Paid Mods: A Blessing or a Curse?

UPDATE: Well, that didn't last long...Next time they try this, it would probably a good idea to do it with a new game and to offer a less controversial revenue split.

So Valve now enables selling mods through their Steam Workshop. It's an interesting move that at first glance seems to run counter to the free-2-play trend in that it attempts to suddenly ask money for something that was always free. It is however very much aligned with current trends towards microtransactions and letting the players customize their experience and pay accordingly (to formulate it in a positive way). It's not entirely new, Valve has been monetizing user-generated content in Team Fortress for a while now, and iirc Nadeo has been doing it even before that with Trackmania.

Nevertheless, there have been some intense reactions to this announcement, some people declaring it the end of the mod community as we know it. While I definitely see some challenges, I'm rather more optimistic.


When all the mods were free
For developers, mod support has been a nice way to increase the longevity of their game and fatten the long tail. Beyond that, for some games, the announcement of good mod support also had the potential to boost day-1 sales. But mostly it's been about soft (albeit important) factors like creating community goodwill and making happy accidents possible (such as the Day Z mod motivating a significant number of Arma sales). Last, but not least, most developers are passionate gamers themselves, so supporting the mod community is something that might simply be rooted in their personal values.

For players, on the other hand, the mod community so far has offered a fun playground that was free of the influence of market forces. In a time of f2p-business models and when even some triple AAA games will break your immersion and interrupt your game experience to remind you of their commercial nature as they try to get you to buy something or other (e.g. AC: Unity's locked chests), that safe haven is understandably cherished. Additionally, the fact that there was hardly any money to be made for the modders highlighted their passion and everyone enjoys being part of that, even if it's just as a passive consumer.


Obviously, this will be an opportunity for modders and devs to generate some (additional) income. But I think consumers can also benefit: Releasing good mod tools becomes more attractive for developers and the prospect of financial benefits may attract more professional modders and enable them to spend more time on creating better experiences.

As soon as money is involved, the nature of a transaction and the relationship it creates change significantly. It does not matter how insignificantly small the price is. As with kickstarter and Early Access, it will be essential for devs and consumers to communicate and understand what you get when you buy a mod, manage those expectations. How much support can you expect? What happens when an update by the developer breaks the mod? etc.

Devs will also have to think hard what kind of revenue share they demand for paid mods of their games. Maybe Valve will make it possible to differentiate between different kinds of mods. As a developer, I wouldn't dream to ask for a share of the revenue at all if somebody essentially just patches my game for me. On the other hand, if somebody uses assets and technology from my game to create something new and demands money for the final product, I'll expect a fair share. But then, not so much as to discourage creators, of course. So that'll be a tricky balance to strike. Also tricky: If you live off making games, how much do you want to facilitate the creation of free gaming experiences that compete with your future games by providing fantastic modding tools?

Modders that want to explore the paid mod route need to brace themselves for strong reactions to pricing from consumers, whether they're warranted or not (as evidenced by the backlash after Valve's announcement). The harsh reality of how few people are actually willing to pay even just a tiny amount of money for something you worked hard on may prove very discouraging for some. Download numbers may suddenly look very small. Asking for money creates a barrier to entry that many people will never get past und thus they will never check out that awesome mod you made. The 24h-refund policy on Steam Workshop and a pay-what-you-want option can mitigate that to some extend, but the psychological barrier will still be there.


Other challenges include making sure nobody sells other people's work and other rip-off schemes and simple, good old-fashioned trolling, but that's something where I'm sure we'll eventually see adequate counter-measures evolve. 

The Main Question

I believe there is cultural value in a healthy, open and free mod scene. It's much more than just a source of free stuff to consume, it fosters creative expression and cultural, social engagement. So what I'm most curious about is: Will the new possibility of paid mods co-existing somehow harm the free-mods community? Can money have a corrupting effect that will harm the mod scene?

In his book What money can't buy: the moral limits of markets Michael J. Sandel offers many interesting examples of the effects market forces can have when they intrude into areas that were previously governed by other norms and how they can crowd out all other values. There is also a theory that things like the spirit of sharing can "atrophy" with disuse. If that is correct, the existence of the option of paid mods might gradually lead to less free mods being shared and community spirit changing and becoming more capitalist.

But I doubt that is what's going to happen in this case. Let's take a look at music culture, for a moment; It has experienced a similar democratization of production means as game development and modding. As with games, digital distribution has made it incredibly easy to put your product up for sale (actually selling it is a whole different matter...). Yet plenty of people still play in bands just for fun and share their latest track for free. For the music aficionado, there is probably more free music available than ever. The comparison is certainly not perfect, but I'm optimistic that's what's going to happen with mods, too.

On an individual level, introducing extrinsic rewards such as money can in the long term damage intrinsic motivation (c.f. experiments where a kid that liked to play the piano was also rewarded money for practicing. After a while, when it stopped receiving money, it lost its motivation to play altogether. This effect is one of the reasons I'm sceptical of the trend to "gamify" everything). On the other hand, if a modder can turn his hobby into a job, their motivation will probably rise and they might put in the effort to actually finish that genius, but half-baked mod of theirs.

Ultimately, though, to me the question of paid mods is a moral one:
Who are we to demand from other people that they share the result of their work with us for free? If they do, awesome, but we sure as hell don't get to be angry if they decide to ask for a bit of money. It's the creator's freedom to share freely or to sell, not the consumer's freedom to get stuff for free.

Besides, it's not like devs and publishers have any interest in ending the support of free modding, the benefits of free mods are just too big for that. As long as the tools are available, I'm confident people will use them to express themselves creatively and share the results. I think Valve has expanded our options, not limited or corrupted them. Time will tell.

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