Let Us Talk About Paid Mods

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This piece is written by me, Dr. Strangethumb. It is my opinion and you are invited to share it, but it does not necessarily reflect the opinion of anyone else at Twinstiq. It contains some examples of harsh language and the prose is weak. You have been warned.

So Valve now allows you to monetize mods on Steam. Great News if you are a modder, isn’t it?

Well, maybe. Yeah, I know, you hate it and you think it’s destroying gaming, but: People work hard to make this stuff and if they are allowed to make some money with it, that’s great. Nobody is forced to sell; nobody forces you to buy it. Free mods will still be a thing in the future. But it’s never that easy, is it?

Wait, you don’t actually know what I’m talking about? Sorry, got a bit ahead of myself.

As mentioned, you can now sell mods on the Steam Workshop. At the moment it’s only Skyrim which supports it and we already see popular mods being sold for real life moolah. The prices range from 0.23€ up to 2.79€. Coinciding with this, there is also a Skyrim sale going on ($4.99/3,74€).

The community reaction to this is poor at best. People are up in arms, creating petitions, joke mods, they spam the discussion boards with slurs and some idiots even go ye olde threat route. But do they actually have a point? In part, yes.
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Can you spot the serious mod?
A big part of the discussion currently revolves around the moral of selling mods. About greedy modders betraying the “community”.
I dedicate the following summoning of Dr. Rant to every single person directing their frustration towards modders:
For years these guys worked for free, giving you amazing new content, never demanding anything in return. Now that Valve and Bethesda gave them the opportunity to actually make a living from their work, they are of course trying it out. And it’s not like they stopped publishing free mods. For f’s sake, Isoku, the guy behind 2 of the paid mods (iNeed and Wet and Cold) just recently released “Wonders of Weather” on the Skyrim Nexus, again: for free. They don’t deserve the hate they are currently getting and everyone involved should feel deeply ashamed. The only change you provoke with this behavior is chasing away some of the most talented people in this scene and showing companies like Bethesda that the modding scene is a vile place to its own people and maybe not even worth the continued support.
You are not entitled to other peoples work in a capitalist system where the majority of people already struggle with making ends meet. Show your support for those that continue providing you with free mods, a “Thank You!” can go a long a way, but don’t blame those that want to continue this on a more professional level.
Still planning on continuing with the hate towards modders? Then you are a pathetic little pisspot, society’s cancer, a slimy parasite, undeserving of free mods in the first place.
I’m not going into any more detail about this, since there are enough issues to talk about.
Dr. Rant out.

Let’s start the serious discussion with the next big topic on the list:
The revenue split between Valve, Bethesda and the modders.

As it stands, 25% go to the content creator, the rest is split between Valve and Bethesda. The exact share each of those 2 parties receive isn’t yet know, but rumor has it that Valve gets 30% and Bethesda 45%. In addition to that, Dark0ne, owner of Nexus Mods, stated in a Reddit post that 5% of Valve’s share can go to a variety of other services: The Blender Foundation, the Mod Configuration Menu framework, Nexus Mods, AFK Mods and Polycount, with the mod maker being able to decide who gets access to these funds.
And just so that there are no misunderstandings: They don’t get 5% of the 100%, but instead 5% of whatever Valve gets.
The whole thing is still very much a mystery to everyone, but there are floating some rumors around that Bethesda was actually deciding the split between them and the creators (UPDATE: This is confirmed by Gabe Newell on Reddit), so if this spreads to other games, we could see a higher percentage going to the modder. If this turns out to be true, it would take some of the pressure from Valve (memo to myself: stop using pressure in the same sentence as Valve or Steam).
This leaves us at a situation, where modders get $1 for every $4 made (minus taxes of course). Sounds awful on paper and my first reaction to hearing it echoed the opinion of pretty much everyone else on the internet at this point. The person doing all the work gets the smallest cut? What an outrage. Let us however delve a bit deeper into this.

Maybe we can understand those numbers a better if we take a look at a different medium that also has a strong digital presence: Music.
If you are signed to a major record label and sell your music on iTunes, chances are you’d be happy to see 10% of the revenue generated by your song. The rest is split between Apple and your label. In exchange Apple provides the hosting and storefront, while your label provides you with some of the tools necessary to produce your song and advertisement. Now if we transfer this to mods, we exchange Apple with Valve and the label with Bethesda, who provides the modding tools and advertisement in the form of a bestselling game and an exclusive premium mod section.
30% are industry standard for digital storefronts. It’s what Valve takes from every game sold on steam, it’s what Apple takes from every song sold on iTunes, and it’s what Google takes from every app sold in the Play Store.
Do they deserve this cut? Hell no! Their customer support is piss poor in most cases and Valve is one of the biggest offenders. Circumventing European law that is there to protect customers by using dirty loopholes? Check. Offering refunds for broken games only in the most extreme of cases? Check. Taking ages to reply to any complaint in the first place? Check.
But, sadly, it’s an economic reality and it’s up to the modders if they are willing to accept this. There is however a legit way for the consumer to influence their willingness to do so: Many modders accept donations, so if you don’t want their content gated behind a pay wall and 1/3 of the profits going into the pockets of Valve, then voice it by donating.

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Nexus Mods has a pretty easy to reach Donate button and some people even use Patreon to finance their work
How about Bethesda’s cut? This is where it really gets difficult, because their contribution isn’t that apparently transparent. Sure, they aren’t directly involved with the production of the mods and they don’t advertise any single paid mod specifically, but they are still the ones spending resources on the implementation of modding tools, which in turn help immensely in the creation of free mods. It is no coincidence that Bethesda develops some of, I not the most supported games by the modding community. And if you know anything about game development, you know that providing these tools is not a trivial task.
You can argue that the modding support is an integral part of the “Bethesda RPG” experience and some people are only buying those games because of it, which certainly is true, but if we take a look at the platform share, we see the PC dead last with only 14% of copies sold. Granted, the numbers seem to be from 2013 and have probably changed a bit in favor of the PC since then, thanks to Steam sales like the one right now. However: They aren’t removing the ability to produce free mods and them profiting from commercial work done with their tools is fair.
And let’s not forget that there is a very big positive hidden in all of this, one that most likely led Steam to actually implement this in the first place: Publishers are always looking for new revenue streams.  This could very well mean that we see a AAA modding renaissance. Take the GTA series on PC for example. GTA 4 had a big modding community which produced some entertaining mods, despite the nonexistence of official mod tools. Now imagine the possibilities if Rockstar provided these tools. GTA 5 was again released without mod tools and workshop inclusion. The bonus revenue from this could very well mean that we get them in the future, or at least for the next installment in the GTA series.
The Steam Workshop is still in his infancy, but the easy access it offers is something that isn’t available on consoles so far. It strengthens Steam's value for the consumer and, together with this step, leads to a higher priority of modding and the PC platform for publishers.

So, how big should the publishers cut be?

We now know that the dev/publisher dictates the split between them and the modders, so this is not set in stone. Other games will most likely offer paid mods in the future and I can easily see those offering a better split in an attempt to motivate more people to develop for them. You also have to remember that the more copies a game sells, the bigger your possible audience gets. For example: Selling 3000 copies of a mod with a 25% share gets you more money than selling 10 copies of a mod with a 70% share. So the better a publisher is at marketing their game, the less the modder needs to make per sold copy.
Personally, I don’t feel that 25% are a good starting point. Skyrim isn’t really getting supported anymore from Bethesda, their decision to implement mod support wasn’t based on the expected revenue from paid mods and a better split would have led to more goodwill from the community.
Despite what my initial statement might lead you to believe, most people actually support the idea that people should get paid for their creations. Not only that, but they also believe that the creators deserve the biggest slice of the pie. I personally haven’t made my mind up about what would constitute a fair share, but I understand why people are reluctant to spend money when so little goes the person they want it to go to. And this is something that Bethesda and Steam should really consider.
Let’s not forget one thing though: Boycotting is mostly hurting the content creator who decided for himself that giving away 75% is an acceptable cost of business.


Despite all the outrage and confusion, paid mods already made $10,000. There is money changing hands and even though I can’t comment on how profitable each mod was so far, I have a feeling that at least some of those early adopters won’t be that unhappy after the dust has settled. Until we get solid numbers however, this is only speculation.

But enough with all the positives.
We are talking about Steam here and everything Steam is a huge bowl of blood and guts that only slowly gets transformed into a cute little puppy.

Be it the Steam client itself, the storefront, the inclusion of free2play, the Steam Community, Tags, Greenlight, Early Access, or whatever else they half-assed at launch.

One of the more prominently talked about problems that grace this shit canvas, is Valve’s notoriously bad customer support. Ever wanted some help from them? I hope you are less than 40 years of age, otherwise you might run into some life expectancy issues before you get a useful answer. Want a refund? Well, one is more or less guaranteed, after that you might want to look into Voodoo and get yourself an ample supply of chickens for scarification to increase your chance.
Buying a mod guarantees you a 24 hour refund period, this is supposed to give you enough time for testing out the functionality of the mod. If you are inexperienced with mods, this might sound like an actual improvement to you, but the reality is: Mods break all the time. The game gets patched and suddenly half your mods stop to work (though this shouldn’t be an issue any longer with Skyrim). Another common scenario is incompatibility between different mods. Let’s say you bought an amazing mod for $8 2 days ago and today another one for $4 gets released that’s a must have but doesn’t work together with the other one with no way of fixing the issue. Well, shit. Let’s see what Steam has to say about this topic:

If you find that mod has broken or is behaving unexpectedly, it is best to post politely on the Workshop item's page and let the mod author know the details of what you are seeing.

Welcome to Valve Customer Support. How can we penetrate your anus today?

And don’t get me started on the auto updates of the Steam Workshop. Your mods might work together when you buy them, but if there is an update that breaks your delicate house of cards, you can’t just revert to a previous version.
In short: There is no guarantee that whatever you buy works and you are shit out of luck once 24h have passed.


Grand Theft Mod, Small Theft Mod Elements and the curation issue.


Another issue that plagues the Steam Workshop since its inception, and actually the whole of steam ever since they opened the floodgates, is the curation. The community curation is a step in the right direction, but still needs work and just like the customer support issue, this only gets aggravated by adding mods into the mix. Not only is it already hard enough to find mods that might interest you, but if you then add the possibility of stolen mods, or ones that might include content from people who didn’t authorize the inclusion, this becomes a real minefield and we don’t know how this will actually affect the consumer. Will we get refunds if it turns out that a mod is actually not legit? Again, we are dealing with Valve here, so it’s unlikely.
From a creator’s perspective, the curation is a real problem. As it stands, a mod creator needs to make $100 ($400 worth of total sales) until he is paid. I foresee a future were many mods won’t reach that threshold and the modder basically gets cheated of his revenue. This might have less to do with the fact that his mod isn’t the best and more with how the Workshop is actually presenting the content. Did your mod get buried between an Ocean of joke mods made in protest of the latest controversy? Tough luck. Sure, the outstanding ones will always find an audience, but it could be hard for an upcoming talent to achieve a breakthrough.
There is a positive to this however: It will be a short term mess, but could quench the long term fear of free mods disappearing. Why sell a mod that won’t make you any money and isn’t played by anyone, when you could go for no money but people actually enjoying it? Recognition in the scene has always been one of the motivating factors in mod development. People who are only doing it for the money will either provide something that is worth it, or disappear fast.


Ok, let’s wrap this up.


Modding won’t die because of this. The community is strong and nobody got into it for money. Valve made a smart move, possibly strengthening the PC platform immensely by allowing publishers an “easy” revenue stream. Modders are now able to make their hobby a real business, which could increase the quality to a standard hardly ever seen before. This is however a revolutionary step for everyone involved and as we all know: Revolutions tend to be bloody. It will take time until this is all sorted out and between this, Greenlight and Early Access, Valve is clearly biting off more than they can chew. Only time will tell if it will succeed, but maybe we should give it a fair chance.

 

There is so much more to be said about this issue, but this is already TL;DR for most, so how about we continue this discussion somewhere else? First of all, there is always the comment section. For an ongoing discussion, we have the Twinstiq forum and if you want others than me sharing their opinion on this, we are also planning a podcast on this topic.
We also have an interview with one of the modders featured in the first wave of paid Skyrim mods coming up. Make sure to read it.

Enjoy your day (or what's left of it),
Dr. Strangethumb