Valve May Have Just Destroyed A Pillar Of Its Own PC Gaming Community

In the last few days Valve has teamed up with Bethesda, makers of the Elder Scrolls games (amongst others), to run a paid mod store for Bethesda’s game. This is a terrible idea.

Mods (user modifications to games) are a staple component of PC gaming and one of the touted reasons to game on PC rather than on other platforms. Take a decades-old game and modders will give people a reason to load it back up. Modders may go back and update the graphical settings of older games or even improve upon existing modern games extending shelf-life, playability and user enjoyment. Despite occasional legal issues (modders are of course modifying copyrighted works) the modding community has been a force for good in the video game world. Furthermore, they have been such a force for good almost exclusively for free, driven only by the shared enjoyment of the games themselves. And with a single move, Valve has flipped all that on it’s head allowing mods to be sold through their Steam service.

Modders were a community. As such, they built on each others work and this was fine in free environment where people were out to increase their enjoyment of the game. Now of course, there are mods for sale on Steam that are dependant on the work of other modders. Valve’s approach to this issue:

I asked Valve specifically about content that requires other content, and was told that if the download is separate and free, it was fair game…

Of course, the only reason the other mod was free was because it had not yet been added to the Steam mod store. What would be the case if the mod had been added? Certainly it isn’t clear that the modders own copyright of these works as they most often modifications of already copyrighted content.

The copyright issue is a problem in and of itself here. In this instance, Valve appears to have tried to sidestep this issue by making the Mod store together with the Skyrim’s creators Bethesda. In the sale the modder makes 25% and the remaining 75% is divided between the game developer and Valve, presumably with some agreement with Bethesda about copyright issues. EDIT: It appears that Valve take their standard 30% cut as they do elsewhere and it’s up to the developer to decide how much of what is left that they want; in this case Bethesda chose 45%. But this doesn’t really solve anything. All this serves to do is to further confuse the situation. If a modder chooses to make their mod available for free, such as through Nexus Mods, what recourse do they have should someone else take their mod and place it on the Steam mod store? Though Valve might choose to institute some policy on this, legally it is absolutely not clear where anybody stands and given that external modders will not be part of Steam’s contract (and therefore not in any direct contract with Bethesda) it’s incredibly unclear what outcomes could occur. Equally, what if a free modder from the Nexus site chooses to recreate a paid mod or even copy it wholesale? Can the paid modder now pursue legal recourse against the free one? Would Bethesda now be more likely to become legally involved, such as issuing DMCA takedowns, to prevent free modders offering mods that might take funds away from the paid store where they will receive revenue?

But perhaps worse still, paid mods contribute to a growing trend in the gaming community sometimes referred to as the “day 1 patch”. Now that most devices have internet access and places to store data, game developers can begin pushing out partially finished works to consumers with the intention to continue working on the project as distribution begins. Developers can then issue a day 1 patch on the release date that “finishes” the game. This has developed further into payment for “early access” to games still in development. The problem being that developers are sometimes accused of simply taking this money for an unfinished game and then running. Some of this blame lies with consumers, who make the poor decision to pay for an unfinished product and a promise. But the blame also lies with the industry. And now the industry doesn’t even need to finish the games themselves.

What this means is that Mods are now basically third-party Downloadable Content (DLC), a much maligned trend in modern games where additional game content is sold to users after launch. There are some good arguments for DLC but the accusation is typically that DLC is often really just game content that the user, historically, might have gotten as part of their initial purchase. But for similar reasons as with the day 1 patch, internet access and hard drive space, developers can now choose to slowly unlock content that may even be on the disk already in exchange for more money. Now of course, we may see that this trend is extended further still with developers simply taking the view that ‘modders can add it later’ and that the game developers will still benefit financially through the redistribution of the modder’s pay.

Valve and Steam are major components of PC gaming. In this way, they have substantial power to shift and shape the trajectory of the PC gaming community. By introducing paid mods they have hurt users by changing the incentives to continue playing and enjoying games the way that users have done so in the past. This may fundamentally alter the PC gaming landscape in a way that further encourages shoddy work and consumer exploitation. The problem is not so much that Valve has introduced money into the modding community. Many modders accept donations or seek reward for their work. But by formalising these transactions Valve has not only built it’s own market but also smashed into all the other markets in doing so, including the free ones. The company that is often comically represented as godlike has basically just destroyed one of the most loved aspects of the very marketplace it has such dominance in. As such I won’t be purchasing any more games through Steam or using their services to play games in my existing catalogue.

UPDATE:

It appears that the Nexus site may in fact be taking some kind of money through the Steam workshop store also. A Moderator called Chesko from the SkyrimMods SubReddit (which is now gone) stated: 

I am also considering removing my content from the Nexus. Why? The problem is that Robin et al, for perfectly good political reasons, have positioned themselves as essentially the champions of free mods and that they would never implement a for-pay system. However, The Nexus is a listed Service Provider on the curated Workshop, and they are profiting from Workshop sales. They are saying one thing, while simultaneously taking their cut. I’m not sure I’m comfortable supporting that any longer. I may just host my mods on my own site for anyone who is interested.

And further evidence from Nexus’s own forums appear to suggest that the modding site is positioning itself alongside Valve:

Modders may list service providers to direct funds towards them but as far as I can tell this simply further entangles the market and therefore confers more control to Valve and the publishers.

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