This column is being written on Sunday, and will go live on Tuesday, so if anything is wrong or out-of-date then understand this is a fast-moving story and Valve is talking with the community even as I’m writing it. (Editor’s Note: Valve has decided to abandon the paid mod program).
Skyrim – like the previous Elder Scrolls games – is a game with a huge modding scene. There are over 40,000 mods available. (Although the counts differ whether or not you’re looking at the Steam Workshop, or elsewhere.) Last week, Valve announced that they were setting up a system where authors of Skyrim mods could choose to charge money for them.
I’m a huge fan of Skyrim mods. I’ve logged over 1,000 hours in Skyrim, and the vast majority of my time has been spent playing a heavily modified version that’s radically different from the default game. I have no problem with these creative people making money. In fact, I’d love it if they got paid after making such drastic improvements and modifications to the game. But the system Valve is proposing is horrible, unfair, and filled with destructive incentives.
The first problem is the cut. If I pay a dollar for a mod, Valve takes 30 cents. Then Bethesda – the company that created Skyrim – takes an offensive 45 cents. The person who created the mod gets a measly 25% cut. I think both companies are taking far too big a bite, but it’s the Bethesda cut that I find so outrageous. Bethesda does not have any reason to be taking so much. If they want to make more money on the Elder Scrolls, fine. Release some new DLC. Raise the price of Skyrim. Whatever. But here they’re taking loose change from essentially indie developers who thus far have been adding value to Skyrim. The mod money isn’t going to amount to much in the grand scheme of things to a giant developer like Bethesda. This is like a rich man demanding a cut from the impoverished street buskers that play on his street. You can argue that he has a right to demand the cut if you want, but its still a stupid thing for him to do. The money is trivial to him and massive to the creatives he’s taking it from.
Worse, a lot of these mods exist to fix problems that Bethesda created in the first place. The most popular mod is SkyUI – an interface overhaul to correct for the fact that the Skyrim UI was designed to be used with a controller on a television and is infuriating to use with a mouse and keyboard. The #3 mod right now is the Unofficial Skyrim patch, a collection of hundreds of community bug fixes to repair broken physics, broken quests, interface annoyances, broken dialog, and numerous visual flukes. Bethedsa never got around to fixing these bugs, and now that the community has come together to repair this mess Bethesda is demanding a cut. That’s like starting a fire and then demanding a payment from anyone who tries to put it out. There’s being greedy, there’s being a thoughtless and tone-deaf corporation, and then there’s just being a straight-up asshole to your customers and fans. If anything Bethesda owes these modders, not the other way around. This is effectively the DLC scenario we’ve always feared: Developers charging us for bug fixes. No, it’s even worse than that. It’s developers charging us for bug fixes they couldn’t be bothered to make.
But even if Valve was taking a modest 5% cut and Bethesda was taking nothing more than night courses in debugging their software before release, this system is still bad and twisted. Many mods are collections of other mods. Or simply a slight change to another mod. Or they have other mods as a prerequisite. That’s fine when everything is free, but it becomes deeply problematic once money is involved.
When you install a mod, you naturally get all the textures, models, and scripts required to make that mod work, and there’s nothing stopping you from turning around and doing whatever you please with those files.
Let’s say you release a mod that adds a single helmet to the game. In the days where everything was free, then there was no incentive for me to take your mod and put my name on it. If I did that, then I’d have to deal with all the dumb emails from people who had trouble getting it to work. (Modding gets really complex once you have fifty or so mods running, and crashes and conflicts are common. Check the comments on a mod and you’ll likely see lots of, “Help I get some obscure error when I install this.” kind of messages.) If I steal a mod I’m just going to end up giving free tech support for no personal benefit.
But once money is involved, everything changes. I now have an incentive to find other mods, make some trivial change to them, pass them off as my own, and charge slightly less than the original authors.
One of my favorite mods is a collection of different armors to add variety to the game. Most of these armors were stand-alone mods, but someone gathered them all together into one pack to make things easier on people like me. What happens if the original mods are free but someone charges for the collection? What happens if the people who made the armors charge for them, but I repackage them and give the collection away for free? No matter how it goes, this will have a chilling effect on how mods are made. Either collections will be discouraged and using mods will be a pain in the ass for the end user, or collections will continue and cause endless debates and controversies as we try to figure out what rights modders have over their content.
It’s even more complex than it sounds, because mods are often strung into dependency chains. My armor collection requires you to have an interface mod in order to use it. And the interface mod requires another scripting mod. So if the scripting mod changes, it might break my armor mod. What if you’ve already paid me for my mod and I don’t feel like fixing it? As it stands, that’s too bad. The incentive is for me to keep releasing new mods and not support old mods, because the old mods are probably done making me money.
You can fix all of this by replacing the “paid mods” idea with a simple built-in direct “donate” button. Let the modder give his PayPal details and link the mod to that. Minecraft mods have been doing this kind of thing for years.
Let me click a button and give whatever I like to the mod author. If I’m paying because I like them and not just to get access to the mod, then I’m more likely to check and make sure my money is going to whoever is most deserving. Bethesda won’t have any right to take a cut, so the mod authors can make more. Donate buttons will make authors more responsive to public goodwill and feedback, encouraging them to provide support and updates. And if I was a mod author, I’d rather have 90% of optional donations than 25% of mandatory fees. The gaming community can be amazingly generous when you provide them with content. I make a huge portion of my income from fans directly and it’s the best job I’ve ever had. The content is free to all and I still get to eat. I’m generous with my content and people are generous with their donations and everyone wins.
Making payments optional would make it so that a single pay mod can’t break a dependency chain. It will reduce the incentive to steal and take credit for the work of other people. It will make it so that minors without credit cards can still enjoy mods. And it will make it so that Bethesda isn’t taking money from the people who debug their dodgy software. (Right now Valve is talking about adding a donate button, but it’s more a variable payment than a straight PayPal tip jar. It still goes through the Steam store, which would mean Valve and Bethesda would still take their exorbitant cut. We’ll see how it pans out.)
Note that in the system Valve is proposing, you can’t cash out until you’ve netted $400. (This is according to my friend who is currently going through the process of trying to put up a mod for sale.) That would mean you’d need to sell 1,600 copies of your mod at $1 each before you can see your first penny. Since many mods are small and obscure, it means only a handful of mods ever have a chance of making any real money, and these two giant corporations will keep the leftovers.
Valve and Bethesda should be ashamed of themselves. Under the pretense of “modders should be paid for their work”, they’re setting up a paywall where they collect an appalling 75% of the revenue. If they actually want to support modders, they wouldn’t be taking such a big chunk of it. They’re punishing the community that’s keeping this game fresh and relevant and creating a nightmare of drama and arguments over ownership. This system is a loser. It punishes modders, adds hassle for mod users, and will make nothing but a small trickle of income for Valve and Bethesda.
The Elder Scrolls mod community has thrived for over a decade without their “help”. I’m all in favor of creative people getting paid for quality work, but this system won’t accomplish that.