You Sold Out: How Steam Challenged the Punk Ethos of the Modding Community

Games Features
Share Tweet Submit Pin

Valve as a company is something of a duality. As developers, they’ve created some of the best games of the last 20 years. As a business entity their Steam platform is the most successful and widely used port for PC gaming, to the point that developers literally need to have their product available on there if they wish to reach the widest audience. But despite being such a forward-minded company that has revolutionised gaming and produced some of the most lauded and discussed videogames of all time, they remain marred by consistently counter-intuitive policies and practices. They regularly come under fire for not having any returns policy for Steam purchases, their Steam Greenlight and Early Access programs are overloaded with subpar product, and they simply refuse to enact any sort of upkeep on their own store-front, meaning that actual new games can get lost under a torrent of old, forgotten shovelware from an old publisher. Even with all this, Valve found themselves in a new level of trouble with their users when they attempted to introduce paid mods for videogames.

The pilot scheme was simple; several modders for The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim had their mods made available for a fee instead of for free with the price being cut three ways between Bethesda, Valve and the modder in question. Valve have had paid-for mods on their Steam Workshop for years, but this was the first time a game that wasn’t made by Valve would support them. Since introduction, modders could then put forward their creations to be approved for the scheme, and could select if they wanted to make payment mandatory or pay-what-you-want with the minimum price of their own choosing. This was all brought in literally at the drop of a hat with Valve making an announcement one morning that the system was already in play. And the crowd went wild.

There was no escalation, no slow ascent to fever pitch—Steam users and the modding community were not happy with the decision and the system, and they were letting Valve know en masse. In a Reddit AMA Gabe Newell, Managing Director for Valve Corportation, stated that responding to the amount of email they’d gotten in the two days since launch had cost them $1,000,000, while their profits made from the scheme stood at $10,000. They had very clearly bitten off more than they could chew and paid for it, so they made the decision to close down the service until further notice, with aspirations to come back to the idea at a later date.

This outcome isn’t surprising given the level of vitriol aimed at Valve, but what is surprising is that prominent members of the PC gaming and modding communities completely agree with the sentiment in ideal. Garry Newman, the creator of Garry’s Mod, a physics sandbox mod of Half-Life 2, stated that he was “all for it” but he did also lament the pay structure and benefits on his blog, writing that it’s “backwards” that as it stands Valve and the game’s original developers make the most profit and the modder gets the least amount of revenue.

The pay-scale was a repeated point of contention as it was 75:25 in favour of Valve to the modder no matter what the price for the mod is set at. Valve did also share that 75% with Bethesda, but that still leaves the creator of the mod receiving the shortest end of the deal. The 75:25 split is the same one employed for Valve’s in-house modding scene for games like Team Fortress 2 and Dota 2, but unlike Skyrim, those games are free to the general public, with only in-game purchases and these mods as a source of revenue for the developers that keep them afloat. Skyrim released and sold at the standard AAA price of $60 and has more than made its money in the 3-and-a-half years it’s been on the market. But the problem goes deeper than the fact that Bethesda were driving further profit on a slightly older product—they were taking advantage of something that had driven sales for that product as long as it’s been around.

Despite the explosion of the modding scene in the last few years, hobbyist developers have been providing longevity for PC videogames for quite some time. They’ve been the under-belly, fixing issues and creating new experiences as they see fit. Counter-Strike started as a Half-Life mod, the original Doom recently had a selfie-stick added into the game and multi-player heavy series such as Command & Conquer and Quake have long harbored modding forums seething with bizarre and progressive ideas that prolong the games’ lives. It’s become a selling point now for major games—a huge part of the demand for Grand Theft Auto V on PC was being able to watch the modders tear through the game’s insides and see what they churn out.

The modding community continually demonstrates and pushes the artistic value of games by squeezing any and all design possibilities out of them. Not only do they modify games to see what they can do, they modify games to maximize what they already do, fixing glitches and bugs. Sometimes they completely update the game for new standards, like Black Mesa, a complete Half-Life overhaul that is currently in Early Access. Perhaps most importantly, they do this for free. These mods are made available for anyone who wants to use them at any time, with only some members of the community using a “donate” button for users to throw some money their way, but it is almost never mandatory nor advertised.

Robin Scott, owner of Nexus Mods, the one of the biggest mod forums, and Nick McCaskey, the creator of the SMIM mod for The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, both spoke at length about the community on a Youtube video. After pointing out that Valve had approached him about Nexus receiving 5% of Valve’s cut of profits, Scott goes on to say that perhaps Valve’s biggest blunder was simply not involving any of them at all. “How could you not ask someone like me what you’d think would happen?,” Scott said. “How could you think you know better when you’re so detached from the community? You’re not really a part of the modding community.” McCaskey later agrees with this point, asking again why Valve didn’t ask someone like him or Scott.

The answer is unknown, but what is known is that Valve very brazenly attempted to turn community into corporation and in doing so disrupted that community. McCaskey stated in the same video that some resolutely unpaid modders called the ones who had agreed to be a part of pilot sell-outs, branding them as going against the ethos of the modding scene they had cultivated. With Bethesda and Valve being so highly paid in the transactions means that those modders were now working with the figurative enemy. The rebellious nature of modding was being commodified and turned into DLC, and members of the scene had volunteered their work to be a part of that.

Even with driving sales, there is something of a squatting element to game modification. They live and breathe and create in videogames that were never designed for them to be there and in many cases would rather they not be there at all. But they’re rarely evicted, not because it’d be impossible to do so but because they make videogames better, both economically and otherwise. And they do it with full control and knowledge of the sandbox that each game presents to them. Valve were, knowingly or not, stepping into those sandboxes and building industry upon them, presenting the modders with a chance to become part of the machine rather than architects of their own. Which wouldn’t be so bad if anyone actually trusted Valve to run the system at all.

Ultimately that’s what this comes down to—nobody trusts Valve, because they can’t even seem to clean their own doorstep. Unlike the modding community, they have very little good faith amongst their user-base and when this was not only proposed but introduced without that community having a say, it was like Valve were saying they “knew best” when, really, nothing could be further from the truth. Until such a time as Valve have built up that trust, the modding community will continue happily squatting in videogames, discreetly demonstrating their creativity and furthering the lifetime of pieces of art long since forgotten by its original creators.

Anthony McGlynn is deputy editor for The Arcade, a social care student and a firm believer in the zombie apocalypse. Follow him on Twitter.