It’s amazing how much can change in a span of a week. At one end, Valve announced a brand new way for mod makers to monetize their art; at the other, Valve had shut down the process due to massive consumer backlash. Since then, there has been quite a debate among fans as to whether Valve did the right thing in bowing to the very vocal complaints. Some are arguing that a bunch of entitled gamers have ruined the mod community’s first and perhaps only chance at being able to make a living for their substantial efforts. At the other end, gamers are arguing that entitled modders are setting a dangerous precedent and are just trying to gouge them for things that should be free (isn’t entitlement a fun word?). Today, I want to look at the controversy and see if Valve did the right thing when they did their about-face.
Let’s begin from the perspective of the modders. Modding is very hard work, especially for the truly dedicated. Until now, it’s purely been a labour of love for those who thought a game could be just a little better, or more fun. A modder who does nothing more than changing a few values in a game then retires forever isn’t who I’m talking about in this section. There is a very real and very dedicated bunch of gamers who pour hundreds, sometimes thousands of hours into fine-crafting a new experience for everyone. It’s not strange that such people would want to get paid for several reasons. Firstly, is the fact that such an effort deserves a reward. This is of minor import, due to the fact that modding is a hobby and nothing more. The more pressing reason is to galvanize modders to make new and better content more often.
You see, a payday can do a lot to get a community running. At this point, modders have to subsist almost entirely on player feedback, which is in short supply and often highly critical. It’s easy to see why many modders end up retiring. There just isn’t enough of an incentive to keep modders going as the stresses of work and family begin to pile up as they age. There will always be new modders to replace them, and plenty of obsessive people to make big projects, but there is a certain critical mass of project that won’t really grow without some sort of change. Donations are already asked for and available, but only a very tiny percentage of downloaders make use of the download option. This means only the most downloaded mods have a chance of making any money, and even these don’t.
In the end, a way for modders to actually monetize their talents could result in a better, more dedicated, longer-lasting modding community. It would ease some of the load off of the current modders and could result in better games for all. Modders could join together and form agencies, dedicated to making mods, providing the utmost quality at the cheapest costs.
Of course, there’s another side. This monetization option has some fairly significant consequences to the industry. For the record, I’m referring to all monetization options short of donations. Valve’s plan was ungodly, siphoning 75% of the profits away from the modders. Thus, many have stated that an alternate scheme would be better. All of my comments from here on out include any alternate schemes that I can think of. There are inherent problems with modders trying to sell mods, which would not be remedied by an alternate scheme.
What is the difference between mods and DLC? There are two core things, as far as I can see. Firstly, there is the fact that DLC costs money, whereas mods are free. Second, and almost more important, is the fact that DLC is regulated and quality-controlled, while mods are done merely to the satisfaction of the modder. A paid mod essentially changes its structure to take on the worst difference, while doing nothing for the second. What I’m saying is that paid mods are DLC without anyone making sure the quality is there. There are user reviews, but, in this age of review bombing, and ultra fanboys, it is easy to dismiss everything that traditionally fickle gamers say.
I like DLC. I think some DLC can elevate a game to completely new heights. But DLC is dangerous. DLC can gouge gamers for things that should have been in the game in the first place, and, critically for this discussion, DLC can become microtransactions. I like DLC, but I hate microtransactions, and every single gamer should. The difference between the two is a microtransaction is so cheap and minor that your brain doesn’t register the expense. Thus, they are easy to buy and easy to forget. These are tiny additions to games like costumes, reskins, music, etc. They are the bane of the industry because they insidiously nickel-and-dime gamers, charging them a fortune over time for nothing.
The reason we’re talking about microtransactions is because the vast majority of mods would fall into this model. Most mods are simple reskins or minor tweaks. A monetization model would turn these into $.99 purchases, and there are an endless array of tiny mods, of suspect quality. Even a million negative reviews don’t dispel the ease of a single microtransaction. Suddenly, people are dropping a large chunk of money on absolute crap that took creators only a few seconds to make. Larger mods aren’t much better. There is still no accountability. A $5.00 mod, no matter how great it is, has no guarantee of support or quality. Ambitious ideas could get good reviews, but a buggy execution could result in massive problems, and vice-versa.
Another problem is the genie/bottle analogy. When you allow regular gamers to charge for mods, that’s it. There is no way to go back to a free model. This means there is absolutely no way to deal with the possible consequences of shifting to the paid model. If gamers react strongly against paid mods, and refuse to buy them, then suddenly fewer and fewer people are actually engaging with modder work. Sure, modders may get some money, but it could be the death-knell of the entire sub-industry. Money could lead to supply largely exceeding demand – a dangerous proposition. When the trigger is pulled, actually pulled, not like what happened with Valve, we can’t return to telling modders they can no longer make any money for their work.
My final point on this side of the argument is that mods aren’t necessary. They aren’t even important. I’m sorry to say to the modder community, but mods are completely extraneous. How do I know this? Because modding only exists on PC, and a huge proportion of gamers operate solely on consoles. They don’t need mods; they don’t want them. What they want is the game, made by the developer, and if someone wants to sloppily shove My Little Pony fan fiction into Skyrim, they are welcome to do it on their own. Why should modders be paid when they provide such an ancillary service? After all, modders throughout the history of the industry have been acting for free. They are working for themselves, not the consumers, and many consumers don’t want them. Why should they get to unleash a Pandora’s Box on the industry?
How you view this event is largely based on how well you think of the modder community. Like a noble despot, a great modder could churn out the best work at the best price and create and industry that everyone can be proud of. But there is no noble despot. People are people, and people are imperfect, faulty, and greedy. For every great modder, there are hundreds of modders who’d rather make a dime than support the community. I don’t support the monetization of mods. It is distasteful, in my opinion, to invite another source of DLC on the public. We’re already getting slogged down by publishers, I don’t think allowing another set of people to charge us for more content is the right direction to go. I’m not willing to say that a scheme could not be made that adequately deals with the problems, but, at its core, I think paid mods are wrong, and I’d rather all mods disappear before we start down that road.
– Mistranslations for the Modern Gamer