Mods have been a popular topic of conversation this week as Valve has both enabled and removed the ability for a mod creator to attach a price to a mod. The decision to allow modders to charge for their work was a joint effort between Bethesda and Valve while the decision to remove this ability was caused by the pressure of many users, most notably the 130,000 people who signed an online petition. Valve has always taken risks, just look at Counter-Strike Source’s reliance on Steam and the backlash they received from that, and that is something I will always respect about them. It is for that very reason that I am concerned about how quickly they backed down on this position and what it might mean for the future of content creators.
Just to cover this real quick, I have to wonder if Valve even read the petition. It constantly suggests the lie that Valve instituted a paywall for Skyrim mods. Just how many signatures were obtained by people who didn’t get the full truth on this subject and fully believe, because of this petition, that Valve was requiring all mods to have a price tag.
What I am really upset about is the attitude that emanates from the opposition — free labor is better than a free market. Every single argument against paid mods uses the same language: modding is an action of love and should be free. Let’s look at a handful of comments that I really wish I had to cherry pick to find:
- “modding is a hobby, not a career”
- “I mean no 1 would pay for this, they are not dlc’s they are mods and they are supposed to be free”
- “Why should I start paying for something that was free for years?”
- “Modding is about the fun and the community, you go into it knowing you will never make a cent off it, and that’s how it should be.”
And my favorite one:
- “Modding is and always has been, a work of love. It is not about money, or fame. Modding is about seeing a flaw or a place where there could be ‘more’ and filling it. Mod makers work hard, and I respect them. I’ve made some custom weapons for my own use, and it is difficult. I can’t imagine doing heavy script or animation work. That being said, the mod maker should not be expecting to receive payment. You are not a member of the company who made the game, and shouldn’t expect to be treated like one.”
The common theme of people’s work not being worth money is gross and shouldn’t be this widespread of an idea. Modders do the same kind of work that goes into making a game yet they are constantly treated as if they aren’t “real” programmers, as if that were a thing. Now, maybe I’m just being the oddball (probably not) but I cannot understand enjoying and praising somebody’s work while simultaneously thinking they don’t deserve support or compensation for that work. Too much of this sounds like gamers wanting their cake and eating it too.
In fact, a lot of these opinions remind me of the early days of indie games. They were seen as little pet projects that should be free because they lacked the polish of the AAA games. Despite the developers doing the same kind of work, usually more so because they were a one person team, they weren’t seen as “real” game makers by the community. Does anyone remember the backlash the Super Meat Boy and N+ received because they were “just flash games” and should be free? Now we have $15 and $20 indie games and nobody complains a bit.
Maybe I’m approaching this too heavily from an ethical or emotional stance so how about we look at this rationally. How many great mods have never been made because it was impossible for a potential modder to justify putting so much effort into a hobby? How many mods end up in an incomplete state or have various bugs because the modder can no longer find time to update them? Allowing modders to charge for their work will allow them to put more focus on programming them. The possibility of making a career out of it means more updates released quicker as modders can quit their day job and work on their mod more often. Introducing monetary gain into this practice will increase the amount of junk that shows up, but there is already worthless mods and nobody complains about them now. Regardless of pricing, the popular mods will receive millions of downloads and the unpopular ones won’t be downloaded at all.
There are two very real issue with monetizing mods though: the percentage that the modders were paid and mods using other’s work. To address the first concern, the creators only saw 25% of the revenue with Valve taking 30% and Bethesda taking 40%. Valve is the distributor and is expected to take a cut, and 30% seems to be the norm for Valve pertaining to community content, but Bethesda isn’t doing anything in this equation but is taking the biggest cut. In the recent AMA with Gabe Newell, he mentioned that the percentages are dictated by the publisher. This is a huge mistake but I understand that there will be some compromises made while trying to get more companies open to the idea of modding, much less allowing people to make money off of an existing work. In the end, 25% is abysmally low for the person who actually did all of the work. Hopefully Valve works with another publisher and tries this experiment again with better revenue option for the modders.
The other concern is with mod dependency. It seems many Skyrim mods require the Skyrim Script Extender which is not currently available through the Steam Workshop. The need to install sources found outside of Steam destroys the seamless ease that many expect from buying a product on Steam. There could also be issues if a mod uses pre-existing code from another mod. There wasn’t any method for the owner of the first mod to receive compensation. This is going to be the biggest obstacle in monetizing mods but if anybody can figure out a fix for it, Valve will be able to.
Unfortunately, most of the arguments leveled against paid mods sound like entitled drivel spewed forth by people who want quality content for free. None of this was actually about protecting mods or preserving a community. It was about defending a practice that only helped the consumer. It was about protecting the status quo. This entire movement was an attempt to ensure hard working programmers weren’t paid for their efforts — and it was successful. I’m hoping this was just a setback and, just like indie games before it, the future will be a place where career modders are an accepted aspect of video game development and expansion. Unfortunately, it won’t get there if we continue to let these types of people dictate what modders can do with their content.