Personal blog of Elijs 'X2Eliah' Dima

Charging money for mods: the counterargument

Okay. This write-up is based entirely on the idea posed in this here article (link) – specifically about Valve being somewhat open-minded about the idea of modders charging real world money for their mods on places like Steam Workshop.

I’m sure there are a lot of arguments in favour of such a development, but there are some fairly major hurdles that I’d like to bring up. I don’t know if this story/idea will evolve into anything serious, or will it die a stillborn and nobody will give a damn… Really, I don’t care much. It’s just that I’ve been involved in modding and have had cases where obtaining money (not large sums by any stretch of the definition – token stuff, more or less) for mod-derived work was a possibility. There are pitfalls in the whole idea of selling mods for all involved sides – customers, modders and the game developers. Let’s take a look at a choice selection of those points then, shall we?

Let’s kick off with thinking about what the customers gain. Games like Oblivion, Skyrim, Minecraft, Counter-Strike, X3, Diablo 2 – all of them have fairly large selections of user-created content on offer. The games themselves have enough of a spark to draw players to themselves, but also they have certain flaws, or potential content space, that’s being filled. By volunteers. Thus, regular gamers, who do not give a damn about making something themselves, still have the option to check out various alterations to the default formula. The quality of content is, obviously, all over the place, but the flip side is that it is both optional and completely balls-to-the-wall free of any cost. If you got the game and some spare time, you can mod it to oblivion and back without knowing much more than how to copy/paste files on your computer.

So what changes when mods become a one-time-purchase or subscription-payment environment? Personally, I’d argue that there will be no real change in the quality of content (because people don’t really change their ethics – good developers get paid because they create good stuff, not vice-versa); the overall scope will still be all over the place, going from superb total overhauls and immense bugfixes to, pardon the frankness, idiotic photoshop reskins (change texture hue and colour a bit) and kitbashes (take two models, spend 1 minute in 3ds max or similar by rearranging the segments a little bit, slap them together, done) of existing armour sets. Arguably, via the binds of transaction, the consumers will be more legally entitled to expect a bug-free and polished product for their money, but how can that be a certainty, when even major AAA studios with millions of dollars in budget release bugged products without even a blink? And, really, in your own opinion, do you think some person cares that you paid 2 or 3 dollars for their work and now want infinite workhours’ worth of fixing and tweaking? Above all else, the one change that we can be sure of, if this whole concept becomes an actual thing, is that the consumers/players/customers (same thing, really) will have to pay for the content where they didn’t have to before. So that’s clearly a good thing, because we as humans love spending money for no real reason. Point one in favour, eh? Oh, and one more thing – by making mods cost money, you can effectively forget about playing a modded game without some kind of an account/profile. Hope you like logging into stuff, bud!

But enough about the players, let’s talk about something more important. The developers of the game the mods would be for. And, because this is my blog and screw it why not, I’ll also include the publishers and content-delivery-system-managers here. What are some of the changes they might face? Well, for one, the need to facilitate buyable mod marketplace means.. Well, yeah, it means just that. The game devs/pubs/managers will need to host servers and marketplaces through which players will obtain mods. Valve has a system in place – the Steam Workshop, but what about other digital download stores? What about games that aren’t using Steamworks API (a must if one is to use the workshop) for whatever reason? Yeah, okay, I know, Steam is the second coming of digital virtual Buddhjesullah or whatever, but let’s pretend we’d want to avoid a little thing called complete market monopoly. There’ll be not only the expense of hosting servers and designing the storefronts and implementing some drm to tie the game players to the games & mods bought, but also the need to establish a secure payment system connection, acknowledgement, and enforcement for the customers. That’s something that is only feasible for massive companies (Valve, Actiblizzard, EA – if they don’t go bust, of course), so all smaller developers (like Runic Games, or Egosoft, or Mojang) would likely turn their backs off the concept or turn to the big companies. Yeah, even Mojang, because there is, imo, a difference in making one game available for purchase, versus a whole storefront of potentially infinitely many mods in countless versions, pricepoints.

This brings us to the next problem – recognizing what mods are bought by whom. We all like DRM in our games, don’t we? Now imagine how convoluted the developers will need to make their DRM systems so that they correctly recognize things like mod packages, which can rewrite, change, affect, redistribute, supplant existing game data and other mods as well! From a purely creative standpoint, that seems like an utter horror scenario for coders. But okay, gamers in general don’t like any DRM, so no skin off of publisher bones, their PR images won’t suffer too much.

What could make the publishers really suffer, though, is the problem of Intellectual Property and Content Accountability. For one, allowing a game to be modded is one thing. Serving as the conduit and filtering agency for user-made alterations, that are officially endorsed as “buyable”, that’s another thing. What if somebody tries to sell a mod adding, say, Star Wars spaceships into a space game? Who credits George Lucas, how much money does he get for that, and who pays for the lawsuits if something like that slips into the marketplace without all the legal (c) signs? Yeah, there are end-user license agreements and such. Since when have those been legally accountable in any major case? Far as I know, basically never. Or, what if there are mods for a PEGI-15 rated game that feature hot alien tentacle manchild sexrape? (I just chose that combination that would feasibly be all in all offensive enough to most readers to make the point. It’s a completely hypothetical setup that I don’t want to think about any more, and if you know of such things actually being on the Internet, please keep it to yourself and do NOT tell me about it. Seriously. Because EW.) Who would take the blame, the penalty for that – assuming the lawyers just don’t have a field day and make everybody the losers (and you know they really would)? And this is not just hypothetical conjecture, by the way. I know for a fact that developers discourage modders putting up notices such as “If you liked this mod, donate on paypal here!” – precisely because that creates a legal accountability scenario for the developer, simply because mods are on their game and using their material as baseline for something they have no control over, and suddenly they could get in trouble for other’s created stuff… If I was a dev/publisher, that kind of thing would scare me witless.

On a more shallow level, paid-for-user-mods might as well mean the end of official DLC as we know it. Developers are bound by various factors – company framework, for one – meaning that they would need more time to create something than a group of die-hard modders/fans. Also, most likely, whenever they make a, say, Horse Armour DLC, the next day there will be X2ELIAH’S TOTALLY AUTHENTIC CURVED STEEL BLOCKS ON HORSES MOD for 50 cents less. Not much use in spending dev time on DLC anymore, is it? What’s the downside for players in this, you may ask? Well.. Yeah, nobody would miss Horse Armour Pack. Would you like it if there were no Shivering Isles? No Mask Of The Betrayer? No Witcher & Witcher 2 Extended Editions? No Old World Blues? See my point? Not all DLC is bad, and discouraging developers from making them entirely is not at all a good thing.

Now, consider.. How likely is it that developers, publishers, managers would want all of the above just to get some 3-4 cents per download for voluntary content? If I’m allowed to make a guess, I’d say it’s probably not really worth it, all in all. Too much of a headache, especially in the legal aspects, to bother.

So we have established that neither devs/publishers/managers nor players really benefit from purchasable mods. That leaves us with flying leprechaun fairies modders. Well, things are simple here, then, aren’t they – they do what they’ve been doing and get money for it! Instant win, right? HashtagNOPE. And here, if I may, I’d like to get serious for a wee bit. Because I have had the opportunity to talk and plan these things with a game developer based on mod content (won’t go into details, so I’ll just have to ask you to take it on belief), and thus some of these things I’ve had a good think about.

One of the largest problems to the option of selling mods, as a modder, is – again – legal stuff. More specifically, the tools used to create mod content. Frankly, making a good mod – making the bestest mod ever, even – is still not as difficult a work as making a full game. But it requires many of the same tools used! And those tools are expensive, if any sort of profit-generation is involved. And to be fair, if you are planning to make a really good mod, then you can’t just rely on parameter editing in notepad and 100% content-rejiggling from the source game. There has to be a fair amount of creative work from your own side. Unique content. New content. Quality content. To get to that, and be allowed to make money off of it, you need to use really, really, really expensive software. Photoshop, 3ds Max, Maya, to give an example. Getting by on student editions just won’t fly any more, and the professional-level versions cost many hundreds of dollars. And that is an investment you’d have to make even before making a single dollar from your work. What if you are working in a team of modders, collaborating on the project and sharing work-load? Then all the profits have to be split (and I am not even considering all the cuts taken for taxes, for the developer, for publisher), so good luck recovering all the invested cash with reduced income – especially since there is no way you’d earn more than a fraction of what the game itself earned the developers.

So, that’s the costs. But, there is another issue (of course): you are no longer a volunteer working on a hobby. You’re suddenly doing what’s basically work – more often than not way below minimum wage, if one thinks about it. For some (inc. for me), it could be a matter of principle. While I am doing stuff for free on my own will, without being accountable to anyone, it’s a hobby, and I can do however much I want when and how I want. I get sick? No problem. I get sick and tired of it? No problem. I spend 16 hours a day on it (not really, but.. well, you know, I could)? No problem, as it is my spare time. Now, change this from voluntary hobby into something I would do for money. For one, then this is no longer entirely on my own terms… If I have customer-relations and transaction-ties, I have an obligation to maintain my promises.. I cannot leave something unfinished, for example, even if I hate working on it (This is assuming that mods can be sold in an incomplete state. If not, well, show me a game where most mods aren’t incomplete in one way or another…). I also have to think of my public image, because bad PR could mean the end of the money-flow. And getting bad PR while making something about videogames is so incredibly easy. Just annoy some trolls. Or make changes somebody doesn’t like. Or lose the patience to explain obvious things over and over on some tech-support-type of endeavour.. Any slip up will come back and bite me in the rear. And, finally.. Well, by offering my mod up for a sale, I put a pricetag on myself and my work-effort. How does one evaluate the price of a mod? If you went by the legal minimum wage rates per time spent working on it.. well, I can guarantee that it would become way too expensive to be competitive and reasonable for the player. Lower than that, though, and what’s the implication? I am basically working on a horribly underpaid position. Yeah, sure, I am doing what I like (unless all the problems don’t cause me to hate the whole process – and it has happened to game devs), but can’t I just get some minimum-wage-or-better job that’s more or less similar and spend my efforts there? As a matter of fact, why can’t I just go that little bit further and work on my own game? Especially when we exchange modder groups with newly established indie studios. If I am not a game engine guy, well, nobody says I would have to be anyway. Just as I could be making 3d models for a mod, I could be making it for our game.

It might just be me, and my silly ideas and principles of “If my work and effort is being bought, it should be priced accordingly”, but I cannot see, for the life of me, as an actual ex-modder and tester, why I would welcome the chance to sell mods in an inevitably cut-throat competitive environment. We keep hearing about mods that move on to being standalone games, commercial successes even.. But here’s the thing. Those are exceptions. And they were created in a free environment where competing for every cent was never an issue. This new idea – buyable mods – would change that environment entirely.

Anyway, that’s my take on the possible downsides that an industry-wide move from free voluntary mods towards purchasable, rentable, subscription-fee-applicable or whatever mods would have. There are a bunch more potential icebergs that I didn’t ever cover – for instance, what about adapting the current MMO F2P model into mods, into making microtransactions nested within objects that themselves are almost microtransactions? There are also, I bet, counterarguments and differing opinions and people who would love nothing more than being able to ask money for their Assassin’s Creed Armour Lookalike For Skyrim. And more seriously, I bet there really would be a bunch of breakout success stories of modders earning thousands, tens of thousands of monies for such stuff – if I’m not much mistaken, there have been fairly applicable cases with TF2 and it’s hat store. But would those breakout cases be enough of a trade-off for compromising the free, independent nature of non-competitive creativity? All in all, I am not so sure…

~X2Eliah already isn’t so keen on trying to get a job in the videogame industry due to competition, job security, and wages. He asks you to think how much worse all three of those factors would be if one’s job would be “Videogame modder”.

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