On Mods

As you may as heard, Valve’s grand experiment with paid Skyrim mods debuted and shut down in three business days. At one point the untouchable darlings reddit, both Gabe and Skyrim itself has taken a huge beating in the eyes of the horde; Skyrim went from a 98% positive feedback rating on Steam down to 86%. Gabe confirmed that the number of emails his staff received will cost them literally $1 million to comb through.¹

From my seat up in the peanut gallery, the entire issue of paid mods seemed to be a solution in search of a problem. Was there some crisis in the modding community preventing mods from being developed? Were popular mods being abandoned? What, exactly, was the issue with the status quo?

To be clear, I’m not against people getting paid for their work, in the same way I’m not against, say, religious liberty. At the same time, I don’t think the concept in of itself justifies every means of expressing it. The modding scene was already a healthy ecosystem built upon passion, collaboration, and natural curation. SynCaine points out there are some mods out there more elaborate and fun than the game they’re built upon. Just imagine how many more, better mods would be generated if said people were paid for their work?

Well… err, maybe eventually.

The Skyrim paid mod section was not active for long, but the future cesspit of theft and profiteering was clear to see. Who looked at Steam Greenlight or Early Access and thought, hey, let’s introduce that to the modding community? Under a paid mod paradigm, you literally can’t give your mod away for free, because someone else can and will turn around and try to sell it for cash.

During Gabe’s AMA on reddit, the creator of the Nexus website point-blank asked what Valve was planning on doing in terms of, you know, not single-handedly monopolizing the modding market. Gabe had no real answer. Which is a problem considering paid Steam mods would give even ambivalent modders every economic incentive to pull their mods from Nexus and any other site to exclusively use Steam Workshop. I mean, what, is Nexus and all the other sites supposed to suddenly create their own mod marketplaces?

With the paid mods plan on ice (for the moment), there has been some further crying about how “freeloaders” and “trolls” have won the day. Out of the entire fiasco, that sentiment bothers me the most. Erecting pay-walls around hitherto free content is an erosion of Consumer Surplus, full stop; it doesn’t matter whether modders “should” have been getting paid this entire time. Splintering the modding community into factions with negative incentive to cooperate is an erosion of Consumer Surplus. Maybe we get really well-done, professional mods out of the paid system eventually. But considering you are paying extra for that value, the Consumer Surplus gains may be a wash. In which case you are no better off than before, minus a thriving modding community.

Nevermind about all the bizarre arguments surrounding mods like DotA and Counter-Strike. Would those mods have achieved their meteoric status had they been priced “fairly” at the start? I don’t think anyone believes that that would be the case.

Do modders deserve to be paid for their work? Probably. Do I deserve to be paid for writing posts for the last four years? Feel free to Paypal me as much money you want. But as a consumer/reader, you are under no obligation, moral or ethical, to pay for something someone is giving away for free. And as a consumer/reader, you have every right to complain when your net Consumer Surplus is being reduced in any way. “Freeloaders” and “entitlement” are specious non-arguments, and especially absurd given how we’ll all talking about people who already bought a videogame.

If you want to pay modders, there is nothing stopping you. As in, right now. Go for it. I’m sure their contact information is listed somewhere on the mod page. Just don’t pretend this change was anything less than a fundamental redesign of the entire concept of modding. Or that this particular implementation was at all going to work, logistically or conceptually. In fact, I doubt that it ever does, even when Valve comes back to “iterate” the process later on. And by “work,” I mean generate more value in the aggregate for gamers and (free) modders alike.

¹ As opposed to Support tickets, which no human ever reads.

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Posted on April 30, 2015, in Commentary and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. When Steam came out no one wanted it. It was a painfully slow java client that was required for quite a few games as DRM. It felt cumbersome compared to typing in a registration code at first launch. Now? I know many people who won’t buy a game if it’s not on Steam and it’s the defacto standard for PC gaming.

    I think the problem Valve is struggling with today is they do not know how to do things in a sane way without being a curator. Introducing a system like this essentially requires that you be one, but I don’t know if they can keep up with that. I mean the cash split alone seemed backwards for that sort of thing.

    We’ll see… I think having somewhere for mod creators to sell their wares could be very beneficial and has a lot of possibilities such as small teams being able to hire. Being able to have some sort of projection of sales and a stable place to sell can facilitate things like getting money from investors. That type of thing opens a lot of possibilities that were not present before.

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    • Thing is: Steam solved a problem we didn’t know we had at the time. Which is/was the issue of many many fractured DRM schemes, with bonuses include anti-cheating measures, game curation, keeping friends united on a single chat interface, and ground-breaking sales. In fact, I’d say that Steam – which I absolutely hated being attached to Half-Life 2 at the time – was largely responsible for ushering in the digital age of gaming. If you had the choice between a purely digital product and one on a CD/DVD, the smart money was the physical medium; it cost the same, and you could always reinstall. Steam sales broke the price symmetry and got people used to the idea of digital-only ownership.

      Perhaps it’s not fair to compare all of the above with paid mods, but I don’t see it solving any “issue” with the modding community. Again, a solution in search of a problem. We already have paid DLC. Even if paid Steam mods succeeds beyond our wildest imaginations, that would result in… what? Out-sourced paid DLC?

      You’re absolutely correct that Valve hates curating and otherwise being responsible for things. Which is smart in its own way; much better to implement an idea that generates revenue without you having to manage it. But paid Steam mods would instantly and (likely) irreparably monopolize the modding market. Where else would modders sell their mods? Maybe GOG opens up a mod store? Perhaps we start seeing Humble Mod Bundles? Ugh.

      Being able to have some sort of projection of sales and a stable place to sell can facilitate things like getting money from investors. That type of thing opens a lot of possibilities that were not present before.

      At some point, I would hope those investors ask “why not just make your own game?” Such teams would be limited, sales-wise, to the number of copies sold on Steam. Which then begs the question of what happens to mods for smaller games, when all the talent is incentivized to spend their time not on small game X (paid or unpaid), but on selling $0.99 Skyrim swords.

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      • pixelrevision

        “At some point, I would hope those investors ask “why not just make your own game?””

        http://skyrimonline.erksnerks.com/
        That feature everyone on the internet said they want when TESO came out but knew Bethesda was not going to deliver? With enough money behind it to hire a serious network programmer this would get done and be solid. A sales outlet that makes a serious commitment facilitates that. A voluntary paypal donation does not.

        In addition there are a lot of costs associated with making a game that modding removes, intellectual property and art asset creation being key ones. Defense of the ancients, Counterstrike and DayZ have all benefited from this and have been HUGLY influential on gaming as a whole. All of them have directly benefitted from not having to build something from the ground up. I would go as far as to say we may not have ever seen these ideas if they didn’t have a foundation to work off of.

        Having a way to monetize and develop a business model around that moves away from these mods being resumes and encourages them to grow into their own things and not have the plug pulled on support when someone is sick of them. It also encourages the source game companies to build better tool chains for modders to work with as there is direct income attached to that.

        I agree with you what Valve launched was a disaster. They threw something to the wall hoping it would stick without thinking it through at all. Gamers are VERY fickle about new pricing schemes, what with all the F2P nonsense over the last 5 years. They just inserted pricing in a location where everything was previously free, provided no oversight and hoped everything would work itself out. That said I do believe there is something in here that could give us some really interesting stuff in the future. Someone is just going to need to figure out how to deliver on that.

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      • Skyrim Online actually presents an interesting scenario: if paid mods were a thing, would Bethesda (etc) have killed it and/or had the ability to kill it if it threatened to cannibalize TESO sales? Would modders have any recourse if they develop a product that the parent company then incorporates into the base game (like in many WoW mods)? Would companies have any recourse for people selling cheaper versions of their own DLC? “You can either buy the official horse armor for $4.99 or the $2.99 horse armor mod.”

        As far as DotA/CS/etc, their existence kinda demonstrates my point. All of those were built, thrived, and exploded under the current modding scheme. Would all of them have been free from the outset under a paid mod framework? If DotA cost $4.99, would it have taken off to the same degree? Maybe, maybe not.

        The only real, non-theoretical positive I acknowledge is that this change would incentivize more (Steam Workshop) modding support. Everything else is either an immediate negative (paying for previously free mods, “ad-supported” mods, explosion of crap cash-grab mods, etc) or potential good down the road. And even then, it’ll only likely be a positive for the most popular games.

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      • pixelrevision

        ” if paid mods were a thing, would Bethesda (etc) have killed it and/or had the ability to kill it if it threatened to cannibalize TESO sales? ”

        These sort of issues would need to be fleshed out, which they were not in the current implementation. I do however believe that under the current system if I currently got a few people together, built a feature like this and then started charging for it they would shut me down very quickly. Some sort of direct revenue stream going to them that is predictable and agreed upon by all parties gives them a whole lot more incentive to not only allow this but actively encourage it.

        As far as it not benefitting smaller games I think that’s a bit short sighted. People would not only be able to CREATE and support many more smaller games under a model like this, but smaller games that have good modding tools would be more likely to have ambitious projects come to fruition see: https://snes-shadowrun.obsidianportal.com/

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    • Valve really shouldn’t be curating this anyway. If Bethesda wants to make money on mods they should do the legwork. Have an official list of registered mods, with support teams on contract, and other unofficial mods can be left to the free zone. In fact it turns out we already have this and it’s called DLC, but Bethesda would rather just make some free cash than do it right.

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      • pixelrevision

        You are right on this. I’ve not seen any company do something this, but certainly it makes more sense for companies responsible for their own games to do the curation. Unfortunately Steam is the point of sale and DRM for the majority of the market at this point so they need to factor into it somehow.

        As far as us already having this as DLC I disagree. DLC is usually done by the original company and typically just extends their original vision of the game. Ambitious mods on the other hand often tend to take the game in an entirely different direction.

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  2. On the negative vs the gains, I see it like this: with all mods free the odds of a mega-mod like PoP for M&B being made and supported long-term aren’t great, for a long list of reasons. Money eliminates or reduces a lot of those reasons, and so paid mods lead to more and longer-supported mega-mods.

    If that means little-skill Billy and his shitty weapon reskin mod that he prices at .99 is completely ignored and he no longer sees as many ‘likes’ or whatever, so be it. Billy means near-nothing to me, and he can go and be a ‘fractured community’ in whatever hole he crawled out of.

    And for me personally, paid mods are a win/win. Not only does the above happen and I see more top-shelf mods, but by having money involved the market helps me sort through the junk better. A top downloads list is nice, but when everything is free its not as solid as a top paid downloads list. If I save an hour finding/downloading/trying mods at the cost of $5, I pay that $5 all day every day.

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  3. “If DotA cost $4.99, would it have taken off to the same degree? Maybe, maybe not.”

    It would have become LoL sooner, and Blizzard would have been much better off (especially considering the current state of HotS). $5 for DOTA would have been a steal, just like $5 for LoL today would be a steal. Plus it’s not hard to imagine that, if paid mods had been a thing right at the birth of DOTA, that it would have been free if Icefrog and Co weren’t sure it would have caught on, but then as soon as it did, they start charging, and get the resources they need to give us LoL (since it would be a full-time, amazingly well-paying job for them at that point).

    DayZ is the same thing. We would have that stand-alone DayZ, in much better shape, sooner. Hell, we would likely have the online Skyrim everyone wanted and Bethesda could have given us Fallout 4 by now instead of spending resources on ESO.

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