Here’s How I Would Do Paid Mods

I wrestled with the question of exactly how I felt about Valve’s decision to implement paid mods on Steam for a while. Before I had even reached anything approaching a fully formed opinion on the matter, Valve flip flopped, and scrapped the whole thing. At least for now. I think there’s the seed of a good idea there, and no doubt Valve will revisit this idea at a later stage, but there were some serious problems with implementation. Here’s my take on the big problems in the model, and how these problems could be mitigated.

I’m a passionate advocate for individuals being able to turn their hobby into a career. I also recognise that there are a whole host of mod developers who have been producing interesting, high quality work for a long time, without any prospect of financial reward. It’s also essential to state that the collective work of modding communities is of great value, and not simply economic value.

Regardless of intent, it feels to an extent that Valve and Bethesda have seen the huge value generated by the long standing Elder Scrolls modding community, plus the big piles of money Valve have been collecting from selling hats and other such digital tat in DOTA2 and TF2, and attempted to figure a way to carve up the modding community, and squeeze it into a capitalistic framework, with themselves getting something approaching free money for other people’s work.

Mods are typically developed outside of a commercial software setting, and whilst many mods are of a very high quality, no user could reasonably expect them to have similar quality assurance standards. It’s not my intention to draw a line in the sand between “professional” and “unprofessional” developers, but if I buy a game and it does not function as advertised, I’d be entitled to a refund. If I download a mod and it does not function at advertised, I’d have no such entitlement. There was no attempt from Valve or Bethesda to reconcile these differences in the proposed plans for paid mods on Steam. There was no threshhold whatsoever for testing mods prior to release, no threshold for how stable these mods would need to be before charging, and many of the mods which were charging were simply updated versions of stuff that had been available without any charge prior to paid mods being a thing on Steam.

Had Valve and/or Bethesda taken it upon themselves to get involved with the mod community, and make some effort to curate interesting and worthwhile mods, mods which Bethesda offer some kind of assurances they function as advertised, and won’t be broken by potential updates to the base game down the line, it would have been far more palatable to see them taking the lions share of revenue from mod sales. Steam does not provide any method for opting out of game updates, so under the proposed system, it would have been entirely feasible for a game update to break mods that users had spent money on. Certainly some modders might update their work to be compatible with newer versions, but if they have moved on to entirely new projects, or if there are insurmountable technical issues, would users be able to get a refund?

Earmarking a selection of mods that have been approved as being basically technically sound, not introducing adware or malware into your game, not being broken by game updates (or otherwise being refunded), would have certainly made the prospect of paid mods being available on Steam more appealing to me. The difficulty here is that this would require significant work from Valve and Bethesda, since they would have to perform some basic testing, and get hands on with community outreach. In my mind, this would simply represent them actually doing work to earn their share of the revenue. Perhaps they see it differently. Obviously judging by how Valve want to manage their catalogue of content on Steam, they’re far more inclined to put their trust into algorithms, data, and metrics from their userbase, than hiring professional staff to do the job. I think this is misguided, especially considering how much money Valve make. In my view they should hire a team to do exactly this type of curation. Not blocking anything from being sold, but elevating stuff that they have looked at in some detail, and decided that it is worth customer’s time and money. I’d still want mods that hadn’t received this earmark to be available, but having a middle ground for developers who are willing to jump through some technical and business hoops to provide customers with reasonable reasurances, and for customers who don’t want to pay for potentially broken or mis-sold software, would be preferable. Closer to outsourced DLC than simply a free for all of anyone being able to sell anything, and trusting the market to sort itself out.

This is arguably the biggest difference between Valve’s existing systems for selling user generated content for DOTA2 or Team Fortress 2. The item stores for these games are manually curated by Valve employees. None of these items will ever break your game, be incompatible with each other, or fail to function as advertised. The creators are selling items for existing games which will work exactly as expected. This is not true for the umbrella term of “mods”, which can be incompatible with each other, can impact performance/use of system resources, and break following updates to the base game.

I’d also suggest that being asked to pay for new toys, new things to do, and new experiences within a game is one thing. Being asked to pay to fix flaws within the initial product is entirely another. Bethesda should not be asking users to buy SkyUI, with themselves getting the lions share of the revenue. Bethesda should have hired the SkyUI team, and integrated their mod into the core game. I wholeheartedly believe that those developers deserve compensation for their work, they do a fantastic job, and no doubt helped shift copies of Skyrim. Bethesda should take some of the big pile of money they have made from selling Skyrim, and use it to fund modders working on fixes for their game.

Where exactly is Bethesda’s incentive to improve the UI in the next Elder Scrolls installment if they can make a bunch of money from shipping it with an awful UI, and selling people a better one?

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1 Comment Leave yours

  1. Marcos Avila #

    Oh yes, this is the nuanced sort of response that most developers didn’t have time to think of in the days Paid mods debuted.

    “Closer to outsourced DLC than simply a free for all of anyone being able to sell anything, and trusting the market to sort itself out.”

    It really bugged me how nonchalant people were about saying “the market will sort things out”
    Sure, eventually, perhaps, but one can’t just ignore the effects of the change on the first modding communities that try it. Games are not fungible.

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