PIXEL BURN – Ep. 056 – How Valve and Bethesda were obscene to the mod-scene

In which Matt espouses some views that might get him knocked off developers' Christmas card lists.
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Hello my name’s Matt and this is another single-topic episode of Pixel Burn, where I take a sarcastic look at one of the more important, interesting or irritating things that happened in the week’s gaming news.

The news that garnered the most furious reaction this week was when Valve announced they’re letting PC game modders charge money for mods delivered through the Steam Workshop. Starting with mods for The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, possibly one of the most modded game in existence and now the first game on steam with an open-market for fan-created content. Under Valve’s new scheme modders will get a percentage of the price they set for their mods with the rest going to Bethesda and Valve.

In the words of Valve themselves:

“We think this is a great opportunity to help support the incredible creative work being done by mod makers in the Steam Workshop. User generated content is an increasingly significant component of many games, and opening new avenues to help financially support those contributors via Steam Workshop will help drive the level of UGC to new heights.”

Which in theory seems like a nice idea. Many modders put hundreds of hours into creating their mods completely for free, neither expecting nor receiving any compensation for their efforts, so a method of rewarding them for all their hard labour sounds great! Who could possibly object? Well, modders themselves for one thing.

Like this one who, in a passionate open letter to the community, outlined some of the significant problems with Valve’s new scheme. Aside from things like making “modder” a dirty word overnight, dividing the PC gaming community, and encouraging an influx of lazy nickel-and-dime mods charging people charge 99 pence for a shitty magic sword, there was also the risk of people taking other people’s mods and putting them up for sale on the workshop.

Yeah…Guess what happened within 24 hours of the scheme going live.

Yep, Valve’s brand new idea has already had its first casualty, that being a fishing mod for Skyrim called “Art of the Catch” by a modder named Chesko. Chesko was invited by Valve to take part in the rollout of the new scheme about a month and a half before it went live, and while he knew there would be a backlash, he believed it was an opportunity to take modding to the next level.

Specifically to create a greater incentive for mods like Falskaar for Skyrim, an astounding achievement that adds an entirely new landmass with 20-30 hours of gameplay, 26 quests, new items, a new soundtrack, and all new dialogue fully voiced by a cast of 30 professional and semi-professional voice actors. All put together by a single person.

Anyhow, as the deadline approached Chesko found himself stuck with a lot of questions about using other people’s assets in his mod. In this case a custom character animation from a free mod called Fore’s New Idles for Skyrim. Chesko asked Valve to clarify what was and wasn’t permissible for paid mods and was given the following response:

“Having mod A depend on mod B is fine—it doesn’t matter if mod A is for sale and mod B is free, or if mod A is free or mod B is for sale.”

Basically Valve were saying “if it’s already out there for free then help yourself. So long as we still get our cut.” Or to put in layman’s terms, condoning theft.

Needless to say this “borrowing” was swiftly discovered, although the ending isn’t quite as bad as you might expect. Chesko removed the mod from Steam Workshop himself and he and Fores have since smoothed things out between them. Chesko’s career as a paid modder has effectively been shot in the gut however, and he has since declared he will be leaving the Steam Workshop behind.

And that’s just one example of the whole thing going tits-up straight out of the block. The veritable tip of an iceberg of solid piss if you will. I haven’t even touched on the revenue sharing model, which only gives modders 25% of the money from sales, with the rest going to Valve and the developer, in this case Bethesda.

Which brings me to one of my main problems with the programme. Now I accept that Valve get some sort of cut because they’re providing the distribution platform.

Which according to details provided here by Nexus Mods founder Robin Scott is only 35% by the way, and not the 75% some people have reported.

As for developers however, who get 40% of the overall cut, well…and I’m going to catch hell for this, but I don’t believe they should directly profit from the hard work of modders.

“What?!” I hear you cry. “Outrageous! How dare you! Without the developer’s hard work and resources these parasitic modders wouldn’t even have anything to work with! Why should they make money off somebody else’s property?”

I said not directly. Because you need to buy the games in the first place to play the fucking mods. Aside from patches and DLC my transaction with the developer ends there. How I then choose to personally experience their game after that is nobody’s fucking business but my own.

Sure, mods can’t exist without games, but in some cases its mods that drive sales of a game. How many more people would own a copy of Arma 2 if it weren’t for the original Day Z mod? And Cities: Skylines has thrived to become the number one city-building game, eclipsing the venerable Sim City, in a large part due to Paradox’s healthy attitude towards community modding. Hell, there’s even a bloke making a living through Patreon creating mods for it. Some of the most popular games around like Team Fortress 2, Counterstrike, can trace their origins back to mods for other games. And an entire genre – MOBAs – only even exists because of mods

So why should I have to pay Bethesda again for someone else rearranging Skyrim’s existing assets into a new experience for me? If I choose to donate directly to a modder for something they created, I’m doing it to reward the time and effort they put into it, and any new assets they might have added. Bethesda getting a cut of that is like Lego charging kids a fee whenever they build something with their own bloody Lego.

Alright, so it’s not exactly like that. But I spent five minutes making that picture so I’m bloody well going to use it.

Okay, let’s say I buy a car. I can’t drive but for the benefit of this thought experiment, let’s pretend I can. Aside from maybe getting some replacement parts later on, my transaction with the car manufacturer ends when I drive the car off the forecourt. If I then pay someone to modify my car with some sick spoilers and blingin’ rims, that’s between me and the person tricking out my sweet ride. I am paying them for their time, labour and materials, as well as extra charges on my car insurance for having a non-standard vehicle. The manufacturer doesn’t get a look in, and why should they? They already have my money. I can’t pay someone to modify a car I don’t have.

A similar thing applies to modders. Let’s say I enjoyed a really good game mod so much I decided to give the modder a donation. I’m too poor to do that but let’s pretend I can. I’m not paying the modder for the assets I already own – Skyrim in this case – because I already have access to them. I’m paying the modder for their time, labour and any extra assets they bring to the game, like original textures and animations. Why then should Bethesda get extra money, on top of the money I’ve already given them, to experience their game a different way? As far as I’m concerned, they got their slice of the pie when I bought the original game.

Obviously I’m not condoning paid mods that violate other peoples’ intellectual property. That’s theft. But why should Bethesda profit from the efforts of modders that work entirely with Skyrim’s own assets, or add their own original ones, in a way that still requires the original game to play?

And that’s just for cosmetic and other general gameplay stuff. I haven’t even mentioned modders who give their time freely to fix things like game-stopping bugs and flagrant technical issues. Modders such as Peter Thorman, best known by the name “Durante”, whose DsFix mod is considered essential to any PC gamer that wants the best possible experience playing Dark Souls.

Or the various community mods for Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines. An absolute shambolic mess when it was first released, Bloodlines has since come to be regarded as almost up there with games like Deus Ex thanks entirely to the efforts of modders. The game’s original developer Troika couldn’t fix them because they went bust, so without these mods the game would’ve sunk into complete obscurity. Instead it’s become one of the best FPS-RPGs you could ever play.

Talking of bugs, Skyrim still has plenty of them and you can bet your Daedric longsword the next Elder Scrolls or Fallout 4 will have even more. Especially if Bethesda sees this paid mods malarkey as a way of cutting the budget for their Quality Assurance department, currently situated in the chimp enclosure at the Maryland zoo. Never mind releasing a game and then patching it later, why bother patching it at all? Let the modders do it instead! And if they dare to make any money for their time and effort, swoop in at the last minute and take the lion’s share of it!

Developers, if you expect modders to do your bloody job in fixing your shoddy, broken, unoptimised game, you’ve no right to make money from them. If anything YOU should be paying THEM.

Hell, if we have to go all capitalist free-market then let modders make money from bug fixes! Or not if they don’t want to. I mean if a developer can’t be arsed to fix a glaring issue in their poxy own game but someone else can, quickly and simply, why can I not reward that person for providing a service? Yeah! Let’s add some competition to the proceedings. That way if a developer doesn’t want people profiting from their mistakes, well, they can bloody learn to fix those mistakes faster.

As you can probably tell I’m firmly on the side of modders in this little debacle. But what about the players? Well, we get screwed as usual, but it’s not all grey clouds, tears and sad piano music

Of course this will lead to the Steam Workshop being cluttered up with a tidal wave of nickel-and-dime garbage, which the current system actually incentivises over larger, more professional projects similar to the Falskaar mod I mentioned earlier. On the other hand it does finally recognise modders for what they really are – developers of a kind – and provides them a greater incentive to make stuff that’s actually worth your pennies. And people will still release free mods! New modders will HAVE to, in order to build up their reputation, if they want people to fork out for their 100+ hour, fully-voiced custom passion projects later on.

So as with many Valve experiments it’s a great idea IN THEORY. As of right now however the system needs extensive restructuring to be friendlier to modders and players alike. These aren’t merely teething problems. This is someone born with their entire jaw missing.

Valve are already paying close attention to this situation however. For in the wee hours of Saturday night UK time, Valve CEO Gabe Newell himself arrived at Reddit, fresh from having eyeball surgery…

Eww, eyeball surgery! My one horror weakness! Including spider.

…to answer people’s questions and concerns about the new programme and, in his own words, “make sure they were pissed-off for the right reasons.” As well as confirmining that Valve will be adding a “pay-what-you-want” option for modders, with a minimum of 0%, Gabe also revealed Valve have so far made only $10,000 from the programme. Or 1% of the cost of the furious emails it’s generated for them.

The situation is still ongoing, and will likely continue to do so for some arse-aching length of time. It’s a complex, divisive topic with no easy answers and certainly none that will satisfy everyone.

At the very least it needs an option for the customers to decide how the revenue is distributed between developers and modders. While I personally believe more sales and a stronger community should be all the incentive a developer needs to include mod support in their games, I’m also a firm believer in options. So if people want to pay developers AGAIN they should be given the option to do so, for the same reason they should be able to buy a $10 Golden Potato. It’s their money.

Whether you’re a modder, a developer, or a player, let me know what you think about all this in the comments below. In the meantime, I’ll be learning how to make shitty 3D sword models so I can make some mad ducats on Steam.

That’s all for this episode of Pixel Burn. If you liked it then please do let me know by clicking the appropriate button, and let your friends, family and Gabe Newell know as well. At the very least I hope you found it tolerable. For now until next week, as always, you can go now.



About Matt

Matt is the irresponsible degenerate behind bitscreed.com and the sarcastic writer, editor, director, presenter and tea boy of Pixel Burn.