so let’s move on!

Gameplay

Gameplay mods change how you play a game, covering aspects like difficulty scaling, character progression systems, control schemes, adding or removing certain mechanics, or even interface changes.

A perfect example of a mod that alters difficulty is Brutal Doom. This mod for the earlier Doom games—not the 2016 edition—effectively cranks everything up to 11 by adding a ton of enemies and giving foes new tactics. (It also greatly expands the gore and destruction that Doom is famous for.)

The first Dark Souls game on PC used a sort of emulation to effectively translate keyboard and mouse into controller actions, and generally lacked control options. The resulting frustrations lead to the creation of the mod Dark Souls Mouse Fix and its current iteration, Dark Souls Input Customizer. These mods ditched the emulation and added raw mouse input, mouse acceleration and sensitivity settings, and key mapping. These control mods not only provide options for PC purists, but also opportunities for gamers with disabilities who depend on custom hardware and button mapping to get their game on.

Many gameplay mods can complement each other that provide a fresh experience to a game. Grim Dawn, an action RPG by Crate Entertainment, has a popular mod compilation called DAIL that combines a bunch of gameplay mods into one. DAIL can adjust the number of enemies that spawn in the game for a range of new difficulty options; it triples the amount of class trees for your character; and includes additional game types that mirror Diablo 3’s rift system or Gears of War’s Horde Mode… which takes us to the final mod category.

Content

Sometimes, you just need more. The game was either so good, or missing just enough, that someone felt the need to add even more to it. Content mods tend to be a combination of the previous categories plus additional components that add something new to the game. Mods like the earlier mentioned The Sith Lords Restored Content and Minecraft’s Tinker’s Construct introduce all kinds of content, from quests to equipment, that were not previously in the game. The additions have their own visuals, sounds, and gameplay changes all combined. They’re basically unofficial expansions.

minecraft Kevin Casper

Minecraft with FTB Beyond modpack installed.

Some mods drastically overhaul the entire game, and sometimes spark new games and genres of their own. League of Legends, DOTA, and the entire MOBA genre was birthed by a mod for the original Starcraft called Aeon of Strife. Counter-Strike started as a Half-Life mod. DayZ and battle royale games like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds sprung from the Arma modding scene. And you can find full-length expansions, new factions, and more for Elder Scrolls games.

These are heavy duty mods. If you want to learn more about content and “total conversion” mods, check out PCWorld’s list of 10 influential game mods that truly changed PC gaming.

Bottom line

Modding video games is a lot like playing card games or board games with house rules. While some people like to just skip the jail mechanic in Monopoly, others might want to pull out their favorite Warhammer 40k figure to take over the board in the name of the Emperor. Likewise, some gamers might want to replace Skyrim’s dragons with Macho Man Randy Savage or Thomas the Tank Engine. Anything is possible!

Now you’re armed with everything you need to know to start modding PC games. Have fun!

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