No mod cons
How Valve’s mishandled experiment in modding revealed a streak of mortality in a deified company
On April 23, yet another limb was grafted onto Steam’s knotty torso, allowing Skyrim modders to charge for their work. To Valve, the move might have seemed like the logical extension of a community marketplace that makes barons of the designers talented, and to some extent lucky, enough to trade in cosmetics for Team Fortress, Dota 2 and Counter-Strike. Of course, it blew up instantly and spectacularly as Steam users revolted against the change, publicly underlining the extent to which the storefront owner’s once-impeccable reputation has become tarnished.
Valve’s development process has always been to boot ideas into the world and see which stick. Many do. The studio is an exceptional game developer, and the legacy of its most inspired creations is still felt in the parroted ‘ Half-Life 3 confirmed’ comments left on the Internet each day. The admiration, and to a degree reverence, Valve commanded was initially a product of its fierce innovation; Half-Life was a counterpoint to what CEO Gabe Newell perceived as systemic blandness in the FPS genre.
Valve’s release schedule conforms to unknowable cosmic diktats, but even at its least communicative, it always felt as if it understood players. Dota 2 and CounterStrike: Global Offensive are iterations of familiar ideas, but both sit among the most played games in the world because Valve knew how to nurture communities as only an avid group of players could. Newell was more guildmaster than executive officer. The events surrounding paid modding, however, suggest that some of Valve’s perspective has been lost. In the perpetual gloom that dominated the Reddit threads and the Steam and Bethesda blogs, Valve could have announced the End Of Days for all the difference it would have made to the mood. Four days after launching the feature, the company suspended the programme and refunded all purchases alongside a frank confession on the Steam Workshop blog that “we didn’t understand exactly what we were doing”.
To not understand what it is doing is an unprecedented position for a studio whose followers once delighted in propagating an illusion of omnipotence. The modding debacle did not differ, after all, from Valve’s tried-and-true strategy of dropping ideas on its fanbase. What Valve seems to have missed this time is that the modding community at large is not its fanbase, and the Skyrim modding scene in particular is by now a complicated shanty town full of lean-tos, all propping up one another.
“I don’t think there was any easy way of bringing in paid modding support,” says Scott ‘INtense!’ Reismanis, founder of DBolical, which comprises ModDB, IndieDB and SlideDB. “But Valve brought it into arguably the biggest modded game in the world, which was going to be horrible considering those modders had been working in the ecosystem for four years and there are hundreds of thousands of creations leaning on one another. Valve eased it into Team Fortress and Counter-Strike – they already had their own paid loot crates built into the product, and then they allowed the community to start submitting content, and there was no uproar there.”
“Valve brought it into arguably the biggest modded game in the world, which was going to be horrible”
Paid stores stocked with community content are old news. And, as Reismanis points out, many high-profile games make (or intend to make) money in just that way: it’s a selling point of Landmark and EverQuest Next, and a pillar of Epic’s new Unreal Tournament. Valve appears to have riled people by overstepping its bounds – it owns Steam, yes, but because the service has swelled without restraint, comprising first only triple-As before absorbing indie games and even works-in-progress, almost nothing in its library is Valve-brand. The move towards paid modding was often perceived as an unaffiliated platform holder installing a toll gate around content that was other people’s, doing little but to hoover up revenue. Huge resources of free mods exist, but though Valve and high-profile supporters such as Garry’s Mod creator Garry Newman stressed that charging is merely one option available to creators, the unsettling truth for many is that, as the single biggest gaming storefront, Steam sets precedent. The troubling question is who else would follow suit. Reismanis, however, has proclaimed ModDB a free service in perpetuity, while Nexus’s Robin Scott proselytised against the ‘DRMification’ of mods in a Reddit conversation, garnering himself 5,000 upvotes and four rounds of Reddit Gold.
“The fact that we may have free mods and [others] may have paid mods I don’t think necessarily fractures the community,” Reismanis says, “but I think that if there