Opinion – Steam Mod Charging Ugliness

That will be $5 for air, please.

The biggest story of the week was Valve’s attempt to offer Skyrim modders a chance to charge for their content via Valve’s Steam store.  The idea is solid on its face.  Modders can spend thousands of hours creating additional content that dramatically extends the life of a game, fixes bugs, and sells more copies.  There’s every reason to allow modders to reap the financial benefits of their work, both as an incentive to produce better mods and a way to allow, in theory, full time modding studios.  Unfortunately, Valve royally screwed up the roll out and had to pull the feature back.  Here’s how they did it.

They told no one

At least, they didn’t tell the gamers.  Gamers just arrived at the Skyrim page to discover that some of their favorite mods were stuck behind a pay wall or wouldn’t receive future updates unless they shelled out cash.  One of the greatest sins a business can make is to ambush its customers while charging them for something they got for free.  It leaves the customers feeling robbed and powerless which they will inevitably combat by complaining online.  It also didn’t help that Valve barely gave the modders notification.  A select group of modders had 45 days’ notice before the feature went live.  This isn’t enough time to put together a new, quality mod that people would happily pay for.  Instead, most of the day one offerings were tweaked versions of older mods or quick cash-ins that adding nothing to the game.  By not telling anyone, Valve insured that gamers would be taken by surprise and that modders would put their worst face forward.

They got greedy

The proposed cost split for a mod was 30% to Valve, 45% to Skyrim developer BethesdaSoft, 25% to the modder, and an optional 5% from the Valve portion to go to collaborating artists.  In short, a whopping 75% went to someone other than the modder, the theoretical beneficiary of this whole feature.  This split opened up Valve and BethsdaSoft to accusations of greed and made the payment option look like a money grab.  I can understand how both companies would want some of the profits, but it’s hard to argue they deserve the lion’s share.  Neither company is adding anything (remember, the modder paid for the original game and is doing all of the work) and both companies get compensation for any additional copies sold.  I imagine both companies intended to start high with the understanding that they may have needed to downshift, but they obviously misjudged what the gamers would tolerate.

They used an existing mod scene

The fact that mods are free has created a unique ecosystem unlike any other in the gaming world.  Whereas game developers jealously guard their assets and fight hard for their intellectual properties, modders do none of this.  The lack of a profit option means everything falls under fair use and can be bundled with someone else’s work.  A well-developed modding community often has basic mods that other mods incorporate wholesale without a single dollar exchanged between the modders.  When Valve allowed modders to slap a price tag on their work, it raised huge questions about who was owed.  Does a modder owe other modders if they incorporate their work?  If so, how much?  What if the borrowed mod has also been changed?  Valve also created a system of hidden costs where a mod that relied on, but did not incorporate, another mod could charge one price without noting (or being aware of) the cost of associated mods.  A modder could charge $5 for their mod and never state that a player needed another $5 mod to play.  It got ugly.

I support the basic idea.  Modders invest considerable time and energy into their work and deserve compensation for it.  Valve should continue to refine this concept into something that most people can support.  That means socializing the idea before realizing it, giving a more favorable split to the modder, and picking a new game where modders can build a community around the understanding that money will be exchanged.  I sincerely hope we see a more intelligent application of this idea in the future.

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