UPDATE 28/04/2015: The paid mods system has been pulled from Steam. While I do appreciate this quick reaction to community feedback, it’s a little weird that the defense of the system and the 180 they did with pulling it from Steam are so close together. Still, it serves to show that they maybe still do value their customers as more than ATMs with opposable thumbs. For some reason, I can’t read the original article because I get rerouted to the German blog that doesn’t have it, but from the quotes I read on other sites, I gather they actually meant well, in a strange “let’s do this it’s for their own good” kind of way. maybe they decide to scrap this system altogether, maybe they rework it according to our feedback and bring it back later as an improved version, I don’t know. But for now, I hope that both Bethesda have learned a lesson and the conspiracy theorists/screeching banshees of Reddit have been taken down a peg.
In light of this, I ‘d like to revise my earlier assessment (a.k.a. test run for community-created DLC). Perhaps their intentions were good right from the start, and they just messed up the implementation. Probably mostly because they a) were so secretive about it and b) tried it with a game that has a large community working within an established system already. Had they tied this experiment to the next game and stated clearly that it was just an experiment, and free modding would still be allowed and encouraged to exist beside this option, the backlash wouldn’t have been nearly as bad as it was.
We’ll see what happens next.
A few days ago, Bethesda and Valve announced a new feature for the Steam Workshop: Paid mods. The reaction was pretty instant, ranging from “good idea, terrible execution” to “go f§%k yourselves!”, from modders pulling free mods from sites like the Nexus and putting them on Steam for money to, polar opposite, modders pulling mods from Steam and hiding the free versions on the Nexus in protest. There are a few civil discussions and many, many people frothing at the mouth about this, for various reasons.
Now I had some time to think (and a really freaky dream about bumbling around in a hopelessly broken modded Skyrim…), and I have to admit, this whole situation gets me on several levels. It’s not just the fact that the system is here now, it’s also some of the reactions from the community. Posts talk about how modding is a passion and shouldn’t be done for money, that the cut of 25% for the modder is outrageous, how the system is overall terrible and won’t work for anything that’s not purely cosmetic – all the way to very volatile, generalising posts about “you shouldn’t expect to get paid for something you like to do anyway”.
Modding is hard work. People put dozens, hundreds, thousands of hours into their creations. They keep them up to date. They create patches so they work with other mods. They take community feedback into account and update accordingly. All for free or optional donations. I understand completely when someone would like to see a little financial appreciation for their hard work, the time and resources put into the project. But. Modding is still not a job. Can’t be, in fact. Mods are piggybacking on someone else’s product. They are fan creations. Like fanfiction, fanart, cover versions of your favourite song. You can create all these things, but you can’t sell them for profit (Fifty Shades of Grey notwithstanding, though that is basically a shitty original story with someone else’s characters).
Now Bethesda tries to “license” mods and generate a profit from a previously untapped well of potential customers (a.k.a. the modding community). They are essentially offloading the “risk” and initial investment of time and resources on the modder but at the same time collect a large portion of the money people are willing to pay for the mod. No risk, high reward, and an overall shitty move that ignores so, so many aspects of the hows and whys of modding.
First, there is the legal aspect. Many mods rely on each other to work. Now say Mod A is for sale, but relies on Mod B that isn’t. Say Mod A makes 500$. Does Mod B’s creator get any of that? Can they prohibit Mod A’s creator from selling the dependent mod until they make a version that doesn’t rely on Mod B? And what if it’s the other way around – SkyUI will be a paid-for mod as of version 5.0. SkyUI is used in so many mods that won’t work properly without it. Say someone steps in and creates a new free UI mod to replace SkyUI that emulates its functionality – if SkyUI is a licensed mod now, can they or Bethesda take down the replacement mod for copyright infringement?
Then there’s the technical aspect. Mods are never guaranteed to work with any given game. Every modder knows that, and anyone messing around with mods does, too (should, anyway). And even if they work with the vanilla game, as soon as they are going beyond merely cosmetic changes, they probably won’t work too well with each other. Requiem and Frostfall are popular mods often installed together, but they need a patch to work with each other (and a shit-ton of tweaks to the load order *sigh*). Now add the Civil War Overhaul and Dragon Combat Overhaul to the mix, and you have a compatibility nightmare that is mitigated by patches that sometimes are not made by the mod creators, but by someone else (also, legalities here: Would that still be possible with the pay model?). Would these mods still work together if they were put behind the Steam paywall? Where is the incentive to create compatibility patches (or go for compatibility in the first place) when you get paid before the customer figures out that the mod won’t work with their game? Who can guarantee that the mods I download will a) work and b) not break my game? No-one, that’s who. A DLC is guaranteed to work with the game I already have. It won’t break my game or my saves. A mod could do both – so basically I could pay for a product that isn’t only broken itself, but will proceed to break other things as well, and with the god-awful return policy, I’m cheated out of my money either way; you don’t get your money back if the mod doesn’t work, you get the money transferred to your Steam wallet – store credit, basically. Say that happens with one out of ten mods, and each mod is 2$ (which is generously cheap, since my mods tend to be a lot bigger than “reskinned sword”). I currently have 100 mods in my list, and ten of those don’t work, so I get 20$ in my Steam wallet that are tied up now. I can not use the money for food, a new shirt, nothing. Valve can. They can work with my money now, even though the product I purchased was broken, and I can’t get an adequate replacement in the store (which store credit should be for). They are free of any responsibility, and Bethesda is as well. They are not responsible for creating a working DLC, which they would be if they made and sold it themselves (but they sure like getting money for it anyway).
Which brings me to the next point: The questionable ethics surrounding this step. There are huge mods out there, mods of DLC scope like Falskaar, Wyrmstooth and Frostfall (which is at least on par with Hearthfire). If these mods were made by Bethesda, they would need to hire a team to work on them, make sure they are compatible with the base game as well as existing and future DLC, and keep them updated, fix bugs etc. That calls for an initial investment by Bethesda (a.k.a. hiring the devs necessary to make the content), which will be repaid once the DLC is being sold. I’m about 99% sure that, if mods like Frostfall, Requiem, Falskaar etc. were made and sold by Bethesda, they’d sell like crazy, because they are amazing and would be 100% compatible with Skyrim and each other. With the Steam Workshop system, Bethesda doesn’t have to invest a single dime. The modders work on their own time, and only ever get paid if the mod sells well enough to make 400$ minimum, but Bethesda gets their cut no matter what. That doesn’t sound like such a good deal to me, and it certainly doesn’t sound very fair to the modder. The idea “pay modders for their hard work” is a good one, sure, but this system is a horrible way of doing that.
I’m not saying I’m completely against modders getting some money out of the hundreds of hours of work. But as I said above, the entire concept is iffy. It’s “early access” all over again, selling possibly horribly broken products and leaving the customer in the dirt when something goes wrong (worst case, but the entire concept of modding makes it infinitely more complicated than “we need a bugfix for this and the devs won’t give us one!”). It’s a recipe for disaster, and until Bethesda (and probably other studios who now think they can get away with the same thing) come around and rethink this, I won’t support it. The system as it is shows very little respect for content creators, treats them worse than freelancers, denies them any firm legal boundaries to operate within, and overall turns the amazing thing that is modding into a travesty. It’s like someone looked at the Nexus, thought “Hey, what if people would pay for these like they do for DLC, and we got a share of the money?” and then went to concoct the worst possible way of treating mods, modders and the community. And I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what happened.
Why was that even necessary? We already have the (unpopular) DLC system in place, and that would’ve been a great place to start: Approach the creators of large, popular mods like Falskaar and Frostfall, offer them access to better tools and some measure of compensation for their work and have them create a proper DLC to sell for something like 2,99$ on Steam, possibly with a percentage of the proceeds going to the modders. I’d say that’s a far better deal for everyone, including Bethesda.
Lastly, I’d like to address the “don’t expect to get paid for your hobby” comments. I’m not sure if the people making them just didn’t think about it or if they genuinely believe that, if you like your work, you shouldn’t get paid for it. Either way, those comments did get me riled up a bit. I’ve been on both sides, the fanwork side and the original work side of something that’s generally seen as a hobby and “not a real job”: writing. Not getting paid for the fanfiction I write and publish has never been, and never will be, an issue for me. I’m playing with someone else’s intellectual property and giving the results away for free. I’d never dream of asking for money, even though I did spend hundreds of hours writing those stories, simply because, when it comes down to it, they don’t really belong to me. Modding is pretty much the same. Modders play with someone else’s toys and put the results up for anyone who wants them to use for free, because the basis of their product doesn’t belong to them. For decades it’s been clear that, unless you are under contract and create a licensed product within clear legal boundaries (like merchandise, film adaptations, tie-in novels…), you should and can not expect to get paid for your fanwork.
People, do not lump these in with original content, with novels and games and music people create and wish to sell to maybe make a living (or just a little cash on the side). These things do not belong to someone else; they are our creations, and we do have the right to ask people for money before we hand them out because we are not leeching off of someone else’s work. If you don’t get it, it’s a simple legal matter of intellectual property. My Doctor Who fanfic is me playing with someone else’s intellectual property for fun; I can’t expect to get paid for it. My novels are my own intellectual property; I created the worlds, the characters and the stories myself, and I am not obligated to give them away for free because they belong to me 100% and I can do with them whatever I want, including selling them. THAT is the difference. Stop using the “if you like doing it don’t expect to get paid for it” argument, it’s insulting and despicable to think that way. You don’t not pay a prostitute because she happens to like having sex with her boyfriend, do you? Or not pay for that delicious bread because the baker happens to like cooking for his family? Why are creative endeavours any different, according to you?
I’m still not suite sure what to make of this entire situation. I’d give Bethesda and Valve the benefit of the doubt and say that they watched the modding scene for so long and thought “Hey, those guys deserve some recognition, let’s give them a way to legally make some money!”. But I can’t. I think this is a test run, just like ESO was. ESO came with very few features of a traditional MMO; features that aren’t necessary in a single player RPG, but very necessary in a game designed to be played in a group. Minimap, buff bar, loot designation… you need addons/mods for that. Player-made mods. For things a game like this needs in order to be playable without a constant headache. This was testing the reaction of players to having to add features in themselves, for free this time. Now they are running a second test – what will players do if the features aren’t a necessity, but a luxury, but they have to pay for them? None of the mods on Steam are essential in any way (technically speaking, though there are some that I’d argue are very much essential – the unofficial patches, mainly, and a few other fixes for bugs that have been in the game since launch and that Bethesda hasn’t seen fit to fix in an official patch). They are luxuries, enhancing a full game, and it’s easier to make people pay without complaints for something they (think they) want rather than something they need. Now Bethesda is at E3 this year for the very first time, and everyone’s expecting a big announcement, either TESVI or Fallout 4. Both are franchises that are kept alive for years after their usual shelf life by mods. People are still playing Morrowind because of mods. People are still playing Fallout 3 because of mods. And Skyrim wouldn’t still have a player base this large and people willing to pay for the game more than once without the multitude of free mods (myself included, I went from PS3 to PC for modding purposes). Until last Friday, I hoped it would be one of those games; I was fully prepared to buy either one close to launch, a rare exception for me. But now I can’t help but wonder what else will be announced. Whether they are willing to piss off a large portion of their player base by announcing that all mods will be behind a paywall in the future, and they are going to try and make sure those are the only mods the game accepts. They might cite “stability” as a reason, or “anti-piracy measures”, or “appreciation of the hard-working modders”. And hope people fall for it, just accept it and hand over the modding scene without a fight. I hope that won’t happen. I don’t think it will happen. But when money calls, more than one moral compass might turn around (not that I blame them, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it). But this new paid mods system didn’t go over very well with a large part of the modding community, if not just for moral reasons, then simply because it isn’t feasible. How do they expect someone with several hundred mods to pay for each and every one of those? Pay the price of a brand new computer for your mod list? I’d say most people are going to answer that with a resounding “Hell no!”. Not because we don’t appreciate the modders and the work they put into their creations. It’s because we can’t. Even with a relatively low price of 2$ on average for a mod, I’d have to pay 200$ for my current list, more like double that amount for every mod I ever had for Skyrim, and that’s not counting my other Bethesda games I modded. I just can’t afford that, and even if I could, I wouldn’t, especially so long as the next mod I buy could potentially break my game and all the other mods I bought with it. It’s just not worth it. I’d rather buy a different game.
And somehow, I don’t think that could be Bethesda’s goal here in the long run.