Monetising Mods – A Nice Idea… In Theory.

Why’d they have to go and make things so complicated, eh?

Note; A day after writing this, Bethesda and Valve withdrew the Paid Modding Scheme on Steam Workshop, citing the unpopularity of it with the community alongside unforeseen legal problems arising from it. I’m leaving this blog post up because I don’t believe in taking my views down – this is my blog, after all – and because, well, some things need to be said.

So, Valve and Bethesda are now letting mod makers for Skyrim monetise their work on Steam Workshop. And it’s kicked up a lot of fuss; of course, all for the wrong reasons.

There’s an awful lot of “Why Would We Buy This?” – now, to play Devil’s Advocate for a moment, think about it. A lot of modders and mod content creators spend hundreds of hours crafting and honing some of their works for others to enjoy, and usually have a “Donate” button somewhere so those grateful that someone has spent such a large amount of time making their game experience better or more expansive in some way can throw a few bucks their way. That’s a system I actually like and have used in the past.

Hands up if you’ve ever donated to a content creator?

Truth is, most people don’t. This isn’t so much entitlement though as just being stubborn in the face of a growing reality that mods keep games alive long after their proscribed sell-by date. These are things which have taken real man-hours to put together, to test, to get just so. The end result is a baying community begging for attention in fixing whatever bug or error is being thrown up at that time. It’s a thankless, draining task for many of these people. Why shouldn’t they get some monetary compensation for their efforts? I don’t think it is unreasonable to ask for a dollar here and there, and considering some user-made content surpasses the actual in-game content one shouldn’t be so wildly dismissive out of hand about giving something back to these heroes of the community for their efforts.

Also, “Boohoo our freebies are going to disappear!” – No. No they’re not. I’m sure that after some kinks are worked out, the majority will remain free. I think the modding community will naturally sort itself out over time, and those seeking to recklessly profit from minor alterations will eventually be buried under an avalanche of criticism and frustration.

Oh, but don’t misunderstand. There are kinks. Plenty of them.

Bethesda have a tremendous problem that only ever gets buried under the avalanche of mods that happen in the wake of their releases; their games rarely ship in what is ever considered an acceptable state. From bugs and glitches to terribly designed user interfaces, bland loading screens and obtuse explanations of skills and abilities, the community has sought to rectify the mistakes and omissions of a company that has already profited from sometimes quite lackadaisical workmanship, and this is before we get to the inclusion of content – if we’ve seen anything from Skyrim’s DLC, it’s that the modding community is better suited to expand on a world than the company which actually crafted it.

The result of these years of habitually fixing up their own messes was and is still evident in The Elder Scrolls Online; a game which dropped the subscription fee, sensibly, but a game which still retains many of the bugs, glitches and design flaws people were complaining about when they rolled out the open beta. After so much time since it first shipped to the market, that such little headway has been made on sometimes terribly egregious issues is what makes some people wildly suspicious about the motivations behind a move to monetised modding.

Especially when you consider there’s a new game announcement from them at E3 this year, either a new Fallout or Elder Scrolls would be a given. What happens if they apply this model to this new product? I’ve often felt that Bethesda’s QA team comprises mostly of a coma ward, but now they wouldn’t even need to fret. People would fix their game up, and charge money, and Bethesda and Valve would profit from it.

And profit they would, taking between them 75% of the sale price. Valve always takes 30%, a fact we are now acutely aware of, and the other 45% would obviously go to Bethesda. I wonder however if there’s a darker side to this, ensuring that whatever terrible programming sins happen to break the finished product they can sit back, let other people do the work for them and pocket the change. To me, that’s the real danger in monetising mods; where’s the motivation for some of these companies to, you know, make a solid product in the first place?

So too must we be aware that despite this, like KickStarter, neither company wants to accept responsibility for if and when things go wrong. This is a curiously modern development in the gaming scene and one which irritates me. I can understand why for legal reasons, but the ethics behind it just don’t sit well with me. It just looks so dodgy, so risky, so… wrong, really. I don’t like the idea such big companies can profit so wilfully from other peoples hard work without accepting any responsibility for their work, and perhaps to go back to the issue with Elder Scrolls Online, taking any responsibility for their OWN terrible work.

But my biggest irritant is Valve; a company comprised largely of modding talent!

Valve has grown the way it has by bringing in the talented bedroom modders and programmers and building on their talents and ideas. Counter Strike was a mod, for example, and as I recall s was Team Fortress. DOTA was a mod (originally for Blizzard’s Warcraft 3, so in this case they’re profiting from another companies modding scene! Woo?). If there’s a company that understands the necessity of a two-way dialogue with modders and paying attention to them, it’s Valve.

And again, it all comes down to Bethesda and their parent company, and their lack of quantitative QA. If there’s one thing I’d like Zenimax to learn in all of this, is that there are dozens of highly talented people in the scene who could do wonders on their products if they’d absorb them in, and give them a real in to the games industry. Valve has benefited so greatly from this that it’s almost comical that they now seek to monetise mods in this way, effectively allowing a company to ship a product with problems and sparse content and ultimately profit from the community fixing it up for them. It’s a poor show, and not the lesson I’d want Zenimax to take away from their time on Steam Workshop.

There are other complications and legalities, and no doubt this will rumble on, but I want to not be wholly negative. Because I think the modding community have been stellar to this point, and they deserve some respect.

Not simply from consumers, but the industry too for all their tireless efforts in keeping games alive, working and functional long after the companies who made them have forgotten about them and moved onto the next cash-cow to milk. It’s very easy to get bogged down in all of the legalities and profiteering and the like, but it’s an essential part of what has kept PC Gaming alive long after the gaming press and games stores proclaimed its doom. So many games on consoles are left to rot, to fester, forever broken and lost to us. Here is a group of people who tirelessly and often thanklessly keep things working for us all.

And as it happens, I believe most modders will continue to do this for the love of it all – unless Zenimax and/or Valve force monetisation on them (which would be the single most moronic thing they’d ever do in their lives). For many, it’s not about the money, and I would like that to be how we see modders. Sure, there are thousands of abandoned projects littered about the place, and many more still yet to be completed fully after much time in limbo, but people also have lives and loves outside of gaming. And life has to take priority.

In some ways, this is the primary argument FOR monetising mods. Why should someone who spent a hundred hours fixing someone else’s game not be rewarded financially?

But again, this circles back. Why should they HAVE to? If the game is broken enough that a UI mod is necessary, or a graphical overhaul needs to be implemented, or key bugs need to have workarounds added to make the game playable to a certain point – that’s a damning reflection on the company which launched the game. Surely it is THEIR responsibility, having charged us $60 for a video game, to ensure that such technical and visual updates are made? Why is it the community even has to do this?

It’s their right, of course, and the idea is at least partially sound, even if the execution so far has been terrible. But is it RIGHT?

For all the benefits it might bring to the modding scene, the business logic behind it needs real work. And it needs to be paired with ethical, responsible launches which value consumers and their feedback. It needs curation, communication and real effort from all parties to avoid a horrible new wave of micro-DLC additions that drive the end price for the consumer even higher. Because ultimately, it’s consumers who will feel the pinch, isn’t it? Sixty bucks for a game, a dollar here and there for each fix and before you know it, the price you paid for your “working game” has doubled.

Consumers will not stand for that. And that, simply, is what Valve and Zenimax/Bethesda need to ensure doesn’t happen. We won’t know yet how deep the rabbit hole goes, but the dangers are large and looming and you’d have to be blinded by greed not to see the perils that lay ahead.

Let’s hope they don’t suffer from cashtigmatism…

You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

Leave a Reply

Powered by WordPress