The past 24 hours have been an absolute frenzy for the PC modding community. With the announcement of Valve’s new Steam Workshop storefronts, both creators and players have taken to the web either to defend or attack this new feature, with the majority of voices seeming to overwhelmingly disapprove of the change (or perhaps it’s just the “vocal minority,” it’s so hard to tell these days). “Valve just wants more money,” they claim. “This can be nothing but awful for modding, both for creators and players.” But this is a knee jerk reaction, akin to the types of public outcry we see when gas prices skyrocket or when Netflix starts charging $8.99 instead of $7.99. The difference here is that not much is really changing. In fact the only thing that this new storefront actually provides is the one thing that Valve has continued to give its community over the past 11 years since Steam’s inception: more options.
Edward Percy Moran's "Battle of Steam Workshop," circa 2015.
I’m a modder. I’m currently working on a mod right now. I’ve been planning to release my mod for free once it’s done. And guess what, I’m still planning to release it for free, even in light of this recent news. But as a creator, it’s also nice to know that there may be an option to make some income off of future projects. Modding is tough work, sometimes even harder than actual game development (what with the lack of funds, smaller team sizes, and the inevitable need for hours and hours of teaching yourself skills). There’s a lot of time and effort that goes into making good mods. So why is it so unfair to now suddenly provide an option for modders to start charging for their work if they choose? Especially when the option to release your work for free (or as a pay-what-you-want product) still exists.
Ultimately, the debate here seems to boil down to a matter of perspective. If you’re a mod creator, or you’ve ever created a mod, or you even just understand how mod creation works, then there’s a good chance that you'll view this as a positive change. But for most players, especially ones who have only ever played other people’s mods, of course this probably seems terrible to them. What was once always free may now cost them money. Forget whether creators should have the option to be compensated for their time and hard work. “If it used to be free, but now its isn’t, then all bets are off. Oh yeah, and Valve is officially the worst compant ever!” Let’s not forget that last part, of course.
To be honest, I long for a world where pretty much everything is free... you know, the idea of a Roddenberry utopia where all of your basic needs are provided for you, which then leaves you free to pursue whatever makes you happiest in life. It’d be great if modders could just focus on their work without also needing some “other job.” Or a world where all games (and not just mods) were free for all players. But unfortunately, we still don’t live in that world (yet). So why is it such a bad idea to provide modders with the option to make a little more income to support themselves off their hard work?
And yes, there are of course some potential downsides to all of this. There’s the question of paying for content made for a game that you’ve already paid for (which, when you think about it, technically just makes this another instance of “user-generated DLC,” as seen in games like Dota 2). Then there’s the question of what happens when an update to a game breaks a mod that you’ve suddenly paid for. Who’s at fault? Who’s going to fix it? How do I get my money back? These are all legitimate concerns, and ones that will undoubtedly need to be ironed out in the weeks and months to come. There’s also been the call to “vote with your wallet” and simply not buy any paid mods as a show of solidarity. And that’s fine... actually I think that’s great idea! We should do that more often with industry practices that we don’t agree with. But why can’t the option to charge for mods still exist regardless? If a mod costs $1.99 at launch, and nobody buys it because everyone’s rallied together and urged others to not pay for mods, then maybe it will change back to being free. But there’s still nothing wrong with creators at least having the choice to set their own terms, and that’s all that Valve is trying to do here.
Many folks laugh at the paltry 25% revenue that modders will make off of their work through this storefront; as if it’s an insult that companies like Valve and Bethesda would take 75% of profits for themselves. But let’s be clear here, modders were previously making nothing for their work, and considering all of the logistics and legalese involved in setting up a system where modders can start making money immediately -- none of which the modder has to take care of themselves, mind you -- I think that 25% of profits sounds like a steal compared to the previous trend of 0%.
And that’s the reality of it all. Valve is simply doing what they’ve always tried to do: release a new system that provides users with more options. We complain about games like the new Battlefront having less than half the features of the previous one. Or about how AAA games are being released unfinished and with more bugs than they’ve ever had before. But when a company like Valve tries to make their systems more robust, even if those changes are mostly for content creators, then they’re immediately attacked as being greedy and against player interest. Sure these new options may seem to heavily favor creators, and maybe there’s an argument to be made that “paid mods” go against the very spirit of modding in general. But there’s a silver lining here for players too.
Some of the most popular games of all time started out as mods. But (for example) you’d be hard pressed to make an argument that Counter-Strike should suddenly be free just because it was once a mod. Which would you rather choose: to have to pay for Counter-Strike now... or to have never had Counter-Strike in the first place? Maybe someone with the talent to create mods -- but previously decided it was a waste of their time because they wouldn’t be compensated -- would now see the incentive to create what could become one of the greatest mods ever made. Maybe scores of people who have already made great mods can now sustain themselves off profits from their work so that they can focus even more time on… you guessed it… creating even more great mods. And let’s remember (yet again) that mod creators can still choose to release their work for free. No one is forcing every mod to have a price tag on it, and I suspect that a vast majority of mods will still continue to be free, both now and in the future.
But the point here again is that the option at least exists now, and that’s really all that matters. Because at the end of the day, Valve isn’t actually taking anything away from players, but it is giving something to creators. And in a world where more and more people are starting to create mods and content for games, I think that’s a pretty great thing.