Mods and Money Don’t Mix (Part 1)

Nowadays, every new game coming out faces the same question:

“How many customization options will there be?”

Answers vary from game to game, but trends are clear. Gamers want to change their games to meet their needs. They want to toy with mouse sensitivities, fields of view, color palettes, user interface (UI) tools, and more. In popular games like Overwatch, users can even change the color of their crosshairs.

These options provide a bit of personality to every player’s user interface, but for the most part, they don’t change how well a player will perform. Or do they? When given the chance, users have made all kinds of addons, macros, and mods to improve player performance – some would even call this cheating.

This explosion in customization options leads many to wonder: can there ever be too much of a good thing? What happens when money enters the picture? Depending on how far you go, problems emerge. Modding has a long and complicated history, but it’s worth exploring. In this two part series, let’s take a closer look at some of the most popular games around and their relationships with customization.

The word “mod” is simply an abbreviation of “modification.” According to Business Insider, “Savvy fans dive into the back-end of their favorite games to fix bugs, update graphics, or introduce new elements. Sometimes, fans create new games altogether.”

Mods enhance a player’s experience in numerous ways. Beloved modern titles such as The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, a single player role-playing fantasy game set in a world similar to Tolkien’s Middle-earth, boast enormous numbers of mods. Mods that redesign the user interface, abbreviated as UI (the text, images, maps, and other graphical objects through which the player sees the game world) act much as glasses do in real life. User interface mods clarify the often fast-paced events occurring in game and tend to reduce unnecessary clutter.

In any case, Skyrim is one of the most popular games of all time, providing opportunities for a large population of modders interested in tweaking one of the greatest games of the last decade.

As noted by TIME Magazine, Skyrim has sold 20 million copies since it launched in November 2011,” placing it among the top twenty best selling video games of all time. The enormous modding community of Skyrim has since developed thousands of mods available for free on sites like Nexus Mods, a community-organized and directed mod distributor. As explained by modder and Nexus Mod manager Robin Scott, “all modifications on Nexus sites are provided free of charge.” Modders are driven by sheer passion for their favorite games and their own creative impulses.

Both modders and regular users can benefit from the combined efforts of the modding community – the only limits to a user’s mod load are technical limitations such as processing, storage, or graphics card limits. However, this has not always been the case, and the Skyrim modding community has not always been a harmonious bastion of creative liberties.

When money enters the picture, things tend to get messy. For Skyrim and its modding community, problems arose on April 23, 2015 when Valve, the company behind Steam, the biggest distribution platform in PC gaming, decided to introduce a paid mod feature for Skyrim. The names may grow confusing, so take note that Valve is the distribution company, and Steam is its platform of distribution. For years Skyrim mods had flourished under a free model, but within a day of the paid feature introduction, the Steam forums exploded with revolt. Valve allowed modders to charge users through Steam itself, but Valve abandoned any pretenses at quality control, and this soon led to problems.

Ordinary users quickly grew angry that previously free mods were now locked behind paywalls, and modders themselves soon found their work had been stolen and resold under different names. Furthermore, modders only received a fourth of the profits from their work, with the rest split up between the original developing company, Bethesda, and the distributor, Valve.  

That’s not to say that modders have never been motivated by external reward. Graphical artists and game designers often pursue modding as a means to show off their talents and build up a professional portfolio that might enable them to seek employment with official studios.

But, with an absence of policing by Valve, rampant poaching and re-selling of plagiarized work led to a rapid reduction of free mods as modders sought to avoid theft of their work. As the chaos continued, users protested against the change using satirical mods of their own.

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Can such a system be salvaged? Is there any form of paid mods that the community would accept? Furthermore, for the sake of creative abundance, what sort of system will encourage the greatest quantity and quality of mods?

If modders could earn money for their work, the more competent and prolific among them could potentially earn a living. A simple yet elegant replacement of the game’s  original user interface, the mod known as SkyUI has been downloaded millions of times.

Surely, for a dollar each, such a mod would generate hundreds of thousands of dollars even if just a fraction of those downloaders actually purchased it. Additionally, one could argue that an economic incentive would encourage higher quality, reputable, glitch-free mods. With proper policing and inspection done by the distributor Valve, a high overall quality could be assured and users could leave reviews and comments on each mod’s performance.

And yet, the downsides to paid mods are both numerous and daunting. Furthermore, Valve is widely discredited for providing poor customer service and quality control. The notorious Greenlight feature, which allows developers to sell “Early Access” games, unfinished games and even broken games, has set a precedent for poor quality control on Valve’s part. It is highly unlikely that Valve would properly enforce quality control guidelines for paid mods if the company is unable or unwilling to do so for fully fledged games under the Greenlight program.

Without proper quality assurance, poaching and asset scavenging would also occur. As previously described, some modders would steal assets from another modder’s work and repackage those assets as a new mod, thus deceiving users and earning ill-gained wealth.

Proponents of paid mods also argue that payment would encourage the development of high quality, large content update mods such as full expansions and even new full games. Mods such as Falskaar, which includes an entire new land mass and multiple hours of quests for the player to complete, already exist in this category, and paid mod advocates suggest that these projects would become far more common. However, for most modders, the 25% payment scale suggested for Skyrim disincentivizes large scale, one-time payment mods rather than a slew of smaller, cheaper, safer mods such as new weapons, armor, magical spells, etc.

Worse yet, these problems only scrape the surface of the issue. Game studios could grow carefree and fail to deliver a high quality of product, instead assuming that modders would cover their slack and fix bugs and glitches. Some studios do this already (I’m looking at you, Bethesda). If enough players purchased unofficial mods used as bugfixes, this would reward developers (because they take a cut from paid mods) for a poor effort and set a bad trend for future quality control in gaming. If there will ever come a time where paid modding is a reality, it will likely not come any time soon. Indeed, Skyrim’s paid modding fiasco ended only four days later, proving a short-lived and costly experiment.

For now, the consensus is clear. No paid mods. At least for now.

Check back tomorrow for Part 2 of this series on controversies surrounding mods and addons.

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