Oolite – an Odyssey of Mod Confusion

It’s hard for me to tell what Oolite really is.

At first, it’s obvious. It’s a space trader/shooter, in the grand tradition of Elite. (Elite, a brilliant game that, much like Master of Orion, seems to inspire no end of remakes, none of which succeed in innovating on the same scale as their inspiration.)

I know what it started out to be. It began life as an open source Elite clone, as exact and perfect a copy as possible, but with the one thing that any good game should have: wide open moddability. And, based on the massive list of over 500 mods, it seems to have succeeded, at least in terms of quantity.

And it’s clear what it looks like, out of the box: incredibly homely. Which seems to beg for some mods. And they’re out there. But look again at that list: http://wiki.alioth.net/index.php/OXP_List. It is, admittedly, a very fastidious and up-to-date list. But which mods are the most popular? Which ones make massive changes to the “Ooniverse,” and which ones barely do anything? Which combination will make the game into the one that a new player will actually enjoy? Or which of them “get along” together? Is there a golden brew that will get you the modern Elite that you’re personally looking for? And how freaking long would it take you to figure out if that combination is even worth playing?

Several years ago and hungering for some time in space, I asked the forum for some help in selecting mods. I got some very polite and welcoming replies, but they boiled down to “just download mods you’re interested in and figure it out yourself.” It took about two hours of sifting through mods before I realized that I was working, when I wanted to be playing, so I moved on.

It’s very strange to me that a well-intentioned project like Oolite has so much mod attention, and yet no community mod-pack has sprung up to promote more casual interest. If a snarled rat’s nest like Morrowind can result in a gorgeous (if questionably stable) megapack, why not do the same for Oolite? It’s not surprising that at least one person has tried. What’s really surprising is how quickly he was shot down. Whatever their reasons for doing so, the Oolite community’s lack of effort in putting together a no-brainer mod package makes it tedious and confusing for new players to really tell what sort of a game Oolite can be.

Fortunately, a few guides for mods do exist. Since they’re published on a Wiki by individuals, they lack some authority, but they’re a good start. Unfortunately, you still need to download every single mod individually, and examine its dependencies and collisions, and possibly their configuration options, to really tell what they’re doing. It’s a time investment with no clear payoff.

I still don’t know what Oolite is. Is it a slavish remake? A faceless framework upon which can be draped hundreds of pretty but equally lifeless scripts and models? A wild west of violently clashing mod projects? A perfect garden that requires precise knowledge of which mods to slect? In the end, is there a genuinely brilliant game hiding in some baroque combination of mods? And just how long does it take to find it?

For the new player, it’s impossible to tell, so it makes more sense to slingshot around the whole business of Oolite, and go elsewhere.