No mod cons

EDGE - - KNOWLEDGE VALVE -

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

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