Two words to start off this week’s article, readers: seasonal allergies. They have begun for me in earnest, and keep me from opening my windows to a breezy day, although sometimes I say to hell with allergies and open them anyway. While that keeps my olfactory system preoccupied, the games industry has been a buzz with many different topics in the last half month or so, which is a welcomed change of pace from the month prior where shit-all happened. The issue I bring in today was discussed on this week’s podcast, but of course we did not have all the time in the world to get to the bottom of the topic. I think the problem with premium mods are pretty well founded, and likely we have not seen the last of them with Valve’s retraction of the idea.
To recap, Valve partnered with Bethesda to open the doors for modders to optionally charge a price for their mods, with some money going to the modder and most being split amongst Valve and Bethesda. This idea was intended to carry through for all other Steam Workshop titles that come integrated with a modding platform on Steam’s storefront. After a vociferous backlash to the idea, Gabe Newell removed the paid mod options and admitted the idea was not fully conceived. There were some dissenting opinions about Newell’s retraction, but the overall tenor as I could tell was negative toward mods potentially costing money with some of that profit going toward the developer and publisher. Disappointingly, the most commonly cited reason states that mods have always been free, and therefore should remain so. I think that idea is simplistic and opens too many doors to claims of entitlement which, if that were the only good reason to retract this idea, would be well deserved criticism.
But there are several other good reasons to disavow this system, as it was designed. I do not think anyone is claiming that modders should not have the opportunity to be paid for their work, and thankfully there already exists a good option for payment. Sites like Nexusmods.com allow users to donate money to modders if they think their work is worth something, but it is entirely optional and that money goes directly to the modder. Valve’s system would make certain mods premium at all times, with an alleged check in place to make sure the mod was worth paying for, and they intended to take a cut of that money as they take a cut on everything else offered through their platform. The developer would also be cut in, which is what opens a few shady doors worth worrying about. Should a game’s mods greatly enhance gameplay or fix issues the developer did not, then these mods would be a potential source of profit for doing less work. The incentive is there, even if the practice would be devastating if ever proven but such risks have never stopped the gaming industry before.
Then we enter the even murkier waters of ownership, which is likely the reason Bethesda wants in on the modding action if it is going to be monetized. I understand that these are mods for their property and they do have an argument to make about earning a cut if money is involved. They already have the legal standing to foil mods (I say foil instead of prevent, which is usually not possible) so their unmolested existence is only by their good graces, which of course I appreciate. Compare that stance to something like Rockstar’s in their recent PC release of Grand Theft Auto V where they attempt to shuffle encrypted files around so modders have to continually readjust how their programs interface with the game’s code. At any rate, developers and their publishers would be the first to tell us about how protecting use of their IP is important, and the same would invariably become true of modder’s property. If a mod’s code is based off of or entirely sourced from another mod’s code, then the original owner should be allowed to defend their work. This closes off the modding community which often borrows heavily from itself with little conflict precisely because money is kept out of the matter.
Then comes Valve’s dubious claim that a mod will be screened for worth as a premium item, which Greenlight amply proves is worth worrying about. Even if a mod represents a good addition or modification to the base game, there are no guarantees that the author will continue to support the mod to be compatible with the current base game version. Minecraft is great example of mods conflicting with game versions as well as versions of other mods, and that does not even enter the arena of “base mods” and “dependent mods” that are made by different people but are co-dependent. Some of these intricately connected mods make for the best of what the community has to offer, and introducing payment into this means we would likely see much less free collaboration. And once the subject of “mod piracy” enters the discussion the knot becomes so tangled that it I wonder if anyone at Valve thought of this plan for very long or understood how mods tend to work before initiation.
The decision to pull the plug was wise, but unlikely to be the last of the paid mod issue. The next step will be to set up this plan from the launch date of a game instead of trying to shoe-horn it in later. And paid mods are not new, they have been around in some capacity even on Steam as well as on consoles where mods do not really operate the same. In this case, a mod is more akin to “DLC” from the developer and the differentiating factors can be a bit blurry. The primary problem with Valve’s plan this time around, however, was its unilateral nature. Discretion is necessary and at the same time not Valve’s strong suit nor the strong suit of many others when profit is on the table.
Weigh in on the idea of premium mods or just your own experience with the modding community in the comments! Pretty please.