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Paid Mods: Can they "Corrupt" the Modding Scene?

There is cultural value in a healthy, open and free mod scene. Will the addition of easy monetization routes somehow harm the modding community? I'm optimistic that it'll turn out fine, even if there will be casualties.

David Canela, Blogger

April 27, 2015

4 Min Read

This post is based on a longer post on my blog.

A lot has already been written about the new option to sell mods on Valve's SteamWorkshop. Much of it is about the nitty gritty, various hurdles, potential abuses, or what exactly represents a fair revenue share. Here, I'll just to focus on what I consider the core question of this development:

How will the additional option of selling mods impact the modding scene as a whole?

I believe there is cultural value in a healthy, open and free mod scene. It's much more than just a source of free stuff to consume, it fosters creative expression and cultural, social engagement. So what I'm most curious about is: As we know, anyone can still do free mods, but can suddenly having easy monetization options have a corrupting effect that will somehow harm the modding community? I'm not much into mods, as much as I enjoyed them back when I played a lot of UT2004, so this is somewhat of an outsiders perspective. Please don't hesitate to point out in the comments if I'm missing something essential here.

1. Can market norms crowd out other norms?
The discussion reminded me of a book I read quite a while ago that I can recommend: In What money can't buy: the moral limits of markets Michael J. Sandel offers many interesting examples of the effects market forces can have when they intrude into areas that were previously governed by other norms and how they can crowd out all other values. There is also a theory that things like the spirit of sharing can "atrophy" with disuse. If that is correct, the existence of the option of paid mods might gradually lead to less free mods being shared and community spirit changing and becoming more profit-oriented. But I doubt that is what's going to happen in this case.

2. A quick comparison with music culture (yes, I know, but bear with me)
Let's take a look at music culture, for a moment; It has experienced a similar democratization of production means as game development and modding. Additionally, as with games, digital distribution has made it incredibly easy to put your product up for sale (actually selling it is a whole different matter...). Yet plenty of people still play in bands just for fun and share their latest track for free. For the music aficionado, there is probably more free music available than ever. I'm optimistic that's what's going to happen with mods, too. The comparison is certainly not perfect and one should always be wary of this kind of cross-industry comparisons. Mash-ups, remixing or even sampling might be interesting music-cultural phenomena to have a look at, as well.
Anyway, I believe the real key to getting lots of wonderful free creative content lies in the availability of cost and distribution (anybody remember all the things you simly didn't have or had to pay for before the internet? and I mean legally, I'm not even talking pirating here...).

3. Effects of extrinsic rewards on motivation
On an individual level, introducing extrinsic rewards such as money can in the long term damage intrinsic motivation (c.f. experiments where a kid that liked to play the piano was also rewarded money for practicing. After a while, when it stopped receiving money, it lost its motivation to play altogether. This effect is one of the reasons I'm sceptical of the trend to "gamify" everything). On the other hand, if a modder can turn his hobby into a job, their motivation will probably rise and they might put in the effort to actually finish that genius, but half-baked mod of theirs.

Ultimately, though, to me the question of paid mods is a moral one:
Who are we to demand from other people that they share the result of their work with us for free? If they do, awesome, but we sure as hell don't get to be angry if they decide to ask for a bit of money. It's the creator's freedom to share freely or to sell, not the consumer's freedom to get stuff for free.

P.S. A word about revenue splitting and fairness
A sizable part of the negative reactions to Valve's announcement seem to be about the fact that in Skyrim's case, modders get 25% of the revenue, Valve 30% and Bethesda 45%, which is considered unfair. I think developers/publishers will have to think very hard about what share of the revenue they demand in order not to appear greedy. I do however believe that it's entirely their line to draw, since it is their work that somebody is basing a commercial product on. What is fair can only be judged on a case by case basis, looking at a specific mod. Obviously, that's not a practical solution for a game like Skyrim, but I could imagine rough categories being defined, for which a dev can then determine different revenue share percentages.

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