The Mod Debacle: Creative Collectives and The Profit Motive

A funny thing happened last week: Valve announced that the Steam Workshop, a repository of mods for its games, would begin to allow modders to charge for their work. (A mod is a third party modification to a game, which can vary from simple changes to epic content patches, gameplay changes, and beautification of games) The flagship for this feature would be Bethesda’s Skyrim, the latest elder scrolls game (which I still haven’t played due to a vow that has to do with my first book — sigh).  Skyrim has tens of thousands of mods according to some counts.

Both Bethesda and Valve have long been staunch supporters of mods. Valve has a good track record with allowing users to generate and sell content in its other games, such as Team Fortress 2 and DOTA 2. Bethesda has given interested modders access to the innards of almost all of its Elder Scrolls and Fallout Titles, creating a mod culture that benefits the players and the company. The players get steady streams of new content and customization, as well as an outlet for creativity, the company increases both the profile and longevity of the game through these dedicated and passionate players, creators, and host communities. Everyone benefits.

As a writer, I despise being asked to work for free. Most artists do. I also dislike when people put restrictions on and meddle in my work, which is one of the many reasons that I am happily self-published. Keep those points in mind as we delve into how all of this went wrong.

The theory behind this action, if you are charitable, is that mods can essentially be treated as third party DLC. Great modders can get paid for their work. Over time the best mods will win out, the crap mods will be found out, all through normal market forces and rating systems. The best modders would theoretically be able to “go pro” more easily, which, in turn, would lead to more, better mods and profit for everyone! Even the end users of mods would supposedly benefit because money and market forces would separate the crap from the cream in this view.

What should have been glory, or at the very least an interesting and informative experiment. ended up being an epic face-palm.

Posts were made. Articles were written. By Saturday, the outrage over paid mods was such that Gabe Newell, the main man at Valve and a beloved figure in gaming, felt forced to try some damage control (on Saturday, no less) on reddit. Surprisingly, this did not work. Gabe Newell was shouted down (downvoted) by people who were almost always considered a very, very friendly audience to him. People hated the new system, and the pitchforks were out.

Interestingly, it wasn’t just people who used mods who hated the idea of paid mods. Many mod creators spoke out against the new system. (The old system allowed users of a mod to make donations some sites.)

Here are some of the many cogent points that have emerged from the chaos of… MODGATE (I couldn’t resist)

  • Mods Break [User Perspective Problem] . Mods break a lot. Games are frequently updated, and there is no guarantee that a mod will work after an update. Veteran modders are often ready and willing to fix their creations after a patch to a game messes with them, but there is no guarantee. In the current system, this is annoying but hardly terminal: If you have spent nothing, then it doesn’t matter, right? Now imagine buying a mod and then having it break. Lost $. This is where the comparison between mods and DLC breaks down, since if DLC does not work with the newest version of the game that it is made for, it really is a question of fraud, which is not true for mods.
  • Opportunism/Quality [General Perspective Problem]: Some of the earliest Skyrim mods to turn out under the new system were awful cash grabs meant to take advantage of the unwary. I am minded of the Horse DLC for Oblivion. Simple skins, overpowered weapons, and such, all at a high price. Personally I think this would sort itself out over time, with the cream rising to the top, but the fact that there are people obviously trying to take advantage of ignorance to make a quick buck should give Valve and Bethesda pause. Where is the early quality control? Think ratings will help? Well, what happens when people start buying ratings to to sell their crap mods?
  • Content Theft [Modder Perspective Problem]: One of the more interesting reactions was the fear that other people would steal a modders hard work, change it and sell it under their own banner. This happened even before the profit motive was added. Mods are not protected by copyright or traditional IP laws, so how are we going to work this again? It is an incredible grey area that was policed by the community before this, but the chance to make a quick buck off someone else’s work will outweigh loss of reputation for many people.
  • Collaboration Questions [Modder Perspective Problem]: Modding, thus far, has been an incredibly collaborative process. Many modders on Nexus (A Huge Hub for mods, and my personal fav) included explicit permission for other modders to use their work, so long as they acknowledged them in the credits. This led to extensive iteration across specialties. Want to use a cool new weapon skin in your mod? no problem. It also, I think, leads to huge overhauls being both modular and cut down into manageable chunks. Adding the profit motive to this may kill the collaborative aspect of the community. If you make a clothing mod that uses a popular body mod, do you now have to negotiate with that person and give them a cut? It may create distrust and kill the best part of modding — the iterative collaboration process which can produce spectacular results.
  • The Cut [General Perspective Problem] The mod maker gets 25%, Valve gets 30%, and Bethesda gets 45%. The argument is that 25% is better than nothing, which is true, but is it fair? For some mods, yes, but for massive overhauls that might not be as popular as a more flashy mod? no. And before you think that this is just an issue for the modders, some people have correctly pointed out that game developers have been benefiting from modders actually fixing bugs and enhancing the quality of their games for years and may try to use this as a source of cheap fixes and a an excuse to release less polished product.

Anyways, I can’t wait to see what the big guns have to say about this :D I’m hoping the Jimquisition covers it tomorrow or next week.

The Shadow Wolf Sagas: Red Fangs 2.6

Time again for some Shadow Wolf.

This is my weekly serial, written raw and posted uncut.

Link to the first series, Blade Breaker, in full.

Link to the first post of this series.

Link to last week’s post.

The axe tumbled through the air, turning end over end twice before the blade buried itself in Curran’s back as he sprinted toward an alley. His legs gave out and he toppled, flopping over like a fish thrown onto the deck of a boat.

“Fuck, fuck!” Curran looked over his shoulder at me, his wide-eyed expression at odds with the vicious fangs sprouting from his mouth. Had I been observing the scene, I might have found the juxtaposition comical, but a heart full of vengeance has little room for laughter.

As I walked toward him, slow and menacing, Curran began to pull himself toward the alley, his nails puncturing the wood. With tremendous effort he managed to drag himself at a walking pace.

“Pathetic,” I said. “I was hoping for a fight, not an execution.”

In truth, Curran was still a threat; he just didn’t know it. He was unused to his powers and my easy defeat of his comrades had given him pause. By the time I reached him, placing my foot on the small of his back and yanking his hair I almost felt pity for the poor fool*.

“No, no, I’m sorry, I’m–” whined Curran. He chocked on his words as I pulled my axe from his back.

“You killed your sister and sold her blood,” I said, my voice loud, carrying across Cliffshadow. I knew others would be watching. “Was it worth it?”

“I’m sorry,” he sobbed.

“SHE WAS MY FRIEND!” I roared, bringing my axe down, once, twice, severing his head on the second blow.

I lifted the head, Curran’s eyes focused on me mindlessly, and his mouth snapped as if he could somehow reach my neck and drink himself whole.

“Braver in death than life methinks,” I said. The vampire’s need for blood over-rode everything now. Blood was life. Blood could heal. Blood was all.

The head snapped at me a few more times, frenzied as it died. After about a minute it stopped and then the eyes rolled back and lost their feral light. I threw the head into the water and then kicked the body off the boardwalk after it. Myrhnese leeches are famous the world over for their size and prodigious appetite. It was only fitting that one bloodsucker feed others.

I stood there, in the night, illuminated by the feeble lights of Cliffshadow, the city looming above me. I thought of Delilah and how I would never see her again, or watch someone who dragged themselves out of this place grow. Then I thought of the boy who I had just killed, young, arrogant, and seduced into terrible acts by the promise of power and immortality.

Some part of me regretted killing Curran. In the end he was only a boy, after all. The rest of me relished the act, because few things are to be more reviled than a kin-slayer. I savored both thoughts as the night grew quiet once more, and Cliffshadow, ever resilient, returned to normal.

I don’t know how long I stood there. I heard no bells and it was hard to track the progress of the moon from such a vantage. A strange scent caught my attention. I tensed and moved, whirling to look behind me.

Something crashed into my shoulder as I moved, biting my shoulder even through the Kingsmail. I staggered, catching sight my assailant.

“I thought you were dead,” I snarled.

*unintentional T

A little teaser for a lazy Sunday night.

I’m beat and still digesting some the discussions from AFKCON this afternoon, so I figured I would share something from Bloodlust: The Blades of Khazak Khrim. This passage is from early in the book, and should be relatively spoiler free.

The two excruciators came at him slowly, locking shields in the slender tunnel, chanting under their breath.

Not wanting to lose track of the chest, Blue Hornet charged them. As he neared, channelling power and weaving a spell, the Excruciators tensed and attacked. He leapt, unleashing a wave of bitter frost that sapped the heat from them. He slammed a fist spike down through a helm and vaulted up and over the shields of his adversaries. The dwarves at the chest managed to swing their swords at him once before he kicked one into a stack of barrels, splintering wood and bone and then cut the throat of the other with a swift, arcing slash of his fist spike.

Impressively the Excruciator did not fall.

“Khazakrim!” he gurgled, barreling into the Chosen.

Once, such an attack might have knocked Blue Hornet from his feet. Instead, he shifted his weight to his rear leg and brought his armour elbow down on the Dwarf, sending him crashing to the ground.

Steps alerted him to the final excruciator coming up behind him. Even with three of his comrades so easily dispatched the man’s thoughts were on duty and not self-preservation. A foolish gesture in this case, serving as a reminder than the greatest strength of the fanatic was also his greatest weakness.

Blue Hornet caught the Excruciator’s blade with his left hand-buckler, swiped his shield aside with a chop, and then thrust his fist spike into the man’s belly. His hand blurred as the blade darted, puncturing the dwarf a half dozen times in the blink of an eye. The Excruciator’s eyes blinked and his mouth worked, as blood dribbled from him.

“Your prayers won’t save you now,” mocked Blue Hornet, tossing the twitching dwarf aside and turning back to the chest.

Supernatural reflexes and the enhanced mobility of airdance were all the saved him from being skewered. He skipped aside as a blade flashed through the air, followed closely by another. A Sword-Bearer, wielding two blades with liquid precision, was upon him. The man’s attacks were not as swift as Blue Hornet’s own, but his attacks seemed to anticipate the former Gladiator’s counters and Blue Hornet found himself giving ground, trying to avoid tripping over corpses and debris.

Here we see two characters from previous works encounter each other. Neither one of them are particularly heroic, although I expect most people would cheer for Blue Hornet over Twin-Swords. Part of the fun of getting more than half a million words into a series is having enough interesting characters that they are bound to encounter each other. leading to wonderful little “what if?” moments for me as I write :D

Bloodlust: The Blades of Khazak Khrim should be out July 17th (not counting approval time from Amazon, which is usually same day, but who knows?”

The Shadow Wolf Sagas: Red Fangs (2.5)

Tis Thursday and the hour of the wolf is upon us.

This is my weekly serial, if you are interested in reading the first series here it is.

Here is the first post of Red Fangs.

Catch up on last week’s post.

Seven young men, all eager for a taste of power, all desperate from a hard life in Cliffshadow, came at me when Curran spoke. I did not draw my weapons.

A swift youth with a scarred face came at me from the side, brandishing a deadly myrhnese stiletto and aiming for my leg. He was fast, but my boot was quicker and I sent him sprawling with a kick. I kicked his knife into an alley.

I heard a club whistling, and I shifted, turning and stepping back. The owner, a short, muscular youth with a ludicrous pair of red fangs tattooed on his chest swung again. I caught the club in my left gauntlet. My eyes met his just long enough for me to smile and then send my right crashing into his face.

The next two were on me even before his body hit the ground. One had a club, the other had an old sword. The first came in swinging, while the second lunged at me from an a different angle. I spun, caught the arm of the would-be swordsman and flung him into the one with the club. The collided with a satisfying thud, and fell to the ground in a heap.

I felt something tickle my ribs. I looked down to see a wide-eyed boy holding a broken blade, looking like he’d been robbed. I cleared my throat to gain his attention and when he looked at me I smiled. He did not like what he saw. As he turned to run, I hooked his leg with my foot and pulled, tripping him.

I knee’d the boy with the bad tattoo in the face as he tried to get back to his feet and then stepped forward to meet the other two.  These two were bigger.

“You sure its worth it?” I asked. “Curran killed his sister. How long before he turns on you?”

“I’ll kill you both if you turn on me!” snarled Curran.

“See,” I said. “A leader like that will lead you to your death, if he doesn’t kill you himself.”

“Fuck you, Nordan,” said one of the Gangers, a big lad.

I let my axe drop into my hand. His eyes went wide at the sight of Runed steel, shining in the muted light of Cliffshadow.

“Take your friends and go home,” I said, stepping between the two of them, my eyes on Curran.

My eyes met the Vampires. I looked at him. He looked at my axe.

“You killed your own sister!” I said. “For that, I am going to end you.”

“Dog of a Northman,” he hissed, showing his fangs. “Die!”

With inhuman swiftness he stepped in, both clubs coming down in a crushing overhand swing. I stepped back, and they slammed into the wood of the boardwalk. Everything splintered, including his weapons. I stepped back in, swinging at him but he rolled out of the way, looked at me with wide eyes and turned, sprinting away with desperate speed. Armoured, I could not hope to match him.

My axe hit him squarely in the back, just above his waist.

The Hugo Awards: The Money Angle

I wanted to write something about the Hugo awards, but I don’t really know enough about them to contribute meaningfully to the discussion one way or another. I have never been to Worldcon, and as a self-published author who flies well below the radar I don’t expect to see any of my book up there anytime soon, nor do feel bad about that. I’m just here to write and entertain.

Personally I dislike both the extreme right, and extreme left getting involved in this debate. North American directional politics, fed by the twenty-four hours “news” channels and the pundit blogs, is capable of very little other than bringing rage and ruin to everything it touches right now. I hate to think that in the midst of the massive boom in genre fiction that this ugliness could turn people off, and possibly even stunt the growth of SF/F.

What interests me most about the whole debate is that none of the articles that I have read about the whole Kerfuffle, most of which are very good, none cover the economic aspect of winning an award.

I would not buy a book simply because it was a Hugo award winner. However, if I was on the fence about a book and saw that it won an award, that would make me more likely to buy it. An award is an indication of quality, at the very least.

Perhaps more importantly winning (or even being short-listed) an award acts as additional exposure acts for both the work and the author. It will not push a niche intellectual work to bestseller status, to be sure, but I am confident that winning an award, especially a prestigious award, will expose a book to new readers and elevate sales in almost all cases.

Many authors are ego driven enough to value the award above the sales that it generates. Some writers, however, are far more motivated by sales figures and really don’t care how they get them. Attaching “Hugo” to their name and book will get those extra sales and so they have an economic motive, regardless of what ideology they might be espousing to justify their actions.

So while there is an ideological battle here, which is very sad, there is also the simple fact that by gaming the system the Sad Puppies have gained publicity and increased sales. The people who are outraged by their actions are not in their intended readership and I suspect that they, or their publishers, know it. The very nature of their very public campaign, and the amount of publicity it generates for their works, win or lose, demonstrates that at least some of them are motivated by sales as well as ideology.

Making money is not a bad thing, of course, but while winning an award increases sales, battles like this can damage how people view the award, which degrades the value of the endorsement that the award represents.

Unfortunately, it is a hard problem to fix. Every system can be gamed, and as George RR Martin brilliantly stated changing the rules to stop this behaviour only feeds into the narrative of a liberal conspiracy at the Hugos promoted by the Sad Puppies. Incidentally this will get like minded people to buy more of their books as well. Readers will often support writers they feel are being persecuted, as I found out when this happened. After I complained, readers picked up on the attack and sales increased.

Which means that there is also a possible economic motive behind complaining about being persecuted, which can get people on your side and sell more books… :(

P.S: I don’t like identity politics, but people who form factions to promote their works based on not being part of a certain clique are only engaging in reactionary identity politics.

The Shadow Wolf Sagas: Red Fangs (2.4)

Tis Thursday, and time for another shadow wolf post. This is the second series, fourth post, following the adventures of Ragnar Grimfang, a Nordan Exile, Twiceborn, and all around swell guy as he navigates the dark streets of the city of Assassins.

Here is a link to the first series, Blade Breaker.

Here is a link to the first post of this series.

And this is a link to last week’s post, in case you missed it.

Beauchamps was true to his word.

I returned to Cliffshadow as the sun sunk into the ocean east of Myrrhn, red and gold, all glory. It was already night in the slum. Cliffshadow got its name from the fact that the cliff walls of the islands that it grew down from and in between blocked the sun for much of the day.

There was a marked difference here between night and day. The streets were quiet, save outside of a few taverns and brothels. There were very few lights in Cliffshadow, unlike the city above. As I strode over rickety wooden foot bridges, along the ancient boardwalk, and then on packed dirt and detritus I noted that my progress was tracked by the gangs whose territory I penetrated, mean faced youths and scarred older men. I nodded to a few tough old denizens as I passed, survivors out in front of their houses enjoying the night air.

I returned to where I met Beauchamps and the Pickpocket Yvandra where I found a dozen young men, dressed in proper leathers and wielding a better quality of weapon than I would have expected from Cliffshadow street toughs. Their leader, a big man, but still young, his hair dyed the same colour of dried blood that marked the rest of the gang, looked at me with a cocky mixture of contempt and curiosity. He had a good knife on his belt, a Myrrhnese stilletto, but his hands rested on a pair of iron shod clubs.

“You Ragnar?” he asked.

“Who wants to know?”

“Curran, leader of the Blood Hunters,”

“Are you Delilah’s brother?”

“I was,”

Curran smiled and I saw his teeth. Apparently he’d traded well on his sisters blood, and was now in the first stages of Vampirism. A low growl rose from my throat. Curran laughed. His boy fanned out to surround me.

“Why her?”

“She left me down here. Thought she was too good for me. I kept her alive, and what gratitude did she show me? Fuck the world above, I say.”

I shook my head. The only thing that kept me from going for him then and there was Murith’s desire for more information on the blood trade, and the thought that there might be other near vampires among his men, which would be very bad for me.

“I’ve heard of you Ragnar,” said Curran. “Is it true that you are ascended?”

“It is.”

“Here that boys? Ascended blood is real rare, I wager. The one who takes him ears a set of fangs like mine.”

The thing about the Shadow Wolf clan is that we hear better and see better at night than most men. That goes double for me after crawling out of my own pyre. Thus, while the cut-throat gliding through the shadows behind me had every reason to think he would live up to his name he met with my fist instead. Or rather he met with the plate of metal over my fist, and crumpled in a heap. My eyes never left Curran’s.

“I am Ragnar Grimfang of the Shadow Wolves, I am twiceborn, called Bloodaxe and Nighteyes, I slew Torvul and Magni Red-sails,” I intoned, my voice carrying in the night. Sometimes a little theatre can strike fear into ones opponents. I honestly hoped the other boys would run, my only care was for Curran. “I am here for my friend Delilah, who clawed her way out of this place with will and hard work, only to be betrayed, slaughtered, and sold by someone she trusted. Your guilt is written on your fangs Curran. I have come for you, and any who are foolish enough to get in my way.”

To punctuate my speech a low growl sounded from the dark behind me.

A few of the boys hesitated, then ran.

Curran looked at the rest of his crew. “We’ll round those cowards up later, they can fill out the next take. Now, get him!”

Seven gangers, eager and desperate, came forward. I did not draw my weapons.

Narrative Design in Open World Video Games

Video Games have always fascinated me as a medium, as well as one of my primary forms of entertainment. Before I tried my hand and writing fantasy novels, I was employed as a game designer. I worked on a few commercial titles, even attaining lead design on two projects, but I was never able to sink my teeth into a project that I found truly satisfying. The money was good, but I felt I was better served following my own course.

Now that the Unity 5, Unreal 4, and Source 2 engines (think of them as game making tool kits) are mostly free and easily accessible, I am becoming more interested in the space again. Part of the attraction of writing, for me, was that it is a medium where I don’t have to rely on too many other people. I feel that creative endeavors are best kept small, in most cases. Now it looks like more and more games are being made by smaller studios, which I find very exciting.

Regardless, I recently saw a job posting for “narrative design” at a large game studio that makes games that kind of interest me, in a city close to where I live. That posting came with an essay question which involved narrative in open world games. I love essays, and so the question stuck with me, even though the job posting seems to have disappeared (sorry V), here are a few thoughts that have been swimming around in my head as I was formulating how I would write this essay.

Open world games come in many flavours. Rockstar, Ubisoft, and Bethesda are the dominant AAA producers of Open World games in my mind, although there have been very string entries by other companies. Take Grand Theft Auto, Skyrim, and Assassin’s Creed as examples. In these games the player directs most of the action, with the story acting as a framework more than the driving force behind the game.

Narrative in these games is difficult. The story has to provide the player with a beginning to situate them and provide a compelling chronicle to guide them into the experience, but the point of an open world is to allow the player to explore and create their own moments. The only game company that seems to be able to do it well, over multiple systems and game types is Bethesda. Their elder scrolls series established their reputation, but it was Fallout 3 that proved to me that they had mastered the form. I will use their games as my primary example.

Personalization of Character

The ability to choose the appearance of the player avatar is a big deal. Part of telling your own tales is creating a character that look appropriate to the part you want them to play. Sometimes that manifests as the user making a character that looks like them (proxy), their favourite actor/star (director), or simply fits the concept that they are thinking about. Bethesda’s open world games always offer a lot of options for the player in creating and customizing characters.

The difficulty then becomes how to fit a very broad array of characters and backgrounds into the story and also overloading the design. Some open world games strike a balance by creating a character that can be customized but always has the same background (Shepherd in the mass effect games).

Exceptions abound, of course, Red Dead Redemption had a strong open world but the story and the personality of the main character were fairly set. It was still a wonderful game.

Non-Linear Gameplay

Most stories are linear. If you read one of my books, i will follow the same path through the story every time you read it. Linear games are similar, following a fairly set path through the story and the game world. Open World games strive to be non linear, trying to avoid shoving the player down a particular path except at very key, brief moments.

The ideal is something like Daggerfall, where the player can do whatever they want, even ignoring the main story to the point where the titular city burns to the ground, becoming a haunted ruin as the main story progressed without player input. This kind of immersion and story is awesome, creating a world where the player engages with events as they progress throughout the game and gets the experience they want from it.

The problem here is that it is hard to create a sequel to that kind of game. Bethesda had to fiddle with continuity quite a bit to get fit Daggerfall’s six(?) possible endings into the story for their next elder scrolls game.  I can’t imagine how that would work with franchise open world games these days.

Living World

Open world games require that the world have a fair bit more detail than other games. The world has to react to the player character, but ideally it also has to have a sense that it is progressing on its own when the player is not there. Shops have to open and close. NPCs have to move about and so on.

I still remember coming across battle between two sides of NPCs in one of the old Ultima Games. The idea that I could join one side or another, attack both, or even just move on and ignore them filled my young mind with exciting possibilities, of course. But what strikes me as most memorable about that moment was the feeling that these two groups were doing something that had nothing to do with me, and yet I could get involved. It made that little digital world feel very lively and it still thrills me to see groups of NPCs acting and reacting to one another. in an unscripted fashion, without my input.

A living world is one that reacts to what the player character does, but also one where the world can spontaneously create events for the player to react to. This last bit is worthy of a full post, so I’ll get to it later.