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 😀 I’m hoping the Jimquisition covers it tomorrow or next week.

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2 comments on “The Mod Debacle: Creative Collectives and The Profit Motive

  1. Reblogged this on The Road To Indie: How To Make A Video Game and commented:
    This is a great article, covers so many things.
    Thank you and I am not surprised you are self published.

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