Friday, April 24, 2015

Valve: Mods for Money

Sometimes things happen in the gaming industry that are big enough to be noticed, regardless of what game you play. This is one of those things...

Yesterday Valve made an announcement; that much like Horse Armor before it, has implications far and wide for gamers. For fans of Skyrim the most recent offering in Bethesda's Elder Scrolls series you can now get paid to make mods for the game!

The internet has responded in it's typically calm and reasonable way, that is to say there's already petition to have the feature removed (already at 27,127 signatures).

First, and this needs to be said: you don't owe anyone anything if you've already downloaded a mod. Additionally, Valve hasn't attached a price to all mods on their database. What they have done is given mod creators the option of charging for their mods. Creators also have the option of offering their mods for free. This however is not the full story...

Years ago I made interface mods for EverQuest, modified inventory windows, and other UI elements. Though the biggest thing I did was a comprehensive in game guide, there were tons of additional chapters being added constantly on various topics of interest to players. You could pick up a pack with information on your class, professions, raid boss strategies, quest info, plat farming strategies, etc.

I enjoyed working on it for a time, I spent about an hour to two hours per day updating it and at that rate was set to complete the mod sometime after never. A mod like that would literally require multiple people working full time to keep it up to date. And to expect such work for free is unrealistic at best. I quit working on the Compendium eventually because of a combination of the Sisyphean effort necessary to complete it to any level of satisfaction, coupled with the fact that while I was doing that, I wasn't playing the actual game, and I wasn't getting paid, or really doing anything other than staring at code for hours on end.

Having said that, I can sympathize and support the idea of offering mod creators a method of earning some cash for their work. Most people don't consider it, but the reality is that mods DO require some work to make happen. There's obviously a wide variance in the value of that work depending on how long it takes to complete, the quality of the finished mod, and of course how much actual content is in the mod itself. That is not to say that this system is without it's problems.

On April 3rd, 2006 Horse Armor DLC was unleashed on fans of the Elder Scrolls series. For a mere $1.99 ($2.50 for XBox users) you could make your trusty steed look like this:

TOTALLY worth it...

Now, Valve partnered with Bethesda have allowed numerous prospective mod creators to beat the same dead horse in Skyrim. Already the Steam store is inundated with things like individual weapon or armor models for $.99 each, though some are not so cheap. Some of these are not new items being added to the inventory, but specifically just a cosmetic change like the horse armor pictured above. And the price is entirely arbitrarily set by the content creators. There is currently no pricing model in place for mods in general.

Some mods are going for as much as the game itself...

Things get worse when you realize that people are already picking up mods from other creators released on other websites, then posting them for sale on the Steam store themselves. Compilations will presumably show up at a premium as well (get all the Lich King themed mods in one download, only $19.99!)

Which brings us to the smelly dead thing in the room, what happens when Blizzard gets wind of this and starts suing people over copyright infringement when people start charging $5 to be Arthas? So far Valve has been eerily silent on this subject. Additionally, there's no consumer protection for people who support mods. If a mod creator cancels development on a mod that you've paid for and it stops working for whatever reason, tough.

As for the Mod Creators themselves...

Valve (and participating publishers) take a 75% cut of all mod sales, so yes only 25% will go to the mod creators themselves. They will receive NOTHING until they've earned $100. Meaning they actually need to earn $400 total before they see a dime. Not surprisingly, this encourages the horse armor situation mentioned above.

It's still very early to assess what this means for us right now, it's likely however we'll see a LOT of DMCA claims going through Valve in the near future. A lot of mods are going to be listed, a lot of those will make money, fewer though will make money for the people who created them. ALL of them will make money for Valve however, whether that's a good thing or a bad thing remains to be seen.

Offering a sense of legitimacy to the mod making community can be a huge boon however, as it has the potential to attract more talent. A small team working on a passion project can now reasonably expect to feel like they haven't wasted their time, assuming the end product is well received. Meaning we could see more ambitious mods in the future, or we could just see more horse armor. Time will tell...

Always Be Closing,

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