On April 23, the video game company, Valve Corporation, announced that starting with Bethesda Game Studio’s The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, the Steam Workshop “now supports buying mods directly from the Workshop, to be immediately usable in game.” In general, anything that changes the video or computer game beyond what the developers intended would be considered a user-created modification (mod), and mods can range from the cosmetic to functional overhauls, whether partial or total. As the name implies, mods are not stand-alone and require that the user has the base game installed for the mod to alter. Valve’s announcement led to an immediate backlash from gamers, including a petition signed by over 130,000 people to remove paid mods from the Steam Workshop. On April 27, Valve announced that they were removing the payment feature from the Skyrim Workshop.
Gamers objected to the relatively small 25% cut that mod makers would make whereas Valve, as the owner of the Steam platform, would earn 30% and Bethesda, the intellectual property owner of Skyrim, would gain the remaining 45%. Many gamers also objected to the idea that mods should be paid at all as opposed to being traditionally and almost universally free. Other concerns included “the potential for theft [and] low-quality cash-in mods.”
Skyrim has had an “incredibly robust modding community” since its 2011 release. Its enduring popularity is proof of the longer lasting appeal of mod-friendly games to both potential customers and current players because replays of the game will feel different depending on the mods installed. As a “community-driven hobby,” complicated mods may have a collaborative team working on them, and many mods are interrelated and build off one another. For example, SkyUI, a mod that changes the Skyrim user interface, is frequently used as a framework for other mods, and if it were to become a paid mod, all of the follow-up mods, even if free, would essentially become locked behind a paywall. The flip side of the problem is that if a downstream mod were to be put on sale, there would be issues on how to deal with the base mod or whether a mod that builds off another could even be put on sale in the first place without permission or at least compensation to the first modder’s work. A fishing mod, one of the first paid mods, was delisted because it used assets from a second mod with different creators. Notably, Valve decided that the mod would be allowed on sale in the first place, even though it used another creator’s free content, because “if the download is separate and free, it was fair game.”
The rollout of paid Skyrim mods on the Steam Workshop was a failure, but the drive to monetize user-created mods is not likely to go away. Paid mods would “help facilitate developers who wished to go full time and also encourage better support for mod communities” claimed Valve. There seems to be a desire and a growing trend to compensate creators of high quality mods. As an ideal, that sounds worthwhile, but the company was unprepared for the PR backlash, and appeared to have no coherent intellectual property policy to determine rights and compensation in a heavily interrelated community. Valve has now decided to introduce a ‘donate’ button instead, although this would not allow Valve or Bethesda to take a cut of the profits. However, Valve underestimated the differences between their own “previously successful revenue shifting models” and Skyrim’s established mod community: Skyrim was not the “right place to start iterating.” This suggests that the idea of paid user-created mods will eventually return as Valve attempts to craft a better executed plan to accomplish such goals.