Are Valve's paid mods tearing the Skyrim community apart?

The gaming world's Santa Claus gets accused of selling out

67

Gabe Newell is two people. In his day job, he’s the CEO of video game developer Valve, one of the most powerful forces in PC gaming. To the internet, he’s “Gaben,” a mysterious figure with a propensity for bringing gifts. He is, essentially, the internet’s Santa Claus. But after years of memes, fan pages, and other forms of weird worship, a change to the way Steam handles game modifications has turned a swathe of gamers against their folkloric idol.

Last week, Valve introduced a way for Steam users to pay for modifications to their games, starting with the 2011 role-playing game The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Where modifications — usually shortened to mods — were previously free to download via the Steam Workshop, their creators can now set a fee. Valve said the new system was designed to financially reward the creators of mods, driving their creation in the process, but the news was met with rapid and forceful criticism from PC gamers who complained that the move would fracture the modding community, restrict support for older games, and not pay enough of a share to mod creators.

This weekend, in direct response to the complaints, Newell took to Reddit for a question-and-answer session. After receiving thousands of messages while out on medical leave, Newell arrived on Reddit to try to calm the storm. “Looks like we did something to piss off the internet,” he said. “So here I am, probably a day late, to make sure that if people are pissed off, they are at least pissed off for the right reasons.”

Steam Workshop

The Debut Pack mod collection for Skyrim.

Plenty of people enjoy their games without mods, but the community has had an immeasurable impact on modern video games. Half of Valve's developers, in Newell's estimation, got their start building levels, weapons, or tweaks to existing games. This includes people like Robin Walker and John Cook, who created the Team Fortress mod for Quake in 1996, then joined Valve to build Team Fortress Classic and Team Fortress 2. The company’s latest release, the wildly popular Dota 2, is the successor to the Defense of the Ancients mod for Blizzard’s WarCraft III. As other companies — including Riot Games and Blizzard itself — designed titles that copied Dota’s template, Valve went out and hired the mod-maker that created it, a shadowy figure known by his internet pseudonym, Icefrog.

Newell argues that by charging for their work, mod-makers can be "liberated" to "just do game development," as Walker, Cook, Icefrog, and others were. "Working at Waffle House does not help you make a better game," he said. Newell noted that the Steam Workshop already let people sell cosmetic items for some games, including Dota 2. "With the Steam Workshop," he said, "we've already reached the point where the community is paying their favorite contributors more than they would make if they worked at a traditional game developer." Mod developers being able to earn money from their creations, Newell said, "seemed like a good extension of that."

"Working at Waffle House does not help you make a better game."

Some prolific 3D modelers and artists, such as Dota 2 item designer Stephanie "Anuxi" Everett, earn comfortable livings selling their work. But there's a split between these cosmetic items and non-commercial mods, created more by history than any major differences in function. Part of the problem is the huge range of tasks mods can perform. Some are total overhauls that add game modes, new characters, entire areas, or radically alter games in some fundamental way. Others change minute details, adding new armor pieces or removing restrictions placed originally by the game’s developers. Still others enable crossover fictions, porting characters from other games into new worlds, or in one particularly enjoyable example, bringing Thomas the Tank Engine to the Nordic medieval world of Skyrim.

It’s Skyrim that’s been the flashpoint for much of the mod community’s rage. For four years, Bethesda’s RPG has been kept vibrant by mods uploaded to the Steam Workshop and other, older libraries. Newell says that Valve’s goal, by enabling modders to charge, is "to increase the total investment the community makes in extending its games," but fans of Skyrim have said the new system will drive modders away from its currently verdant scene.

Many of the game’s most popular mods rely on other mods to function, a house of cards that could come tumbling down if one of the creators decides to charge for their software. Already we’ve seen this in action — SkyUI, a popular Skyrim menu mod, is currently broken for many users as the creator moves toward a payment model. If enough developers charge for their work, you’ll need to buy a suite of "essential" mods along with Skyrim to experience the game at its community-defined "best." As Reddit user CaneCraft puts it, players are losing "uncountable content overnight."

The case of SkyUI highlights another problem: what happens when a creator who has charged for their mod moves away from the project? Say, for example, Valve hires the creator of a particularly impressive weapon mod for a Ubisoft game. If a later Ubisoft patch breaks the mod, its creator might not have the time or the freedom to fix content for one of Valve's competitors. Do they owe refunds to the buyers? What if Thomas the Tank Engine’s attorneys swoop in like Skyrim’s dragons to demand the removal of a paid-for mod that clearly infringes on their copyright? Players won’t see Thomas breathing fire in their game any more, but they’ll still be out of pocket to the tune of one giant blue train.

"You need a more robust Valve-is-evil hypothesis."

Despite these legitimate concerns, the most common complaint in Newell’s AMA is that Valve is "selling out." This concern is bolstered by the fact that Skyrim modders only take home 25 percent of their sales, with Valve and Bethesda scooping up the rest. On Reddit, Newell quickly explained that the ratios are set by the company that made the game, and pushed back against the idea that the new system was a simple cash grab.

"Let's assume for a second that we are stupidly greedy," he wrote. "So far the paid mods have generated $10,000 total. That's like 1 percent of the cost of the incremental email the program has generated for Valve employees (yes, I mean pissing off the internet costs you a million bucks in just a couple of days). That's not stupidly greedy," he said. "That's stupidly stupid. You need a more robust Valve-is-evil hypothesis."

Steam Workshop

A custom loading screen for Dota 2, created by Stephanie "Anuxi" Everett.

Valve has increasingly become the target of such hypotheses because of its position at the top of the PC gaming totem pole. No other company has dedicated as much time and resources to PC gaming, and Valve has become almost as important to PC as Sony is to PlayStation, or Microsoft is to Xbox. With that growth, some Redditors argued, comes the ability to make vast amounts of money. User Weakstream called Newell out for his $10,000 total, pointing out that the Skyrim Workshop currently only features 17 paid mods, out of thousands available. "If you scaled this up to 1,000 mods," he argued, "that's half a million dollars. The potential for revenue here is massive. Don't act like it isn't." "The potential for revenue here is massive."

But while Newell said Valve will informally warn developers away from "dumb," modder-unfriendly decisions, he hasn’t explained whether his company will step in to monitor the quality of paid mods. In 2012, Valve showed that it had difficulty plowing through the number of games submitted to Steam, adopting the controversial "Greenlight" system that crowdsources approval for games on the platform. By the same token, the medium-sized company can’t be expected to monitor the many thousands of mods on offer, and users have already taken advantage — some wag has already submitted a $100 "horse genitalia" mod to the Skyrim Workshop. Robust refund systems should mean most customers won’t eventually get shafted by an accidental equine penis, but the self-policing ecosystem that has built up around the Workshop is now in turmoil, with frustrated customers down-voting solid content just because it now exists in a paid-for version.

Many hundreds of Redditors fear this is creating a schism between mod creators and mod consumers, casting one side as money-grubbers and the other as cheapskates. Alternately, those modders that eschew the fee could be seen as heroes fighting for their users. Newell wrote in his Reddit AMA that "money is how the community steers work," but — as demonstrated by the almost-4,000 downvotes on the comment — the community appears to disagree. The Valve CEO has vowed to review the new addition of paid mods, but for now at least, it’s a switch that looks to have turned in the internet’s Santa Claus into Krampus.

The best of Verge Video