Mass Effect Legendary Edition, the remaster nearly a decade in the making, struck a nerve when it was finally released. Fans were thrilled to return to spacefaring as Commander Shepard, but a minor DLC from the first game, Pinnacle Station, was missing. BioWare later revealed that the code for that section of the game had been corrupted, meaning the developer no longer had access to it.
Fortunately, a crack team of volunteer developers had already dedicated years of their lives to finding ways around the more finicky parts of Mass Effect’s makeup. Their expertise allowed them to figure out a way to restore Pinnacle Station when BioWare couldn’t by modding it into the game post-launch. Technically speaking, this shouldn’t have even been possible, but the game’s community of modders have made this — and so much more — a reality.
This is the story of the Mass Effect modding community, and how it went from a ragtag group of fervent forum-dwellers to a thousands-strong social hub that attracted the attention and admiration of BioWare itself.
The Old Age
Image: BioWare/Electronic Arts
The buildup to Mass Effect 3 was like little else in modern video game history. After Mass Effect 2 culminated in the now-illustrious suicide mission, fans waited two years to witness the end of Shepard’s galaxy-spanning journey. When the game finally launched in March 2012, it sold almost a million copies within 24 hours.
But that’s not what Mass Effect 3 is famous for. When people talk about Mass Effect 3 today, it’s impossible to avoid discussing its own notoriously divisive ending — which, incidentally, is what drove many of the people in the community toward modding in the first place.
WarrantyVoider is often credited as the father of the Mass Effect modding scene. Although he didn’t release many mods himself, he built the toolset that the majority of other mods at the time relied on. What fewer people know is that he initially started playing around with mods due to his disdain for the original conclusion to Mass Effect 3 — a sentiment echoed by early adopters of the tools he would go on to design.
Mass Effect’s flourishing modding scene can be traced back to a forum where WarrantyVoider encountered like-minded people and obtained the knowledge necessary for building the community’s first proprietary toolset: ME3ExplorerWV. This was the de facto toolset of the scene for a long time, and made modding approachable in a way it never would have been otherwise. While today’s tools are markedly superior and more refined, they never could have existed without the foundations laid by WarrantyVoider.
“I was mostly interested in how the different parts of the engine worked and how the information is stored,” says WarrantyVoider. “Once the mod was working and released, I slowly began to withdraw from the community, as the tools were working better and I had other things to do.”
“When I came back a while later, because I wanted to code some more, the current admins of my forum were upset that I assumed control again,” he adds. “So they kicked me out of my own forum. And well, that was the end of that.”
Remaining modders took over for WarrantyVoider. This included Mgamerz, who has since become lead developer on the current toolset.
Mgamerz started working on Mass Effect 3 mods in 2012, launching a blog, ME3Tweaks. The blog documented the changes — or “tweaks” — he made to WarrantyVoider’s toolset in order to build his own, more advanced version of it. (The contemporary Legendary Edition modding toolset was even built using the lessons Mgamerz learned during this period.) One of his first major contributions was the ME3 Coalesced Mod Manager in 2012, which became the foundation for lots of silly projects that were purely designed for fun.
Image: BioWare/Electronic Arts
While he was part of the team that inherited control of the scene after WarrantyVoider left, Mgamerz was also removed after having an argument with someone on their forum. At the time, the forum was not formally moderated, but rather run informally by three other modders within the fledgling community. Mgamerz’ ousting triggered a mass exodus that almost put an end to the modding scene right as it began.
“There was a lot of gatekeeping culture at the top of the food chain and it drove away a lot of new talent,” says Mgamerz. “Development on the toolset stopped after the 3.0 version was released, which meant that mods would only be developed by people willing to put up with a high barrier of entry.” This version of the toolset required developers to already be proficient in the tech it used, making it inaccessible for the majority of players who wanted to work on Mass Effect projects purely motivated by passion.
“The failure of Mass Effect: Andromeda in 2017 also put a pretty big shadow over the modding scene,” Mgamerz says. “I know many people who left simply because they played it and were put off the franchise. I never finished the story campaign and did only a few hours of multiplayer.”
Several people who remained on the post-WarrantyVoider dev team made the switch to Mgamerz’ toolset, ME3 Explorer: ME3Tweaks Fork. Remaining modders moved to Discord, which was relatively new at the time, around 2017. A well-respected dev, SirCxyrtyx, began working on modding features that were considered “pipe-dream-level things.” As more and more original modders continued to flock to Mgamerz’ new team, they started to emphasize approachability, performance, and task automation.
This period also fostered the creation of the CrossGenV project, which would eventually become the build system that made the Pinnacle Station port possible in 2021, even as BioWare said it couldn’t be done. It is still one of the most impressive feats the scene has ever accomplished.
The move to Discord would help the modding scene survive its darkest days.
The Dark Age
Image: BioWare/Electronic Arts
Audemus is the face of the modern Mass Effect scene. He played a crucial role in unifying many of its original devs and the newbies who are responsible for a number of its more recent innovations. After joining during a period modders referred to as “The Dark Age” in 2019, he was tasked with figuratively keeping the lights on.
Like WarrantyVoider, his curiosity was piqued after he felt let down by Mass Effect 3’s ending. He recalls being a “toxic” teenager around the time that BioWare started to receive backlash related to the end of Shepard’s saga, and is grateful that the forums he posted on are long since dead. The Citadel DLC revitalized his interest in the series, and he began messing around with what his ideal version of the Mass Effect games might look like.
But the forums cited by WarrantyVoider and Mgamerz were now a ghost town. Audemus was eventually brought on as a writer for the Project Earth Overhaul Mod, but quickly noticed that most of the main people involved in the project were no longer on speaking terms. He’d become the de facto leader of the group, after witnessing tumult in the forum that halted mods being made. So he founded the Mass Effect Modding Workshop in Sept. 2019.
“Modding communities need two things to thrive: Tooling, and a way to talk to each other to share knowledge,” says Audemus.
Within months, it felt like new life had been injected into the community. Each developer was given their own channel, while new members promptly informed their friends of the movement. After a years-long drought, people were finally beginning to experiment with Mass Effect modding again.
“It didn’t have the toxic, gatekeeping mentality that the old community did,” says Audemus. “Mgamerz ran the tools while I ran the community side of things, and things went pretty smoothly other than a few spats and bouts of drama here and there […] If you were making mods, I wanted you involved with what I was building, and I didn’t believe in hoarding knowledge of telling people what they could or couldn’t do. Unlike the toolset admins who previously ran things, I was effectively just custodian of the chatroom, rather than holding the keys to the kingdom.”
To welcome newcomers, Audemus launched a public Discord server, and facilitated a culture of sharing knowledge as opposed to hoarding it. By the time Mass Effect: Legendary Edition was announced, they had converted a fringe modding scene into a community that was nearly 1,000 members strong. By the end of 2021, that number increased to a whopping 5,000.
A screenshot from the Hatboy Project, which lets female Commander Shepard players romance Flight Lieutenant Jeff “Joker” Moreau.
Image: SpaceD0lphin/Nexus Mods
This time period ushered in a number of groundbreaking mods, including one that lets players romance Flight Lieutenant Jeff “Joker” Moreau. Mass Effect is known for its robust dating features, but Joker is not one of the dateable characters. The Joker romance mod, called “The Hatboy Project,” enables the beloved pilot to say something to the player-controlled female Commander Shepard that he had never said before:
“What do you think about you and me?”
The mod was developed by D0lphin, a modder who had been part of the community since “The Dark Age.” She had met a Mass Effect 3 developer while working as a tattoo artist, and decided to go to Futureworks in Manchester to study game art.
“A few years after I graduated, someone left a comment on my ancient fanfiction,” says D0lphin. “That’s when it hit me: With everything I’d learned, I could make this real for people. All that remained was to figure out how to bash the game’s brains in hard enough to let me. (Bashing game brains sounds violent, and it is — these games actively resist modding.)”
It was a challenging mod to design. When D0lphin committed her first change, she noticed that the mouth animations didn’t match up anymore. “I had to look into AI voice synthesis as a solution for the hundreds of new lines my mod would entail — I don’t exactly have Seth Green and Jennifer Hale on speed dial. […] I understand this nascent technology introduces some pretty hefty ethical concerns, to which I am not ignorant. But I hope that if those two ever hear of it for whatever reason, they understand, and maybe even get a kick out of it.”
D0lphin’s work ultimately pioneered a whole new kind of modding. When she first started out, it could take an entire day to achieve just 10 seconds’ worth of new speech animations. Now, a scene that previously took eight months to stitch together could be pulled off in around four days. Now anyone can generate accurate lip sync for their own Mass Effect Legendary Edition mods — all it takes is a little elbow grease.
The New Age
Image: BioWare/Electronic Arts
More than anything, Legendary Edition presented modders with a unique opportunity to start over. The developers who stuck around throughout “The Dark Age” could now repurpose their knowledge to build a new, unified ecosystem that supported greater consistency and compatibility between future mods.
This opened entirely new possibilities. Mgamerz said that it took WarrantyVoider countless hours to unlock the in-game console necessary for modding. Mgamerz’ team accomplished the same feat in just five days for Legendary Edition. Mgamerz added that BioWare also provided handy tips and tricks to a handful of modders, which mitigated some of the more egregious time-sinks from modding the original trilogy.
Even Nexus, which had previously butted heads with the community, wanted to get involved this time around. The vast majority of Mass Effect mods are on Nexus, at this point — although even Tumblr had one or two exclusive projects back in the day. The moderators at Nexus originally wanted to launch their own Discord server, but eventually agreed to compromise by adding a bot to Audemus’ existing server. The community there had already accomplished unimaginable things in the time since Legendary Edition launched.
“We’ve seen way more mods released for LE over the past 16 months than in eight years of OT [original trilogy] modding,” says Audemus. “There are still challenges, of course. But these days it feels like anything is possible.” At time of writing, Legendary Edition has over 1,600 mods (you can check out some of the most popular ones on Nexus), while the original trilogy’s scene has all but completely dried up. These mods are only available on PC because the console ecosystem is closed — it’s not like it is for games like Skyrim or Fallout 4, which can run mods on Xbox and PlayStation thanks to the official support provided by Bethesda.
Image: BioWare/Electronic Arts
That’s not to say the scene is showing any signs slowing down. Ever since Legendary Edition launched, the Mass Effect modding community has attracted tons of new talent. One of these bright up-and-comers is Knighthawk, who originally encountered the scene after reading about it in interviews with Audemus. He’s already carved out his own niche back-porting features from Legendary Edition’s version of Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3 to LE’s Mass Effect (one example is his Tali Consistency mod), which many people haven’t bothered with in the past. This has necessitated some craft solutions — in one instance, he had to assign the “eyelash” material to a standard assault drone to make it properly emulate the combat drone from the second game.
Speaking of eyelashes, another contemporary trailblazer, DropTheSquid, has taken it upon himself to rework the entire character creator. From his perspective, the customization suite that shipped with the game was far too restrictive — the sliders just didn’t go far enough. So DropTheSquid used a previous mod called Bonus Bonus Powers to reappropriate Mass Effect 3’s store UI for other menus in the game. Fortunately, that store UI was originally built with the premise that it would be expanded upon later on. In other words: no sliders.
“Things got very cursed, very quickly,” says DropTheSquid. “A good character creator should let you make a truly monstrous character if you want to. I have all of the vanilla slider options, and then a button you can click to just… keep going. You can keep that slider going past the end of the normal limits until your character’s face sticks out of the other side of their head. You can literally put their jaw on the floor. You can move each eyeball around individually in any direction. You can make their skin or hair glow, or be any color you want. You can make them wear every visor in the game simultaneously. There is no limit to any slider anymore. It’s too much power.” He wants to make Shepard an alien next.
Clearly, the future is bright for Mass Effect modders. Mgamerz believes the community has convinced BioWare — and hopefully EA — of the value held by modding. He doesn’t know if these companies will explicitly support it going forward, but thinks it’s always worth lending a hand to your most passionate fans, many of whom make themselves responsible for keeping the game alive.
“There’s so much more to accomplish, so much more to learn and do,” says D0lphin. “The limitations are what you make them, and what you make of them. Whatever project you’d want to see, you can do it, whether it’s making a whole new romance like I did, or a brand-new mission with actual consequences for the player. If you love Mass Effect and there’s something you want to see in it, you can make it happen.”
WarrantyVoider, the developer of the first-ever Mass Effect mod, concurs. “It’s just the satisfaction of getting what I wanted: a new ending,” he says. “Most people seem to not know about me or what I did. WV was dropped from the toolset title, a lot of the old coders probably wanted my name removed, and nobody ever contacted me again. But as long as people have fun, everything is fine.”