If you’re an employee at Valve or Bethesda, I imagine you remember a very wild week in April.
Video game publisher Valve, at the time, had unveiled a system to enable paid modifications on its Steam platform. Just four days later the plan was abandoned after a massive backlash. The system would have used Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim as a pilot, a game notable for its huge modding community that has kept interest in the game high long after its release in 2011. Mods for Skyrim have ranged from minor graphical improvement tweaks to huge, 30-hour plus expansion packs like Falskaar, complete with voice acting.
Despite promises that modders would still be available to offer their work for free, statements by Valve and Bethesda, and Valve CEO Gabe Newell taking to Reddit to address concerns, the anger culminated in actual protest mods being released for Skyrim. Users also flooded the Skyrim forums on Steam and bombarded Skyrim’s Steam rating with negative reviews, making a notable dent by reducing its overall approval rating from 98% to 84%. It’s since gone back up, but a number of highly-rated reviews have maintained their “Not recommended” status which they credit to the paid mods.
As a gaming enthusiast I haven’t seen gamers so staunchly unified in opposition to something since the Xbox One reveal, but with a bit of hindsight I think it would help to discuss where Valve and Bethesda went wrong in rolling out this system. On paper I think we can all agree that modders deserve to be compensated for their work, but Valve’s system was fraught with problems. The TechCrunch article I initially linked to addresses many valid concerns on behalf of users, but I want to focus on the biggest mistakes Valve and Bethesda made when considering their own market and audience.
1. You need to justify transition from free to paid as it benefits the customer
It’s very easy to legitimately get things for free. News, education, and media like books or games are often freely distributed. With very few exceptions mods have been freely distributed by and for the community. When general market sentiment is that products are free, you need to work extremely hard to justify an upfront price point. Why, for example, should I opt into a paid newsletter about marketing when there are countless free ones available? Or subscribe to a news website when there are free, ad-supported ones?
Valve and Bethesda may have had the best of intentions but for many people they failed to do this. Both companies sincerely believed that introducing paid incentives for modders would encourage the proliferation of more, better content. This is a theory that has had success with individual games in the past, notably Valve’s own Team Fortress 2, but as the crux of justifying a massive change like this it simply didn’t hold up. It relied too much on hypothetical benefits to bring such a massive change to an established marketplace where free has been the standard.
The ability to directly support modders and content creators is another valid argument but – to be completely fair – it’s not something the consumer immediately benefits from. It was also salt in a wound for many gamers and modders alike that a modder’s take from a paid transaction was just 25%, with the rest being split between Valve and the publisher. Users already can and do support modders through donations or Patreons, with much larger percentages going directly to the creators. More importantly, the publisher doesn’t get a cut of this money for the hard work of other people.
2. Valve and Bethesda misunderstood the current state of the market.
In the video game industry there’s a lot of cynicism over being upsold on games before you’ve even purchased the product itself. Arkham Knight, for example, has a $39.99 season pass on top of the base game for $59.99. Evolve, which retails for $59.99, has a $24.99 season pass in addition to $60 worth of content not covered by the season pass. It’s increasingly common for $59.99 to buy you a game with content behind a paywall, even at launch. More worrying is that this content ranges from aesthetic to arguably crucial, such as the From Ashes DLC in Mass Effect 3.
This is a situation that’s becoming more and more prominent in big budget video games and gamers aren’t reacting well to it. People are getting tired of being constantly being pitched on sales on top of a $60 game. They’re sick of feeling likes games are split up in advance to mark up the price of what should be a finished game. Paid mods in Skyrim – and by extension, other games under this model – had the potential to become yet another layer of paid DLC. One could argue that we should give Valve and Bethesda the benefit of the doubt, but that still ignores the the state of the market right now. In a world where games like Arkham Knight and Evolve are effectively costing $100 or more for the finished experience, it would be incredibly naive to not see the potential blowback of introducing more paid content.
3. Valve didn’t realize the degree of cynicism people have for Valve’s own approach to community moderation.
Steam’s early access and Greenlight programs have helped some truly amazing games see the light of day. They’re also dumping grounds for broken games from unprofessional developers, causing Steam to be littered with unfinished, buggy games that barely qualify as being in an alpha state despite having price tags of $19.99 or more. This hasn’t been helped by Steam’s own “hands off” policy when it comes to content moderation, only removing products in extreme cases or terms of service violations.
This has lead to a fairly cynical outlook in terms of Steam’s quality control, and the rollout wasn’t done favors when Steam explicitly said that it would not be policing the Skyrim paid marketplace. Given the state of early access, many people worried that this would open the floodgates for swarms of overpriced, underdelivering mods from people trying to make a quick buck. We already saw examples of this during the four-day trial run. The $9.99 golden potato or $29.99 extra apple may have been ironic or acts of protest, but that doesn’t change the fact that people probably would have tried selling content of a similar caliber for the same amount of money. It’s true that free mods lack strict moderation, but introducing the potential to profit off mods only incentivizes this kind of behavior.
There’s a lot of speculation on whether or not Valve will attempt to reintroduce the idea of paid mods at a later date, or with a game that isn’t as well-established as Skyrim. At the very least, Valve has noted that it underestimated the differences between its more successful past endeavors with mods and the Skyrim paid mod system. Valve definitely “missed the mark pretty badly”, but it remains to be seen how future revenue sharing models will incorporate this kind of criticism. Given Valve’s enormous presence in PC gaming through Steam, I’ll be watching closely and so should you.