Opinion: Money for Steam Workshop Mods Turns Hobby into Commerce

Valve announced that Steam Workshop creators can now charge money for their mods, starting with Skyrim. This could have serious, degrading, effects on the gaming community and should be stopped. Here's why.

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There's a general understanding between video game developers and mod creators. Modders, usually fans, are allowed to use the game's assets, even add to them, so long as they don't make any money. It's a rule that's typically spelled out in the EULA (End User License Agreement) players must agree to when they install the game. For years, that arrangement has led to incredible works, including a young designer who built an entire continent for Skyrim and subsequently used it to apply for a job at Bethesda Softworks. But that quiet understanding may eventually become a thing of the past with Valve's announcement that Steam Workshop creations for participating games may be sold for money.

Bad News for Modders

Few activities show dedication and love for a game more than creating content for it. It's sort of like writing fan fiction for your favorite book, except kicked up several notches. Since modders couldn't be paid for their work, creating one was a labor of love. There are plenty of cases where that hobby turned into a paying job. Once upon a time, creating an awesome Unreal Tournament mod might earn you a job at Epic Games. MOBA games like League of Legends were started by a WarCraft III mod called Defense of the Ancients. Similarly, Garry's Mod started as a free mod before Valve gave permission for it to become a premium standalone game. But the trend with all these cases is that each creator started with a hobby, changing up games that they loved, and later turned it into a paid profession. Furthermore, these hobbies can often raise the gaming industry to new heights, benefiting players everywhere.

The Steam Workshop provides a standardized means for modders to create content for their favorite games without having to learn a dozen different toolsets. Until the announcement, all content created with the Workshop was free. Now modders can create content for Skyrim (the only participating game so far) for the intended purpose of selling it, skipping over the free bit. Creators can set their own price, and prices seem fairly low so far. A dollar or two for a single weapon or a bit of armor, and more for a bundled set. It's not much, but if iTunes is any indication, you don't necessarily need to sell expensive goods to make a lot of money.

In the book "What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets," Harvard Law professor Michael Sandel states that money can have a degrading effect when it is introduced into a social system. Although it seems counterintuitive, sometimes paying for something can devalue the item or service. Why should anyone do anything for free when they can get paid for it? When money enters into the equation, it often degrades or replaces the love that would otherwise be present if it were done with no expectation of payment.

Anyone who has ever made popular and original content for Skyrim thus far and gave it away for free just got slapped in the face with the announcement. Even if only 100 people were willing to pay a dollar for that mod, that's a hundred dollars you missed out on because the rules suddenly changed. Now there's incentive to create something, not because you love Skyrim and because you want to share the love, but because maybe you'll make a few bucks. And if you don't make money for your work, then the monetary system becomes a disincentive to make anything at all.

When money isn't a factor, the only things that holds you back is from expressing your talent is your passion, drive, and time. Even if your item isn't popular, at least you made something that you were proud enough of to share with others. But there's an entirely different standard when you expect to be paid for your work, leading to a different relationship between modders and the players that enjoy what they make. By extension, user reviews for mods take on a whole new importance. It was one thing to download a free mod and be dissatisfied with it. It's another to pay for one.

Bad News for Gamers

If you think the deluge of premium DLC from developers and publishers is annoying, just wait until you have to start paying for horse armor again. If modders continually expect to be paid for their creations, free content may eventually go away almost entirely. All that will be left will be crap no one really cares for, or stuff that violates the copyright of something else. So, at least you won't have to pay for that Skyrim light saber or ton ton. Not yet, anyway.

Even if modders can only make a modest profit for their work, that won't stop the flood of terrible premium content that inevitably get dumped into these marketplaces by those hoping to make some quick cash. Just about every online seller, including the iTunes app store and especially Google Play, suffers from this. It's a minor nuisance when this stuff shows up for free, it's really annoying when you end up paying for it, even when you can request a refund.

The expectation of payment opens the mod market up to different interests. Why shouldn't Mountain Dew or McDonald's release branded horse armor? If not directly, then perhaps a modder might seek sponsorship from a company. Even if they don't charge for it, it's still advertising. Fantasy role-playing games are sort of the last bastion for product placement and advertisements, because seeing a having the double arches as your coat of arms is a bit out of place. Game developers can't get away with that kind of product placement, but modders don't have to use that standard. You may end up adventuring alongside a walking billboard in your next multiplayer game. However, I'll admit, things could get interesting if they start advertising rival games.

Being Free to Play

Although it might seem like a good idea to pay modders that do quality work, the long term cost to the gaming community is too high. Allowing premium mods for even one game is a dangerous experiment, and one that threatens the love and creativity that drives the creation of some of these works. Gamers and modders alike should help put an end to this practice by not participating in it. It would send a message that the community is not interested in having this area of gaming compromised.

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From The Chatty
  • reply
    April 24, 2015 6:30 AM

    Steven Wong posted a new article, Opinion: Money for Steam Workshop Mods Turns Hobby into Commerce

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      April 24, 2015 6:49 AM

      I 100% agree.

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      April 24, 2015 7:16 AM

      The underlying assumption that allowing modders to charge for their work, if they want to, is bad for gaming, is ludicrous.

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      April 24, 2015 7:53 AM

      I am on the fence about this myself. There are certainly some fantastic mods and modders who definitely deserve to be compensated. Especially if they are high quality and took a lot of work and effort.

      That said, Valve's approach is 100% the wrong way to do it. Letting anyone to do it anytime they want with whatever thing they want, ESPECIALLY with no monetary investment involved from the mod creator, will just flood the Workshop pages with people either posting things with minimal effort to try to make a quick buck and/or milk people for money.

      You want proof of this? Just look at Greenlight and all the "created in Unity with bought models and clearly no effort" games that get put on there all the time/make it on to steam thanks to that. Ald also recall the way it was before Valve required $100 to post something on there.

      A better way to do this would be similar to what they already do for TF2 and DOTA items: every now and then approach people that made mods with high interest and obvious quality and approach THEM about monetizing their mod. Thing is that would take time and effort. Things that Valve does not seem to want to do when trying to make money these days. They'd rather automatize everything they used to do in trying to make a profit than do actual work to make sure the things they make money from wind up being quality and well done.

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      April 24, 2015 7:54 AM

      Yeah, I'm not so sure about this. The main implication for a lot of this seems to be that doing something because it's a hobby is the only way to be passionate about what you're doing (whether intended or not). I think you could very easily make the opposite argument: that you're much more incentivized to do well when there are real dollars at the end of the road if you do it right. Plus, like this article admits, many of the "big" modders do these to expand their portfolio in order to--guess what--get hired (aka, make money). Even if the end goal were to shift from "Get hired at Bethesda" to "make lots of mods for Bethesda games," it's still a financial decision that requires a quality product.

      "Why should anyone do anything for free when they can get paid for it? When money enters into the equation, it often degrades or replaces the love that would otherwise be present if it were done with no expectation of payment."

      There are lots of reasons people do things for free when they could get paid for it. One reason is that they just simply don't care about the money. Tied with that is the same exposure element already mentioned: you drastically increase your potential audience when you release something for free. Look at something like Bandcamp or Soundcloud. Artists post free downloads or even "name your price" albums for a variety of reasons. That's their call. But in the end, there's not really a moral duty to provide services for free. Why SHOULD anyone do anything for free when they can get paid for it? A bargained-for exchange of money for goods/services is a foundation of capitalism and the economy. It's not immoral.

      "Anyone who has ever made popular and original content for Skyrim thus far and gave it away for free just got slapped in the face with the announcement. Even if only 100 people were willing to pay a dollar for that mod, that's a hundred dollars you missed out on because the rules suddenly changed. "

      That is a bummer, but if they did it "for the love of the game" like it's implied that hobbyists do, then they shouldn't really care anyway right? I mean, if we only made decisions that we could retroactively implement, nothing would ever get done. That's not a very persuasive argument to me at all, since it undermines the entire concept of "free modders" doing it out of a passion for the game. If they could suddenly charge money for their mods, does that invalidate their creation now because they've monetized it? It would be logically impossible under the "passion = free" argument.

      "Now there's incentive to create something, not because you love Skyrim and because you want to share the love, but because maybe you'll make a few bucks. And if you don't make money for your work, then the monetary system becomes a disincentive to make anything at all."

      This isn't true at all. Before, there was incentive to make something because (a) you love the game, (b) you love the game and want to build a portfolio and maybe get exposure/get hired (aka make money for content creation). Now, there's incentive to make something because of (a) and (b), but also (c) make money in the short-term, where you don't have to rely on a hope and a prayer that the right people see your stuff. You could easily make the argument that this could foster a market with EVEN MORE expansive mods, because people could dedicate real working hours if they knew that there was money at the end of it for them. People have innovated great things knowing that they could get paid for them.

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        April 24, 2015 7:55 AM

        "When money isn't a factor, the only things that holds you back is from expressing your talent is your passion, drive, and time. Even if your item isn't popular, at least you made something that you were proud enough of to share with others. But there's an entirely different standard when you expect to be paid for your work, leading to a different relationship between modders and the players that enjoy what they make. "

        Nothing in those first two sentences changes with a money-for-mods system. The creation of a mod requires the same amount of skill and time whether there's a price tag on it at the end or not. In fact, the presence of money, as stated before, lets you potentially dedicate MORE passion and time. Again, I keep coming back to this article's implication that you can't be proud of something or be passionate about it if you're doing it for money. Even if people create content solely for money, it can still be passionate, AND it doesn't preclude people from creating content in the same way as before. You can already see the reddit posts about the freedom fighting gamer who created a big mod and released it FOR FREE. The exposure would be huge. If he or she got a job because of that, does it suddenly invalidate their entire creation? I don't think so.

        "If modders continually expect to be paid for their creations, free content may eventually go away almost entirely. All that will be left will be crap no one really cares for, or stuff that violates the copyright of something else. "

        I've already mentioned a few instances where someone could have incentive to release something for free. However, one can't possibly assume we're somehow entitled as gamers to huge total conversions and mods that are the culmination of hundreds or thousands of hours for nothing. This all kind of just boils down to that logic. People want stuff for free.

        "Even if modders can only make a modest profit for their work, that won't stop the flood of terrible premium content that inevitably get dumped into these marketplaces by those hoping to make some quick cash."

        There's plenty of terrible free stuff already out there. I'm not downloading DONNY'S NUDE SKINZ PACK v6.9 either way. We ignore products all the time. If it means possibly giving a modder a few extra bucks for something good for the inconvenience of scrolling through a longer list of stuff I don't want, well, that's not a travesty to me.

        "The expectation of payment opens the mod market up to different interests. Why shouldn't Mountain Dew or McDonald's release branded horse armor? If not directly, then perhaps a modder might seek sponsorship from a company. Even if they don't charge for it, it's still advertising. Fantasy role-playing games are sort of the last bastion for product placement and advertisements, because seeing a having the double arches as your coat of arms is a bit out of place. "

        So don't buy it? No one is forcing you to put Mt. Dew armor in your game. Unless you're talking about in-game advertising from the devs, which is an ENTIRELY different scenario. But it's up to you whether you want that in your game or not. You've got to balance the existence of some stuff you don't want versus stuff you do want. Frankly, there's nothing stopping someone from doing that right now in a "free mod" situation. I can think of an example of that already. If you play Battle Royale for Arma3, at the beginning of EVERY MATCH there are advertisements for domain hosting, game servers, and a twitch.tv account. And let's be real for a second...does anyone really think someone wouldn't just release a patch to get rid of that kind of thing anyhow? It happens ALL THE TIME with piracy. Honestly, people just need to vote with their wallet. If they don't want these things, then don't buy them.

        "Allowing premium mods for even one game is a dangerous experiment, and one that threatens the love and creativity that drives the creation of some of these works. "

        There is absolutely NO reason why a passionate individual would ever be less passionate just because his mod will sell for a few dollars instead of free. There IS, however, reason for him to be MORE passionate about it. I know I'd do a better job, because I want people to (a) buy it, and (b) buy my next thing too. Building a reputation as someone who creates quality content is a perfectly legitimate and proven business strategy.

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          April 24, 2015 7:55 AM

          Like I said, to me, this boils down to complaining about stuff that used to be free not being free anymore. But I don't think it's fair to expect people to devote so much time to creating that kind of thing for nothing. And the path that the article seems to dub the "honorable" path (i.e. creating a mod, gaining exposure, landing a dream job) is simply the same idea (getting paid for making content). If you really wanted to make a mod for a game a week ago, you did it because you just felt like doing it. If you want to make a mod for Skyrim now, you still do it because you feel like doing it, but you might also make some money in the end. I say let the market sort it out. If you make bad stuff, no one's going to want it. One could very easily argue that it would hold modders to a higher standard, leading to more professional creations. The flood of stuff you weren't going to buy anyway has almost no practical effect on anyone.

          That's just my opinion though. I'm not ready to hit the alarm because of this.

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            April 24, 2015 10:09 AM

            Possibly getting a job later on is a different sort of incentive system, and it's not necessarily a monetary one. You could, for example, be solely interested in being part of a company like Bethesda, but you might not have a minimum salary in mind. Furthermore, adding a great mod to your resume doesn't guarantee a job. There's the hope that your odds of employment are increased, but there's no confirmed expectation of it. Therefore, it's hard to say that possibly getting a job somewhere fits into the category of financial motivation.

            It kind of goes like this: Say a friend or co-worker regularly brings in homemade cupcakes that you grow to enjoy. Then, one day, s/he announces that they will no longer bring them in unless they are paid for them. It's not necessarily wrong of them to want compensation for their work, but the expectation of payment changes a number of different factors, starting with how you perceive the cupcakes, what you expect from them (additional flavors, etc), to how you view your friend/co-worker's motivations for bringing them in. Your relationship in this case has changed on a subtle level, and probably not in a good way.

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              April 24, 2015 10:25 AM

              The article used exposure of mods as gateways to game design employment. While it may not have been the sole purpose of the mod maker, there are basically two "reasons" for development: (1) you don't care about the money and you just did it for people (including yourself) to enjoy the product, and (2) either part or all of your incentive for making the mod was because you thought it might add to a portfolio. In the first case, nothing about the money system changes the perspective of that potential modder. Just as the Bandcamp example I used before, they are still free to do a free release, or maybe even down the road there would be a "Name Your Price" option as well, which I think would be great for mods. Kind of surprised it wasn't in the original plan. But just because it's not an immediate financial motivation doesn't mean financials aren't either a part or all of the ultimate motivation behind it. But more importantly, it shouldn't matter. Either the person is doing it "out of love" or "because of money" -- but neither of those circumstances really hurts the end-user. We pay for quality content all the time. I don't think that's unreasonable.

              I am not sure that analogy is really accurate. It's more like you buy cupcakes from a bakery every day, and one day a bunch of strangers offer to decorate the cupcake in different ways for you. Then someone else offers to decorate them in a different way, or even change the cupcake entirely, but for a price. You're free to say no thanks to that. The original game you bought is the cupcake. The mod is the change to the original content. Whereas before any modifications to that cupcake were free, now they MIGHT be free or they MIGHT cost you something extra. But you've still got your cupcake.

              But even in your example, if someone brought in free stuff for my office all the time, and then said that they were going to start recouping some of the costs for constantly bringing them in (accurate or not), I wouldn't be resentful. I'd either just help them with the costs or not eat the cupcakes anymore. The idea that spending money for products is somehow either immoral or a loss of humanity or something just doesn't really fly with me.

              Now if you want to talk about the IMPLEMENTATION of such systems and how they might be flawed, sure, that's legit. But I was really only talking about the implication of this article. At this point I've said WAY too many words about it!

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      April 24, 2015 8:36 AM

      I've been seriously considering getting back into reading. Less bullshit there AND people don't look into raping your pockets and up-selling you to death. This hobby of mine smells like a rotten bag of smashed assholes.

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        April 24, 2015 9:04 PM

        That's some good imagery. You should put that in a book and sell it. You could make millions :D

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      April 24, 2015 8:49 AM

      More DLC that we can pay for, hurray!. At least those that pay will have a chance to bitch at the mod makers when stuff doesn't work, and expect it to be fixed. Besides if this gets "big" there will be so many mods and so few customers. At least Blizzard knew it was a bad thing when they killed it in WOW.

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      April 24, 2015 9:15 AM

      Free DLC is the way to be, see!

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      April 24, 2015 9:16 AM

      As an author, I feel quite uneasy releasing stuff that was previously free with now a price or new stuff for a price. This is only a hobby for me and I care more about reaching a wider audience instead. Plus, I wouldn't quite like the new relationship that would come with money involved and I feel like this would eventually become a drag to support it. =/

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      April 24, 2015 10:35 AM

      [deleted]

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      April 24, 2015 10:36 AM

      I do agree that the best mods over the course of the PC gaming have been labors of love, but imagine all of the mods that could have been fantastic but weren't made because the person couldn't fit that amount of work into their life without the prospect of pay. People working 40+ hours a week at two jobs just to get rent paid. Being able to pay modders will unfortunately bring with it a bunch of junk mods as people try to cash in on this industry shift but it will also allow great ideas to flourish from previously unrepresented voices.

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      April 24, 2015 9:01 PM

      What I find interesting about this whole affair is this is exactly what Microsoft was trying to do with the Xbox 360 when it launched ten years ago.

      Valve has brought us VelocityGirl

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hisMQ-YRbfQ&t=30m44s

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      April 25, 2015 8:36 PM

      This outrage echoes the discussion when Garry's Mod started selling for $10. I feel the same now as I did then: paying people for their work will provide avenues for better content (just as it did with Garry's Mod).

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