So… I was fully intent on doing an in-depth write-up of the mechanics in Dragon Age: Inquisition today when I did my usual check of the gaming news sites & discovered a cluster. It was like someone poked a hornet’s nest. I haven’t seen such heated backlash since Microsoft announced the XBox One would be always-on. If you’ve no idea what I’m talking about, here’s the gist of it: Valve announced today that they were begin allowing mod authors to charge for their mods on the Steam Workshop. Currently only available with Skyrim mods, mod authors can decide to have people pay to download their creations. There are two paid options. Either the author can charge a flat fee, or they can give downloaders a “pay what you want” option, where you can choose within a certain range how much you want to pay the creator.
To say that the response from the community has been less than agreeable would be to say that Pacific Ocean is damp.
Modding is almost an essential aspect of PC gaming. Most of the games I play on PC I play for the mods, which help not only improve the gaming experience, but extend the life of the game. Modding is serious business, sometimes spawning entirely new franchises through their success, but they have always been one thing. Free. To suddenly begin charging money for something that, previously, gamers have had free & open access to, one has to wonder what Valve expected to happen.
Before examining the arguments on either side of this debate, let’s first look at the system Valve has set up.
Firstly, modders don’t have to charge for their creations. I believe it’s something that they have to sign up for, & even then they can choose whether they want to monetize or not. Valve also has a refund policy where, if you decide within 24 hours that you don’t like a mod you’ve paid for, you can get a full refund, credited to your Steam wallet.
Sounds simple enough, but there are, oh, so many problems.
Objectively, there are already three major problems with Valve’s new policy. First of all, it’s unclear what sort of regulations Valve has in place to protect both content creators & customers. Are there regulations on what a modder can charge for his mod? I’ve seen some simple mods ask the same price as system overhauls. Is the price you can charge limited by, say, file size? Also, there has apparently been a problem with people uploading mods to the workshop that aren’t even theirs, stealing money from the true creators. How can Valve ensure that the person uploading a mod is who they claim to be? Second, a 24-hour refund limit is pretty short. While some mods are easy enough to tell if they work or if you like them enough to keep them (like weapon mods) others take time to fully test. The more extensive overhaul mods may not show problems until after hours of playtime. For example, I was playing Skyrim with the skyTEST mod, which changes the animal AI to be more realistic, but after some time the game started crashing to desktop. It took me some time & fiddling with my mods to figure out it was specifically skyTEST causing the problem. Had this been something I bought off of Steam Workshop, I’d have just wasted my money. Under Steam’s FAQ, they specifically say that any problems with a mod after 24 hours have to be taken up with the mod author. If they can’t or won’t fix the issues, you’re just tough out of luck. The third undeniable problem, which is less a problem for the consumer & more an insight into Valve’s true motives, is that the mod authors only receive 25% of the proceeds for the sales. The remaining 75% gets split between Valve & the original game’s publisher. If that wasn’t scudzy enough, Valve only pays the mod author when they’ve earned $100, meaning a mod would have to have brought in $400 before the mod author sees a dime.
As you’d expect, the gamers’ response has been generally negative. You can’t suddenly start charging for something that was previously free & expect it to go over well.
What surprised me, though, is how modders themselves have spoken out against this change. There’s even a Reddit subpage under Skyrim Mods where mod authors can give an official statement, most of which involve stating simply that their mods will always be free. In fact, there’s even a banner they can put on their mod pages on the Nexus. Some authors have been quite vocal about their discontent. According to Trainwiz (most known for the mod Blackreach Railroad):
I said it months ago, I don’t even accept donations, it’s not my Thing. It doesn’t feel right to charge money for it, it’s like asking money for Harry Potter fanfic. It’s a hobby, it shouldn’t be a business.
Another prolific modder, Elianora, whose created several popular house mods for Skyrim, stated in the same post:
I don’t mind the occasional donation, it buys me licenses for tools and textures, and coffee to fuel my creative process. I make mods because I love it, and I would still be making my stupid mods if no one downloaded them. But this is changing the entire field and makes me fear for the future.
Modders & gamers alike have argued that, if people want to support modders — which Valve claims is to purpose of the new Workshop — they can already do so through donations. The Nexus allows gamers to donate money through PayPal directly to modders. And, unlike with Steam, all the money goes directly to the author.
Hell! In the past modders have been permanently banned from the Nexus for trying to raise money for their mods. Granted, that was due to violating the Creation Kit’s terms of, basically, not giving Bethesda a cut of the money. But still, at least the Kickstarter campaign had been expressly for making a new mod. Can we say the same with money we give on the Workshop?
Some mod authors have had slightly less negative views. While they agree that there are many problems & pitfalls, they see potential in the system. Gopher, the author of Immersive HUD, the most popular HUD mod for Skyrim, posted a video on Youtube remaining cautiously optimistic. (Of course, he also stated that his mods would remain free.) And game critic TotalBiscuit applauded the move while warning of the dangers if Valve doesn’t stay on the ball with customer & client support. The main gist, they both argue, is that modders should be able to make money for their work. Some mods can take an extensive amount of time & effort to create. They argue that passion & profession aren’t mutually exclusive. In the past, modding has been viewed as an act of love, especially since creators worked so hard on things they weren’t getting paid for. But, if modders can make money, it could improve the quality of the mods we see. TotalBiscuit even goes so far as to argue that this could make modding a legitimate job, in the same way we used to never think about people making a living off of making Youtube videos. Being able to support oneself can attract more talented programmers, voiceactors, etc.
So what’s my opinion on the matter? It a word, dubious.
I can’t say I was surprised by this turn. It’s inevitable that anytime something free becomes popular, someone’s going to find a way to make money off it. Free things are only free because there’s no solid market. That’s what I always tell people who tout biodiesel. It’s only free because no one uses it. If it became a real thing, you’d best believe the government would snatch that up. It’s the same mindset that caused the takedown fiasco a while back on Youtube. Publishers & copyright holders suddenly took notice when people started making a living off their videos. It’s the same thing here. Modding’s become so big that of course people want to make money off it.
One the one hand, I agree with donating to mod authors could improve the quality of the mods we get in the future. And, like TotalBiscuit, I believe people should get paid for their work. I’m also not naive enough to think that donations alone can help support someone to be a full-time modder. Even assuming someone’s willing to donate to help a modder, chances are they won’t donate a lot. The Pay What You Want tactic, while fostering goodwill, doesn’t exactly bring the cash rolling in. However, should a mod author be a job? I get recouping expenses, but what expenses do mod authors have? It’s not as if you’re building a new game engine in most cases. Honestly, I don’t know what it costs to make a mod. Also, studies have shown that incentivizing an activity doesn’t improve the quality of how it’s done. In other words, if you give someone a physical reward for something, it often robs the joy of doing it. In one study, students who’d previously enjoyed completing puzzles solely for the accomplishment were then given a reward for each puzzle they completed. Against what you’d expect, the students showed less enjoyment of completing puzzles, & even stopped trying as hard to finish them. It becomes your job, & thus you lose enjoyment. Could making modding your job destroy your passion for it, & thus lower the mods’ quality?
Another hurdle to the idea of paid modding, which I didn’t think of until I read it in a post, was that many mods are based on other mods. Some mods require other mods to work properly. These mods typically have license agreements that anyone who wishes to use their programs to make other mods must adhere to. For example, in Skyrim, many more complex mods require you to have the Skyrim Script Extender program installed into your game, which in itself is a mod. Shouldn’t they be paid a portion of the sales as well, since the new mod is piggybacking off their scripts? What happens if the people behind SKSE don’t want to monetize their system? This has already come up. One of the pilot mods on the Workshop to be monetized was one that added a fishing system to Skyrim. But it had to be removed because it used scripts from the Fores New Idles in Skyrim mod to add new fishing animations. This was a violation of the licensing agreement, as FNIS states that no one can charge money for a mod that uses their mod, and thus the fishing mod couldn’t legally charge money for it. Mods aren’t self-contained files. Often they borrow resources from others. Shouldn’t everyone deserve a cut then?
I guess that’s the long & short of it. As the system only opened yesterday, it’s impossible to tell exactly how things will play out. I think this is more of a trial run than anything, hence why Valve had already arranged to have a handful of mods ready to go. Ultimately, the market will decide. If gamers truly despise the system so much, then they won’t buy the mods & the system will dwindle. Only time will tell.