Valve is no stranger to its ventures having a somewhat rocky start. Remember when the now-beloved Steam first appeared, all those years ago? Everyone absolutely loathed it; it only ever really got off the ground because you needed to install it if you wanted to play Half-Life 2. It's hard now to imagine what the PC games market would look like if Valve hadn't persisted with their idea; there was never any guarantee that a dominant digital distribution platform would appear, and it's entirely plausible that a messy collection of publisher-owned storefronts would instead loom over the landscape, with the indie and small developer games that have so benefited from Steam's independence being squeezed like grass between paving stones.
That isn't to say that Valve always get things right; most of the criticisms levelled at Steam in those early days weren't just Luddite complaints, but were indeed things that needed to be fixed before the system could go on to be a world-beater. Similarly, there have been huge problems that needed ironing out with Valve's other large feature launches over the years, with Steam Greenlight being a good example of a fantastic idea that has needed (and still needs) a lot of tweaking before the balance between creators and consumers is effectively achieved.
You know where this is leading. Steam Workshop, the longstanding program allowing people to create mods (or other user-generated content) for games on Steam, opened up the possibility of charging for Skyrim mods earlier this month. It's been a bit of a disaster, to the extent that Valve and Skyrim publisher Bethesda ended up shutting down the service after, as Gabe Newell succinctly phrased it, "pissing off the Internet".
"Valve's retreat is a tactical move, not a strategic one; the intention absolutely remains to extend the commercial model across Steam Workshop generally"
There were two major camps of those who complained about the paid mods system for Skyrim; those who objected to the botched implementation (there were cases of people who didn't own the rights to mod content putting it up for sale, of daft pricing, and a questionable revenue model that awarded only 25% to the creators), and those who object in principle to the very concept of charging for mods. The latter argument, the more purist of the two, sees mods as a labour of love that should be shared freely with "the community", and objects to the intrusion of commerce, of revenue shares and of "greedy" publishers and storefronts into this traditionally fan-dominated area. Those who support that point of view have, understandably, been celebrating the forced retreat of Valve and Bethesda.
Their celebrations will be short-lived. Valve's retreat is a tactical move, not a strategic one; the intention absolutely remains to extend the commercial model across Steam Workshop generally. Valve acknowledges that the Skyrim modding community, which is pretty well established (you've been able to release Steam Workshop content for Skyrim since 2012), was the wrong place to roll out new commercial features - you can't take a content creating community that's been doing things for free for three years, suddenly introduce experimental and very rough payment systems, and not expect a hell of a backlash. The retreat from the Skyrim experiment was inevitable, with hindsight. With foresight, the adoption of paid mods more broadly is equally inevitable.
Why? Why must an area which has thrived for so long without being a commercial field suddenly start being about money? There are a few reasons for the inevitability of this change - and, indeed, for its desirability - but it's worth saying from the outset that it's pretty unlikely that the introduction of commercial models is going to impact upon the vast majority of mod content. The vast majority of mods will continue to be made and distributed for free, for the same reasons as previously; because the creator loves the game in question and wants to play around with its systems; because a budding developer wants a sandbox in which to learn and show off their skills to potential employers; because making things is fun. Most mods will remain small-scale and will, simply, not be of commercial value; a few creators will chance their arm by sticking a price tag on such things, but the market will quickly dispose of such behaviour.
Some mods, though, are much more involved and in-depth; to realise their potential, they impact materially and financially upon the working and personal lives of their creators. For that small slice out of the top of the mod world, the introduction of commercial options will give creators the possibility of justifying their work and focus financially. It won't make a difference at all to very many, but to the few talented creative people who will be impacted, the change to their lives could be immense.
This is, after all, not a new rule that's being introduced, but an old, restrictive one that's being lifted. Up until now, it's effectively been impossible to make money from the majority of mods. They rely upon someone else's commercial, copyrighted content; while not outright impossible technically, the task of building a mod that's sufficiently unencumbered with stuff you don't own for it to be sold legally is daunting at best. As such, the rule up until now has been - you have to give away your mod for free. The rule that we'll gradually see introduced over the coming years will be - you can still give away your mod for free, but if it's good enough to be paid for, you can put a price tag on it and split the revenue with the creator of the game.
"A small group of "elite" mod creators need the possibility of supporting themselves through their work, especially as the one-time goal of a studio job at a developer has lost its lustre as the Holy Grail of a modder's work"
That's not a bad deal. The percentages certainly need tweaking; I've seen some not unreasonable defences of the 25% share which Bethesda offered to mod creators, but with 30% being the standard share taken by stores and other "involved but not active" parties in digital distribution deals, I expect that something like 30% for Steam, 30% for the publisher and 40% for the mod creator will end up being the standard. Price points will need to be thrashed out, and the market will undoubtedly be brutal to those who overstep the mark. There's a deeply thorny discussion about the role of F2P to be had somewhere down the line. Overall, though, it's a reasonable and helpful freedom to introduce to the market.
It's also one which PC game developers are thirsting for. Supporting mod communities is something they've always done, on the understanding that a healthy mod scene supports sales of the game itself and that this should be reward enough. By and large, this will remain the rationale; but the market is changing, and the rising development costs of the sort of big, AAA games that attract modding communities are no longer being matched by the swelling of the audience. Margins are being squeezed and new revenue streams are essential if AAA games are going to continue to be sustainable. It won't solve the problems by itself, or overnight; but for some games, creating a healthy after-market in user-generated content, with the developer taking a slice off the top of the economy that develops, could be enough to secure the developer's future.
Hence the inevitability. Developers need the possibility of an extra revenue stream (preferably without having to compromise the design of their games). A small group of "elite" mod creators need the possibility of supporting themselves through their work, especially as the one-time goal of a studio job at a developer has lost its lustre as the Holy Grail of a modder's work. The vast majority of gamers will be pretty happy to pay a little money to support the work of someone creating content they love, just as it's transpired that most music, film and book fans are perfectly happy to pay a reasonable amount of money for content they love when they're given flexible opportunities to do so.
Paid mods are coming, then; not to Skyrim and probably not to any other game that's already got an established and thriving mod community, but certainly to future games with ambitions of being the next modding platform. Valve and its partners will have to learn fast to avoid "pissing off the Internet" again; but for those whose vehement arguments are based on the non-commercial "purity" of this corner of the gaming world, enjoy it while it lasts; the reprieve won this week is a temporary one.