Paradox Interactive is launching an independent platform for game mods, which will allow PC modders direct access to console audiences for the very first time.
According to Anders Törlind, the product owner of Paradox Mods, the Swedish company's push toward releasing games on console platforms was the catalyst for creating a dedicated distribution platform. After years of PC focus, there was a huge potential audience that wouldn't be able to enjoy Paradox games in the same way.
"You might recall a time -- not so long ago, actually -- when we only published PC titles," Törlind said, when we spoke yesterday. "There was a time when we were basically Steam exclusive, and at that point we could rely on Steam Workshop for our modding needs.
"Steam mods will only serve Steam users, and we have a growing percentage of players that buy their games from elsewhere"
"But as we started to distribute our own games, and as we started to move into the console space, we realised that, in order to serve all of our customers with mods -- and we think mods are a very important part of the gaming experience -- there would be a segment of our players that couldn't enjoy modding; neither the act of modding the game, nor using mods."
Paradox Mods has been in development for around a year, and Törlind admitted that mod creation will remain the preserve of PC users for the time being. "We might go into that eventually," he added. But for now Paradox Mods is chiefly notable for giving console players an unprecedented degree of access to an essential aspect of PC gaming culture, and for being a clear signal of the way the PC market is changing.
"We investigated various solutions," Törlind said. "But we came up with the conclusion that, in order to be able to serve every operating system -- be it console or PC -- and every distribution platform out there, we needed to have a system that was completely agnostic from both."
While the integration with consoles is perhaps the headline feature, Paradox Mods also reflects an expectation that PC publishers can no longer be "Steam exclusive" by default -- as Paradox once was. Valve's platform may still be the overwhelming market leader, but that dominance has also never felt more legitimately challenged than it does right now.
Just as publishers like Ubisoft and THQ Nordic have made gestures toward a future in which Steam will be one of several valid options on PC, Paradox is making a similar statement on behalf of its modding community. Paradox Mods wouldn't have been created "with the same urgency" were it not for the Swedish company's more aggressive push into console, but Törlind knows it would have reached the same conclusion based on the PC market alone.
"As we're seeing more and more distribution platforms pop up, I would think that, around this time, we'd start thinking about a very similar thing to what we've already done," he said. "There are more and more companies moving into game distribution. We've got Amazon with Twitch, we've got Discord, we've got Epic, and GOG obviously.
"We can actually allow people to upload mods and moderate them after the fact. It's fantastic progress"
"Eventually we would have come to the conclusion that Steam mods will only serve Steam users, and we have a growing percentage of players that buy their games from elsewhere."
A more open and diverse PC marketplace will only be to the benefit of the industry as a whole, and while that transition occurs, more and more companies will need to create solutions like Paradox Mods. In terms of console, though, it has long been the case that publishers were forced to play by the platform holders' rules. That is also changing, Törlind said, but it's worth remembering that it would have been impossible for Paradox Mods to exist even relatively recently.
Paradox decided to experiment with mods in the Xbox version of Cities: Skylines in February 2018, but it quickly became apparent that the restrictions were too many for the idea to flourish.
"The problem with that solution was that you could not submit any mods to us, because they were part of the validation that we had with Microsoft," Törlind said. "It was incredibly limiting, and also very time consuming and expensive for us to publish new mods. They needed to go through individual validation, which is pretty much a deal-breaker.
"That's why we're excited about this version, where we can actually allow people to upload mods and moderate them after the fact. It's fantastic progress, actually."
At the time of the announcement, only Microsoft had agreed to let Paradox modders export to its platform, the Xbox One. The first game to make use of that function will be Haemimont's Surviving Mars, but in future, every Paradox product on Xbox One will have the full range of PC mods available. Publishers like Bethesda have also offered mods to its console audience, but only with similar restrictions to Cities: Skylines.
"[Surviving Mars] is the first time that anyone, to our knowledge, has a modding solution for Xbox that is open for submission without pre-moderation," Törlind said, stressing that Paradox Mods is set to "publish to all platforms" with a single upload by default. "For all intents and purposes, Xbox players will have the same selection of mods that PC players will have."
"Our mod policy remains completely unchanged... Our basic outlook on mods, modding, and usage of mods within games is the same. We just want to make sure that all of our players can partake."
"I do see value in the whole closed ecosystem, but there is space for a little bit of wilder growth of content as well"
If Paradox Mods speaks to larger changes in the PC market as a whole, it also has roots in one of the key trends sweeping through the console space. As evidenced with cross-platform play between Xbox One, Switch and (when it suits Sony) PlayStation 4, the walls around each of these discrete ecosystems are not so very high as they once were.
As such, it is no surprise that Microsoft is the first company to allow Paradox Mods such a direct route to its audience. It has, after all, been attempting to bridge the gap between console and PC players for years already, and it may do so even further with its push into streaming technology. While on a much smaller scale, removing the friction from letting console owners access mods would be very much in line with its high-level strategy for Xbox.
"As far as I've spoken with Microsoft and the Xbox people, they were quite excited about the whole prospect of having mods on console," Törlind said. "I believe they see it as a competitive advantage, basically. They want our games on console, and with our games you don't get the full experience if you can't mod them."
Whether Sony or Nintendo will follow suit is another matter, and one probably shouldn't hold their breath in anticipation of either doing so. Törlind certainly had no information on any "breakthroughs" in that respect, but he did acknowledge the vital roles mods can have in sustaining games that can be played for hundreds of hours -- games very much like those that now dominate the console space.
"I do see value in the whole closed ecosystem, and the very guided experience that consoles have," he said. "But there is space for a little bit of wilder growth of content as well.
"Especially with games like ours, which are designed to be played for hundreds of hours, multiple hundreds of hours... That's very, very hard to attain if you don't have the ability to use mods and change the game in ways that are interesting to you.
"For companies that publish titles like that, they should be interested in the business for modding on consoles."