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28 April 2015

The free creativity of mods is crucial to the world of PC gaming

Don't commodify the people who modify PC games.

By Phil Hartup

When the history of computer gaming is written, centuries from now, probably by a bored subroutine on a sentient interstellar warship with an idiosyncratic name, it may recall this point in time as a significant one. Or not. Maybe it will be forgotten, maybe nothing will come from it and everything will be returned to normal in a few weeks.

So what happened? Well for those not in the know, Valve began to allow modders of the game Skyrim to charge for their mods on their now almost ubiquitous Steam platform. The word was that other games might soon follow suit, allowing modders to charge for their work. On the surface this seems fairly minor, even beneficial for modders, but for many fans of PC gaming this looked suspiciously like the lid being lifted off Pandora’s Box. Gamers made their outrage known, which is kind of their thing, and Valve caved. The paid mods vanished, and for all intents and purposes normality has returned. The bullet, it seems, has been dodged.

To understand why this is viewed with so much mistrust it is important to understand the significance of games modders to PC gaming. Modders, that is to say people who modify existing games for fun, are the heroes of PC gaming history. The names of the great developers ring out of course, because they made the money, because they got their names on things – but it is modders, or former modders-turned-developers, who make the world of PC gaming go round.

The proof of this is easy to find. Take a look at the top games on Steam and what do you see? DOTA 2, Counter Strike: GO, Team Fortress 2. Games developed from mods. They aren’t alone. Day Z, the game that triggered the survival sandbox explosion of the last few years started life as a mod for Arma 2. Skyrim, though it was a great game in its own right when it came out, owes its sustained popularity on the PC to its modders.

The people who mod PC games are a mix of tinkers and visionaries, traditionally unburdened by any need to make a profit from their efforts. They work, or at least worked, for the love of the game and out of a desire to bring their ideas to life. Whether that’s turning Vampire: Bloodlines from a hot mess into one of the best games ever made, or adding multiplayer to GTA San Andreas, or adding a Game of Thrones version to almost every game with swords in it, these people are what makes the PC such a vibrant platform.

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What is important here is that modding has been around about 20 years or so (Quake, for example, yielded some amazing mods, including Team Fortress) and nobody needed to sell anything in the way that is now being touted by Valve and Bethesda. Modders who showed talent had something to put on their CV for jobs in the industry; mods who were good enough to sell were polished up and sold; companies were formed and careers were built. Everybody was winning.

So what would change after putting this new paywall into the equation?

Firstly, the character and culture of modding changes. It would become a thing that can be done for money. Modders would start to look less at creating for its own sake and more at profit. Some won’t, of course, but either way this would invite competition between modders, with the accompanying rivalries and jealousy.

The financial incentive, even when as pathetic as the 25 per cent cut that Valve offered modders on Skyrim, is enough to sour a community. People can fight as viciously over crumbs as they can over fortunes. This in itself is anathema to the spirit of modding games, which was always a hugely collaborative effort. Modding communities have always been the most friendly, welcoming and supportive areas in all of gaming. That would be lost.

The second problem would be with the quality of mods when turned into a product. When I add a mod to a game, I don’t know if it’s going to work. I don’t expect it to be thoroughly tested. I might even be helping with that testing – if it doesn’t work, or if it conflicts with other mods, I know I have to fix it on my own. And that’s OK, because it’s a freebie, just a thing somebody made and put on the internet for people to play with, an experiment.

But if that mod becomes something that I have to pay money for, then expectations and entitlements change. The relationship between modder and player no longer remains one of people enjoying messing with somebody else’s product. It becomes professional. The modder would have to make something to a much, much higher standard.

Or, and here is the real worry, maybe mods don’t change. Maybe mods remain unprofessional and Valve still charges for them. Maybe the quality control safety net that, let’s face it, thanks to Steam Early Access and Greenlight was already reduced to a drunken spider’s web, maybe that collapses entirely under a new tidal wave of untested shit. Page after page of mass-produced crap, because why put the effort into a longer-term project when you can push something easy out the door and get those sweet, sweet, 25 cents on the dollar?

The era of professionally-finished and feature-complete products being sold in good working order is starting to feel like a long time ago.

PC gaming could have been changed forever if Valve had gone ahead with its plans and spread it to other games. Change isn’t always bad, but this was never about rewarding modders for their hard work and always about Valve trying to cash in on the work others already do, while paying them a pittance. They already benefit from games modding through increased sales  it is one of the main selling points of the PC as a platform. Valve does deserve a degree of credit for recognising its mistake and stopping when it did.

So we return to where we were before all this happened, albeit it with Valve’s reputation suffering a knock and PC gamers that little bit more suspicious of the Steam platform. We can’t say for sure if the idea is truly dead and buried, but we can hope.

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