All about Stellaris Modding – Interview with akeean

I had the opportunity to interview the developer akeean of one of my favorite mods HexGrid Overlay.

HexGrid really helps you enjoy Stellaris in co-op mode, a game mode not natural to Stellaris.

In this interview, I learned a lot about the – to me – secret world of the modding community.

I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did, learning about the motives behind investing hundreds of hours into a mod, the rewards, and the delicacies of modding itself.

“Q” is my question and “A” is his answer.

Q: Please tell us a little about yourself and your background? You are a Stellaris modder, are you a coder in your real life? Is knowledge of coding necessary?

A: I’m a web developer, so I can code. I’ve been modding games way before even starting to do programming. For most games, you don’t need programming knowledge, but it really depends on what it is you want to create. 

But you have to be ok with reading a lot of the editable files to understand what file is responsible for what.

Q: Why do you mod for Stellaris? What is your relationship to this game? Do you also do mods for other games?

A: I started modding for Stellaris 6 years ago because at release there were some things of the game that annoyed me & were very easy to change.

Mod support is something that I look for in games. There is always a thing or two that I’d like to change about a game when I play it.

Most of the time I just enjoy tinkering & don’t really expect to create anything worthwhile. You know, like those people that take apart their mostly functioning toaster & then kind of put it back together (or not and it ends up on a pile of ‘projects’).

Q: What mods did you develop and why? Do you develop these mods based on your personal needs and what you feel the vanilla game is missing? How much time do you spend on developing and updating a mod?

A: I have created a bunch of mostly small utility mods. Only a few of them are shared with the public. Sometimes it’s just to fix something that annoyed me about the game, other times to add some small thing that makes the game more enjoyable to me or a friend.

On release (and for quite some time) the game had a big imbalance centered around the cheapest type of ship, the corvette. Basically, its base cost was way too cheap relative to its components, so by far the most effective way to play was to just put 3 of the lowest tier lasers on it and nothing else, never upgrade it even if you had the technologies.

Then you’d just build hundreds of it and drown your enemies in corvettes (which got very laggy). I felt that advanced technologies should be vastly more effective and made my own tweaked version of the ship classes and components.

This was one mod I never publicly published since it can be a hassle to keep updating a mod over time, especially as this was a part of the game that would see frequent changes by paradox. There were also a lot of more ambitious mods to tackle ship balance, so I preferred to keep this one to myself & the group I played coop sessions with.

One public mod that I created is the HexGrid Overlay. This one projects a honeycomb over the galaxy map with a 4 digit identifier for each tile. 

Stellaris Mod Galaxy OverlayGrid
Stellaris Mod Galaxy OverlayGrid

This allows cooperating players to easier talk about regions of the map without referring to clock orientations (that system in the middle of 9 o’clock’, which could be 10-50 systems to look at) or very coarse compass directions. 

Instead, I made each tile small enough that it covers about 10 systems, so it’s much easier to narrow down the scope of attention. (“My starting location is on grid 0110, at the border to 0101”, for example).

We used this a lot when starting a new game to communicate each other’s positions, as players do not start with a shared vision, as Stellaris does not have ‘teams’. This made it easy to decide if we wanted to go ahead with a game or restart it to reroll the map & starting locations, but it also helps a lot in war coordination.

I was inspired by it from the ‘war room’ in Babylon 5, which was a giant wall with a regular square grid projected. I chose a hex pattern instead since Stellaris species can also be insect hive minds, robot squids, etc who might not choose squares.

This mod took me an afternoon to think up and maybe two to get in the game & working. I was more about thinking about how to label the hex tiles & making the image than wrangling any mod-related technical hurdles. There were other mods that had solved the map projection part I could use as a reference

The most labor-intensive mod I did was during the Stellaris 2020 ModJam, which is an Origin that included a small Story and special game start condition. This was way more technical to me as it touched a lot of parts of the game I had no experience editing and wasn’t quite as straightforward.

I think this mod took about 150 hours of my free time in which I developed the idea, made a basic version I tested & fleshed out more as I went.

Q: I understand that Stellaris is by design extremely modding friendly? So Paradox Interactive wants the user base to change the game? Why would any publisher want this, does this not make developing updates and DLC harder for them?

A: Stellaris is quite modding friendly, you don’t need any special software to change how the game works. Many games have their internals wrapped up in pack files that the community first needs to figure out how to open, extract & then wrap back together in a way the game can read it.

Stellaris, in contrast, has most of its game-related workings as loose text files you can open with Notepad basically. (Although an actual programming text editor with Syntax highlighting is an immense help).

I think Paradox mod support is a win-win situation. The openness of the game makes it easier for them to change the game with each DLC & patch. The way Stellaris is moddable, you can theoretically sit a creative CS student or intern in front of it & they can get you 30% of the input of a DLC, without using the expensive dev time of a senior engine developer who has a decade of experience of the highly complicated (risky to edit) C++ code of the game.

Paradox’ Modding Strategy

I think this openness allows Paradox to support a lot of titles with a small core team that focuses on underlying issues & set the frameworks of new moddable titles to build on.

They can also look at popular mods as a kind of market research to see what features to add and the game becomes a lot ‘stickier’ without them having to invest a lot of developer hours.

Mods also encourage the purchase of DLCs. Maybe you don’t care about Apocalypse DLC, but hey there is a Star Wars mod that you love, but in order to get the planet-killing functionality of the Death Star you need that DLC (one of the mod guidelines is that your mods can not ‘unlock’ things that are locked behind a DLC).

Making a game mod-friendly does take extra consideration and work (Paradox has one dev that puts considerable effort into adding modding wishlist items with each patch), but I think if it doesn’t endanger your business model, it will lead to a better product.

A developer with a ‘modding culture’ also has big advantages with recruitment & onboarding, as with Paradox’s example, they already have great public & up to date documentation for the game code side of things and they can (and have!) even recruit modders.

Some of those know the game pretty well. Even if your new hire has zero experience, you can make them start with the easy stuff that is covered by the mod wiki, so they get their bearings and don’t cost you 20h of a senior dev time with baby questions.

Having mod culture also nets Paradox better bug reports & easier agile development as they can’t just muddle through with certain things as modders will often be the first to stumble over certain programming-related skeletons in the closet.

A lot of modern AAA games do not bother with allowing people to mod in order to increase monetization. Ubisoft for example is an example of this.

With Assassins Creed Odyssey they reduced player progression speed once the reviews & Metacritic scores were in [with update 1.14]. This was so they could go on and sell players time-limited ‘XP boosters’ or resource packs while they made the game grinder with each patch.

akeean is referring to this debate about Ubisoft nerfing the rewards to, as suggested by some players, increase the microtransactions from players ("Disgraceful nerfing the original single player economy to try and make you buy the microtransactions" - see "Mr Boba Jango" in the videos comments)

They had the code of the game made unmoddable & took countermeasures to prevent memory hacking & tweak those progression rates without tweaking game files.

Q: How does modding work? I mean, is there a programming language like PHP? Or is this game specific? Are there handbooks on how to mod? Self-taught?

A: It really depends on the title.

Often there is a similarity between games running in the same engine. For example Epics Unreal Engine is very different to mod than Paradox Clausewitz.

You often also have to distinguish between game code and engine code. Game code does stuff like tell the game how much damage a hit with a crowbar does versus a rifle or what item a closet with random loot mat contain, while engine code handles the far more complicated calculation of hit detection or graphical rendering mostly because those need to perform orders of magnitudes faster than most functions of game code.

Engine programming is often done in C++ and is usually not accessible to modders, while many games use LUA or a similar script language for their game code.

Script languages are far more human-readable and easy to learn than lower-level programming languages. Often that’s also where you’d start when learning to program.

For modding Stellaris, the best place to start is the Stellaris wiki modding article. It has documentation about most aspects (the wiki is also an asset if you are new to the game in general and want to know how things work in detail).

I’d also recommend you get Visual Studio Code and install the CWTools plugin, which is made for Paradox games and helps you to spot syntax errors in the Paradox scripting language and offers auto-completion.

For 2d textures, PaintNet can output the file formats that Stellaris needs.

3d assets can be created in blender and exported through a community-provided tool.

Q. is there a modding community with your own forums? Or is this more like a lonely hobby? I read that, for example, the Star Wars mod needs a complete team? Can people like you make money modding? What is the reward, emotional or financial?

A: You can make mods on your own, but you need to set the scope of what you want to create accordingly. The biggest newbie mistake is to try to make something too big or too ambitious in relation to what can be modded in a game or the necessary skill required.

I mostly mod for myself. I just get more out of a game this way. If I feel something I made is remarkable enough that others could enjoy it or it would help others over a pain point, I might share it. For me the reward is emotional.

The Star Wars and Star Trek mods have quite big teams of a dozen or maybe more contributors. Those mods are very interdisciplinarity, as they add music, 3d and 2d art, solid writing, and complex events on to off the sheer scale of the project.

It’s hundreds of files in either of those projects and I think they required some special program to generate the static galaxy map that is canon in those franchises instead of a vanilla spiral galaxy with randomly placed empire homeworlds.

There is a Discord Server called the Stellaris Modding Den, where modders can exchange Ideas or help each other out. Many big projects have their own channels in there for bug reports. 

Making Money with Stellaris mods

Making money with mods is a bit of a touchy subject. Neither the Star Wars nor Star Trek mods could ask for money for their mods and if they did either Paradox would shut them down or Disney/Paramount would eventually do it were they to end up on their radar. Trademark and copyright laws are to blame.

If you make a fully original creation that you own (i.e. not using the universe that some other company owns, like Star Wars) and have a Patreon or similar I think there should be no problem with people supporting you there.

Whatever game you mod for, you should check if the company owning the game has a modding policy and what it allows you to do. Some don’t let you link Patreon in the workshop, for example.

Don’t expect to make much money from this, at least with Stellaris. Even high-profile creators with 100k subs don’t make more than $100 a month on their Patreon.

Other games are better for monetization.

Paradox has recently worked together to even have modders create the content for a set of official, paid DLCs in Surviving Mars. Those were cheaper than regular DLCs for the game and were each made by prolific modders of the game. I suppose the modders were paid for the DLCs. No idea if it was a % split or flat amount.

Stellaris Updates & DLCs and Mods

Q: I understand that each mod needs also to be kept updated to keep up with the frequent Stellaris updates?

A: With Stellaris getting changed quite a bit with each patch, this means that a mod changing something that has been changed by a patch might no longer work.

Also, Paradox keeps changing and improving their modding API and scripting language, this means even mods that don’t touch things a patch overhauls might stop working.

Paradox usually (rarely) changes their API and language to improve performance or give modders more control over the game.

Some mods can be more resistant to those changes if they affect things in the game that don’t get changed a lot. For example, mods that change the color of the center of the galaxy in 2018 will probably still work, even if the game warns you for them to be outdated.

To start a new game on the day of a new DLC and keeping outdated mods enabled is a recipe for disaster. It can take some time for modders to test all of their mods with the new version and update them to not cause problems.

Going to a mod page the day a new DLC or patch releases and commenting “update pls” is why some modders with a lot of mods deactivate comments on their mods.

Most of us that spend hundreds of hours modifying the game follow the development of the game closely. Usually, we know there is a new patch. It’s just that when you have dozens of mods, testing and updating take time that we might not have at the moment.

If there is a new patch that breaks your mods (or has too many bugs on its own), you can always roll back your version of Stellaris through Steam. (In your library, right-click a game — Properties… — Betas — Select the previous version from the betas dropdown, having “none” selected means you will get the latest official version.)

Steam Workshop

Q: What is the Steam Workshop?

A: Publishers can choose to enable the Steam Workshop for a game.

If they do, this means they have integrated a mod uploader so modders can list their mods on the Steam Workshop page for a game.

Anyone that owns the game through Steam can easily download mods from there by subscribing there. Steam will then keep the mod updated for you. Usually, this means the game in question has a mod selector in its launcher or main menu.

If a game has no Steam Workshop integration, or if you don’t have the Steam version of a game (i.e. You have the GoG or Gamepass version), you are not completely out of luck.

There are websites where modders can list their mods outside of Steam. Usually, this is more effort for the modders and anyone wanting to use those mods.

Steam Alternative Nexusmods & Paradox Mods

One of those sites is Nexusmods, I think they even have a tool that can keep your mods updated. Paradox built their own Workshop called Paradox Mods, which also updates any subscribed mods.

They still have a bit of work to do, as their platform does not yet have collections as Steam does.

Generally, the Steam Workshop is the place to be if you enjoy mods. For this reason alone I usually own my games on Steam.

Q: Can u tell us more about your mods? What was your motivation? Where can our readers find these?

A: I’ve already mentioned HexGrid and my Modjam mod “Shielded Origin” further up. There are a few other small fix-mods that may or may not be outdated.

Here is a link to akeean’s Steam workshop

Why do you mod?

Usually, when I play and something bugs me enough I tab out and see how it works and change it to my liking. Most of the time I don’t publish my creations or at least not publicly.

I don’t want to bother writing descriptions or deal with people running into bugs (that may just as well come from them combining it with whatever other 50 mods).

For example, when playing with a friend, he was playing the Calamitous Birth Origin with his Lithoids.

They can build special colony ship asteroids that they crash on planets. This is cheaper and faster but creates a blocker on every planet colonized with it.

What my friend didn’t realize was that the blocker on new colonies was different from the one on his original homeworld. So he ended up suffering from low habitability and unrest in dozens of colonies.

Not wanting to lose a session we were already a few hours in, I just made a quick fixmod that changed the blocker on new colonies to be more like the one on his homeworld and not cost like 10% habitability.

Normally I would not have set it to be visible to the public, but I was inspired and slapped a random image on it, so a few people ended up using it.

Q: Do you have any idea how many mods are there for Stellaris?

A: There are about 24,000 mods for Stellaris in the Steam Workshop. But a lot of them are probably no longer compatible with the current game version…

Favorite Mods

Q: In a recent poll many Stellaris players answered that they keep their mods a secret. That surprised me… any idea why that is? Why would that be a secret? What mods do you like and use personally … if that is not a secret?

A: I’m not sure. Maybe they don’t want to admit to running anime-girls, fursona, or vaguely ww2 axis empire mods? There are some weird mods in the Workshop.

My modlist changes with every version, due to the game changing.

One mod that keeps getting updated and that I enjoy is Amazing Space Battles. This makes combat look a lot better and more dramatic, without really changing the game balance. I also use the related mods for it linked on the mods page.

Another one of my favorites is Downscaled Ships. This makes spaceships look smaller in relation to the solar system and planets.

In vanilla, a corvette is about the size of a moon and big fleets have some ugly clipping going on as they can’t fit into the same space the game wants them to be. Really ruins the optics of the game.

Homeworld solved this problem in 1999 by dynamically changing the scale of the ship depending on the zoom level. But this doesn’t seem important enough to Paradox and can’t really be modded in.

So the closest “fix” we can get is to just scale down all of the ships that the models are just smaller. I think with this mod, a Titan is about the size of a vanilla corvette. You can still zoom in more and get the same details visible, just with a bit more space between the ships zooming around.

If you use any modded shipsets, you’ll need a compatibility mod (that usually needs to be below those mods in load order), otherwise, the ships from the custom shipset mod will look gigantic compared to the downscaled ones.

Tips for Starting Using Mods

If you are new to modding Stellaris, you should find a list of mods that are known to work together, rather than subscribing to random mods. If mods conflict, it can lead to crashes, broken savegames, severe performance degradation, or “unexpected synergies”, rendering the game incredibly easy, or impossibly difficult.

A good modlist can lead to amazing and spectacular sessions, so it’s well worth trying out mods.

Can You Play Stellaris Multiplayer with Mods?

Q: Do mods work with Multiplayer in Stellaris, like the host’s DLC are expanded to all co-players?

A: Yes, you can run mods in multiplayer. No, it doesn’t work like the Host DLC authority. Clients must have the same checksum as the host.

All players need to run the same non-ironman save mods in exactly the same load order.

Unfortunately, there is no way to share lists of active mods from the game’s launcher.

Many people are waiting for that feature to eventually arrive with paradox mods. You can have collections in Steam to make subscribing to them easy and get them downloaded and available in the game launcher, but you still need to activate them and potentially drag them into the right order.

If you want to use different mods in a multiplayer session than in a concurrent single player session, be smart and create a playlist for either of those in the launcher.

This way you can easily swap the active list before you start the game. Also, make sure to actually swap to the right playlist before starting the game.

Ironman & Ironman Compatible Mods

You can run any ironman-compatible mods individually without them affecting a multiplayer session. There are only very few mods that are ironman save (usually UI mods and graphical tweaks).

Mods & Checksum

What is “the checksum”? The game displays a string of letters and numbers near the version number (or as a tooltip of the version, I don’t quite remember right now) in the main menu.

Any mod that changes the game balance or adds new things, will cause a change in the checksum.  There are some mods that don’t modify the checksum, those are usually called “ironman compatible” since the game only lets you collect achievements with the vanilla checksum. Same checksum = same game version with same active mods in the same order and same version of mods.

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