In the space of 4 days, Valve has launched paid modding support for Skyrim only to remove the feature following significant community backlash. The discussion has involved many prominent people in the modding community with strong opinions, including Valve’s CEO Gabe answering questions in a reddit thread, Dark0ne from SkyrimNexus who is concerned about the DRMification of mods and Garry from GarrysMod and Rust who believes we need to give this a chance.
We’ve sat back and watched this drama unfold - and whilst it has been put on hold for now, this will have fundamental repercussions that will forever affect how developers approach modding and how players consume mods. There is a lot to cover, so please read this entire post before passing your judgement. First up some background.
More important than ever before
Valve is a company who have built themselves on the back of mods success. They know that the wisdom of many cannot be matched by the wisdom of one, so when amazing ideas from the community emerge, Valve is there to nurture them to success and eventually big business. We’ve got the original Team Fortress, Counter-Strike and DotA mods listed on ModDB as proof of that. They have already been toying with paid mods for many years now, which begun in Team Fortress 2 and it has been a huge success, which they discussed in a Steam Dev Days presentation in 2014. The numbers are impressive, since 2010 Valve has paid over $50million (25% of $200million) to modders and has seen TF2’s popularity increase 5 fold. They even encourage other developers to think about paid modding… so this change has been a long time coming.
We brought this on ourselves
Our reluctance to pay for anything digital, is forcing the music, movie and games industries to adapt. In the case of music and movies, they have turned to streaming with ads and subscriptions. In the case of games (especially F2P and mobile) we have tried many ugly ideas such as pay to play, pay to win and ads, but all of these ideas punish the player. So in comes DLC and addon packs to the rescue, as a way to generate revenue while giving something back to the player. But even DLC is often viewed as a negative, as content that should have been shipped in the original game… so what’s left? MODS!
Mods are the holy grail
They cost little to the developer to support once they are implemented, other than providing tools and attempting to maintain compatibility. Modders are not bound to deadlines, financial pressure, social norms or company politics, which often yields amazing results. Modders have created new genres MOBA, Survivalist and Sandbox, brought the original S.T.A.L.K.E.R vision to life, added multiplayer to the unmoddable and experimented with unusual ideas like The Stanley Parable. In all cases games with mod support are better for the players, mod developers and publishers.
Gone but coming back
The numbers don’t lie, every good game that has mods has abnormally high user engagement and longevity. As Team Fortress 2 shows, revenue skyrocketted when user-generated content was sold. As we run towards a F2P content based economy, the significance of this cannot be understated, as publishers explore new ways of making money (which doesn’t have to be a bad thing). This is why despite support for paid Skyrim Mods being retracted, it is clear when you read between the lines “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” that Valve intends to return with a similar feature, but likely in new games only so as not to disrupt established modding communities.
So with all of the background out of the way and the expectation that paid modding will arrive in a big way at some point soon, where does that leave us?
How should paid mods exist?
Right now there are a number of opinions floating around:
- The community generally believes it should be optional and donation based, but that won’t work. Too few people will donate to make it viable, and even if you believe you would donate, do you actually intend on following through with that promise?
- Modders that create for the love of it believe modding should remain free, and it will, but it will be a choice: free or paid
- Garry from Garrysmod believes we should just suck it up and accept paid modding, because there will still be free mods and more content is better right?
- Dark0ne from Skyrimnexus is ok with paid mods, but more concerned about the DRMification of mods, and the implication of Steam being the only way to find, install and play mods
- Everyone feels that Valve’s split of 25% mod maker, 25% Valve and 50% game owner is wrong
All of the arguments above have their merits. Paid mods will definitely lead to more content, better content and well supported content. It will also lead to more free mods as tools improve, and more developers participate. A healthier mod community is a great thing and if optional (and I must stress optional) paid mod support is how we get there, then I’m on board. More games today support modding because of this potential than ever before, and if once-great moddable games were to contemplate a return to modding if it continues, isn’t that a win?
There are however a lot of problems that will need to be overcome, which concern me greatly:
- This may be the end of epic total conversions. Right now massive teams across the world, make amazing 5+ year projects like The Nameless mod for Deus Ex, Nehrim for Oblivion, Sven Co-op for Half-Life. They are united by their love of the game and desire to sculpt it into something different. Forging a bond through money will shift individuals priorities and lead to fundamental disagreements that cannot be overcome. Money is a finite resource, greed isn’t
- Expect the greatest influx of hats you have ever seen, this change will encourage the development of cosmetic mods because they are easier, quicker and better revenue generators. Mods need to be more than just a way to make a quick buck
- Money will put enormous pressure on modders. Want to collaborate but don’t know how to share the profits, or don’t want profits? It’ll be hard to compete with teams that have money, so you will be forced to take less risks and a lot of the incredible creative work we have experienced in the past may be lost to make something safe and simple
- This will introduce scammers and spammers to modding, those who knowingly steal assets and others work for profit because they can
- Fan projects, parodies and controversial topics are frequently explored by modders. If mods are tied to Steam and essentially DRM’d, these projects will be shut down and locked out with no way of existing. Freedom of speech will be difficult to protect when money is involved and the sharks are circling
Where do we stand?
13 years ago we started ModDB, because finding mods is tough, and ending up at a broken download link is heartbreaking. A lot of great mods and ideas have been lost along the way, but since 2002 we have never lost a mod hosted on our site and every month you download over 800TB from us. It is amazing that modding has never been stronger than it is today, and Valve is a big reason for that. We need to be understanding that growth may come at a cost, and to approach all change with an open mind. Doing so as a community and our voice will continue to be heard. We also need to encourage game developers to keep their mod platforms open, and for modders to share their work everywhere they can (Steam, Nexus, Curse, ModDB etc). In this scenario Valve can experiment and attempt to make installing mods easier and ask users to pay for the convenience, and we can continue to offer an alternative that is free and open forever.