Opinion: The Future of Modding with Paid Mods

Rarely have I felt so passionate about a subject like this.

Game mods, for me, have been my primary source of creative output since I was 10 years old – I’ll be turning 27 this November. I’ve been modding dozens of games for as long as most up and coming modders in my primary community have been alive. I have a library of public releases dating back to 2003 that have garnered a traceable number of over half a million downloads, I suspect though, that since this number only accounts for downloads in the last three or so years, I’ve likely hit well over a million people that have downloaded something I have made. If you account for derivative works or media that others have created that used my content as a cornerstone, that number is truly uncountable. I’ve never directly made a penny from any of this. I’ve never asked for donations, and I recently started fulfilling private contracts using my reputation to make legitimate original content for projects – even then, I held to the right to free public distribution when I could. This year, I moved into the sphere of Indie dev as an environment artist, and I don’t plan on stopping now.

Does it bother me that I never made a dime off of my years of work and contributions? No. Would I like to have gotten paid for my efforts? Well I’m not going to say no… if there’s money on the table, I’m not going to just leave it there. That said, I don’t think I would be half the artist I am today if my main goal was to make money. Allow me to extrapolate how I see modding communities split up as a result of paid mods, and why this would have made me quit a long time ago.

Much of my released work has been derivative. That is, in many ways, the core definition of a mod. Most of my work is unsellable because, even if I had the rights from the game developer whose game I’m putting my assets into, I don’t have permissions from the other games I might have sourced content from. Even some of the mods where I did 100% of the work from scratch are unsellable because I used tools that explicitly state in licensing that I can’t take a profit from work done using those tools. I can’t speak for everybody, but when you look at content on any workshop and take those very basic and very clear rules, the amount of sellable content goes to near 0. if you get real strict – and people get real strict when money starts trading hands – a donation could constitute as profit, so the amount of legally donatable mods is near 0 as well.

Why is that?

Modding is not game development. Not fully. It’s a gateway for people to get into game dev, yes, but it is not a platform for professionals to make a living. It’s a platform for people to learn how to become a professional if they so wish, or it’s a way for people to spend a weekend doing something they love. The incentives in a successful mod community are to experiment and be bold – to improve source material or bring new works to the table in ways the original artists and developers never intended. Modders use any resources at their disposal to dream big and try and deliver on those dreams. Sometimes those resources are cracked or student versions of several thousand dollar tools, fonts with clear licensing rules on paid or free versions, or base assets from games that actively try and harden against extraction or modification. Mods are famous for building on and improving other mods, which is a huge strength, and when there is a dispute over credited work, it can generally be resolved with a few private messages if both parties are civil, or reputation corrosion if the offending party is belligerent. Modding exists with the quality and quantity it does today because it is so good at flying under the radar.

Many people agree – modders should be entitled to earn money for their hard work – but what what if that hard work is built on horridly shaky legal grounds? Even if the tools are paid for and the artist can make content from scratch, what if what they make is a likeness of a real person or a mod based off of content from a protected IP? What if it’s a team effort and the lead modder puts it up for sale but he didn’t know someone on the team wasn’t paying for their tools? Are we going to have to have to start building contractual agreements to co-op on mods for liability purposes?

So what happens when we deincentivise boldness and tell people that if they pay by the rules, they can make a profit? Here’s what I see happening:

  • People that are good at their craft –the cream of the crop– will go legit and do everything they can to appeal to the masses. Who knows, professional game developers looking to make some side cash might see this as the way to go as well. The quality of modding from these developers will go up and they will be hailed as success stories, much like the hat makers in CS:GO, TF2, and DOTA2. What you won’t see them doing anymore is producing things for personal reasons as much if at all, or stepping out the bounds of complicated copyright law to make something they may be passionate about, or possibly even have much passion for the game they’re modding, worst case scenerio. Some of these people are the cornerstone of their communities and a source of wisdom for up and coming modders. They may decide that teaching others their craft is akin to building up their own competitors. This will homogenize the type of mods that are well made and stifle community growth and knowledge, but these people will make a profit. They essentially become subcontractors or pseudo-game developers, just without the stable employment, support backend, overall profit share, or general respect of the authors of the base game.
  • Those average joes that are not quite at the level of the cream of the crop will attempt to sell their mods and become discouraged when they see no returns. Those that do make some money may never make enough to warrant payment for their favorite modeling package or photo editor, or they may try and experiment or remix or other work to make up for shortcomings. in a free modding community, these are the people that have the most to gain and learn, these are the guys that could end up in the top tier or move on to game development jobs. This is where everybody is at some point, and the success or failure of the entire community hinges on how they treat the newcomers with a lot more passion then skill. In a paid environment, these are the most burned – liable for fixing their mods when the devs beak them, prime targets for DMCAs, and less likely to get the help and support they need from their fellow modders that have made it. If I had been in the environment paid mods will likely create, I would have backed out a long time ago.
  • In another corner are the amateurs that don’t understand why their stuff sucks and will try to sell terrible products. These people will make the rest of the community look bad in the process, and will devalue the work of others – not necessarily the top tier modders, but those in the middle will get the short end of the stick when the overall reputation of ‘legit’ paid mods get tanked by this bunch.
  • Next, there will be the idealists. Those that stick to the old ways, and offer up their product for free or help to educate people to enhance the community, regardless of their abilities.  Hated by the cream of the crop and loved by the average joes that need their help, they may only get a fraction of the collaborative effort the community had to offer, and they’ll be looked at by some as not valuing their own time or making everybody else look greedy. There will be a lot of strife in communities when the inevitable line in the sand is drawn, and core mods that a lot of other peoples’ work relies on becomes a ‘do not profit from my work’ type arrangement, or people trying to freely distribute their mods find that a mod they used is now paywalled. This will segment the community and create endless drama and stifle collaborative efforts.
  • Finally, there are the thieves. I never thought, as a modder, I would have to be weary of piracy or theft of product I was giving away, but this is my biggest concern. Even if I said ‘hey I want no part in this, I’m going to give my stuff out for free,’ some leech might release your own work anyway and charge for it for a quick buck. Why do I feel I’m going to have to learn how to issue DMCAs? How often am I going to waste manhours looking at new releases if only to weed out my own stolen content? Alternatively, there will be the more traditional form of piracy in people that reupload paid work for free. Sure, it’s a message to the dev and valve to go screw themselves, but at the end of the day, it’s the modders that get shafted by this, as it’s their effort and manhours that are getting squeezed. Let’s not forget that for the devs, it’s a ‘release tools, open storefront, collect profit’ type operation. They’re not going to feel the sting of seeing their own work being uploaded against their will.

Modding has worked for so long because it’s free. Not necessarily free as in free beer, but free as in liberty. Not because modders should be selfless and expect to get nothing from their work, but because that’s how you can develop a cooperative environment for people producing and asking for highly skilled labor in a legally grey zone. Not every mod is going to go up with a pay wall or a tip jar, but the equation for why any person might want to mod a game has fundamentally changed. I’m worried that even if this thing is a flop and somehow it gets removed from steam, this will still haunt the fabric of the craft. Getting paid pennies in ad revenue has killed even the most vibrant mod communities, look at Minecraft, the Sims, or GTA’s foray in paid mods and how it caused a huge collapse every time. Instead of being on the periphery in those cases, it’s news headline number one for the gaming world.

Just 24 hours in, and it has split the downloading community form those that work to produce mods and turned friends into customers, or corporate lackeys. Those poor souls that dared to spearhead this operation are now recipients of nonstop spam on their mods and personal profiles. The deal offered is shafting all modders with the percentages and utter lack of real support on behalf of steam for either the modder or community members if a deal goes south, but what I fear is how it’ll segment communities. This may kill modding in good faith, and those that wish to continue that tradition will end up sounding like those guys that talk about nothing but their views that all software should be free and open source.

In the future, good mods may be considered and even marketed as 3rd party DLC – not as products of a strong and passionate community. Although not as hard as getting hired by a game studio, there will be a high barrier to entry in this market space, both financially and skill wise. After the consumers get over for being charged today for what was ‘free’ yesterday, they’ll likely appreciate the additional work, polish, and support that will come from professional mods. The modders that end up successfully selling mods will love it too. The people that end up loosing out the most are those that drive a modding community, the unskilled and looking to improve. I was there for years, and hell, I could always improve, but at least I ‘grew up’ in an environment that fostered open sharing of ideas and techniques. I find it sad that the next batch of modders might not get to experience that.

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