Corey Loses' Thoughts on Developing Star Wars Mods

Modder and YouTuber known for creating great Star Wars mods Corey Loses talked about the development process, shared some thoughts about working in a team, and gave a piece of advice for beginning modders.


My background is about as far from traditional game dev as it could be. I started modding when I was 13 or 14, with the mods I still run. I briefly was going to go to University for something related, so I took a few high school programming classes but ended up getting a degree in History & Political Science in Ottawa before doing the usual post-university foodservice and getting a government job.

I did some YouTube videos for fun but it grew enough that I transitioned to YouTube and streaming as a full-time job about three years ago now. I was modding throughout as a hobby, which I’ve been doing for about 16 years. Going to YouTube tied in pretty well – I always have something new to play, and I’ve been able to do a few development streams and videos, even some tutorials.

Projects and Mods

When I started modding, it was just making a few changes to the Star Wars: Empire at War demo in 2006 before the game properly launched. I had no idea how game development or mod development worked at the time, so I assumed when the game launched, so would all these huge mods adding all this content.

When they didn’t I started my own mod, Thrawn’s Revenge, hoping to expand that content myself. We quickly ramped up to four projects covering different eras of Star Wars, having no idea what we were doing. We got back down to only Thrawn’s Revenge by 2010 as we realized how much we’d bitten off and as most of us on the team were finishing High School, we thought we’d just get a release of that out and then stop (then we never stopped).

The initial releases especially weren’t great, but they were fun to make, and eventually, because of improved skills, better software, and more help in the last few years we’ve been able to go from Thrawn’s Revenge being one project back to covering all the original content we wanted to and then some, under the name Empire at War Expanded.

Over that time we also made a Star Wars mod for Sins of a Solar Empire called Ascendancy, which we started in 2014 and gets updated a bit more sporadically because of some less-than-fun tools, even if I love the game. Originally it was gonna be set in our own universe that we did some initial design work for, but we had all these assets we’d made for Thrawn’s Revenge, and as a bunch of the devs was playing Sins we kept thinking “wouldn’t it be cool if this were a huge triangle instead?” so we ended up back where we started with Star Wars.

Beyond that, I’ve contributed to a few other Empire at War and Sins mods over the years, a little for some mods for games like Freespace, and played around with some Stellaris stuff for personal use. Usually, my ability to directly help other projects stays to a model or texture here or there since most of my modding time goes towards Empire at War Expanded. There are a few other members of the team whose backgrounds go out to a few other games like Starcraft, or Galactic Battlegrounds though.

The Team

Honestly, sometimes I’m surprised how well everything works with such a large team, especially with how ad hoc it has to be. Most communication is done through Discord (used to be Skype and MSN before that, since we’re getting old), with direct project organization and documentation through Github and a bunch of spreadsheets.

There are better professional org tools out there, like mudstack, for example, but the emphasis really has to be on accessibility since we’re hobbyists with no budget and I don’t want to have the onboarding process be too difficult. We have GitHub projects tracking each mod, each faction, issues for the status of each unit. The spreadsheets have all the information on all ships, planets, and maps for the mod, as well as a bunch of content we may never get to, but which we’ve got a reasonable and consistent plan for if we do (thanks to some borderline obsessive stat work by Nolan, Jorritkarwehr, and evilbobthebob in particular).

We’ve learned the value of iterative release cycles over the years rather than trying to throw everything together at once, so each release we’ll now get as many of the team together in a call as we can, I’ll start by laying out some high-level areas we may want to focus on, and then get everyone’s opinions on what they want to see get more focus in a given release, and we’ll plan broadly what’s in scope or what may have to wait. After that, I’ll take all the feedback there and make a list of about two dozen broad bullet points to focus on and a few things to specifically avoid until the future, leaving as much wiggle room for the specifics as possible depending on which content grabs people’s attention.

One of the biggest things that separate a volunteer project like this, I think, is a greater need for flexibility. I try to have a decent handle on all disciplines so I can fill whatever gaps we need, but since people do this for free on free time, there’s no guarantee a programmer will be available for whatever feature or a specific artist will be able to finish whatever they’re working on for a release period, so nothing can be too fixed. The real life has to come first. I also try to make sure people are able to work on whatever interests them most. The result ends up being a lot more of a live-service model for the mod than if there were a fully-set design we were working towards. I think this also helps reinforce one of our strengths throughout the years, which is our ability to not get too married to any specific iteration of anything.

With a team that’s currently up to 40 active people, with dozens who have worked on it in the past, it’s impossible to avoid all conflict, but I really try to reinforce that we’re making a mod for fun. If we have a bad release, we can fix that next time. If we all start hating each other, that’s harder to fix. We don’t have a bottom line to worry about, if something doesn’t work out nobody’s getting fired and nobody was going to get paid even if it were good. Most people end up contributing when they can, some people will disappear for a bit then come back and work when they can (a record I think is Valerie’s 12-year gap), but even after leaving the project everyone tends to still hang around in the team Discord to play games or talk, so I think we’ve done pretty well.

Developing the Mods

I’ve always been interested in history, so games like Total War and Europa Universalis were always cool to me. I love the border gore especially. Star Wars has these cool periods where this lore was built up, having all these potential groups fighting each other and I guess my goal really is to re-experience that border gore in space, which Empire at War and Sins have the potential for on the sci-fi side which few other games reach.

The tool improvements have made a huge difference over the years- we used to have to work off of 3ds Max 6, 7, 8, or 9 (just those versions, nothing newer) until 2019 when another modder, Gaukler, made a Blender plugin for Empire at War which has made modding the game way more accessible than ever, even this late in its lifecycle. Programs like Substance Painter have become invaluable as well while being actually affordable allowing people to try it out.

With so many people who are just hobbyists and self-taught, things like consistent materials we can share around rather than having to draw everything by hand makes everything match much better and makes the process of making a unit once that’s set up for a faction or manufacturer much faster. We’ve completed entire factions in the time it used to take us to do a couple of units if we were lucky. Looking at old patch notes we used to have a major release with half a dozen units done much more poorly over a longer period than what we can do in any release right now.

There’s also a lot of tedious XML editing involved, so we’ve developed a few tools in-house to help manage things like text editing, or converting from spreadsheets directly to the game files rather than having to edit the same thing multiple times. These have all been huge in allowing us to spend more time on the actual design when we used to need to set aside a day for implementing what now takes us a click. Our main programmer, Sven Marcus, has done a lot of work to set out good coding practices for all of us to follow and has even made a custom-built framework to run all of our features off of, meaning when we want to do something new all we need to do is write a plugin which takes advantage of all the functions he’s set up within it. This framework is a big part of what makes our mods possible and was free released for any Empire at War modders to use under the name Deep Core.

The biggest challenge we really face, aside from working around people’s schedules as I mentioned earlier, is skirting the game’s limitations. Empire at War is an old game, and not everything is moddable. We only get one CPU core, so we have to make sure we don’t abuse it and while certain things may be possible, they may not be possible to communicate to the player, so finding ways around that is always a challenge. Sometimes we’ve had to scrap what was otherwise fun, perfectly good ideas because it was too difficult for the player to track, which always feels sad but that’s just how modding is sometimes. For some of our biggest requests, Petroglyph (the company that made the game) has actually done a few patches since 2017 which have greatly expanded what’s possible, so it’s great that they and Disney have been so willing to support mods on that front.

The Content

Our currently-released projects cover the post-Endor period of Star Wars (Thrawn’s Revenge for EaW and Ascendancy for Sins), and the Clone Wars (Fall of the Republic for EaW). We kind of have two extremes there which are interesting in their own ways. The Clone Wars is your classic, two massive factions with distinct styles going at it. The Post-Endor period though, has the Galactic Empire of the movies split into a bunch of different groups, which also makes some of these other lesser-known, smaller factions (Hapans, Ssi-Ruuvi, Corporate Sector, Empire of the Hand) be able to be more of a threat to anyone else, giving us a ton of options for factions with a broad range of playstyles and aesthetics. We try to stay true to the lore as much as we can, but also try to turn that into a unique gameplay hook.

In prior versions we’ve had a few unique factions, but also a cluster of Imperial factions that played fairly similarly, so for this release we tried to do the same with them, defining what we wanted them to play like and then going through the depths of obscure sourcebooks to fill out unique rosters to back up those unique playstyles for each, which has really helped improve the flow of the game as you fight through different factions.

Despite this depth in Star Wars lore, it’s mostly in somewhat disconnected novels, maybe some sourcebooks help give an overarching feel but it’s rarely ever synthesized in an accessible way for people who don’t want to spend hours digging through it for some reason. I like to think we have a good balance, giving longtime Star Wars fans a chance to see what might otherwise be a really fringe thing come front and center, while also giving people who may not be that familiar with Star Wars a fun game with a variety of ways to approach how they play and maybe learn some useless lore along the way.


I think the biggest thing is to do what interests you, and start small (even though I didn’t). If you want to see something in a game, just give it a try. You’ll almost certainly be bad at it at first, but everyone else was too and it feels super rewarding seeing something you’ve made when it’s done. I still get excited about it when I make a model and see it for the first time. I often see people announce a mod, having no intention to learn for themselves and being shocked when people aren’t lining up to make it for them. Don’t be that person. The more you learn, the more you’ll understand about how much you can expand that, and people are way more willing to join a project where they’re helping build towards a shared goal, rather than when they’re going to be the only person working towards someone else’s vision. It doesn’t have to be some super-polished thing, either you’re making a mod, you don’t have to try to match professional quality with everything all the time.

There’s a popular mod for Empire at War called Yodenmod which is super wacky, but it’s just the dev making what seems cool to him at the time. On the other hand, one of the most polished mods I’ve seen for any game is a mod for Sins called Star Trek Armada III. Everything is super tight and well designed there. Both extremes work, just find what works for you.

Corey Loses, Modder

Interview conducted by Theodore Nikitin

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