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The Internet Hate Machine Killed Valve's Paid Mods

The short and tumultuous life of paid mods.
April 28, 2015, 3:50pm
aqqh's and Chesko's $1.99 Art of the Catch - Animated Fishing, one of the first mods for sale on Steam, was accused of stealing work from another modder.

Last week, Valve introduced a new program that allowed developers and hobbyists to sell user-created content for existing games (mods) directly through its digital games distribution platform Steam. Players rejected the idea with a flood of emails, threads that dominated the front page of Reddit, and death threats, of course, because that's just how some gamers disagree with people on the internet these days.

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Yesterday, less than a week later launch, Valve decided to kill or at least halt this initiative and refund in full any users who already bought a mod.

"We've done this because it's clear we didn't understand exactly what we were doing," Valve's Alden Kroll said. "We've been shipping many features over the years aimed at allowing community creators to receive a share of the rewards, and in the past, they've been received well. It's obvious now that this case is different."

This is after the company received what it described as a "dump truck of feedback," which to me sounds like the real reason for this uncharacteristic reversal. Steam serves millions of users and operates some of the most popular, competitive games in the world, where changing a Bounty Hunter's Intelligence growth stats from 1.4 to 2.0 throws some lives into upheaval. Valve is used to negative feedback, but merely giving people the option to pay someone for work they were previously giving away for free has triggered a relatively new kind of GamerGate-esque internet hate machine.

There are no winners here

It's tireless. Like a T-1000 Terminator of vile internet harassment, it just keeps coming until it gets the kill, which it did. Valve buckled under the pressure, which I suppose means the haters won, but there are no winners here.

Paid mods had the potential to support and further incentivize a community that exists outside the corporate publisher system and create even more interesting games we wouldn't get otherwise. There were cogent, constructive criticisms of the program, changes Valve needed to make, but they were lost in the noise, and useless now that paid mods are scrapped.

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One of the most common complaints is that the revenue split isn't fair to modders. Valve gets 30 percent off the top, and how the rest is divided is up to the developer or publisher of the game the mod is for. Valve launched the initiative to work with Bethesda's Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim only at first, and Bethesda decided to take 45 percent on all mod sales, so the the split on a $100 mod, for example, would be $30 to Valve, $45 to Bethesda, and $25 to the mod's creator.

Valve's 30 percent cut is standard across digital stores. iTunes has the same split, for example. Bethesda obviously deserves a cut as well since it invested the most money in creating the original game that's being modded, but leaving the modder only 25 percent seems…greedy.

"There are valid arguments for it being more, less, or the same," Bethesda said in a statement yesterday, before Steam ended paid mods. "It is the current industry standard, having been successful in both paid and free games. After much consultation and research with Valve, we decided it's the best place to start. This is not some money grabbing scheme by us. Even this weekend, when Skyrim was free for all, mod sales represented less than 1 percent of our Steam revenue."

Another popular argument is that by offering paid mods on Steam, the platform that more than 125 million active players use to get their games, Valve will somehow corrupt the modding community at large, which exists outside of its jurisdiction on websites like Nexus.

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However, Nexus founder Robin Scott explained in a lengthy blog post on Saturday that Valve contacted him a month before it launched paid mods, and offered him to become a "Service Provider." By electing to become a Service Provider, buyers could choose to give Nexus 5 percent of a mod sale as thanks for all tools and support it provides the modding community. The 5 percent would come out of Valve's end.

Scott said he had issues with paid mods and how Valve rolled them out as well, but he accepted the offer.

"The money was offered as a gesture of thanks, from Valve, and it is being accepted, respected and used in the way in which it was given," Scott said. "Nothing more."

And then there are all the issues that come with any relatively unregulated online marketplace. People posted lewd content (more on genital mods in a moment) against Valve's rules about what kind of content's allowed in the Steam store, and at least one mod was removed after accusation that it stole the work of another modder.

Valve backed away from a bold idea because of a typical knee-jerk internet reaction

Valve's position on this was that between the community's and Valve's policing, these cases may pop up but that the market will self-regulate, which is a little naive considering that even the more restricted iTunes App Store can't keep up with clones and other forms of intellectual property theft.

If the feedback Valve received in its inboxes resembled players' public reaction online, it's also safe to assume that it was hysterical and unpleasant.

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Users flooded the paid mods section with protest Skyrim mods like an extra apple for $29.99 and a very popular sign that says "no paid mods" on one side, "free the mods" on the other. Someone even offered an HD resolution mod of Valve's co-founder and managing director Gabe Newell's genitals.

There was also a Change.org petition. Those are easy to make, but getting 133,011 supporters isn't.

Newell tried to calm the violent reaction over the weekend by heading directly into the eye of the shitstorm: Reddit. Selling mods was always optional (modders could still offer their work for free through Steam), but Newell said Valve will add a "pay what you want" button.

"Our goal is to make modding better for the authors and gamers," Newell said. "If something doesn't help with that, it will get dumped. Right now I'm more optimistic that this will be a win for authors and gamers, but we are always going to be data driven."

He said many more reasonable things, but that didn't help. He was downvoted so thoroughly his comments don't even appear on the Reddit thread.

Apparently, the data has spoken, and it says no to paid mods, not like this, not now. That doesn't mean Valve won't revisit the idea with a different strategy. "We believe there's a useful feature somewhere here," Valve's Alden Kroll said.

I'll admit that my initial impression of the announcement was overly optimistic and blind to issues that emerged in the following days, but I'm still disappointed that Valve backed away from a bold idea to support gaming's indispensable modding community because of a typical knee-jerk internet reaction.

Again, Valve's program always allowed modders to keep offering their mods for free, off and on Steam. It's only the option to pay modders for incredible, demanding work they were previously giving away for free that was so offensive.

Remember that the internet loves to hate new things that cost money—just ask JayZ.

Remember that the internet loves to hate new things in general—just ask the gamers who rejected Steam when it was first launched in 2003, their hatred forever memorialized in this ancient gif of Steam's logo sexually violating a man.

Remember that the internet loves to hate—as if you could ever forget.