Last week, Valve Software made the decision to launch what might have been the most groundbreaking initiative of the year: to facilitate a way for modders -- talented, typically amateur devs and artists who create and share modifications of PC games -- to get paid for their work.
Instead, the game industry got one of the biggest 180s of the year.
Just four days after Valve said it would ramp up paid mods, starting with Bethesda Softworks’ The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Valve pulled the plug on the initiative and admitted, “It’s clear we didn’t understand exactly what we were doing.”
Valve’s original plan sparked a wave of clashing conflicts rooted in dozens of factors across the modding community, the Skyrim community, the developer community, and beyond, turning a previously well-known draw of PC games into a battleground for new ideas and established values. But now that paid mods from Valve have been nixed, and the status quo has been restored, what lessons can be drawn from the settling dust?
How we got here
To start, it is best to begin drawing a timeline of Valve’s paid mods initiative, beyond its primary announcement. When reached for comment, a Bethesda representative referred us to this blog post, which points to conversations between Valve and Bethesda starting in 2012, with Valve spending 2-3 years clearing the legal and technical hurdles to make modding possible.
Multiple sources contacted by Gamasutra, and independent forum posts, have pinpointed Valve’s first outreach to modders and the modding community at a month to a month-and-a-half ago, with a Nick Fury-type message for modders both in the Skyrim community and other Steam Workshop vendors: That they were putting together a group of modders to become the first officially-backed mod sellers on Steam. The cut would be 30-35 percent to Valve, 40 percent to Bethesda, and 25 percent to the original modder. An optional 5 percent may be distributed to Steam Service Providers from Valve’s share.
Art of the Catch, from "Chesko"
Some people that Valve reached out to were modders like “Chesko,” who was part of the Skyrim mod community. (He ended up removing his $29.99 Skyrim fishing mod after conflicts with the creator of another mod that was used in his mod -- it’s a tangled web.) There were other modders like "Sebastian," AKA Anton Tierno, who had worked on Team Fortress 2 and Dota 2 mods. Robin Scott of modding site Nexusmods.com tells us he was contacted by Valve to have his site listed as a Steam Service Provider.
By becoming a Steam Service Provider, Scott and Nexusmods were agreeing to, at most, the ability for mod sellers to contribute a small portion of the sales of their mods to a site that has been the pillar of the Skyrim modding community for years -- if they so desired. It’s a position that Scott had to defend after the service’s launch, because it’s one of the many spikes that has driven the modding community apart in recent days.
How much due diligence can one dutifully do?
The timeline presented by these events describes a three-year process brought to its knees over the course of four days by a number of factors, but it’s the execution of the plan itself that warrants the most attention.
From Scott’s point of view, the month-and-a-half timeline given to Valve’s first modding partners presented two problems. “The problem is, 45 days is not a long time to make any mods of any real substance. You can make some nice tweaks and a few skins and stuff like that, but if you're looking for the sort of mods that people would pay for... these are huge modifications, tens of thousands of hours go into them across 15, 16, 20 different people, and it would be silly to say that it wouldn't be worth some money. And 45 days isn't enough time to make any mods worth a substantial amount of money.”
"They were not doing any consultation with the community at large. It's just been 'bam, this happened.' And I think that's why you're seeing this crazy reaction that you are now."
Second, the compressed lead-in time, with Valve’s customary tight pre-launch messaging, led to zero prep work and favor-building from the community who would both sell and buy these creations. “It's come completely out of the blue, and that's why people have been shocked,” Scott says. “It's not like they've been releasing little teasers, getting a few PR things in here and there, some statements saying they're kind of looking into it. They were not doing any consultation with the community at large. It's just been ‘bam, this happened.’ And I think that's why you're seeing this crazy reaction that you are now.”
The legal and technical requirements may have been satisfied, but the social angle of the entire plan received literally 1/24th of the attention that those two variables did, and when reviewing both Bethesda’s post and Gabe Newell’s Reddit AMA, it’s a variable that still wasn’t addressed even after launch. And even with allegations that the legal requirements were handled prior to launch, that compressed timeframe may have led to a giant fighting point over the first paid mods -- the legality of their very existence.
Where law and creativity clash
The key point of Chesko’s decision to withdraw The Art of the Catch from the Steam Workshop came to a conflict with fellow mod developer Fore, creator of Fore’s New Idles. In his explanation to why he removed the mod, he quotes a Valve representative who provided this advice when he asked about the integration of other mods:
“[Valve] Officer Mar 25 @ 4:47pm
Usual caveat: I am not a lawyer, so this does not constitute legal advice. If you are unsure, you should contact a lawyer. That said, I spoke with our lawyer and having mod A depend on mod B is fine--it doesn't matter if mod A is for sale and mod B is free, or if mod A is free or mod B is for sale.”
A member of the Skyrim modding community who wished to remain anonymous pointed out what Valve’s representative did not in this exchange: “A huge issue from legitimate modders who want to go into making money is licensing. Mod users are kind of a hippie community of love, sharing and all that stuff. People are here for the game, they don't really care about politics, laws, money and all this kind of stuff that is left at the front door.”
And licensing issues also affect the kinds of tools people use to create mods. The modder added, “I've done some projects as a freelance Unity developer, and I was amazed at the amount of stuff you just can't use or have to pay for if you are creating something to be sold [commercially] instead of just as a college student with too much spare time, creating video games to play with his friends.”
SkyUI from SkyUI Team
This community member brought up the SkyUI mod, a popular mod used by other mods to allow configuration through menus. The creators of SkyUI established versions 5.0 and onward would require payment to access, and for modders like Apollo Down, that presented a huge problem. “I am afraid that some of these users will see SkyUI and think they need the best version,” he said.
“People very much like my work, especially Civil War Overhaul, which can be quite finicky, and very often they will try numerous uncalled-for fixes when something goes wrong. I'm afraid some people will spend their hard-earned money simply as a mistake, and I don't want to be responsible for that.”
Though that isn’t necessarily a legal question (Valve and Bethesda’s back-end agreements would certainly keep Apollo Down off the hook for any purchasing decisions his customers made after the fact), it is a conflict of values borne by a similar set of circumstances as the legal challenges. Simply put, Skyrim’s modding community has spent three years building mods on the back of other mods, another model not publicly acknowledged by either Valve or Bethesda in their set-up for this.
The Workshop Store’s temporary first offerings were largely skins and superficial changes similar to the hats, guns, and armor in Valve’s first-party workshop stores, but Skyrim’s legendary mods were built on the back of larger work, not just from combined team efforts, but from peers working off each other’s models to hack out different models not normally possible in a developer environment.
The question of values
And then, there’s the question of values.
This is perhaps, the trickiest area to say what lesson Valve, Bethesda, or any other developer could learn anything. This is the land represented by much of the coverage and commentary of Valve’s Steam Workshop -- questions of not how, but why mods should or shouldn’t be sold for cash.
Bethesda’s claims frame it as one of player interest: “[Data from Valve] showed, quite clearly, that allowing content creators to make money increased the quality and choice that players had,” read Bethesda’s blog post from this week. “[Valve] asked if we would consider doing the same. This was in 2012 and we had many questions, but only one demand. It had to be open, not curated like the current models.”
Valve boss Gabe Newell’s Reddit AMA speaks of similar values: “The option for paid mods is supposed to increase the investment in quality modding, not hurt it,” Newell said. “About half of Valve came straight out of the mod world. John Cook and Robin Walker made Team Fortress as a Quake mod. IceFrog made DOTA as a Warcraft III mod. Dave Riller and Dario Casali were Doom and Quake mappers. John Guthrie and Steve Bond came to Valve because John Carmack thought they were doing the best Quake C development. All of them were liberated to just do game development once they started getting paid.”
Garry Newman, creator of Garry’s Mod, the Source Engine modding tool that’s an entire modding community unto its own, tries to remind everyone it comes back to choice: “You don’t have to charge for your mod. You don’t have to buy a mod. In the same way that there’s hundreds of free games on Steam right now that you’ve never played, and there’s hundreds of paid games on Steam right now that you’ve never bought. If you don’t like it then don’t use it, but don’t take the opportunity away from people that do.”
And Anton Tierno, the aforementioned Sebastian who successfully sold mods under the Steam Workshop, had this very bare-bones approach to the situation: “How else to support modders and motivate developers to create new plugins? The donation system is not very good. There are modes which are made over the years, and their creators spend their money to create it. And I think that they deserve to be paid. Some of these modders have written to me, whose mods was popular among them were hundreds of thousands of downloads and only [a handful] supported the project with money -- these modders no longer [would attempt] something large-scale now.”
These comments, among others, reflect valuable insight on the important role paid modding has played within the general dev community. But they don’t entirely align with the views of the tighter-knit modding community. Matthiasswag is a member of the Beyond Skyrim team, and her views are the same as Apolloswag’s and many other vocal members of the Skyrim modding community: “I don't believe that modders should be able to charge for their work -- a required charge -- in any circumstance. There are legal, ethical and financial issues with it. For me, the largest is ethical. I find the selling of mods to be counter to the spirit of modding -- one that promotes passion, sharing, and community (a word that's been tossed around a lot lately).”
To any developer or designer who’s struggled to be paid for their work, that idea must come off as incredibly bizarre. To any producer or investor interested in the revenue paid mods could bring in, directly or otherwise, it’s an idea to be found on a foreign planet. And in certain models of community relations, it’s a value that may not even matter. But in the case of the Skyrim modding community, and the game developers who build the tools and IP that support it, the delta between that central value, and the values of modding that drove this plan, create a vast rift that must be accounted for in some way if any plan of paid mods is to succeed.
And when you fail to align the values of the business model and those of the community... well, you can see the results this week.
The Sound and the Fury
Matthiasswag may believe paid mods are a bad idea but she absolutely does not think the outrage and attack accompanying them have been proportional. “If we want this to have any chance of being removed, we have to show Valve that this is not something we'll stand for,” she said, just prior to the withdrawal of the program. “Sign petitions, protest as you like -- provided you stop with the death threats and hate being thrown at the mod authors. They had their reasons. I don't agree with or support them, but turning against mod authors so quickly says more about us than it does Valve.”
Minecraft creator Markus Persson tweeted out in the middle of the controversy that the reason he left Mojang was over the fury over denying people the right to charge for mods. Newell noted that the cost of implementing this Workshop decision for even three days was a costly endeavor for the company. “So far the paid mods have generated $10K total. That's like 1 percent of the cost of the incremental email the program has generated for Valve employees (yes, I mean pissing off the internet costs you a million bucks in just a couple of days).”
Chesko deleted his Reddit and Twitter accounts in face of the insults and attacks he was getting, and social media like this all build toward one giant mountain of overwhelming anger:
But by failing to properly consider it, some of their key early adopters, the advocates who might have shown how their system could work, shut down their online presence instead of continuing to live in this noisy echo chamber.
The (perhaps temporary?) passing of Steam’s paid Mod Workshop service has left a strangely divided community in its wake. Modders leerily eye each other as either sellouts or fanatics depending on their stance. The word “greed” probably sounds inherently strange to anyone following this story over several days, and the thinkpieces about the “whys” of paid mods will shamble about until the next iteration returns to Steam.
In the wake of the program’s cancellation, Anton “Sebastian” Tierno says he’s still getting paid for the mods he sold, and he’s of the mind that the program was cancelled too early. Mathiasswag hopes that the system stays dead, and that the paid Mod Workshop is never implemented for Bethesda games.
And our anonymous modding source points out some of the strange side-metrics you can use to monitor the effects of the last four days. “Because of unhappy user Skyrim fell from top of the steam rankings to just a 'good' ranking, and Bethesda’s player-base is going to be much more cautious with the company's future titles. Paradoxically I’m sure the new donation buttons on [Nexusmods.com] saw a lot of use this weekend, as a protest from the players who felt betrayed by the ‘sell-outs’ and instead gave their money to ‘loyal’ modders.”
But in this mess, lessons may yet be learned, communities may be stabilized, and paid mods may yet successfully build a new facet of game development... if its harbingers, as they say, "chew through a dump truck of feedback."
Pictured at top of article: "Give Me Money for No Reason" mod from Nerd of Prey