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Paid Steam Mods Are a Good Thing — But Valve Needs to Communicate Better

Valve, the company behind phenomenally successful video game distribution platform Steam, has found itself in a pickle after announcing new payment options for its “modding” community that were not fully understood by its customers.

Previously a free service created by unpaid and donor-funded volunteers, creators who design modifications, or mods, of existing games on Steam will now have the ability to charge for their products. The system is currently limited to The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, one of the most popular moddable games on Steam, but the company intends to roll out the new option across the platform in due course.

Although requesting payment will remain optional, Valve’s announcement has led to a backlash from consumers and some modders, who are worried about damage to the modding scene. A change.org petition calling on Valve to reverse its decision has already gained over 100,000 signatures. Commentators and game developers are divided on the issue.

Mark Kern, a former Starcraft and World of Warcraft developer, drew attention to the division of profits in Valve’s new system, with modders taking 25 per cent of a mod’s profit, game publishers taking 45 per cent, and Valve taking 30 per cent. That means that content creators (the IP owner and the modder) are taking home 70 per cent of revenues, which is comparable to other distribution platforms such as Apple’s App Store. However, Kern points out that content creators are given considerably more support and resources on other platforms.

Brad Wardell, CEO of Stardock, which has produced a number of acclaimed titles including Sins of a Solar Empire and Galactic Civilizations took a more positive view, arguing that the new payments system could incentivise higher-quality mods and provide a basis for the development of professional modding studios.

Wardell told Breitbart: “We run a website called WinCustomize.com in which people can upload their own skins, themes, icons, basically mods, for our software.  Some years ago, we implemented a program in which people could also make and sell their themes. When we first launched it, people thought it would be the death of “free” skins. But the opposite happened.

“Not only did free skins and icons and themes continue to be made but we saw a lot more because so many new people go interested in learning to mod and most reasonable people know, at some level, whether their work is “sellable” or not. With Steam’s system, I am hopeful that we’ll see a lot of new things get created and I think it’s a great opportunity for people with talent to make things that otherwise wouldn’t get made.”

Valve’s move is another step away from business models of the past, in which games were typically sold as single, complete packages, and toward a landscape in which games come with all kinds of upgrades and add-ons after purchase. It is already commonplace for publishers to release downloadable content (DLC) after a game’s release. The new system means mods will start to look a lot more like DLC.

Many consumers are less than pleased with the direction of travel.  The history of DLC is chequered, with many fans accusing publishers of releasing unfinished titles at full prices, only to demand further payment for the rest of the content in the form of DLC further down the line. There is concern that publishers are now passing the buck down to modders while continuing to reap most of the rewards.

Valve also goofed slightly in implementing its new paid modding system. The profit distributions were poorly communicated, leading some onlookers to mistakenly believe that Valve would be receiving a full 75 per cent of profits from mods.

It is also clear that Valve will have to spend considerable resources policing the new system to prevent rogue modders who grab free assets from others to sell at a profit. One Skyrim mod has already had to be taken down. And then there is the problems of joke creations, such as this $99.99″Horse Genitals” mod. Much like the collection of 1200 “rare pepe memes” that 4channers recently tried to sell on eBay for $99,166, trolls are eager to exploit the new system for keks and lels.

Teething problems aside, Wardell is probably correct in that the change presents more opportunities than pitfalls. It will remain optional for moderators to accept payment, and many will no doubt choose to remain unpaid or donor-funded.

The Nexus modding community has already announced that they will not be moving to the new system. But there’s nothing wrong with modders who do choose to accept payment, as long as they’re producing products that are worth paying for. After all, there’s a long history of originally free mods that become huge commercial successes in their own right – such as DotA and Counter Strike.

That said, Valve could probably do more to communicate with consumers and the modding community, instead of springing changes on them without warning. There are legitimate concerns about whether the new system will promote “shovelware” – minor, low-quality mods sold to gullible consumers – while providing no incentive for high-quality projects that require time and effort to build.

After famous disasters like Rome II: Total War and Assassins Creed Unity, which many blamed on the new DLC paradigm, consumers have good reason to be wary about changes to the way in which game content is distributed. It is incumbent on those making the changes to address consumer concerns patiently and thoroughly, regardless of whether, in the end, they are probably doing the right thing.

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