Honestly, when I first caught wind that Valve was going to suddenly make its platform available for game modders to sell their mods for good old-fashioned money, I initially thought it was great. However, it took only a couple of moments of thinking to realize what a mess this would all be. Taking a modding ecosystem, where talented modders create add-ons and alterations of original games that give gamers exactly what they want, or more of what they want, and injecting money into it represented a misunderstanding of the relationship between modders and gamers, and a failure to understand the gaming community’s obvious reaction. Keep in mind that modders already have been making money on Steam, except that they’ve done so when their mods become desired enough or revered enough to warrant full and separate releases within the game store. This was to be different: modders selling smaller mods within the original game’s Steam page. Mods, mind you, help make individual games and entire platforms like Steam more desirable to gamers, also known as Valve’s customers. Injecting money this way had what probably should have been easy to predict unintended consequences.
First, the backlash by the gaming community was immediate, and it was strong.
It’s not uncommon for people to ask for donations, a nickel or two going clink in the cup, but charging upfront? Definitely not the standard. Some, however, are worried that it could become the norm, not the exception, which would fundamentally alter the mod scene. Mods, they fear (and have, to a small extent, observed), will stop updating for those who don’t pay, will abandon mod-centric services like Nexus for Steam’s greener pastures.
The feedback wasn’t any better on Twitter, where the sentiment expressed seemed to be at its most optimistic when complaining about feelings of abandonment by the modding community, once thought to be simply a faction of the gamer-side of the larger ecosystem and now firmly placed in the sellers category with game-makers, and at its most pessimistic when predicting that Valve’s move represents the beginning of the end of modding as a whole. The latter was never true, I’ll say, and frankly nobody should be pointing fingers at Valve for this at all. If the market supported paid mods, it would have worked.
It didn’t work and part of the reason it didn’t does indeed have the tint of an IP issue at its heart. It turns out there was an IP issue over one of the early, if not first, mods offered in Valve’s store, with all the accusations of infringement over the work of others that you’d expect — except the issue is between modders and doesn’t involve the game-maker at all.
As Destructoid and PC Gamer point out, “Art of the Catch” was created by modders Chesko and aqqh. It also allegedly uses assets from another mod by a modder known as Fore without permission. Fore apparently confronted the Chesko (though, the original comment seems to have been deleted).
If you pay any attention to the modding space, you already know where this is going. It’s very common for some mods to incorporate other mods within the larger distribution. This can happen when modders create total conversion mods, where a game is radically changed by implementing a plethora of previously-made mods, or it can happen when the aim of a mod is to drastically change an aspect of the game and a previous mod did part of the work already. What has always happened is that permission was attained to use the mod, credit was given in the release notes of the new mod, and everyone was happy because mods weren’t charged for.
Now, we have two modders in a pissing match (though Chesko has reportedly been reaching out to Fore to clear this all up), all due to money exchanging hands. Not only that, but there have been complaints that Steam is punishing users who are raising their voices on the issue. In other words, Valve took a modding ecosystem that was working perfectly well, injected money into it, and the problems arose almost immediately. As for the overall effect these kinds of disputes can have on the modding community? Well, for what it’s worth, Chesko is talking about quitting the whole scene entirely, so there’s that.
Between that and the general customer reaction to the rollout of this paid mods scheme, it seems clear that Valve never really thought this through. What started off as a Twitter bitch-fest from upset gamers evolved into the kind of protest-comedy only the internet can produce. The end result was Steam’s most popular Skyrim mod being a protest against paid mods, allowing characters to carry around a protest placard within the game. And, after the customers and fans had spoken, game developers will have their turn. One of them, Bethesda, makers of the afore-mentioned Skyrim, pulled all paid mods for the game entirely. The public comments from Valve, in conjunction with news that they will offer full refunds on all the Skyrim mods that had already been purchased, don’t inspire much confidence, either.
“We’ve done this because it’s clear we didn’t understand exactly what we were doing,” Valve said in a community update. “We’ve been shipping many features over the years aimed at allowing community creators to receive a share of the rewards, and in the past, they’ve been received well. It’s obvious now that this case is different…But we underestimated the differences between our previously successful revenue sharing models, and the addition of paid mods to Skyrim’s workshop. 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. We think this made us miss the mark pretty badly, even though we believe there’s a useful feature somewhere here.”
Look, I don’t actually have a problem with modders trying to make money from their work, and I have zero problem with Valve providing a platform for that…I just don’t think it will ever actually work. The modding community functions in a way that doesn’t benefit from the injection of money-making opportunities for these more modest mods, which are among the most popular. But, as I mentioned at the open, it’s not like modders can’t make money from Steam. They do, and have. You’ve probably heard of some of them, like DayZ, or Team Fortress, and The Stanley Parable. All of those games started off as mods (in the case of Team Fortress — now one of Valve’s most profitable properties — years before the Steam store even existed) and all of them now have full Steam game pages themselves. The gaming market worked that out on its own.
And you can bet that the smarter game publishers out there aren’t going to get on board with allowing paid mods on their Steam pages now that the backlash is in full swing. Mods make games more buy-able, and a negative aspect in the modding community for a particular game isn’t something a publisher is going to want to put up with (see: Bethesda).
Whatever Valve thought this was going to be, it isn’t.