Where Bethesda/Valve Went Wrong With Premium Mods

There has been a lot said already about the whole paid-mods lately. As an indie developer who came from the modding scene I have many thoughts, many conflicting thoughts, on the subject. I have both fears and hopes about what is pretty much a delayed inevitability at this point: Paid Mods. First, I’ll give a bit of background.

Despite working in studios within the a/A/AA/AAA industry beforehand, the first real contribution myself and fellow PZ dev CaptainBinky made outside our day jobs was in the modding scene. Our first stop was the Sims 3, where we worked on something called the Indie Stone Story Progression Mod. Basically it provided a framework for soap opera style events to trigger, causing other characters in the neighbourhood to get married, have affairs and rivalries. It became pretty popular, and our names still crop up from time to time in the Sims community. This is a massive source of pride for us to this day, irrespective of what we’ve done on Project Zomboid.

Next came Civ 4, and then Civ 5. Our Civ 4 mod, adding famous characters from history as advisors with unique events, had some decent interest, and when we started on Civ 5 we managed to work out a lot of issues with the launch of the Civ 5 mod tools, essentially fixing bugs within it, and we were the first to figure out how to get custom 3d models into the game, writing tools to allow other modders to do that. Again, to this day our names crop up from time to time. We were also working on a substantial religion mod (sadly uncompleted as we were waiting for SDK… then Zomboid) that we’re fairly confident influenced the Gods and Kings expansion in some ways. Again, this is a massive source of pride for us to this day.

Now comes the question: Butterfly effect style! Where would we be right now, if we’d never been involved in any of that? Do we owe our current incredibly fortunate situation, in some part, to our modding? Answer is, undoubtedly, yes. The roads we went down as modders lead to Project Zomboid, in some direct ways, and other completely indirect ways.

We didn’t charge a penny. We couldn’t have charged a penny. We were doing it for fun. We were modding the game to make the game the way we wanted to play it. It was for us. Any kind words or praise from players, acknowledgements in other mods, or respect from our peers was icing on the cake. This was our hobby. Done in our own time after work for fun. Okay there was likely an element of seeking validation there too, after years of feeling unappreciated in the games industry. Truth is at the time I had likely never felt more appreciated than we did then. While the money would have been welcome, and we had put a ton of work into our mods and tools, it would likely not have made any huge impact on our lives, and would almost certainly have been nothing but beer money. Beer money I agree that we would have deserved, but beer money none-the-less. Of course, we’re talking pre-Steam Workshop days here, so I’m not saying the same is necessarily true today, though I would be amazed if mod creators (especially with just a 25% cut) would have their lives changed by any income from their mods. Just by considering the average sales of games on Steam, to a market of some 80 million people, compared to the (admittedly more targeted) market of those who own the game.

Now another question: Do we know, for certain, that Dean Hall would have been in the same position at the helm of his own studio Rocketwerkz today, if DayZ was a paid mod for Arma 2? It surely would have impacted the downloads in a significant way, on a game that at the time was a comparatively niche military simulator. It was obviously worthy of the attention, but the Zeitgeistey, viral and sudden rise of prominence of DayZ that is in part responsible for its massive fame and 3 million Steam sales today? Would it definitely have happened that way if it was a paid mod? Is there not more potential for it to have been an under-appreciated paid mod, one its players think worthy of more attention than it gets, and for it to never break out in the way it did? Furthermore that alternate dimension Rocket may have made a few thousand dollars from it and felt that was a success?

I’m not about to predict either way, it could have worked out better or worse, and this is an obvious outlier compared to the majority of mods out there, but its worth thinking about how monetizing mods may affect the overall reach of mods and the mod creator, and the opportunity cost paid may unknowingly be orders of magnitude higher than what the modder may make from premium mod sales.

After all, unlike games on Early Access, all these mods are behind two pay walls, have a target audience only as big as the number of copies of the game out there, and yet would carry all the same stigmas as Early Access: of being unfinished, buggy, work in progress, and having the potential for failure or exploitation, but being something people have paid real money for. Using a more cynical dictionary, one of the most loved aspects of PC gaming now becomes ‘Early Access Unofficial DLC’ – After a few incompetents and con artists (who will come, once there is money to be made) hit the headlines and leave their shadow on the Workshop, this virtuous saintly things we called mods could be painted in those same dark colours as alpha-funding has been. Wouldn’t that be sad? I venture modders who feel unappreciated should perhaps ask a few Early Access developers how appreciated they feel.

From what I’ve experienced as a Steamworks developer along with my instincts and nosing about Steam Spy, it seems to to me that to make a sustainable full-time living it would encourage developers to create many small, quick to develop mods over large, ambitious and in many cases the more exciting mod projects. For the beer money modders who just want to see some kind of financial reward for their work this is less of a problem, but for those hoping to make a living from it it, donate full time development to projects that have more AAA demands etc, this may end up pushing them down dark alleyways and restrict what they do a lot more. There’s the potential to become slaves to small quick projects to keep you ticking over that will not only flood the workshop but not be especially inspiring to play or make. I’d like to hope that modders primarily.are modding because they enjoy modding, driven by imagination and ambition, or vision for an opportunity unexplored in the game,. That was, to my mind, the only real reason anyone would mod games. Money entering the equation does have the potential to corrupt and ruin. Beware of turning something you love into your day job.

This is not to say I disagree in any way that mod creators work are often under-appreciated. Especially as technology progresses,  and modders are undertaking mods of more AAA ambition, that the work put in compared to the reward may be stacking up vastly against modding. This is a problem.

But in a world where all mods are free, the cream does rise to the top. It’s not as hard to get attention for something substantial and good within a mod community, compared to paid games. I’m sure a truly free game on Steam that was as good as the greatest paid games on Steam would likely not be lingering with only a handful of downloads. There are fewer underdogs in the world of the free. Fewer under-appreciated diamonds in the rough, as there is no barrier for people to download it providing it sounds exciting or interesting enough. If you’re talented and hard working, and produce something genuinely good that excites people, then you will get noticed in the community, and by the developers. If you have ambitions beyond modding, you’ll also learn a ton of practical skills, and gain a ton of experience that will impact everything you do from there-on-in. When we were modding, nice comments and praise were our currency, and while it didn’t feed our bodies it certainly did our confidence and ability.

I simply don’t agree with the argument that there is no practical gain from making a successful free mod, that there is no form of compensation. (and to be brutal, if your mod is free, and you’re unable to get any downloads or attention whatsoever, then maybe that mod isn’t original/good enough to be on sale anyway?)

It’d be fair to say that modders who want to be modders, enjoy modding, perhaps particularly due to the particular game they are modding, and have no designs or desires of making their own game in future, and if they have the developers, publishers and Steam’s permission to do so, have just as much right to pursue a dream of doing it for a living as do indie devs, or anyone else. I don’t have any fundamental objection to anyone being rewarded financially for their hard work. Hell, every member of the Indie Stone we’ve recruited has come from within the community, mainly the modding community. Nothing excites us more than modders having doors opened to them, since that’s the very journey we went down. More ways to support modders financially should be a great thing in principle.

But they went about it all wrong.

So Bobby has logged 200 hours on Skyrim. It’s his favourite game of all time. He steam messages his friend Tommy and asks if he’s gotten around to playing it. Tommy tells him he’s been waiting for a few years, because he wants to mod it up to the max on his first play through. Bobby sends Tommy a PC Gamer article on the best mods on Skyrim, and Tommy is like ‘woah, I think it’s time. This looks amazing!’

So Tommy buys the Skyrim + DLC bundle, and goes to town on Workshop. Subscribing to thousands of mods, he goes to load the game, and it crashes. So he spends another two days tweaking the load order, until he finally gets everything working and compatible. Has a play for a few hours. He’s in love. This is so much better than the base-game he’d seen on Twitch streams, the hollow husk of Morrowind that it was, and he was so glad he waited…

The next day, Bobby and Tommy log onto Steam, launch Skyrim and continue their game…

Wuh….?

After that, Tommy’s game loads up fine, but it soon becomes apparent that the vast majority of the mods he subscribed to had mysteriously disappeared.

Bobby’s 200 hour save though, so reliant as it was on the heavy substantial mods that had mysteriously vanished, was less fortunate…

g

Fuuuuuuuu-

After investigation, it becomes clear that to get everything Bobby had before, to get his save working again, he would need to spend some $150 extra to resubscribe to those mods. It’s about now Bobby gets a very angry Steam message from Tommy, who bought the game specifically expecting to be able to play with stuff that is now behind an additional $150 cost.

There’s a huge difference between asking for money for something new, and taking something away from someone and demanding money for its return. Despite feeling the mod developers equivalent work deserves the same opportunities I have had as an indie developer, I cannot possibly say that Bobby and Tommy here wouldn’t have an extremely valid reason to post an angry downvoted review on Skyrim. I think their anger is completely justified in this case. Bobby has lost 200 hours of progress in his game, and is having his save essentially ransomed for a cost higher than he paid for the original game. Tommy has just bought the game based on what transpired to be false pretences where the content that attracted him to the game is no longer actually available on purchase. The fact the content was not created by the developers themselves is irrelevant to the justified disappointment I think, yet these two guys are, as days pass since the Skyrim paid mods were removed, increasingly painted as unreasonable or entitled, that they don’t appreciate modder’s hard work, or think they aren’t justified in compensation. There is more at issue here than ‘paid mods’ and I think this is a bit of a simplification of why people are angry.

If this exact same thing were introduced with the release of the next Fallout or TES game, I doubt there would have been close to the amount of the backlash. Sure, there would be backlash. People would still get grumpy about it. But you’ve not actively snatched things off their harddrive out of the blue, you’re charging for a new thing they can choose never to pay for or play. It gives them a choice in the matter, unlike what happened last week.

There’s something quintessentially PC about modding. It’s likely one of the top reasons a PC gamer would give for why they love PC gaming. Despite mod authors often feeling under-appreciated, mods and modding is one of the biggest jewels in the crown of PC gaming, one of the most, not the least appreciated aspects of it, and people are very protective over that. To the point where it almost feels like paid mods is an oxymoron.

The developers of the game get a sizable chunk of the revenue share for doing nothing but making the game (and admittedly adding modding support, so kudos for that) but essentially with very little post-release resources compared to the mod author themselves. This is despite the (free) mods themselves having a big impact on the life expectancy of the game. It would seem to me like mod authors should be entitled to a more sizable chunk if we’re going to go down that road. Frankly with F2P, DLC, Early Access disappointments, failed Kickstarters and non-refundable digital purchases, game consumers are feeling increasingly disenfranchised or even exploited by the games industry, so its pretty much to be expected that there would be such an instantly hostile reception to this. Another aspect of PC gaming thrown behind a paywall. Right or wrong, warranted or no, I find it bewildering that everyone involved didn’t anticipate this exact reaction.

I have other concerns, for one that it will potentially lead to a massive decline in free mods, lowering the potential audience of modding in general to those with the disposable income, and this may have larger ramifications for the attraction of PCs as a gaming platform. If XBox had announced ‘Community DLC’ as a thing for their next console, I doubt it’d be as an attractive ‘platform seller’ as the wealth of free game moddability available on PC. I also feel kind of bad for all those PC gamers out there without much disposable income, who for all intents and purposes this would potentially cut their enjoyment of PC gaming significantly.

It’s a controversial move, and one I have very mixed and conflicting feelings both strongly for and against. I could be convinced it’s a brilliant thing for the health and vibrancy of modding scene. I could equally be convinced the move will slowly rot the modding scene from its very core, malign gamers to modding, and make mod communities a more demanding, expectant and hostile places when money starts to change hands. I’m worried modding will fall down the same public perception problem as Early Access has, a system we’re now aching to get out of due to the stigma it has attached to us. So a lot of my concerns about paid mods are how it would affect the modders, not just the gamers, or PC gaming in general.

In short though, I have no idea how this will turn out, if it’ll be a disaster or a success. I just think its clear that this experiment was doomed to failure from the start, and wonder a little why it wasn’t obvious upfront. Paid mods will happen though, this is clear to me now. It’s just a matter of when.

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10 Responses to Where Bethesda/Valve Went Wrong With Premium Mods

  1. doomblood66 says:

    Couldn’t agree with you more.

  2. Drake (Rathlord) says:

    I have to say, one thing that the pro-paid-mod people keep saying in defense of the game author taking the majority of the profit is really irking me:

    “Oh, but there wouldn’t be any mod without the game, so the game authors deserve this cut!”

    It’s so unbounded by any precedent in reality- it just blows my mind. People who manufacture aftermarket car parts don’t pay the car company every time they sell a part. People who sell paint don’t give the people who built the house any money. When you buy a scope for a gun, none of the money goes to the gun manufacturer.

    Being reliant on another product to sell your product doesn’t mean in ANY way that the original manufacturer deserves any money. What mod authors do isn’t just beneficial to themselves, it benefits the game, too. As you mentioned briefly, it can increase the longevity of people’s play of a game. Further, it can increase sales as you could SURELY say the DayZ mod did for Arma.

    It makes me so sad to see people defending Bethesda taking a 75% cut. I could see maybe a 5% transaction fee to help cover Valve’s costs transferring the data and maybe a tiny kickback to Bethesda. But 75% is flagrantly wrong and abusive.

    I, like you, am unable to predict what this means about the future of modding. I don’t know if it will harm or help, though I’m strongly leaning towards it hurting the over all quality of mods for the end user, and potentially lowering interest in all but the rare few incredible mods. But what I can say is that the way it was done was wrong- not just “incorrectly implemented,” but morally wrong.

    At some point in the process of designing this feature, they must have had a conversation regarding how much they would take as a cut. And their answer, put in the simplest way possible, was “as much as we possibly can without ensuring no mod authors use it.” See, that’s the thing about money. If someone’s doing something and someone else offers them money to do that very same thing (or better yet, to just press a button and start making money on something they’ve already been doing), people don’t turn that down. For one thing, it’s free money (essentially). For another, paying a mod author for their work validates their work. It makes them feel like what they’re doing has meaning and value. And Valve KNEW that and used it to manipulate them. They took SO MUCH of a cut, because they knew people wouldn’t turn down the one-two punch of money and validation.

    That’s what really disgusts me about this. Paying for mods wouldn’t really effect me in the short term- I can afford to buy some mods if I so chose, luckily enough. But what REALLY makes me sick is how grossly mishandled the cuts were, how the mod authors were used and abused to make the maximum profits for Valve and Bethesda. That number is why I believe there were no pure intentions at any time in this process. Of course, I can’t prove it, but based on their implementation it’s my opinion that this was a purely money-driven decision. And that makes me sad and worried.

  3. Succinctly put and beautifully written. Bravo!

  4. unmog says:

    I havent even heard of the paid mods until now. o.O But, yea I cant believe I missed something like that. Good thing I dont get most of my mods from Steam~

    And I especially agree with Drake, I dont think Bethesda deserves any money for making a game moddable. Its great they did, but thats a feature of the game and a main reason people always buy them. I couldnt agree more with such examples like paying the gun company for aftermarket scopes. *shakes head* If anything, Bethesda has already made all their money from it already, which would have been much less if they hadn’t included tools for people to mod it with. Its like expecting to be paid more for including the ability to chat to other players in the game, ugh.

    If anyone ‘should’ make money from the mods it should be the modders and only the modders. If anything it seems like nothing but a cash grab from Bethesda and Steam to try and gain from other people’s hard work and loyalty to their games. They went about this the completely wrong way… maybe if they had included a new game as the author originally pointed out but definitely not an older game with previously free extra content.and taking it away if people didn’t pay.

    Oh, and now I wonder if the very few mods I personally use in my own Skyrim from steam still work. :/ Sometimes I wonder if maybe we as a society should get rid of money, most of our problems come from money. In all actuality money puts a barrier on things people need instead of helping someone get it like everyone seems to thinks. Backwards world is backwards.

    • James says:

      I actually think it’s a great idea but some completely wrong.
      I think the main problem is solvable if the payment for each mod is completely optional, a donation as such, but made easy.
      The expected donation for this mod is £0.99, which would only show after a few times loading the game with that mod.
      Something like that.
      That 75% cut is atrocious, I’d say 20% max.

      The new unreal tournament was the first to say they were going to do this, but the game is completely free and I’m sure they will do it right.

      The reason I’m behind this is that it could spell the end of your yearly cash cows like CoD and Fifa!
      Imagine they could release a completely moddable CoD, then have a steady yearly income from mods.
      Players would end up with a far superior game too.

      Again though, payment for mods HAS to be optional imo.

  5. Jeremy T. Gibson says:

    I’ve always felt that Valve/Zenimax/Bethesda Softworks have been increasingly looking at their bottom line and maximising profits. As one pro-paid person put it, this was with good reason, since the entire legal justification of a corporation is to maximise profits, although said person was completely incorrect when they suggested that corporations are somehow held accountable for *not* maximising profits: it’s a defence that permits them to engage in aggressive business practices, not an obligation to do so.

    In any case, it didn’t surprise me in the least that an executive somewhere would look at such an untapped market and seek to extract some profit from it. Some mods have 2-million-plus downloads, so someone clearly thought “oh wow, if we earned 30% of $5 for this mod, that’s… $3 million! cha-ching!” The problem, really, is that it isn’t a market: it’s an essential freedom, a remaining refuge of the PC gamer in the wake of many games deliberately encrypting their content (q.v., Ubisoft) so they can release content packs and other downloadable content at cost while crippling all but the most dedicated and technically proficient modders. They also vastly overestimated the separation between how many people would download a free mod versus how many people would buy the same mod, and they severely overestimated the ability for mod authors to form teams in order to take advantage of the new system. (Teams organising and selling AA/AAA-quality expansions would still have been within the realm of possibility, actually, although we’ll never know that for sure.)

    The sheer amusement and astonishment at the process doesn’t come so much from the action they took, but the way in which they took it. The frequently asked questions page on the new paid modding system was written in a way that seemed like nothing more than a calculated insult, and the system was clearly oriented to make it seem as though the modder was being granted a privilege to be able to get any money from their product at all, as if it was an “oh, thank you for the hard work in promoting our product, we’ll give you a donut for your trouble”. While legally the mods are derivative works and can’t be distributed for profit without permission from Bethesda, the offer was phrased in just such a way as to make it seem as though that this new permission to sell your mod for a quarter on the dollar was the best possible option you could ever get. “I have altered the terms of our arrangement. Pray I do not alter it any further.”

    Bethesda certainly was the origin of the horse armour DLC theory to begin with, so maybe they figured they could set another precedent. But I mean, from a business analytical perspective, Valve and Bethesda had so many business successes (ignoring the anti-consumerism of the whole thing) that they were bound to flop one eventually.

  6. drethnudrib says:

    “Beware of turning something you love into your day job.”

    This is possibly the greatest piece of advice ever given. Money isn’t the root of all evil, but it is probably the root of all cynicism.

  7. Jake Barnard says:

    This is by far the most reasoned and intelligent response to the paid mod debacle I’ve read. You alluded briefly to the public perception problem regarding early access games, I’d love to hear some more thoughts on that topic.

    • lemmy101 says:

      Thank you!

      I guess its pretty apparent that Early Access gets a bad rap due to the newsworthy failures, say Space Base DF9 for example, or Towns (though this wasn’t technically Early Access), or various others. On the whole developers use it responsibly, but those that do not have a larger impact on public perception than those that do it right. Sad fact of life. Human nature, and its the same with feedback about our game. I can read 10 pieces of praise, but it’ll be one piece of criticism or mean words that’ll stick with me.

      There have been many amazing successes in Early Access, but still its reputation to a lot of gamers is pretty shaky as in general they will have heard more about the big failures, maybe a little about a few successes, but those that did well, or those that just faltered slightly never really hit the news or get picked up on by the larger gaming community.

      This is why developers on EA have a shared obligation to keep the customer faith in the system, as it’s a punch bowl we all drink from, and that’s why I look very crossly at anyone who seriously breaches customer trust on there, be it through inexperience or greed.

      I like to think we do Early Access properly, and people in the community seem to think we’re doing ok, but still we often see derogatory comments about our game or us due to our Early Access ‘selling unfinished goods we’ll never finish, sitting on a big pile of cash’ and so on and so forth. It’s a bit demoralizing when there is a lot of really cool stuff going on in there, and we in particular spend a great deal of effort trying to be responsible and fair. I totally get it though.

      So yeah. I think as Early Access devs go we’ve got off very lightly. I think some other devs have an unfairly tough time with pretty hostile Steam forums and such. When you’re taking money for something incomplete, this heaps a metric ton of responsibility and expectation on your shoulders. Some fair, some unfair, but you got to deal with it. It’s something a lot of mod authors may not be prepared for, and I suspect they would get all the bad and only a tiny slice of the good.

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