The High Cost of Free Mods

In a recent move by Valve, the company introduced a paid-mod system in which Skyrim modders could charge users for their mods and codes. Revenue was to be split with a 30% share going to Valve, 45% going to Bethesda and 25% going to the creator. Valve intended this to be an extra source of revenue for unpaid creators that sink days or weeks into crafting these mods. In theory, this would inspire more creativity and competition within the community and produce a higher quality of mods.

It did not.

Within a few hours, a petition against Valve was created and amassed over 50,000 supports, the co-founder of the company, Gabe Newell, was forced to explain the company’s actions on a Reddit Q&A to a horde of rabid complainants, and, after four hate-filled days, Valve’s paid-mod system was shut down.

Now that the dust has cleared from one Valve’s most poorly received business decisions, I think it’s worth having a look back to see why this decision spawned so much controversy and, more importantly, if it was justified.

Charging for a Free Service

Indisputably, the loudest of the complaints being hurled about was the customers were now expected to pay for a service that had been free up till the moment. This was always going to be a hard sell.

But, why shouldn’t people pay for mods? While many of them are made as an act of love and fandom for a game, modders put in a significant amount of time and work into these creations. Modders provide a service that costs them; therefore, compensating them shouldn’t be a controversial idea. The quality and quantity of mods being put out would vastly increase, because it becomes much easier to justify sinking a week into designing a Dynamic Anime Hairstyle mod if you have the incentive of a juicy paycheck waiting for you.

Oh yeah, that's the stuff

Oh yeah, worth every cent

And it’s not like paying for extra content is unheard of to Steam users. Team Fortress 2 and Dota 2 maintain a free-to-play system by contributions to their in-game stores. Players are content to pay for this extra content, yet paid mods don’t endear the same kindness.

I believe that all of this comes down to entitlement. Mods were free then for a brief period they weren’t. It’s hard to get rid of the intrinsic sense of ownership we had towards them. But only one person owns the mod and that is their creators. If they wish to charge money for them, then that’s entirely their decision.

The Mod Web

Unfortunately, the biggest problem with the paid-mod service was never that consumers were going to be charged for mods. Hidden amongst the flurry of complaints was a crippling issue with this system. Valve had let modders set a single flat price for their designs. The problem with this is that mods don’t exist in a vacuum.

Bethesda is no longer working on Skyrim. There will be no further updates, patches or expansions for the game. This gives the game an important property amongst the community as mods no longer need to ensure that they continue to operate with new versions of the game. In terms of a testing Valve’s paid-mod system, it made for an ideal environment.

However, the modding community itself isn’t stagnant. Modders share assets, develop new mods reliant on old code and constantly troubleshoot the heck out of them. Even in the best conditions, there a plenty of circumstances where simply mods don’t work with each other.

This mod is  entirely necessary

This mod is entirely necessary

Furthermore, when certain mods become privatised, the mods that borrow from these are locked out of their extensions. It would seem to be the responsibility of the modder to ensure that their product is functional, but when you consider the number of different mods with a near infinite number of potential interaction errors, it becomes harder to justify saddling modders with that burden.

Paying for a product lends a certain responsibility for the creator to keep up with updates. When it comes to mods, the sheer amount of chances for things to go wrong may make that impossible.

Not all Mods are Created Equal

The final issue that concerned me is in regard to who would be getting paid by all of this. Bethesda and Valve stood to gain the most, but that’s understandable due to the costs of development and providing the platform. However, the current payment distribution works under the belief that all mods serve the same purpose.

For example, take the hypothetical Dynamic Anime Hairstyle mod. It uses assets and tech provided by Bethesda to create as product that adds to the enjoyment of the game, yet isn’t required to play it. In that situation, Bethesda would be justified in charging a higher fee because the modder is adding content that is entirely secondary to a normal, functional experience of the game. On the other hand, take the very real Unofficial Skyrim Patch by user Arthmoor. The goal of their patch was to fix every bug in Skyrim not officially resolved by the developers. In this situation, Bethesda would be taking away money from modders for resolving issues in their original game that the developers have not and will never fix.

Apparently someone noticed a difference here

Apparently there is a difference here

Paid-mods were a hard sell. Charging someone for fixing a problem with your product is impossible.

Was there a Lesson here?

I admire the intent behind this decision. Valve has benefited greatly from the modding community as games like Counter-Strike, Team Fortress and DOTA 2 all started off as mods. In my mind, I believe they were acting with good intentions and just wanted to build a creative community that could fund itself. The fact that they backed down from this system after they learned that nobody wants this seems to support this.

As for what lesson came from all of this, I’m not sure there was one. Instead, I will leave you with the words of a Valve employee, who posted in their forums in an attempt to explain what happened over these chaotic four days:

“We’ve done this because it’s clear we didn’t understand exactly what we were doing.”

Sources: Game Informer, bbc.co.uk

Writer, gamer, recreational Dungeon Master and all-round cool guy.

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