What is modding?
Modding is the process of changing any part of FreeSpace (with the exception of the missions themselves which is known as FREDding). FreeSpace was designed to make modding possible which means that there is a fair sized modding community for the game. As with FREDding most people prefer to work on FS2 as it is newer and has more features.
What do I need to mod?
Modding is a big field. The tools you'll need for modding depend on the type of modding you are interested in. The only tool you'll definitely need is something for opening up the Volition Package files which contain the data FreeSpace uses. VPView is the main tool people use for this task but I'll link to other similar programs below too. Instructions on how to use VPView can be found further down.
How can I alter a ship already present in the game?Table edits
This is a good place to start when it comes to modding. It is relatively simple to alter FreeSpace to make the weapons more damaging or to make ships faster.
Two things that are important to remember when editing tables. Firstly if you are using retail you must not allow the ships.tbl or the weapons.tbl to grow much beyond 380k. Crashes have been reported with both once they get larger than that. Secondly unless you are using an Inferno build of FS2_Open you should not have more than 130 ships in the ships.tbl. Doing so breaks multiplayer and can cause a very strange bug that starts the mission at 2 minutes in.
Retexturing is also an easy type of modding to do. Retexturing basically involves repainting a ship to make it look different in the game. This is often done to make a mk II version of a ship already present (generally with a table mod to make the ship perform better). The Artemis D.H is an example of a retexture since it is basically a standard Artemis with a black paint job.
Making Orion nameplates
The retail versions of FreeSpace have always allowed you to change the nameplates on the Orion class destroyer. Basically this is a special kind of retexturing (i.e. you only replace one specific texture and then create a separate table entry and .pof model for each ship). The texture you need to replace is called capital01-05a on the original Orion model but you will of course need to change that name for your nameplate (or all your Orions will have the same name).
Making other nameplates
FS2_Open added a texture replacement system to FRED. This means that ships can now have nameplates without needing to use up spaces on the ships table. Simply open up FRED and use the texture replacement option from the ships editor to replace one texture with a new one. This system can of course be used with Orions instead of the above method.
How do I make new ships?This is one of the major reasons people get into modding. While it's nice to dress up and alter the existing ships you can only really say you've made something truly new when you've built it from scratch.
New ships are built in a modelling program. They must then be put into the correct hierarchy in True space or 3DS Max (other modelling programs). The models must be then converted into a .pof file. The pof file must then be edited to give it subsystems, weapon points etc. The tools you use for almost every section can be changed. What follows a quick guide to the process of making a new ship. More detailed tutorials can be found in the links given further down the page
STEP 1) Modelling the ship
You can use any modelling program you want. There are plenty to try and it's up to you decide which program you feel most comfortable. The only important thing is that you MUST choose a program that can save the model in the .cob format OR get hold of a program that will convert the model into a TrueSpace .cob file OR have a copy of 3DS Max.
STEP 2) Setting the Hierarchy of the ship
The ship then needs to be grouped. FreeSpace ships are rarely made up from a single model. Most ships have LODs (levels of detail), debris and capships and bombers usually have turrets. All of these must be made as separate models. You can find more details in the turretting tutorial on this site. Details on how to do what I haven't covered can be found in either IP Andrews ship creation guide or Rampages guide. Grouping has to be done with True space or 3DS Max at the moment. You can get a copy of TrueSpace 3.2 from here for free. Simply register and Caligari will send you a link to download it.
STEP 3) Converting the model
Now you need to change the model into a form FreeSpace can understand. If you are working on a .cob, you can do this using cob2pof or Cob2fs2 (Both available here) or by using PCS (the most recent version is available here)
STEP 4) Editing the .pof
This is basically done using either PCS or ModelView. This is where you set up all the turrets, gunpoints etc.
STEP 5) Editing the table file
Once your new ships is modelled you'll need to make sure the game can find/use it. This is done by editing the table to add the new ship. Most people tend to pick a ship similar to the new one and copy/edit its entry on the table.
More detailed guides to ship modding
The FAQ has a guide to turretting but for everything else you may find these more advanced tutorials and guides useful.
Bobboau's PCS Tutorial An excellent guide on how to use PCS (even explaining things like paths which many people find hard)
How do I make a VP file?
First you'll need some VP making Software. I personally use Kazan's VP Constructor Suite (VPCS) but once you've grasped the basics you'll probably find that any of the programs available are easy to use. I'm going to assume you're using VPCS for the rest of this guide.