For nearly a decade and a half Bethesda studios has been a leader in the realm of PC modding. Starting with Morrowind, every major RPG they published has been released with a construction set. This is a slightly modified version of the tools used to create the game. With it a player could add, create or change almost any mechanic, item or element in the game. Furthermore it allowed these modifications to be packaged and released in a format easily added to another player’s game. Bethesda was not the first to release modding tools, but they popularized it to such an extent that Bethesda RPGs are synonymous with modding. Now a new idea has come to PC game modding, the monetization of mods through the Steam Workshop. And once again Bethesda is not the originator, but they are certainly getting the attention. As a PC gamer and former member of the Bethesda modding community, I thought it necessary to share my thoughts on this new development.
A modification is essentially fan made DLC, so there may be some correlation between how a player feels toward the idea of paid mods and paid DLC. From a technical point of view, rather than the amount of work it takes, the simplest mods are skins and costumes. These type of cosmetic changes have no impact on gameplay, but that doesn’t seem to matter in the minds of many gamers. Fans of titles like Team Fortress 2 and DOTA 2 already know how some players love their new costumes, hats and other accoutrements. So long as there are gamers willing to pay money for such content, what’s wrong with letting users get in on the action? If someone has the talent and desire to create these works, for which there is already a market in the form of official DLC, then there is a reasonable expectation that they too may be compensated. I have no qualms with this. The only real pitfall I can see is plagiarism. There needs to be some form of mediation should two different users post content that is too similar.
The next level of complexity lies with gameplay mods. This is where things start to get murky. These are mods that might add new weapons, armor, mechanics, characters or even quests that never before existed in the game. The focus may be on making the game easier or harder for the player, either way they often add new factors to your gameplay strategy. It takes a much deeper understanding of the game and it’s mechanics to develop this style of mod. Adding a new weapon to the game requires knowing how damage values are calculated so that they may be properly applied. Then there is the matter of getting a new item to the player, is it found in a chest, purchased from a vendor or given as a quest reward? Each method of delivery requires a modder to learn some things beyond the original scope of their project, which is where the real problems begin. Let’s say someone purchases a mod which adds a new weapon to the inventory of a shopkeeper. They also purchase one that adds a new piece of armor for sale from the exact same shop. What happens if the methods used by each modder are in conflict and the game is only able to add one of the items to the shop, or worse it can’t add either one. Individually, each mod may work just fine, but the conflict prevents them from being used together. What recourse is there for a player who paid money for a mod they can’t use?
Unlike a cosmetic mod, where you already know that a character can’t wear two hats at once, gameplay mods are supposed to be used in conjunction with others. It is not unusual for a player to have 100-200 mods, or more, all running at the same time. A player can pick several mods that make changes to shops; one could add new items, another changes all the prices, still others could add or change dialogue or even have shopkeepers give you quests. Under the current model of free mods there is no guarantee of compatibility, all these mods may work together or the game will crash every time the character enters a shop. If the problem lies with one or two mods specifically the player must rethink which features from the array of mods they really want or perhaps find an alternate mod which makes similar changes. There have been times where I went looking for a mod to make a very specific change, and found several whose descriptions sounded like they might work. So, I downloaded them all to try out. Sometimes I found that only one fit my needs, other times I deleted them all and made my own mod. Since all the mods were free the worst part of this method, mixing & matching and trial & error, is that it can be annoying or somewhat time consuming. How much worse would it be if you had to pay money for dozens of mods before knowing if they were compatible, or if they even did what you wanted?
By far the hardest mods to create are Overhauls and Total Conversions. An Overhaul mod changes all mechanics and settings across the entire game. From weapon and rewards to enemy AI and leveling mechanics, nothing is left untouched. The game still has the same story and characters, but the way it’s play has been completely changed. By contrast a Total Conversion creates a 100% new game, there are no elements of the original games story or characters. Some of the more famous Total Conversions include Garry’s Mod for Half Life 2, DayZ for Arma 2 and Nehrim for Oblivion. These mods are big and take 1000s of hours to create. Surely if any mod is worth paying for, it is these mega mods. However, I can’t think of a single mod of this scale that was created by just one person. So much has been put into theses mods that I couldn’t imagine how there could ever be a paid version that didn’t involve some hefty fees being spent on lawyers to negotiate and write contracts.
It’s not just big mod that are made with collaboration, many smaller have been made with input from several people. In my experiences this was always a very amiable process. In one case a modder, whose expertise was in 3d modeling, was having trouble writing the code for his mod. He created a forum post asking for help and I answered. After discussing his vision for the mod, I scrapped his code completely and wrote my own. The changes I made to the scripting also allowed him to add some more ideas. A few more modders joined in and helped with some of the graphics, sound and some compatibility patches. I wonder how this process would have happened under a paid mod model. There’d be questions of who gets listed as the mods author and what each team members cut should be. It could be argued that someone who made a mod compatible with some of the more popular mods should be entitled to a larger share of the money earned. After All, the more compatible a mod the more likely it is to be used by a larger player base. On the other hand a compatibility patch is very much a derivative work, partially reverse engineering two separate mods to the point where key links can be made between them. Do the authors of either mod have the right to a portion of income made from a such a patch?
Expanding on this idea even further we come to utility mods. These are tools that can be used by modders and mods but make no actual changes to a game by themselves, such as a script extender. When the programmers are creating a game they have specific commands to work with in their code. These might be something like “Get.ActorValue” which would look at the player character’s stat values, perhaps for a skill check or dialogue choice. When modders are writing code they are limited to only the commands used by the developers, unless they have a script extender. Using a script extender allows the use of brand new commands, which in turns lets a modder create something that not even the original programmers could have done. If you want to play a mod that uses these additional commands, you will need to install the same script extender. I’d imagine there would be lots of problems if either a script extender or related mod were placed behind a paywall. The creators of the extender could demand compensation for the use of their work in a paid mod, or they could simply put a much larger price tag on their own work as modders and players alike will be wanting it. Of course this could back fire to the point where players won’t want to pay for extra utilities just to use a smaller mod they already purchased.
When DLC comes from the developer you know that it has been through quality assurance and is compatible with all other official DLC. What happens where there are conflicts between a mod and DLC? There have been many cases where an official game patch breaks an existing mod. This requires the mods author to make adjustments to their work, meanwhile everyone using the mod needs to either stop playing until it’s updated or remove the mod from their game. In some cases there have been mods built around a specific mechanic which the developer considers a glitch. There may not be a way to fix the mod once this glitch has been patched out. This is a well known issue in the modding community, and because modding is a hobby there is no expectation of updates and fixes to a mod in this situation. Once the modder has released their work they may move on to other interests. Would this change when money is involved? If someone pays for a mod which is later broken by some new piece of DLC, are they entitled to a fix or refund? What if the modder has left the modding community, who is the responsible party then? Could the developer be held liable for the contents of their patch? What level of responsibility can reasonably be expected from Steam?
The idea of modders getting paid for their hard work might sound great at first, but I see it as trouble in the making. I always viewed modding as a hobby, nothing more and certainly not something I would ever charge money for. If money was what I was after I would have spent my time creating a series of indie games instead. There are a many questions that I don’t have the answers to, and I’m not the one who should be answering them anyway. According to everything I have read, when a mod does get sold in the Steam Workshop only 25% of the proceeds go to the modder.
This tells me that either Valve, Bethesda or both will be the ones making most of the money off these sales and should therefore have the fullest understanding of these technical and legal aspects. In fact, if someone reading this really wants to create and sell mods, I would encourage you to really read the EULA, Terms of Service, Subscriber Agreement and anything of the other fine print we normally skip through when installing games. You need to know exactly what you are getting yourself into. If you are someone who really wants to see modders getting paid for what they do, there are other ways besides direct sales. Some of the larger modding teams have ways to donate money. Also the Skyrim Nexus site also has a donate button on many of their mods and I’m pretty sure the Nexus Mods site takes much less than a 75% cut. Then again, all my worrying may be in vain. From what I can tell there is already a lot of negativity on the internet about this, and some modders have already pulled their work from the Steam Workshop in protest.