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Steam Charging For Mods: For And Against

The end of an era

Featured post Would you pay 33p for this?

It used to be that the only way to make money from a mod was a) make a standalone sequel or remake b) use it as a portfolio to get hired by a studio or c) back in the pre-broadband days, shovel it onto a dodgy CD-ROM (and even then, it almost certainly wasn’t the devs who profited). As of last night, that changed. Mod-makers can now charge for their work, via Steam.

It’s far too soon to know the long-term outcome of Valve offering the option for mod creators to charge for their work, which went live yesterday using Skyrim as a test case. Everyone has an opinion, and I’ll try to cover the main angles below, but first I simply want to express simple sadness. Not fatalistic sadness – I’m genuinely curious as to how this will play out, and there’s high potential for excitement – but End Of An Era sadness.

Mods, free, fan-made modifications or extra content for existing games, have been a part of PC gaming for almost as long as there has been PC gaming. To think that this is changing, in that there may be less availability of free mods, and in that mod teams may now embark on their projects with a mind to earning a living from it rather than purely enthusiasm, is bittersweet. I do want people to be compensated for their work, and I do want people to be able to lay hands on more resources to make their endeavours – so often wilder than anything which would arise from an established studio – better still, as well as potentially receiving more co-operation from the original games’ developers. I don’t resist this change, but I am misty-eyed for the potential loss of what was. It was always delightful to gaze at all this weird, wonderful, usually broken fare, created from pure love and determination. Mods gave new, extended life and flair to games including Half-Life, Doom and Skyrim, mods lead to DayZ and Team Fortress, mods are as PC gaming as PC gaming gets. I salute them.

In all honesty, it’s highly unlike that free mods will go away, not least because it can be hard to make players blindly stump up for unknown quantities, but change is upon us. The gulf between hobbyist and professional is shrinking, and while that means more potential for projects to go off the rails, it also means more potential for new ideas and new voices to reach an audience. In all honesty, I don’t not strongly for or against this move, so don’t expect a tubthumping THIS IS WHAT HAS TO HAPPEN conclusion. I do want to look at some of the major arguments for and against this new age of paid mods, however.

FOR

Most of all, this is a motivation for people to make this stuff, to make it better, and to be compensated for it. Potentially, it also creates yet more routes into game development that don’t involved signing your life away to a big studio or publisher. Additionally, it removes even more barriers from making money from truly out-there stuff: without the same degree of risk as making a game from scratch, this can be the true test of If You Build It, They Will Come.

Someone with a wild idea, someone from a minority background or with an outsider perspective, no longer need necessarily make an entire game, and all the time and financial risk that entails, to put something out in the world. Don’t focus on uncomfortable ideas of someone becoming a millionaire from digital hat sales: creators being better able to afford to do something adventurous or elaborate is enormously meaningful here.

We can also look at this as long-overdue tribute to an ethos which has made PC gaming the vibrant, impossibly wide-ranging scene we have today. Without mods we wouldn’t have Team Fortress or Dota 2, DayZ or Return To Castle Wolfenstein, Heroes of the Storm or Natural Selection, Counter-Strike or Killing Floor, Dear Esther or League of Legends, Antichamber or Garry’s Mod, Red Orchestra or Stanley Parable. And that’s just the commercial stuff – factor in wonderful work which never went standalone or paid, such as Civ IV: Fall From Heaven, Action Half-Life, XCOM: The Long War, Action Quake 2, Complex for Homeworld 2, Game of Thrones for Crusader Kings 2, The Third Age for Medieval 2, Just Cause 2 multiplayer, the endless community patches for Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines… There are so many others, and we should celebrate them below, but in any case – it only feels right to now be rewarding that scene, to encourage it to new heights.

Potentially, money means more updates, better support, more scope and scale, more longevity, more potential for mod teams to move onto bigger and better things. Something as simple as being able to hire an artist, writer or actor can make all the difference between so-so and fantastic, for instance. All that said, there are a great many mods which have been updated and improved for years based on nothing but dedication and goodwill. I don’t think it’s at all true to say there is a need to move to a payment model, but it may open more doors for more people.

It’s worth noting as we talk about money that, in the case of Skyrim, mod-makers will receive just a 25% revenue share of whatever they sell their creation for, so apart from in rare cases this is unlikely to be a path to riches. While there’s certainly an argument to be made that the teams who make this stuff are getting a raw deal out of this new scheme, at least hopefully it will prevent people getting into mods purely with money on their mind. The option to be free remains, naturally, plus Valve have added a particularly intriguing Pay What You Want system (which I have little doubt will later be expanded to full games, as an attempt to take on Humble), so we’re not at all looking at a paywall being erected around mod-town.

The 25% sum is proving contentious, inevitably. I don’t have a dog in this race myself, but what I do hope is that, whatever the norm ends up being, it leads to more publishers being more open about their games being modded. Many big games are effectively locked down, either because the work to include any sort of mod tools wasn’t considered worthwhile or – in the recent example of GTA V – concerns that the integrity of the intended experience would be undermined. (Another way of putting that is money-men worrying that some amateurish mod makes their company’s project look bad, or that a more popular mode would pull players out of an intended walled garden). I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some individual developers were simply sniffily resistant to others changing their work. If putting money on the table means more games can have more mod support, for that reason alone I’m in comfortable with this move.

Related to this is other rights-holders permitting rather than cracking down on mods. What if all those copyright-ignoring boardgame adaptations released for Tabletop Simulator would be legalised, either by giving a cut to Fantasy Flight or whoever, or simply tempting Fantasy Flight or whoever (including indie boardgame designers) to release their own adaptations for it? What if SyFy or Lucasarts officially OKed the Battlestar and Star Wars mods that so many people cry out for, even if it came down to them taking every penny of profit? There’s a great deal of potential, but it’s potential both to crack open the hitherto unyielding shell of copyright and to outright fleece well-intentioned fans.

Which brings us onto some of the reasons this mightn’t be such a happy turn of events.

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Alec Meer

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Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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