Getting into #x4foundations modding is a painful experience for a newcomer especially when on a clock (as in: Ain’t no time for this) so here is what I understood so far.
EgoSoft is one of the few companies that still hold on to a forum. They may be on social media but that’s just as news outlet. This is somehow also where the modding community resides, when it usually would find a place on it’s own “elsewhere”. Clever move and I applaud – at least I don’t have to join some private group on Facebook.
Sadly the forum has no search function to speak of especially not for a technical search or, gasp, a code search. So most mod developers usually host their stuff elsewhere – like scattered on GitHub, and only talk about their mods here and there. Connecting the dots (and users) is up to the initiate. In fact it helps slightly to utilize an external search engine that does a better job compared to the forum search itself. Go figure.
Eventually I stumbled by accident or luck over a Confluence installation that seems to act as some sort of Wiki and has indeed some pointers on modding for various X titles at https://www.egosoft.com:8444/confluence/ – and I am still uncertain if this is intended to be public or not. Sadly the X4 modding articles in there are short and of course available in English only. That wouldn’t be an issue if Confluence wouldn’t stubbornly insist in trying to render a page in my native language first, informing me helpful every time that no such entry exists and makes me switch the language every single time back to English. Well, I guess it is a community driven documentation system so I could scratch my own itch and translate stuff. Thing is I should understand what I’d be talking about in the first place, no?
Turns out that most know-how for X4 modding can in fact be learnt from X3 and X Rebirth in particular. Both are precursors and partially sandboxes for X4, from my understanding, so a lot of the information does also apply to X4. Sometimes with slight differences.
The most helpful place however is an unofficial Discord channel where many of the mod developers hang out and they do seem to be really friendly to newcomers asking the same old questions over and over again. I won’t bother with the invite link as this one is subject to change all the time but it can indeed be found with the dreaded forum search.
The extension file formats (and formatting)
Anyway, let’s dive into some details. Mods, or as it should be called nowadays “extensions”, consist usually of so called MD Scripts, that’s short for Mission Director (and not Markdown) written in well formed XML Syntax, and LUA scripts (that seems to be the gaming industry standard – at least I keep hearing that). LUA itself is explained in great detail in the online documentation of LUA while game specifics are listed in varying detail on the Confluence mentioned above but that’s subject for another article. Also various assets may be floating around in the extension folders.
Now in theory XML and LUA are completely system independent so modding with different systems in mind should be a no brainer, right? Right?
Well, of course nothing is ever that easy. Thankfully the user CulunTse took the burden and wrote an article on all the caveats encountered so far: https://forum.egosoft.com/viewtopic.php?t=380912 (Steps to make your mod work on Linux+Mac) – it’s for X-Rebirth but the gist applies for X4 as well. So when writing mods make sure to use lower case only and don’t use special characters at all. Best not even use a white-space just to be sure.
So now we learnt that an extension consists mostly of XML and LUA files, so how comes that mods downloaded from Steam, e.g. to learn from, are riddled with various TXT files instead rendering your linter of choice useless because it won’t automatically parse a text file? Well that seems to be a Steam Workshop limitation not allowing certain file… extensions. So developers started to rename their files when uploaded to Steam. Yay, more confusion for man and machine (as in mankind – c’mon, it’s a lame allusion!).
Why I mentioned Steam now? Well, learning from existing extensions is the way to go. Also since some simply don’t work for Not-Windows users it’s up to myself to debug. The places to get extensions is usually from NexusMods (no thanks, still angry that they lost my user data years ago – still used by scammers) and Steam. Avid readers of my ramblings may know my especially sour spot of having purchased X4 on GOG (https://beko.famkos.net/2021/03/17/x4-cradle-of-humanity-for-linux-and-gog/) so downloading from the Steam Workshop is not as straight forward as it is for others. There are various so called “steam workshop downloader” that easy the pain somewhat.
But wait. The Steam Workshop file comes as DAT file. What is that again when I just talked about TXT files? Well, this is from my understanding a format by EgoSoft designed for Steam Workshop files for X Rebirth – also called a XRWS file. At least from https://github.com/Lighting/XRWSunpack – a tiny little project that helps unpacking the DAT files but has to be compiled before use. That’s usually a matter of issuing the
make command after checking out the repository (or download the release file if you’re feeling lucky). Fair warning: It is somewhat rigid in the way the DAT file has to be named so you may have to adjust that by renaming. Ymmv.
Armed with that knowledge I was able to download and extract the awesome
extensions_fireandsmoke_v107.dat extension that really spices up space fights with the effects we know and love from X Rebirth (or not). This one I could also drop in my user space folder under
~/.config/EgoSoft/X4/extensions/x4_fireandsmoke/ (again: case sensitive, important). The folder name matters because it is also hardcoded into the extension files itself and will fail to load various assets if changed. Interesting design choice.
Why this is noteworthy? Well apparently this does not work for all kinds of extensions. Some seem to work only when put in the game path
/path/to/X4_Foundations/game/extensions/ where the game also stores official DLCs. Better keep that in mind. The gist seems to be that user space extensions are limited in functionality to prevent nefarious mods. Or so I hear. Maybe EgoSoft simply never got it working properly. There is more (conflicting) info hidden deep in that Confluence mentioned above.
One extension to rule them all (and a pipe)
So why go through all that trouble when an extension can simply be downloaded from e.g. GitHub? Well, I learnt the hard way: Also not as simple. For example many mods rely on one very important extension that can be found in the repository https://github.com/bvbohnen/x4-projects – a wild mix of various extensions and even a Pipe Server (more on that later). It’s the indeed impressive extension
sn_mod_support_apis featuring a clever way to work around some UI modding limitations in X4, allowing lazy loading of further LUA scripts and even introduces a Pipe Server to interact with the game from the outer world – mostly used for more complex hot keys. A dream coming true and used by many other extensions as well.
Sadly it didn’t really work out of the box when checked out from GitHub and put in place at
/path/to/X4_Foundations/game/extensions/sn_mod_support_apis/. There were various reasons for this. First of all: Case sensitive again. The XML files in the
md/ folder must be lower case or X4 will simply ignore the files. Easily fixed though.
The next problem wasn’t that easy to identify and the reason for this is hidden in plain sight in this titbit of information from the synopsis:
A workaround is to load in custom lua files alongside the egosoft lua. This is done by editing one of a handful of ui.xml files in the ui/addons folders, adding the path to the custom lua file. These ui.xml files cannot be diff patched. The lua file must be given an xpl extension, and this xpl and the ui.xml must be packed in a “subst” cat/dat.bvbohnen/x4-projects
Where this arcane know-how was acquired from in the first place I do not know. The gist is that some XML files are happily read by X4 (and can even be hot reloaded) while some can not. The
ui.xml falls into the not so much category and since I have no idea how to create a cat/dat file (yet) I had to scrape the “subst” files from a release (Steam Workshop, NexusMod, GitHub release, you name it). Without it’s simply not read and ignored and this is also why no single debug line will ever be logged to give the (weary) initiate a hint what may be wrong.
After that mods relying on
sn_mod_support_apis started working (or throwing traces at least). Awesome! Onwards to Pipes! Or Not! Because this part is Windows only. Why? Well, the Pipe Server uses a LUA feature to load a library from disk providing that pipe feature. And that project is written in C, compiled as a separate DLL and relying on Windows, of course. That makes even sense and I really can not blame the author for scratching the own itch only here. See https://github.com/bvbohnen/x4-projects/blob/master/extensions/sn_mod_support_apis/lua/c_library/winpipe.lua for details and to be fair the extension is written in a way that other features do still work so it’s not a total roadblock and in theory I can go back to be a happy gamer at this point.
Alas I want that Pipe feature, of course, so I have to come up with my own library at this point. It’s not a complex file but my C days are long past. So to spice this up I needed a crash course on how LUA is supposed to work. Script wise and all and I don’t think I was prepared for all this.
Diving into the unknown (What is LUA/JIT anyway?)
LUA is basically… ah frell, go and look it up yourself. In the end LUA scripts are interpreted by a VM. That would be LuaJIT (JIT – Just In Time) on Linux and this is why X4 is shipped with a file named
libluajit-5.1.so.2. Sadly this is not the particular version of LuaJIT. It stands for an ABI compatibility version. In theory at least. My first goal to get the idea was to grab the source and compile my own libluajit. Should be a no brainer, right? Little did I know when I checked out the project from https://github.com/LuaJIT/LuaJIT.
I run a hexedit on the distributed library to get an idea what version is used and came up with 2_1_0_beta3. The commit 8271c643c21d1b2f344e339f559f2de6f3663191 of the LuaJIT project is tagged with that version so I went with that first.
Compile went smooth, beside some warnings, but X4 would stop dead throwing a Fatal Error at me that I’ve never seen before. Well, let’s fast forward to HEAD and try again and this time the game started but became stuck in main menu with unresponsive entries and missing labels (some said “Processing…”). So obviously X4 is not running vanilla LuaJIT and since this is under MIT licence I don’t think they even have to provide modifications. What now?
Thankfully some fellow gamer on Telegram, who doesn’t want to be named, pointed me in the right directions due to experience with LUA. An article over at https://developer.x-plane.com/article/luajit/ explains some major caveats with this and sure enough once I knew what I was looking for I found evidence here and here and here. (Yes, they have Jira as well – who would have guessed).
Lua engine was upgraded to LuaJIT 2.1 which comes with performance improvements as well as new language features (incl. some added Lua 5.2-specific features as well as some Lua 5.3 ones.
Just looking at the number of forks of LuaJIT on GitHub makes me dizzy so I went with the first recommendation https://github.com/openresty/luajit2 that also addresses the memory issue and also edited the file
src/Makefile enabling some LUA 5.2 features by commenting in the line: XCFLAGS+= -DLUAJIT_ENABLE_LUA52COMPAT
And guess what, X4 launched with this and also started an older save game of mine just fine. I guess this works so I’ll keep that in mind in case I need some monkey patching to try stuff.
Next on that list? Find out how to write a loadable C library for LUA and adapt that Pipe Server.
At least gaming itself is easy as pie on Linux in 2021. Modding? Now so much.