So Valve or Bethesda went ahead and did it, depending on which side of the story you subscribe to – they threw Skyrim modding under a bus. Previously 100% free domain, mod creators can now sell the content they made for Skyrim on Steam Workshop and receive a 25% cut of proceeds. The remaining 75% are split between Valve, which hosts the marketplace, and Bethesda, which developed the game.
Questionable business practices aside, this was a long time coming. Since the early days of PC gaming, modding has been regarded as standard practice for enthusiast PC gamers. The vanilla game would be just a starting point, and they could either roll up their sleeves and tweak, or download someone else’s modifications to enhance the game, at least in the eyes of the beholder.
Back before games went 3D and the Internet flourished, there were DOS-based data file extractors and pirated Photoshop 3.0 to make fancier tanks in Command and Conquer: Red Alert, and share that with classmates on a 1.44″ floppy.
Those were simpler times. Today, the gaming industry is bigger than Hollywood, but the ghosts of gaming’s past may have come back to haunt it.
Free and Easy
In the unregulated modding scene of the venerable Neverwinter Nights (NWN), accounts of mod content theft were rife. There were teams that essentially functioned as curators, hand-picking content from mod repositories and repackaging them under their own names – with no credit given to the original authors. Free is free, but in the modders’ eyes, it may very well have been stolen.
That begs the question: how many talented modders were driven away because they had no recourse for theft? A parting note written in 2008 by a prominent NWN content creator likened modding to hosting a barbecue party, and laments:
“I enjoyed grilling new steaks for everybody and didn’t even mind when they took them home to feed their families instead of inviting them over to the party… But at one point some started to tell me it was -their- party, and that I should be grateful they came to grab and eat anything they wanted, as that allowed me to grill more steaks.”
Other modders also left the scene due to similar circumstances, as the description on another NWN mod shows. Therein lies the limitations of a free modding scene: transience, at a time when many gamers buy more games than they can possibly play in a lifetime.
What Price Talent
Games have grown in complexity and maintenance needs. Box purchases gave way to subscriptions, and subscriptions in turn lost favor to the razor-and-blades microtransaction model of today. Publishers now give a game out for free or let it go at rock-bottom prices during a sale, then make money off in-game purchases.
Steam, the very same platform the mods are being hosted on, was also largely responsible for the revival of PC gaming when it was on its death throes – at a cost. It would be overtly optimistic to think large studio game development would finance itself solely on the back of 75% discount sale revenue, followed by a 30% cut of the remainder going to Steam.
The notion of paid modding is sound. Mature, thriving marketplaces for budding creators already exist, from virtual worlds like Second Life to game engines like the Unity3D Marketplace. Models, animations and scripts? That’s practically what goes into a mod, except Unity3D assets go into a game before it is published, and Skyrim mods go in after. There is even the option of showcasing their work in a mobile game.
Compared to yesteryear, amateurs have more options than before to get their name out there, which also means there needs to be some incentive in order to attract and retain talented modders.
A Picketed Forest is not a Garden
What is not sound is the implementation. Shoehorning monetization into a game built from the ground up for free modding, with zero regulation, zero copy protection and an already thriving library of mods for the picking is asking for trouble. And that’s exactly what is happening right now – anarchy. Some mods are being stolen and put up for money. Others have been taken down to avoid a similar fate.
Paid mods requires a completely different approach – they come with the implicit expectation that they work seamlessly and will not have cross dependencies with other mods, especially not paid ones! It would have to take a walled garden approach, and building a walled garden entails building the walls before the garden, not tearing up a section of forest, picketing the perimeter and calling it a garden. That possibly entails heavy restrictions, like forcing all content to be non-replacing, or making them modular enough to replace each other without conflicts.
The split of the pie also needs to be looked at. Linden takes a net 7% cut from Second Life creators. Unity3D takes a 30% cut. It is puzzling how Valve and Bethesda somehow feel justified to fly in the face of prevailing market rates and devalue a scripter or modeller’s skills to a third of its worth, or less.
Ultimately, paid mods are nothing new, and they have potential to do right by everyone involved – from players to modders to the publishers and developers. Thing is Skyrim is a completely wrong place to start.