Valve recently tried to monetize Skyrim’s mod scene by allowing modders to charge for their mods*. This proved to be disastrous as it turned the modding scene, a functioning collectivist system that is one of the main selling points for Bethesda’s games, into an app store with Valve’s known nonexistent quality control that turned into a vicious race to the bottom. As a result, the program was scrapped in a few days. While this will undoubtedly come up again(I would be surprised if the next Fallout or Elder Scrolls game wasn’t more tied-in with the Steam Workshop so that it really would be an app store) the issue for the time has faded from the public eye. What prompted me to write about this was that Extra Credits** did an episode about this that I wanted to respond to. Let’s not waste any time and get into it.
First, let me explain my background. Bethesda games always get me interested. Morrowind is one of my favorite games and I’ve spent more hours than I care to admit looking through mods. The same is true, albeit to a lesser extent for Fallout 3 and New Vegas. I’m also not a big fan of Extra Credits for a number of reasons. Their videos are too short to really go into detail, which by default makes the analysis surface level. As a result it doesn’t really do much. They’re not being presented as a springboard for discussion, and I’m not wading into youtube comments to test that, but they’re not really saying much either to feel like you’re learning. At best it can give you fodder for thought but that only goes so far.
Their basic argument is as follows: since this is going to come up again, we should actually think this through. They break this down into the question of whether this is good for modders, would this be a good shift for the community as a whole, would paid mods be good for players, will paid mods be good for developers and would paid mods be good for Valve. I’m going to break down my response to each of these points individually.
‘Would these be good for modders’ focuses on the fact that it’s better for modders for to be paid for their work. This is at best a naïve argument and at worst one made in bad faith. I”m a firm believer in everyone should be paid a living wage for their labor, that doesn’t really apply here. The fact that modders aren’t paid is something they understand from the beginning and accept. Everything doesn’t need to be commoditized; some people are happy with their hobby being a hobby and don’t want to go pro. The idea that modders should be paid for their work implies that they’re getting a fair deal, which they’re not. Not only were they only getting 25% profit, but that only happened once a mod had been purchased a certain amount of times. Until that point it was 100% to Bethesda; a fact conveniently omitted in the video. Ultimately, this turns the modder into an independent contractor, a more formalized and exploitable appendage in the videogame industry. An industry that is well-known for its poor working conditions.
The other part of their argument is based upon the notion that Bethesda taking part of the cut is supposedly fair because of licensing and IP. This entire line of argument is nonsensical as it’s predicated upon several faulty assumptions. First, there’s the idea that turning a modder into an independent contractor is a good thing. Second, is the idea that making mods are on the same scale as making a game. Third, there’s the idea that this arrangement is anyway fair. Since they used the number 75,000, I’ll use it here; in order to make 75,000 dollars off of a mod that costs a dollar you need to sell in the order of 300,00 copies. To put that into perspective, on May 21st, 2015, Skyrim peaked with 34,104 players. Even if every player bought a copy of this mod, that’s $8,526. I have no idea how the 75k/a year figure is even remotely realistic or what it’s trying to prove. Most mods aren’t these massive projects like Darkest Hour or Arsenal of Democracy**, they’re maybe the size of some DLC package or smaller. Of course, this entire line of argument is based upon the idea that because Bethesda has put in the time to cultivate these products, they can turn what was essentially free advertising into an additional revenue stream and people should be thankful that Bethesda isn’t taking as much as they could in the name of protecting nebulous concepts.
“Would this be good for the modding community” is answered in a way that conveniently sidesteps any real issues that did or could emerge. They open this segment by talking about a host of legal problems that will emerge as modders use things that they don’t have the license to use. Most of these things should be irrelevant to the modding community, it doesn’t matter if they put Lord of the Rings into Skyrim or added something from the Witcher. What does matter is using other mods as a foundation. Mods aren’t things that are independently developed; it’s a sprawling interconnected web. How many mods work because of the Skyrim Script Extender? How many mods build off other mods and use their assets? How many mods are just assets to be used by other people? The answer: a lot. Not only that, but right now you have feuds over people not attributing others or giving credit when they do build off of other mods if they requested that. These issues quickly escalated once money was introduced as you had certain base mods becoming monetized and things built off of them were not or vice versa. You had people download mods from the Nexus, reupload them to Steam Workshop, claim them as their own and charge money for them. Monetization long term would have destroyed the modding community. There is no community because you’re no longer collaborating on something open; every other modder just became your competition.
The second part of their argument, which for some reason isn’t in the previous segment but provides the illusion that there would still be a community, is how this would theoretically enable modders to do this fulltime if they want. This allure of money will supposedly grow the modding “community”, as people will be drawn to this new money-making opportunity. This seems unlikely for three reasons: 1. This requires the influx of people to already be competent modders, since there won’t be pre-existing assets they can draw upon like there are now. 2.How many of these people will put in the time investment to even try and make a profit? 3. Given how unlikely it is to actually make a living under the model we’re discussing, why should modders rely on that and not Patreon? How many artists, writers and other creatives have been able to support themselves with Patreon? Answer: a good number. Again, it’s worth repeating that by making modders independent contractors they become a part of the video game industry and end up doing this work for bad pay in the hopes of being hired into an unstable industry with poor working conditions.
“Would this be good for the players” is answered in a way that is again disconnected from the reality of the situation. Surprisingly, they linger on the point about how one would have to pay for utility mods as that’s a perfect example of why this entire scheme is horrible for the players. A common complaint is that companies will released unfinished games and just leave the problems to be fixed by the mod community. This statement was of varying degrees of truth before, now that you’re paying for mods, it means that you are paying extra to make the game functional. I’m curious how the price of a game is no longer the price of the game, just the entry free to a license so I can start to spend more money to make the game functional is better for me. This also ignores the reality of mods in that they’re a bit of a crapshoot. Mods being free is integral to how they’re used as they’re a crapshoot. Leaving aside the issue of quality of content for a moment, mods are modifications to the game, they’re not a part of the game and this means that they can break the game. Sometimes that break isn’t obvious and it happens hours down the line, but you accept the risk when you download a mod. Sometimes that break isn’t that big and sometimes it eats your save. This issue becomes even more pronounced when you have multiple mods running. This isn’t an issue that can be fixed through the professionalization of modding, it is literally a structural issue with mods.
Somehow, this will cause the quality of mods to rise. This isn’t impossible, but it’s highly unlikely when you consider that modders can no longer stand on the shoulders of other mods anymore. In the pursuit of money the following things will happen: big and ambitious projects will be finished, mods will be higher quality with fewer bugs and will be launched as close to launch as possible in order to maximize profit. There is absolutely no way for all of these things to be true, especially since working solo on such projects isn’t doable so modders will team together…into what amount to development studios on an incredibly precarious funding structure; at this point you’re better off learning how to design mobile games honestly. It’s important to think of modders as independent contractors/dev studios in this model because it quickly reveals the rest of the problems. A lot of games are just not that good, what makes mods any better? What’s to keep someone updating a mod so it remains compatible with the game in light of patches and expansions? What’s to keep a mod from being Early Access? Abandoned Early Access? What’s to keep a mod developer from any failing that an indie dev has?
‘Is this good for developers’ is the most coherent part of this video, although that’s awfully faint praise. This is mainly by virtue of the fact that they recognize the power and issues that game developers face in monetizing mods and spend most of the segment asking questions that clearly weren’t asked when this program was conceived and implemented. While this might be mistaking the forest for a tree, but I found the issue of DLC to be another example of them not understanding what modding actually is. Not all games are equally modable and the Workshop doesn’t have to support games that rely upon DLC. They did not stop being unthinkingly pro-corporation in three minutes and ask why any of this is the case. On the subject of their paradigm, it’s also worth mentioning what they don’t talk about. In theory, this experiment was bad for Bethesda since it generated a big amount of negative publicity and torched goodwill. A big reason to buy a Bethesda game was because of all the mods you could use; now that they’ve demonstrated a willingness to shift that arrangement in their favor, the disaffected player has no recourse t register their displeasure by not giving them money. It’s also fair to say that any damage done almost assuredly isn’t significant to do any meaningful harm and there will be enough buy-in from the community for this to work when they try it again.
‘Is this good for Valve’ is a question that they flippantly answer yes with an image of an avatar of Valve carrying sacks of money. It’s a silly question with a silly answer that is actually worth discussing in its own right. Steam has become basically become the industry standard for pc gaming, even if you can buy it elsewhere you need to have Steam to run it. This is another way for Steam to make money in a way that they want as much liability as they do with Early Access. It’s good for them because it can’t be bad for them.
Overall, the monetization of modding is a demonstrably terrible idea that would only grow the industry by turning modding into the development periphery. EC’s claims to the contrary primarily based upon ignoring what actually happened in favor of a pro-corporate optimistic agenda. Till next time
*’Mods are modifications to the game that add new content such as quests, items, unofficial patches and graphic changes
**An internet group devoted to explaining the game industry and game design. You can find them at youtube.com/user/ExtraCreditz
***Mods of Hearts of Iron 2 that became actual Paradox games.