The paid mod debate we never had

Well, until this happens the next time.

Here we go with an important point of discussion we’ll never actually discuss.

According to pretty much anyone you ask, Valve recently made one boneheaded move and one reasonable and understandable move. The question is which one came first and which one came second, and that speaks to something interesting going on underneath.

Not oh-so-long ago, Steam opened up the option for paid mods via the Steam Workshop. There were two camps involved – one that was convinced this was utter brilliance and another that was certain it was the worst thing ever. It didn’t matter in the long run, of course, as not even a full week later Valve announced that it was pulling the test program, offering refunds to those who paid, and so forth.

By itself I find this all kind of uninteresting. I don’t have a horse in this race. What fascinates me is the fact that both sides in this particular tempest in a teapot have very firm ideas about which side of the debate is the side of the angels, and the very idea that there is an opposite side seems laughable to them.

That's not a rhetorical question.

These games were supposedly built to be more mod-friendly, yet I’ve actually seen fewer mods surface – perhaps because there’s less incentive? How do you incentivize it?

Reasonable arguments can be made on both ends of the spectrum, which is usually the case. From a fundamental standpoint, when you have a game like Skyrim (the test case) which more or less runs based on the modding community, it seems reasonable that the people doing all the work deserve to make some money off of their efforts. It also legitimizes modding as a normal course of gaming, makes it seem like a real proposition that the folks involved in developing big content additions and system changes get recognized as, well, professionals.

Then again, it’s not like Valve was exactly falling over itself to give the money to the people doing all of this. And it de-legitimizes an existing community, one formed a long time ago over a shared love of cracking open a game and filing off the broken pieces. It changes the field from a gathering of enthusiastic hobbyists to amateurs hoping to go professional.

That change already happened a while back with webcomics, of course, and it’s had interesting effects on the field. But let’s assume those lessons aren’t part and parcel with the nature of the debate and move on, because as I mentioned, the substance of the debate is of less interest to me than the nature of the debate. Reasonable arguments can be made for and against, yet both sides aren’t seeing the idea that this might, in fact, be a more complex issue than good-or-bad.

Because let’s face it – the core argument of the “pro” camp has merit. Modders are doing hard, thankless work, and making paid mods a legitimate thing means that the modders are legitimized. At this point right now, if Electronic Arts decides that your mods for The Sims 4 aren’t all right, the argument could be made that the company already owns your mods. They can bring the pain if they so want.

Oh, no, they never have and likely never would. But at this point, mods – even the very best – lie in the same realm as fanfic. If a company wants to exercise its control, it can do so at any point. Don’t confuse “won’t” or “doesn’t” with “can’t” or even “never intends to.”

Paid mods changes that relationship by their very nature. Suddenly mods belong to the creator, and more importantly you actually have some rights. It’s not a cut-and-dry issue wherein the game studio has all the power in the relationship. Legitimacy matters here. More to the point, the idea of saying that someone could be a professional modder or even just making enough money to justify the expense is a worthy concept.

At the same time, mods have always been a labor of love, and making them a labor of we-can-get-paid changes that just as surely as it changes everything. I have no doubt that the cynical among you will note that I certainly would like to get paid for the work that I do, and I certainly believe that there’s a difference now between the idea of writing with expectations that you can make money and the wild days of the older Internet when everyone just kind of chuckled at the prospect.

Has it impacted its popularity for the better or the worse?

This started life as a mod. Then it became a paid product. Does one change the other? Is this a relevant data point?

Treating mods as amateur DLC also ignores the fact that mods aren’t DLC, aren’t being tested for compatibility for patches and the like, aren’t assured to work nicely togeter, and are often assembled piecemeal from a lot of other moving parts. That’s neglecting other bits of reference, like the idea that modders generally assume that other modders will build off of existing frameworks, or the idea tha an abandoned mod can be picked up by someone else and continued – a far poorer idea in the event that the “abandoned” mod is making the original creator money.

Both sides are valid. Both sides offer different viewpoints on a complex issue which has no cut-and-dry heroes and villains. And yet to hear it spoken, it’s self-evident that one or the other is the way to go.

Part of this, of course, is self-imposed blindness. If you’re a fierce proponent of the idea that mods shouldn’t be paid content, it’s a lot easier to debate it either way when you aren’t being caught up in nuance like asking whether content creators should be paid for their work. (The anti-paid folks I’ve seen who do address this handwave it with “the pay rates aren’t favorable,” neglecting ideas like – for example – legitimizing the process opens the door for other mod services offering better exchange rates.) But I think more of it comes out of an idea sitting at the heart of being involved with gaming, the idea that there’s something eating away at the heart of a hobby we love, that something rotten must be addressed.

Paid mods is a perfect bugbear for both sides. On the one hand, the side against paid mods hates it because it is the ultimate capitalist drive, taking what was once a free idea (and this was actually free, unlike the DLC-sized patches that used to be free and also never actually existed) and making it a moneymaker. On the other hand, you have gamers providing the ultimate dose of “I will not pay for that,” a swan song of entitlement for things to be free forever that coincidentally involves never paying people for the work they do.

Not all for the better, but...

The idea of mods changed so much about this game.

It sits in a perfect place that allows you to argue your pet peeve without having to catch any of the nuance, without seeing the ways that it both helps and hurts games as an aggregate. You can come up with reasons why it’s good or bad, but unless you can see just as many reasons why the opposite is true – and they are there, whichever side you come down on – then you’re intentionally deleting relevant data from the layout, so to speak.

The issue stops really having much to do with the mods. The mods become the last frontier to fight a battle upon, a battle that’s been getting waged for years, the pressure of nostalgia and tradition weighed against modernity and novelty. Too much of either is harmful, but those are where the battle lines are drawn, and like so many other discussions in gaming the nuance and detail is derailed by bullet points for or against something.

What makes the idea of paid mods different is that it’s easier to see there are two different sides. That both ends have a valid point – there should be money there for creators, and there should be space for the hobbyist aspect of game design to remain a hobbyist enterprise. And it’s possible – it’s a small enough issue, in the grand scheme – that you can, in fact, move into the position of refinement and correction instead of simple wholehearted rejection or support.

Or you can keep the narrative that one side was 100% right and the other side was 100% wrong. Because that’s worked out super well.

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About expostninja

I've been playing video games and MMOs for years, I read a great deal of design articles, and I work for a news site. This, of course, means that I want to spend more time talking about them. I am not a ninja.

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