I think I’m going to break my habit of reading the news before working on my posts, otherwise I’ll never get any of my planned stuff done. But I suppose there are worst things than having too much to write about.
The internet can now breathe a collective sigh of relief & douse those torches, because in a surprising move of actually listening to what nearly everyone was saying (or rather, screaming), Valve announced that they are removing paid mods from the Workshop. Their experiment was, in every possible respect, a complete & utter failure. I haven’t seen this sort of hasty retreat since Microsoft announced always-online for the XBox One.
After discussion with Valve, and listening to our community, paid mods are being removed from Steam Workshop. Even though we had the best intentions, the feedback has been clear – this is not a feature you want. Your support means everything to us, and we hear you.
Valve announced on the Steam page that anyone who purchased a mod would receive a full refund.
I’m actually surprised a how quickly the situation 180’ed. I honestly didn’t expect Valve to basically say, “The outrage was so great it would’ve done us more harm to keep this system open.” What I’d expected was for the system to simply fail on its own. It didn’t take a genius to figure out suddenly offering paid mods in a community that’s been in full bloom for years was doomed to failure — just someone who’s been around long enough to recognize trends. I figured people would just take the same route as myself, refusing to buy mods & just find equally good free ones. With no money coming in for, modders would have no reason to bother offering paid mods & the system would slowly be abandoned, fading into obscurity. But, given the outrage this business venture caused, it’s only natural Valve & Bethesda would scrap this project to salvage what was left of their reputations. While a business’ inherent job is to make money, ticking off your customers is counter-productive to these ends. If either company hadn’t said something, it would’ve been PR suicide. (Anytime I see or hear about a company saying or doing something obviously stupid, I can’t help imagining their PR department smacking their collective foreheads.)
I’m not even sure how Valve & Bethesda thought this would work. Oh, I understand why they thought it well enough. Money. Just look at how big the community for Skyrim modding alone is. Let’s look at one example. On the Nexus, the top file is SkyUI, which has 4,497,357 unique downloads. Over 4 million downloads. If that mod cost just $1, that alone would bring in over $1 million of revenue for Bethesda. The numbers are staggering. So I certainly understand how a business would want to get in on something like that.
That’s not to say I think all parties involved in this train wreck were motivated purely by greed, per se. Well, Valve, maybe. But I would like to believe Bethesda when they said they wanted to see modding grow. It’s not totally out of the question. In their blog post, Bethesda wrote:
In our early discussions regarding Workshop with Valve, they presented data showing the effect paid user content has had on their games, their players, and their modders. All of it hugely positive. They showed, quite clearly, that allowing content creators to make money increased the quality and choice that players had. They asked if we would consider doing the same… We believe most mods should be free. But we also believe our community wants to reward the very best creators, and that they deserve to be rewarded. We believe the best should be paid for their work and treated like the game developers they are.
In other words, mods are good for publishers as well because they encourage more players to purchase their games & encourage them to play their games for longer. I think Bethesda’s always been aware of this fact, otherwise they wouldn’t go to the trouble of providing the Creation Kits or being cool with us basically plagiarizing their work. To that end, it does make sense to have a paid modding system, because letting modders make money off their creations could potentially encourage more professional programmers & designers to start modding. It also brings new blood into game design, as talented modders could get full-time gigs with studios. Don’t believe me, check out what happened to the guy behind the Falskaar mod.
So what went wrong?
I think the gravest misstep here was that Valve & Bethesda underestimated the response gamers would have to this change. Valve seems to have realized this, as they said in their update that, “… stepping into an established, years old modding community in Skyrim was probably not the right place to start iterating.” It’s a catch-22. A new community would be the most accepting, but in order to have mods of the quality that people would be willing to pay money for them you need established mods. I think if Valve started this system with a new game, it might have been better received. You can’t expect to start charging for something that was previously free & people just be okay with it. I think Valve (& I’m placing most of the blame in this regard on Valve because I suspect they were the ones who approached Bethesda, not the other way ’round) failed spectacularly at reading the market. Before launching this system, before even approaching mod authors about it, they should’ve checked the community. They should have asked. You know what they say about assuming… But no, they thought they knew better. In fact, given how quiet they were about this whole endeavor, it’s hard to imagine they weren’t aware of what the reaction would be.
Could a system like this work?
Eh… It’s iffy. If (& that’s a very big if) a system like this were to have any hope of succeeding, it would have to be implemented very differently. Some of the changes I can think of include:
- Content/Quality Control. Valve doesn’t exactly have the best reputation when it comes to QC. Every week I hear more complaints about shoddy games on Greenlight. There is such a thing as being too lax. While I agree that, usually, the market handles these sorts of things, the Workshop could quite easily get overrun with crap mods, making it impossible to find the good ones, robbing mods that deserve the attention. There would also need to be limits on how much a person could charge for a mod. I think limiting it by file size could work. Larger more complicated mods could charge more.
- Better revenue distribution. A lot of gamers, myself included, took issue with the mod creators only getting 25% of the revenue. Naturally the publisher should get paid the largest portion, because it’s their property & you couldn’t make paid mods without the copyright holder getting a cut. But why did Valve deserve more than the person who created the mod? All they did was provide the platform for sharing. Hell, they weren’t even taking responsibility for supporting the system.
- Offer Free & Pro(Paid) versions of mods. Obviously this puts more work on the mod creators to make two versions, but I was thinking of something similar to smartphone apps. Many offer a downgraded free version for users to test out with no risk. If they like it, & want to support the app or are interested in the extra features the paid version offers, they can upgrade. A few of the mod authors who participated in this experiment did something similar. Even with all the flack he got, Chesko kept all his previous mods free for download on the Nexus. The paid version on Steam was the latest version, with updates & whatnot.
- Enact resource sharing policies. I think the biggest obstacle Valve didn’t foresee is that a lot of mods share resources. This adds a new layer of legal issues. Could there be a way to share revenue? I honestly don’t know. It would have to be something worked out between the authors. (Addendum: Could resource creators offer licenses where modders pay for the right to use the resources for commercial purposes, similar to the licenses of game engines such Unity, RPGMaker, CryEngine & Unreal Engine? That would make modders legally able to sell mods based on resources they didn’t create themselves while providing compensation for the original resource author.)
Clearly, a system like this would be very difficult to build and properly maintain. Honestly, I’m not even sure it’s worth it. On top of this, you have the problem that people can just make their own free version of paid mods. As my grandpa would say, why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free? And legally, I’m not sure how much anyone could do to stop them. It’d be the same legally gray issue where people are using copyrighted resources but aren’t making any money on them.
What’s the damage?
Unlike the general consensus, I never believed this would lead to the “end of modding.” If anything, there’s been a boom in mods over the weekend in retaliation. But, as I predicted several times to others while discussing this topic, it has left a scar. The biggest, and ugliest, is the damage done to the reputations of all parties involved. Not only to Valve & Bethesda (who were generally regarded positively by the gaming public), but the mod authors who participated. The sheer, vitriolic hatred spewed at these people was disgusting & uncalled for. There’s a right way & a wrong way to make a point, & showing your ass is usually the wrong way. Now we’ve got modders getting death threats & having to go into hiding because no one’s prepared to handle that kind of crap, which means we’ve potentially lose several great contributors to the community. Even if they choose to stick around, this failure & alleged betrayal will haunt everything they do now. Hell hath no fury like a slighted nerd.
To those who would say we’re better off without them, I’ll say this: Get a grip. Do I think this decision was ill-advised? Yes. Should they have expected this reaction? Yes. Do I think they were being money-grubbing sharks? No. If that were the case, why did they leave their free versions up? Taking down their other versions would force people to buy the new ones. Yes, money was a factor, but only in as much as it meant being offered to make a living to do what you love.
As a rule of thumb, if you wouldn’t voice an opinion with the exact same wording directly to the face of the person said opinion involves, keep it to yourself.
But as it stands, the topic is closed… for now. Valve made some ambiguous statements at the end of their announcement that have people starting to worry for future games.
We think this made us miss the mark pretty badly, even though we believe there’s a useful feature somewhere here.
Maybe new games will have paid mods on the Workshop. Who’s to say? But I don’t think this will kill modding. Even if, say, Fallout 4 has this feature, I doubt it’ll mean the end of free mods. Because this is the internet. There’s always a loophole.
Now, if we can go a day without a crisis, I can finally get around to talking about Dragon Age: Inquisition. Seriously, between this, Kojima leaving Konami & Konami cancelling Silent Hills, I think the internet could use a rest. Outrage is tiring.