The Ethics Of Mods In Competitive Play

The Ethics Of Mods In Competitive Play

Following a recent discussion on the Uber Entertainment forums around whether the use of mods in competitive play was fair or not, we invited two Uber league players on opposing sides of the argument to share their thoughts. Please leave your own in the comments section below.

Cola_Colin – FOR

Cola_Colin is an Uber league player and prolific modder, responsible for PA Stats and Ubermap. He is also the original King of the Planet.

When discussing whether UI mods are okay in competitive games there quickly mix together a lot of very different arguments. I want to split this discussion of the topic up into two sections, as the arguments are quite different.

  1. What makes a game a game, specifically for an RTS?
  2. How are UI mods fair?

What makes a game a game?

This question is quite an important one when talking about UI mods. Depending on how you define the game, you view UI mods as cheats or as equipment.

In the context of RTS games I want to point out two very different concepts. For the sake of this text I’ll call them the “Starcraft-concept” and the “TA-concept.”. I want to make clear I am not judging these concepts, I like both of them and they both have a merit, but I need them to point out why Planetary Annihilation is not a game that is defined through the UI.

Starcraft Selection Limit

In Starcraft you could only select 12 units at one time

In the Starcraft-concept the UI is part of the game. Competitive games measure how well players can formulate their strategic thinking in terms of commands that can be given via the UI. The UI also is quite limited in what it can do and certain gameplay aspects would be a lot easier if the UI would support them better. For example, each faction in Starcraft has a mechanic that basically requires the player to do some specific button presses every n seconds. If they fail to do this they will be at a disadvantage.

The way the economy works in Starcraft means that having units queued up in a factory means you paid for it. This means you need to keep your queues short. To play well you need to queue up new units just in time. All these mechanics of the game are forced on the player by the UI only. Another UI could offer a simple button “do this automatically at the right time”. In the Starcraft-concept however handling the UI, and especially its limitations, is part of the game. A player with a modified UI would no longer play the same game. Thus any UI modifications in the Starcraft-concept that go beyond a few settings go into the area of cheating. Cheating is defined here as anything that allows a player to ignore a part of the games rules to their own advantage. Having to queue up things at specific times to play perfectly is part of the rules of Starcraft. Not having to do it would break the rules.

Now on the other side of the spectrum I see the “TA-concept”. The TA-concept decouples the UI from the game. The game in this concept is not about who can manage the UI better, it is about the actual stuff that happens on the battlefield. Where do I send my units? What structures do I construct in what order? Things that cannot easily be defined by a few lines of code.

Total Annihilation Modified UI

Total Annihilation modified to display more units on the build bar

In the TA-concept it is not generally cheating to use UI mods as the game is not defined through the UI. The UI is just the interface; it’s on the level of a keyboard and a mouse: you use them to play the game but you don’t consider them part of the game. This concept strives for the very best UI to allow players to easily formulate their thoughts into actions within the game. Together with other differences (streaming economy) this is what makes Total Annihilation different from Starcraft and shifts the focus away from small armies to larger ones.

So for this line of argument it is important to consider what kind of game you consider Planetary Annihilation. Is it following the Starcraft-concept or the TA-concept? Under the Starcraft concept any mods are cheats. Under the TA-concept they generally are not a cheat and it is okay to use them.

Obviously I consider Planetary Annihilation to be part of the TA-concept games. The UI is only a tool that the player uses and it should be improved as much as possible to allow for games that feature more units, more armies and more action at the same time.

This does not mean that all modifications to the UI are okay. There still is a line that should not be crossed, once a mod crosses this line the mod basically becomes a big “I win” button. Press it and you magically win the game. These kinds of mods are cheats. They’re on the same level as a wallhack or an aimbot: they remove the whole game and just let you default win. This obviously is not okay. However there is no point in being afraid of these kind of mods being created. There are two ways they can happen:

1) A technical hack that allows you to do quite powerful things. Like a maphack. Or telling the enemy commander to self-destruct via a button press. These are technical issues and if discovered they need to be patched out. Uber has done a good job on doing just that.

2.) A gameplay mechanic that turns out to be simple enough for automation through an UI mod and gives a game breaking advantage to the player who uses the mod. This is a more complicated case. A borderline example of this is the mod Free Energy. It abuses a clear weakness in the game’s economy system. For mods like this I also consider that it is Uber’s job to fix the game. It should not feature gameplay mechanics that are simple enough to be handled by a few hundred lines of JavaScript.

Planetary Annihilation is not a game that is defined through the UI.

So looking at Planetary Annihilation as a TA-concept game that wants to feature the most powerful UI possible to make it easy for players to play the game they want, I think UI mods are an important part of Planetary Annihilation.

Why do I classify Planetary Annihilation like this? Well of course it is related to Total Annihilation. But on top of that, Planetary Annihilation has been advertised as built for modding since the beginning of time. The whole game is designed for this from the ground up. The client-server split clearly enables client mods in a way that allows the servers APIs to be the only limit. This means no matter how a player modifies their client they won’t get any game breaking cheats out of it. Things like maphacks are impossible on a technical level. You can only modify your client to allow you to more easily specify what you want your units to do.

On top of this client-server split the client uses the very easy to mod Coherent UI library. Uber has designed a UI mod hook system that is used by a large number of community made UI mods. It’s clear that Uber wants UI mods to be a thing and as such it is clear they are not trying to create a Starcraft-concept experience for players, but a TA-concept experience.

How are UI mods fair?

So in the recent discussion on the Uber forums we ran around in circles about this one word a lot: fairness.

Some perceive it as unfair that in a ranked game a new player that has never even heard of mods might play vs a player who has a full set of very helpful UI mods. I want to describe why I think this fear is not warranted. Yes, the new player might not have UI mods. Yes, this puts them at a disadvantage. But just being at a disadvantage is not unfair. Remember, I think the UI is not part of the actual game, it’s a tool to play the game. Using that tool is a skill a player needs to play the game better. This makes UI mods like equipment. What equipment you should use for best results is part of the game. The new player will learn about UI mods the same way they will learn about new build orders or new ways to use units. Yes, in theory a player might sit in ranked all day, never talk to anybody and never learn of UI mods. But any player that wants to be competitive is responsible for actively looking for ways to improve their play.

I think it is reasonable to expect players – especially those that would care about all this “how fair is this” stuff – to actively research ways to improve their play. Since UI mods are a part of the game the moment you start to talk to other players you’ll quickly find players that tell you stuff like: use this build order and use Hotbuild2 if you want a better hotkey system.


Hotbuild 2 completely replaces the default hotkey system

It’s a part of the learning process that players go through. As long as the UI mods used are all public this is completely fair. RTS games, especially those that promote a powerful UI, are all about knowledge. If I knew everything there is to know about Planetary Annihilation gameplay I would win every single game. A part of the knowledge that players need to acquire is how to decide if they need a UI mod for something or not. That knowledge gives them an advantage, just like knowing that a nuke will have a certain explosion radius will give them an advantage.

I feel the feeling of “but it is unfair” that some people have brought up is created by the assumption that UI mods are far more powerful than they actually are.

… any player that wants to be competitive is responsible for actively looking for ways to improve their play.

Quite often people that were arguing that UI mods in ranked are unfair quickly started to compared UI mods to wallhacks or steroids. These things are indeed banned, but the reason they are banned is not just because of fairness but because they are bad in some other way as well. They either completely remove the game, like a wallhack, or they actually might improve your game, like steroids, but hurt you or others in the process. The reason why steroids or other performance enhancing drugs are usually not allowed is not that they provide an advantage by making your for example run faster. Running faster is great, why would anybody really care about that? Everyone could just use them. But it turns out that there are serious health risks involved. Allowing such drugs in competitive sports would mean that you demand all competitors to ruin their body by using unhealthy drug.

That is the only difference between an illegal drug and a totally legal thing. Take food for example, you can certainly consider what you should and should not eat to have the best performance possible. Since food is not unhealthy (well maybe those mountains of cookies I eat are) people are fine with athletes putting thought into their exact diet plan for best performances.

Since UI mods do not hurt your health I think it is not warranted to say it is unfair to demand players to use them.

Now on top of this I actually think this kind of argument against UI mods also shows a misconception of how powerful UI mods actually are. I am quite certain you can be a very good player without any UI mods. Many UI mods, including some that I made, sound a lot more powerful than they really are. We’re far away from mods that win the game for you.

So what to take away from this discussion? What to do to improve the situation?

I think this discussion should prompt us to try to help new players to quickly learn about mods, just like we should teach them about build orders. Any tutorial we make on how to play Planetary Annihilation well should not only include how to get the most tanks at minute X, but also if there are UI mods that make the UI easier to use. Additionally I think that all mods used in competitive settings must be public as the whole fairness argument stems from the idea that once a player learns about the existence of a mod they can install and use it themselves. Luckily eXodus eSports already enforces this in their rules: only mods on PAMM are allowed.

Elodea – AGAINST

Elodea is an Uber league player, current King of the Planet and “organiser” of the Super Commander tournament series. He’s a strong proponent of balance in the service of interesting gameplay, going so far as to create the Battleship mod which completely overhauls naval play.

Modding is great. No developer can fully cater to every segment of their audience unless they severely limit the scope and reach of their ideas. The empowerment of individuals to specifically target their own ideas has spawned many of today’s industry giants like Counterstrike and the whole MOBA genre. Modding has also heavily contributed to the popularity of big titles like Skyrim and Minecraft. Time and time again, creative freedom significantly improves the underlying game and its longevity by leveraging on the player knowing best what he/she wants.

Modding Communities

Some games sport vast modding communities

However, it’s easy to get lost in the positives and losing sight of the conflicts that arise within competitive rulesets. Depending on the context, mods can either be positive or negative, and while it’s obvious that an aimbot or wallhack in a game like Counterstrike is firmly negative, in other cases it might not be so readily apparent. Fundamentally, modding allows us to change the rules and scope to varying degrees, and there are contexts in which certain rule changes are significant and important enough to warrant concern.

To make distinctions between different types of mods and whether they fall into the ‘good’ or ‘bad’ camp, let’s start with a simple framework and we’ll apply it specifically to the context of Planetary Annihilation’s 1v1 ranked ladder.

What does it mean to be competitive?

Being competitive means striving to be as good or better than your competitor at a set of tasks within the mutually accepted and acknowledged ruleset that governs those activities. It’s easy to forget the latter half as serving the important function of being the comparable basis from which to judge which player is better. And this applies all the way up to rulesets that state that there are no rules, which is a rule in-and-of-itself.

Different situations have different rulesets. If I hosted tournament that required the use of only rainbow coloured effects, then to be competitive within that context players would have to follow that rule. Doing otherwise would be cheating as it would be stepping outside the bounds of comparability.

Attributes Framework

Above all else, it’s important to set our end goal as achieving and maintaining a healthy competitive scene, which can be defined as having the following fundamental attributes:

1.   Fairness

Planetary Annihilation Titans Centurion Commander

Everybody starts equal

Players need to have a fair start, fair opportunity, and fair evaluation within the game environment. Part of this potentially gets complicated by intended asymmetry and starts to fall within the domain of gameplay balance, but another part of the fairness attribute is also influenced by the tools and UI each respective player uses to interact with the game.

Whether functionally fair or technically fair, there needs to be perceived balance between players with regard to the environment provided by the game. For example, it would not be fair to evaluate one player who against his knowledge or will did not have unit icons while his competitor enjoyed this functionality.

It’s also important to distinguish these in-game variables from out-of-game variables such as Internet connection, hardware, software, which instead fall into the category of accessibility as minimum system requirements. As long as the game does not contain rules that purposefully discriminate between players on an out-of-game variable, like arbitrarily disabling one competitor from using his/her keyboard. Out-of-game variables are distinct from those in-game, they can only bring the player’s environment up to the baseline intended by the game’s rule makers, not beyond as modifications do.

2.   Deep player interaction

Inherently, for a game to be competitive, players require channels through which they can interact with each other. The more channels there are and the deeper they go, the better able players are able to compete and distinguish themselves from one another. These channels take many forms from micro to macro scales, of all different types of interest.

A game with shallow player interaction has only few variables through which players differentiate and compete, leading to a less impactful competitive nature. Ruleset modifications that reduce player interaction either through reduction or automation tend to have this impact. Keep in mind shallow games may be healthy, but not truly ‘competitive’, a good example being call of duty.

3.   Accessibility

Planetary Annihilation Titans Match FoundA game may be deep, interesting, and competitive in nature but not healthy due to being overly complex and inaccessible. While a case may be made that player numbers by themselves are not wholly indicative of health, more active players competing on a regular basis is generally good for fostering innovation and tighter competition.

The holy grail of competitive design is achieving the best tradeoffs between deep player interaction and accessibility. Examples of this can be found in games like Quake with skills that are easy to learn but almost impossible to master.

Modifications that increase accessibility without reducing player interaction are good, as are those that increase player interaction without decreasing accessibility. However, most changes tend to do one at the cost of the other.

Players need to have a fair start, fair opportunity, and fair evaluation within the game environment.

What are the impacts of mods on these attributes?

Currently a player is able to use a wide variety of UI mods on Planetary Annihilation’s official 1v1 ranked ladder. Different mods have different impacts, with some raising significant questions and others not so much. Some provide significant advantage while others do not. Some add new tools and features entirely, while others merely change existing features to better suit the player’s unique needs.

The point of focus is on mods that fall in the former camp – those that provide significant advantage and those that add new tools and features not available in the base game. They can be said to trend towards the following problems:

1.  Mutual knowledge and consent of a competitive advantage

Imagine you are a fighter about to compete in the arena. You go to the official quartermaster and he gives you a choice between some old rusty weapons. Disappointed, you pick one, consoling yourself with the expectation that your opponent has had the same selection presented to them. Upon entering the arena however, you find yourself against an opponent with dual machine guns.

You didn’t consent to being competitively evaluated like this, let alone have any knowledge of it. Your rational expectation of fair opportunity and fair start was mistaken as the quartermaster did not offer you any machine guns. You ask your opponent about the machine guns, and he politely tells you about the unofficial source he got them from before brutally murdering you. Well that was unfair you think, making a mental note to get some machine guns for your next battle.

Your next match arrives and you feel great with your machine guns. You scoff at the official quartermaster when he again offers you some rusty weapons and proceed to murder some poor newbies holding rusty pitchforks. Buoyed by success and confidence, you enter your third match, only to find your opponent driving a tank.

Don't bring a Commander to a Titan fight

This is one major problem with modding on competitive official ladders. Outcomes stop being 100% tied to interactions between players within an acknowledged and fully known ruleset as they should, and instead start becoming partly tied to either modding skill or knowledge.

While the competitive advantage offered was exaggerated for illustrative purposes, the point here is not merely the scale of the advantage, but that it exists to begin with. Whether an advantage is game winning or not, it’s still an advantage capable of influencing outcomes no matter which way you look at it.

Our first attribute of fairness is weakened by presenting the potential for unfair matchups. There is no way to guarantee 100% of matches will be played between players with the same advantageous mods installed. And there is no way either to say with confidence that your ranking has not been materially influenced by other unrelated matchups between players competing with each other using modifications.

It also weakens our third attribute by increasing the accessibility barrier. Instead of a plug-and-play experience, one needs to find out by chance from another player that there are UI mods and then search regularly for modding news and updates. What happens to players who never find out?

…it’s important to set our end goal as achieving and maintaining a healthy competitive scene…

The benefits to our second attribute of deeper player interaction are there, but whether increased modding interaction is the kind of interaction that the ladder should capture is a point of debate. Should modding knowledge and skill play a material part in determining your ranking on the ladder?

2.   Rulesets

Unfortunately, Uber has not made clear the ruleset environment they intend for the official 1v1 ranked ladder. While they have implemented APIs which UI mods take advantage of, there is no way to say whether this was instead intended for custom games and server mods where there is no competitive evaluation and ranking.

Given that neither the Planetary Annihilation Mod Manager nor UI modding is officially featured or noticeably presented in in relation to the 1v1 ladder, I think it’s prudent to take the conservative view that the feature set in the unmodded base game is what was intended. Or at least assume it for the sake of filling the void of uncertainty we’re left with.

Ideally, feature additive mods that positively influence accessibility and player interaction should be officially integrated so as to strengthen fairness. But until we get clarification from Uber in some form best case scenarios should not be assumed as the ruleset simply because it is possible to mod.

3.   Game changing scope

Unlike in many other games, UI modifications in Planetary Annihilation have the potential to drastically change the game, such as with automated economic management that allow players to optimize their energy usage and factory uptime with inhuman apm of 1000+. Other types may not have been made yet, or are being kept in secret development, but the current scope allows powerful things like automatically issuing orders to units not even in your camera.

Auto Factory

There comes a point at which the nature of the game being played with modification diverges significantly from the nature of the game being played without. For example automation mods drastically change the channels through which players interact with each other.

This raises the important question of which ‘game’ is appropriate for the 1v1 ranked ladder? Is it the stable vanilla feature implementation, or the constantly evolving UI modded one with ever increasing economic and army automation?

I’m not judging which ‘game’ is better here, only pointing out that they both have entirely different ways of spending player attention as a resource. This divergence weakens accessibility, with spectators and players finding it increasingly harder to draw a solid logical connection between one ‘game’ and the next.

Even if one accepted that powerful UI mods were within the ruleset of the 1v1 ranked ladder, there is nothing to say that future mods will be made public by their authors. While I think the current individuals making UI mods are incredibly nice and honest people, it’s not a terribly good idea to create a system that relies on individuals with power exercising goodwill.

Common arguments for UI mod use on 1v1 ladder

Argument: They should be in the game anyway.  The mods add what should be there already.

Response: This may be so, and I might strongly agree with you depending on the effect of the mod’s features on player interaction and accessibility. The problem is that the mod’s feature isn’t currently part of the game and so there is no way to ensure we are achieving fairness.

Argument: You should do all you can to win.

Response: I agree, but only within the ruleset. Going outside the ruleset to win is cheating. The real question to deal with is what is the ruleset?


UberMap shows you everything you can see on minimaps

Argument:Uber allows us to mod this into the UI, and this franchise has always had a big footprint from modding.

Response: True. But in order to have a growing and healthy competitive scene you need new players, new ideas, new cultures. It is not reasonable to expect new players to understand this franchise’s historical context, accept it, or know of anything beyond the game they bought and the features officially implemented within. We need to accommodate new players, not the other way around.

Argument: Because there is no way to limit which mods are used I don’t think this is a problem.

Response: Simply because a problem is currently unenforceable with no solution does not make it any less of a problem, although I believe there may be solutions. One of them might be an announcer that notifies the opposing player of mods used and vice versa, giving players full information in order for them to make fair decisions on their own behalf.

Argument: Mods like UberMap don’t provide me any competitive advantage or change outcomes.

Response: If a feature additive mod is being used then it follows that it must be providing advantage. If the feature additive mod led to a disadvantage it would not be used. Also, the problem is advantage as seen between two hypothetical equally skilled players. In such a case the advantage providing mod does influence the outcome. An advantage is an advantage, and in a large population of matches outcomes will be changed.

Argument: I should be allowed to play how I want to.

Response: Absolutely agree. However, competitive Planetary Annihilation requires there to be clear, standardized, and mutually agreed upon rulesets with full information. If this isn’t for you, you are free to play how you want by choosing not to partake in competitive 1v1 ladder play.

Argument: Hotbuild2 is commonly accepted, why not other mods?

Response: Hotbuild2 is a feature improvement mod that takes the existing hotkey system and allows players to assign different sets of hotkeys to actions instead. Other mods however are feature additive such as Auto Factory which automatically issues orders to your factories, or UberMap which adds a minimap that allows you to see your vision on every planet in a system and instantly move your camera to wherever you want.

Possible solutions

1. Mod announcers

Solves our mutual consent and full knowledge problem by empowering players to decline matches that they feel they are at a disadvantage due to differences in UI mods. There will probably be ways to get around it for the dedicated modder, but I think this is a powerful possible solution that solves a lot of the issues.

2. Clarification and/or integration from Uber

Clarification from Uber about their intended ruleset within the context of the 1v1 ladder will obviously help greatly in settling current issues on this topic. They would just have to do it in a way that is permanent and highly visible to all players (not just a forum post). Integration of functionalities offered by current mods like UberMap and Free Energy would serve this purpose, although how future mods are dealt with I wouldn’t know.

3. Promotion of PAMM (Planetary Annihilation Mod Manager)

Obvious legal risks for Uber to do this, but if UI mods were more prominently made known to the average joe who doesn’t read forums etc, then this would go towards solving our problems of fairness and accessibility.

The End (thank God)

While I won’t be using powerful UI mods on ladder, it won’t be because I think they are necessarily bad but rather because I think they are potentially unfair. Some take the game into places I’m uncomfortable with (automation), but like most things modding, they are a step ahead of everything else in ungoverned space.

I will not hold out against the possibility that i am wrong in my reasoning, and encourage you to add your opinions and arguments to the discussion on the forums if you so wish. The future of how people participate in the official 1v1 ranked ladder affects us all as it defines the face of competitive Planetary Annihilation.

Published: 13th September, 2015

About the author


    “Everybody starts equal”… but those with mods are more equal than others 🙂

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