(Disclaimer: I advise Patreon on legal issues and help them with outreach to the game industry.)
The debate that erupted over paid mods has strong arguments on both sides, but for now it has been settled with Valve removing paid mods from Steam. One area of common ground for both sides is that mod makers should be able to support themselves, with much of the debate focusing on the method. For now paid mods are no longer an option, but it is worth looking at how the donation model has evolved over the years.
Modders have been using donations as a way to support their work for decades. They were some of the first creators in the game industry to rely on crowdfunding through their fans, but have often relied on using more basic tools like donation buttons. Many modders and modding sites have adopted PayPal as the standard, but there are limitations to this implementation compared to newer crowdfunding platforms.
The rise of crowdfunding in recent years has made the donation model even easier than before for two reasons. The first is a reduction in the stigma of asking for money. Crowdfunding has made it much more acceptable for independent creators to ask their fans for support. The second is that crowdfunding platforms help streamline the donation process and tap a larger community of potential donors. While different platforms have their merits, I will focus on Patreon here as they are well matched to the needs of the modding community.
Incentives Match the Community
Since much of the debate over paid mods focused on how modders are paid, it is worth going over some of the ways that a Patreon campaign matches the current attitudes and goals of the modding community.
One of the most important is that there is no incentive to “own” the content. Since any donations are based on the work done on the project and not the end result, modders can freely collaborate with anyone they want. This is an issue that even the “pay what you want” option for paid mods would still run into with collaborative mods. Without the need to determine a final owner the modders involved can focus on creating the best mod possible with anyone that is able to contribute.
In fact extensive collaborations are a good way for modders to expand their potential pool of backers. In an ecosystem of modders paid by donation, working with another modder gives both of them a chance to cross pollinate their paying fan bases. This is similar to how Youtubers often do crossover videos as a way to increase both of their viewerships.
This works even better when there is a common platform such as Patreon involved because those fans can easily add another pledge on an existing account. This powerful network effect is especially noticeable on Kickstarter where most video game projects see an average of one third of their funding coming from users browsing the platform.
Under a subscription based donation system the modder is also incentivized to continue updating their mods and release new content. Under a monthly model a modder will see donations drop off over time if no new content is released, and under a per release model they are incentivized to release updates to continue being paid. One issue with the standard implementation of the donation button is that even the most devoted fans have to remember to keep donating. Paypal does have a less commonly used recurring donation option, but it only allows different time based donation options and not a per release model.
Community Passion is an Advantage
The backlash over paid mods makes it clear that the community of gamers that use mods are extremely passionate. When it comes to Patreon campaigns that is an advantage. Unlike Kickstarter where many backers are more transient supporters that will back a cool project on a whim, most Patreon backers are die hard fans. The fans that so vigorously defended free mods are likely to bring that same passion to supporting their favorite modders.
The lesson for modders interested in supporting themselves through donations is to interact with their community and don’t be afraid to ask for support. If a modder is open and honest about needing help then the community will support the creators they love.
There is one issue that paid mods solved neatly, the legal grey area surrounding modders being paid. Many publishers and developers allow modders to ask for donations. Bethesda allows it with some very reasonable limitations. This approach is not universal though, and even if a developer is silent on the issue it creates uncertainty. This uncertainty is unfortunate, and hopefully more developers will post clear guidelines that allow modders to accept donations. Modders are vital to the success of many games, and they deserve to be supported for their efforts.
Still a Small Community
The number of modders on Patreon is still very small, with only a few examples, including one notable success that was cited in many recent articles discussing paid mods. In the aftermath of the paid mod debate many mod makers and users are likely to be thinking about how to support modders without upsetting the current values of the community. This may be a good time for modders to highlight their donation efforts as that friendlier alternative.
At some point Valve may return to paid mods and open up new opportunities for modders to be paid for their work. Until then take a fresh look at donation and some of the crowdfunding platforms that make it easier than ever before to implement.