Last week, Valve expanded its Steam Workshop to allow mod makers to sell their works directly to other players, using The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim to introduce the concept. Lots of people got upset, for a number of reasons. Some were upset because they thought mods should be free. Some were upset because they thought mod makers deserved more than the 25 percent cut of revenues Valve and Bethesda were giving them. Some mod makers were upset because their free work was being used in mods for sale. Gabe Newell was upset because Valve was being accused of short-sighted greed instead of longer-term greed.
With everyone seemingly angry about something, Valve this week pulled the plug on the program, promising refunds to anyone who purchased a mod in the days they were on sale. "We understand our own game's communities pretty well, but stepping into an established, years old modding community in Skyrim was probably not the right place to start iterating," Valve said. "We think this made us miss the mark pretty badly, even though we believe there's a useful feature somewhere here." So it's back to the drawing board for the paid mods through the Steam Workshop. As Valve tinkers with the idea, the GamesIndustry.biz staff shares their own thoughts about what went wrong, what the big takeaway should be, and how Valve should return to the idea in the future, if at all.
I'm torn on what Valve has done here. On the one hand, I love the idea of the modders who add so much value to games being compensated for their work. On the other, I worry that giving publishers a way to make money off mod support will mean they stop supporting mods except as a path to monetization. For the past couple of decades, smart companies like Bethesda and Valve have made their games mod-friendly because it helped cultivate communities around their games, communities that were making the games better for everyone. But it's difficult to say just how much that benefits the bottom line in dollars and cents, so companies who devote resources to encouraging a mod scene around their games are doing so based a little bit on faith. If Valve reintroduces paid modding to the Steam Workshop--and it certainly sounds like they plan to, eventually--it will be much easier to put a number on the bottom line impact of modding. And businesses being what they are, they will inevitably optimize around numbers rather than faith.
"Companies are seeing the monetization potential in modding, and they are clumsily fumbling to implement it in a way consumers will tolerate it"
Ultimately, I think paid mods are going down much like free-to-play, downloadable content, or always-online connections. Companies are seeing the monetization potential in modding, and they are clumsily fumbling to implement it in a way consumers will tolerate it. They will make mistakes, often erring on the side of seeking too much money (leaving mod creators a paltry 25 percent cut of revenues is embarrassing) or too much control (either in curating what can be sold or mandating price points). At every step of the way, groups of consumers and mod makers will object to the system changing in ways they don't like, but they will be dismissed as the vocal minority, outvoted by the numbers companies can now point to that show their latest monetization exercise is something people really want. And just as with those other trends, the industry will lose something in the process. But that loss will go largely unnoticed because it will be difficult to quantify.
There's no doubt that the modding community is vastly important to the PC gaming ecosystem. Mods are part of PC gaming culture and many of the people making them are hugely talented and should be rewarded for their efforts. Let's not forget that Counter-Strike itself was born as a mod for Half-Life. So Valve, of all companies, knows how vital modders can be. With that in mind, it was certainly surprising to see Valve introduce a paid mod system on Steamworks seemingly without considering all the implications and then backpedaling on it just as fast.
And after proclaiming what a great move it was, and that modders are developers too, Bethesda practically looked like Valve's puppet in this scenario, reacting to whatever strings the company pulled. As one commenter said on the Bethblog, "For Bethesda to cave in so quickly is incredibly disappointing. Weak even. This was a change that made me incredibly happy. To attempt to make a living doing what I love. You would think that the people who have been downloading from the mod authors would have been more supportive. Perhaps if you had given mod authors a fair cut, they would have had less reason to revolt."
"It's a shame that Valve and Bethesda reacted so hastily. More communication should have taken place with both modders and players before any paid mod system was introduced"
It's a shame that Valve and Bethesda reacted so hastily. More communication should have taken place with both modders and players before any paid mod system was introduced. With the right framework and conditions for modders, this is still something that could work out in the future. Valve and Bethesda need to take the feedback from both sides to heart and then perhaps try a revised system on a smaller scale without muddying up a well established community like Skyrim's.
The Skyrim mod meltdown, as it shall henceforth be known, was a bad time to be a sane Skyrim fan. More death threats were flying around than in an average episode of Game Of Thrones and everyone seemed to be upset for different reasons. In classic games industry style any rational points got lost among the high-pitched screeching of a thousand anime avatars who hate paying for stuff almost as much as they hate women.
I guess it's great some angry Twitter warriors get to feel like they "really showed Valve" this time around, but I also worry that the sensible concerns, about how we pay people who make the things that we really love, got lost in the din.
"I'm happy to pay for them if that ensures I'm getting a premium, stable product. I want some sort of guarantee"
For me the biggest issue Valve and Bethesda need to tackle when they come back to this - and they will, there's to much potential monetisation out there for them to abandon it entirely - is one of curation and moderation. Mods are tricky little bastards, prone to glitches and bad behaviour, I'm happy to pay for them if that ensures I'm getting a premium, stable product. I want some sort of guarantee that there's some recourse for me if my dynamic snow mod clashes with my mudcrabs in top hats mod. Valve and Bethesda need to be an active part of that process - they're taking the biggest cut of the mod fee? Then they need to make sure they taking the biggest cut of the responsibility.
Let's make a few assumptions. Firstly, everyone involved in this wanted it to work. Valve, Bethesda and the modders who signed up all wanted a system which provided mutual benefit. Maybe some gamers, spoiled by years of free service from the mod community, were the exception, but as we've seen a thousand times, the solutions which eventually evolve from these situations almost always end up making more people happy than they annoy - such is the nature of a successful business mechanic. Secondly - none of what was tried here was set in stone. In an industry based on iteration, fine tuning and consumer response, we can generally assume that there would be a fair range of tweaking to be done. For example, Valve's industry standard flat-rate of a 30 per cent cut on all transactions might have been fixed, but Bethesda has explicitly stated that they'd set the remaining 25/45 split for this particular instance. That needle could easily have been moved, either across the board or on a performance-based spectrum.
"In an industry based on iteration, fine tuning and consumer response, we can generally assume that there would be a fair range of tweaking to be done"
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, if a modder wanted things to stay the same way, they could have done. Everything they created could have remained free. It was always an option. It comes down to the people who are doing the work deciding if they thought they wanted to be paid for it - or whether the exposure or the enjoyment were enough. An argument as old as the monetisation of creativity itself, and not one cast in any particularly new light here.
So we have good intentions, a willingness to engage in a constructive feedback loop and the option to ignore it completely. Not exactly a crushing heel on the throat of creativity. Yes, perhaps modders deserved a bigger cut, and yes there would undoubtedly have been a number of issues with support, compatibility and QA (the burden of which is perhaps where Bethesda could have earned that 45 per cent), and yes, some people would not have enjoyed some fantastic modding work because they were unable or unwilling to pay for it. But modding wouldn't have died. Bethesda wouldn't have started DRMing other people's work. No fewer games would have offered toolkits. This is angry people, shouting the loudest because change has made them antsy - and it won't even have made it go away: I fully expect paid mods to resurface on Steam, perhaps even with Bethesda's next release. None of it really seems like it's worth all the fuss, frankly. However, it has made me want to play Skyrim again - can anyone recommend some good mods?