Last week Valve made the groundbreaking announcement that mod creators would be able to sell their game mods for profit, starting with The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011). And then almost immediately reversed the decision. Obviously the situation wrought its fair share of controversy, after all it would have represented a dramatic shift to the way game modification has worked for —literally— decades. I’m not an avid user of game mods, and I know that the fervent community seems largely to be glad Valve and Bethesda have backpedaled on their decision. I do, however, want to talk about what it looked like from the outside: the methodology behind why selling mods could have been a good thing.
Let me start by saying I thought it showed incredible optimism and foresight that Valve would have seen fit to empower young designers to start their careers. For the most part, people don’t like to hear that services they have come to expect for free are being taken away from them, but of course mods were never a service to begin with. They are the end products of pure passion, the best of which —like Counter-Strike (1999), Defense of the Ancients (2003), and Day Z (2012)— already went on to become revenue sources for their creators. Overnight the super-fans and enthusiasts who typically supported games with new features and content well after their initial release would have been instantly transformed into outright developers: now making and selling videogame add-ons and assets to support the development of more game content.
Allowing developers to sell mods could feasibly see the rise of a whole new industry. We all love the story of the garage developer who created the next big game or app, but we don’t hear about all the failed projects, we don’t hear about all the failed projects; we never know about all the upstarts which go bankrup. Well, a service to sell small scale creations could theoretically give developers a new avenue to test the waters before quitting their day job. It could very well be the confidence boost that shows someone how qualified they truly are to make a living creating games. It could be big — it’s also a very ‘Valve-ian’ move.
Valve has repeatedly put a lot of effort into making sure budding developers get their due. My favourite example of this is from 2011, when Valve channeled the popularity of Portal 2 (2011) into promoting indie games. Their promise was that they would release Portal 2 early, if enough people completed in-game objectives from a myriad of smaller games like: Amnesia: The Dark Descent (2010), Audiosurf (2008), and Super Meat Boy (2010). I take this as proof that Valve is committed to the world’s future game makers, even if it’s only because their business is to sell good games to their customers. If people aren’t able to make a living creating games, they’re forced to go make something else — even if they don’t want to.
In the case of selling mods for profit there’s a pretty complex legal question to deal with when it comes to who owns what. Mod makers often share assets and labour, which is a bit of a tougher pill to swallow when money is involved. But really, the very concept of people modifying a game to add or remove features has always been a pretty grey area legally. I have to have faith that for the same reasons publishers let any modding happen to begin with they would continue to play ball if mods were being sold. And the same thing for creators. Money can be a very corrupting power, but it can also be the force that allows people to come together and make newer better things, which is why art is quite often a subsidized venture.
At the end of the day consumers always get the last vote. In the past few days we have had the chance to see just how profoundly true that is. It is the same in all consumer driven businesses: support what you love. I would say though, we have to try and be less hostile. No matter what side of the fence you fall on, the torrents of anger that rise and fall every time anything rocks the boat cannot be the status-quo. If nothing else I hope this piece is a chance to reflect on some of the motivations to why Valve might have wanted to do something like this. Someone out there, some budding developer, just might have benefitted from this new service that’s been so abruptly shut down. Just take a beat to consider it — and then maybe consider donating a bit of money to a mod creator who has made something you love.