A new update for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Special Edition has introduced "Creations", a method through which community modders can sign up to the "Bethesda Game Studios Verified Creator Program" and then sell their work through the platform to receive royalties.
It's "paid mods", in other words, and a revival of an idea Bethesda launched and abandoned in 2015. The same update also broke existing mods dependent on Skyrim Script Extender (SKSE), a commonly used community-made modding toolkit.
Skyrim Special Edition already had a "Creations" menu through which players could access Creation Club items. These were DLC by any other name, bought using credits which in turn cost real money. Creation Club items were often developed by Bethesda themselves, but could also be made by modders in explicit partnership with Bethesda. It was Skyrim's equivalent to Paradox selling Cities: Skylines DLC packs of community-made buildings.
This new update combines the Creations menu together with a previously separate "Mods" menu. Anyone can upload free Creations (eg. mods), and anyone can now apply to become a Verified Creator Program for the ability to charge money. This substantially reduces the barrier to modders selling their work, and has fewer limitations on the type of content that can be sold, as Bethesda explained in the announcement.
Back in 2015, Bethesda partnered with Valve to add paid mods to Skyrim through Steam. The results were so disastrous that they were gone within the week and Valve backed off the idea of supporting paid mods entirely.
Bethesda never gave up on the idea of paid mods however and 2017's Creation Club launch was seen as a slower way of boiling the frog. Players accepted it, or at least ignored it, because it was effectively paid DLC and heavily limited. The new system changes that, once again dangling the carrot of financial reward in front of creators in such a way that you can't blame anyone for taking it, but which seems destined to split the community.
The most imminent issue of the update was that mods reliant on the Skyrim Script Extender were broken in the process. SKSE is a commonly used toolkit that allows Skyrim mods to make more ambitious changes to the base game. SKSE's creators reacted quickly and have released an update which makes it work with the latest patch, but players will need to download the update if they want to continue using their old mods. You can find all the SKSE builds for download here.
Does all of this mean that paid mods are also coming to Starfield when its mod tools launch next year? "We are excited to bring the Verified Creator Program to as many games as possible, but we are only announcing Creations support for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Special Edition/Anniversary Edition at this time," says Bethesda's FAQ. So, yes, in other words.
The previous attempt to launch paid mods was disastrous because many modders operate on the assumption that they're participating in a gift economy, devoting their time for free to create something for others to enjoy with the understanding that everyone else is doing the same. This is a social contract, one that is instantly broken if someone chooses to sell their work. Similar controversies arise in fan fiction communities when an author finds a publishing deal and their work is suddenly yoinked from fic repository AO3 over night.
It's worse in gaming communities, too, because mods are often technically dependent on the work of other mods. If one creator pulls their previously free work to place it behind a paywall, a lot of other mods can be rendered unplayable. It also substantially disincentivises generosity within the community so that shared resources designed for other modders to build upon - such as SKSE, but also texture packs and so on - become less common.
Back in 2015, I spoke to Robin Scott, the creator of the popular mod distribution platform Nexus Mods about the issue. "[Paid mods] would have caused a rift in the Skyrim modding community no matter where or how it was done," he said, but he also acknowledged the complexity of the issue and the potential benefits of paid mods.
"Should mods be free on principle? No. Mods aren't some sort of charitable donation, they're made by skilled people who put a lot of time and effort in to what they do, and just because modding has remained free, for the most part, from the start doesn't mean there's some inalienable right to free mods," he said. "That choice should be placed in the hands of mod authors, not mod users. Are there good reasons why all mods should be free? Yes, yes there are. But are there good reasons why some mods could potentially not be free? Yes, yes there are."