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The RPG Files: Paid Mods Are Likely to Return

By Christopher Coke on May 01, 2015 | Columns | Comments

Paid Mods Are Likely to Return

This weekend, the mother of all firestorms arrived when the most beloved gaming retailer in the world teamed up with the most beloved RPG publisher in the world to collectively “piss off the internet.” We’re talking, of course, about the introduction, and subsequent shuttering, of Valve and Bethesda’s paid Steam Workshop program for The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim mods. For a brief time, players could spend money to support mod makers but doing so introduced more problems than Valve had counted on. But paid mods may not be so dead as we think.

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Before we get into why Valve thought this was a good idea, it’s worth noting the reasons this was such a bad move in the first place. Skyrim modders getting paid for their work is a good thing. Any modder developing quality content deserves to reap the rewards of their efforts, be that through accolades, donations, or if they choose, sales. Valve’s approach, however, made a mess of the entire affair.

The first problem was just how connected many mods are. Modders routinely borrow each other’s work. When they’re free, this isn’t a big deal. Developers can collaborate and freely share with one another, crediting the original authors when credit is due. But when profits come in, the waters get muddy quick. If Paid Mod A depends on Mod B to function, shouldn’t the author of Mod B get a share of the profits? What if the author of Mod B disagrees with the idea of selling mods in general and wants no part of it?

That was exactly what happened with Chesko and the Art of the Catch mod. Art of the Catch depended heavily on animations released in a second package by another modder named Fore. Chesko went to Valve with his concerns, and their response was simple:  any mod can use any other, whether they’re free or not, and whether the authors care or not. The issue with Fore went deeper -- he disagreed with the whole idea of paid modding -- and, after a tidy amount of drama, Chesko decided to pull Fore’s work from his projects, refund all of his customers, and step back from the modding community until he could find the joy in it again.

Piracy was another issue. Valve was quick to take down infringing apps but in the short time the program was live, greedy players already attempted to game the system. Players also made a mockery of the program by uploading joke add-ons, like “HD horse genitals” ($99) and the “Extra Apple Mod” ($30) which added a single apple to tavern in Whiterun. Historically, Valve has taken a hands-off approach with the items that go up on their store. There is legitimate concern about how the company would handle scams in the long-run.

Understandably, the internet reacted with gasoline and matches. Gabe Newell took to Reddit to answer questions and was promptly downvoted into the ground, which must have been somewhat of a first for the PC gaming icon. Players didn’t like the issues above, but they also didn’t like how mod creators only made 25-percent on the deal while Bethesda and Valve split the rest. They labeled it exploitation and, as Chesko put it, it became a question of how much developers were willing to pay to be featured on the front page of Steam. To many, the whole thing seemed greedy and unnecessary.

By Monday, the whole thing was called off with an unassuming post on Steam. Valve’s rationale is important and gets at the heart of why the company attempted this in the first place.

“We’ve been shipping many features over the years aimed at allowing community creators to receive a share of the rewards… It’s obvious now that this case is different.”

 “To help you understand why we thought this was a good idea, our primary goals were to allow mod makers the opportunity to work on their mods full time if they wanted to…”

If it’s possible for a company to have its heart in the right place, it certainly seems like Valve did here -- as it should be from a company so rooted in the modding community. Left 4 Dead, Counter-Strike, and DOTA each began their life as mods and have since come to be definitive entries in the company’s catalog. There was also self-reflection in the post, but more importantly, some definite clues that this issue isn’t as closed as we would like to think:

“We wanted more great mods becoming great products, like Dota, Counter-strike, Day-Z and Killing Floor, and we wanted that to happen organically for any mod maker who wanted to take a shot at it.”

“We understand our own game’s communities pretty well, but stepping into an established, years old modding community in Skyrim was probably not the right place to start iterating. We think this made us miss the mark pretty badly, even though we believe there’s a useful feature somewhere here.

The second quote is relevant. It closes the door on Skyrim mods, for now, and strongly hints that they will return in the future. Paid modding is not something Valve is prepared to abandon; next time, they’ll begin with their properties, with lesser modding communities that they have a better grasp on. It is not over.

The question is, does that matter? Looking back at this whole thing, it seems like the issue is less to do with paid mods and more to do with Valve bursting into an established community like the Daddy Warbucks version of the Kool-aid Man. It reeked of cash grabbing and was far too easy to see Valve as the big exploiter, making money off modders without the hassle of offering them jobs or even fair profit sharing.

But what if they did it different? What if they boiled the frog slowly, beginning with CS:GO or Team Fortress 2? What if we all became acclimated to the idea, would we still be so upset? If paid mods became routine and weren’t a problem in these smaller games, would anyone really shout if it did make its way into major modding communities?

Consider this: within this decade, we’ve gone from the “slippery slope” or “terribad” free-to-play to doing away with subscriptions almost entirely. The dissenters are now ‘kooks and geezers’.

Why should paid mods be any different, and couldn’t they even work, if Valve introduces them wisely, learning from a few years of Valve-only iteration?

Many things would have to change, but paid mods are something Valve isn’t ready to abandon, and perhaps they shouldn’t. They bungled it here and should step back for a year or two, sure. But still, modders are developers without a home; they should be paid if they produce something players want. The real question is whether that should come from a donation button or a minimum purchase price.

One thing’s for sure: we just got a peek into the future.

Christopher Coke / Chris has been a fan of MMOs since the mid-1990s when he cut his teeth on MUDs. These days he scours the internet for the latest and greatest multiplayer gaming experiences.