Since Valve launched digital distribution platform Steam they have consistently shown a dedication to innovating the way that we play PC games. One of the more important of these advancements has been the Steam Workshop - a way of easily adding user-made modifications to your games. While mods themselves have been a staple part of the PC gaming diet since the 90s, the ability to add them with just a click of a button was a much welcome change. Recently, they further supported mod creators by allowing them to charge money for their creations. It sounds like a good idea in theory, but the backlash from the move was so vitriolic that the change was reversed just days later. So what went wrong?
I am completely behind people getting money for their creative works. I think if you are talented enough for people to enjoy the things you create, then you absolutely deserve to make a living from doing it. However, mods have been a free resource for close to twenty years. Mod creators have never gone into development thinking about making a profit, and the main goal has always been to make something cool or interesting to share with people. With a paywall system, we run the risk of the creativity being shackled to a business-like, profit-driven mind set - something that has been a problem in the mainstream game industry for a number of years now.
But I still firmly believe that people should be rewarded in some way if they manage to create something that other people find enjoyment in. Unfortunately, the whole implementation on Steam had been messy and really showed Valve's inability to properly see out some of their ideas (something we also saw with Steam Greenlight). Mod creators only received 25% of the profits generated from their mods. The rest of the money went to Valve and the original developers. Keep in mind, in order to use a mod you must have purchased the original game; both Valve and the original developers have already received payment. Taking such a large cut, as well as the original developer being the one to decide the prices, smells a bit like greed rather than offering mod creators a way to financially support themselves. Instead of creating user made modifications, it felt like we were seeing the start of "User-Made DLC".
The bad implementation didn't end there though. With Valve adopting a hands-off policy, the workshop saw rampant plagiarism during the brief time of paid mods. People started downloading mods off of other services, and slightly altering them before putting them on Steam Workshop with a price attached. While Valve did discourage this, their lack of hard discipline against wrong-doers meant it was a practice that wasn't going to stop.
Games and mods are updated all the time, and sometimes updates will disrupt their relationship. Sometimes, a mod will update which will lead to it conflicting with another mod, meaning you can't start the game with them both enabled. When mods are free, this is just a minor inconvenience. But when money is involved, it becomes a lot more of an issue. While there was a 24 hour refund policy, if you found something has broken after your first day then the official response was to "ask the mod developer nicely to fix it". But if the creator is actually someone who stole the mod in order to make 25% of a dollar then they may not have the programming knowledge required to fix it.
While the move to give mod creators a platform to begin making a living off of their creations was noble, it seemed at points that the game developer's pockets were more in mind. Mods have been free for close to twenty years, and have always been a brilliant showcase of creativity. From replacing the dragons in Skyrim with trains, to flooding all of GTAIV's world, to even creating whole new game modes - mods have been a key part of PC gaming history. In fact, games like Team Fortress and DOTA started out as mods, and if it weren't for the success of those free additions made by dedicated fans they may never have stepped out to become full games in their own right. With services like Paypal and Patreon, it feels like there is no need to paywall your mod creations.
Valve has always been a company who likes to experiment, and despite its shortcomings I'm glad they tried something here. While I'm sure they didn't predict how scathing the feedback would be, as a company I think they are in a far better position to implement something that fans and mod creators will be happy with now. Despite how poor the system was, I have to respect Valve for pulling the plug as early as they did, and look forward to what they experiment with in the future.
Jamie also writes a weekly videogame blog for Hiive, a website dedicated to helping creatives in the UK meet and find work. Check it out here!