Critical Hit | Paid Mods, A Retrospective

By Ian Soltes 03.04.2016 3

In 2015, Steam decided to launch a bold new, experimental, system. For years, people had been allowed to sit down and create their own, unique, content to be distributed to other members at will. Now the notion of paying those creators back with real money was around, though, people were not happy. Was it right to lash out, though? Is it time for a change? Critical Hit takes a closer look at the situation…

I will not lie, when the idea of paying for user-created mods came out, I was outraged. For those not in the know, a 'mod' (short for modification) is user-made content made to alter the experience. Imagine if someone wanted to play Bejeweled but replace the gems with various national flags. Normally a DLC for that would not exist. However, with a bit of programming skill they could alter the game so that instead of rubies, diamonds, and the like, the flags of America, UK, and Canada would appear. These mods can range from simple re-skins to full-on expansion-sized content, as well as even outright game overhauls and patches.

The thing is, though, that no one actually pays for these. Almost all of them are distributed via third-party websites or the Steam Workshop, and there is rarely an entry fee, let alone payment for individual mods. Steam, at least in theory, wanted to change that by making it so that users would pay for at least some mods, with the developers getting a bit of cash back. People were outraged and it was completely understandable.

When I was outraged, the problems were obvious… and they still are today. On the most basic level, there is never a guarantee that a mod will ever actually work, especially if the game is running a multitude of mods already. Game scripts will conflict in ways the makers probably didn't even realise were possible. Things will bug out and possibly not even work at all, and sometimes a mod just won't run. Maybe a later patch changed something and the developer doesn't know how to fix it, doesn't care, or isn't even supporting the mod anymore. Even a generous return policy won't help because the problem may not even be self-evident at first, especially if a lot of mods were bought at once. One could, for example, and in theory at least, buy a skin for a weapon obtained late in the game… except they are early in the game. Even with a week-long returns policy, it could be a month before they even got to that weapon and found out that the skin either didn't work or replaced the sword skin that they wanted with a horse. The returns policy has long since expired and the only choice left is to turn the mod off and sigh…

With other mods it becomes even harder. One of my favourites is for Civilization V, which changes the very core mechanics to reflect Hyperdimension Neptunia in at least some ways. The problem is that this conflicts with another mod I own that adds a new age to the game and, as a result, when both mods are active, the game simply doesn't work. How do I fix it? Can't be done… except by turning one off.

Next-up would be the fact that some mods simply wouldn't be worth the few cents used to buy them. When the shop was launched, there were already stupidly over-priced items meant for only one purpose that wasn't even hidden behind a thin veil: to earn the developer money (and see how willing some Steam members might be to buy anything). Buying a great mod that actually adds something valuable to the game might be worth it, but blowing any more than a few coins on something that just re-skins a weapon or item? Almost no one would even consider it worthwhile unless it was a seriously great re-skin.

Then there would be the issue of rip-off items. It might be awesome to replace a horse with a motorcycle, but if there is a free mod that does the same thing, or something similar, the paid mod is then only for suckers who can't be bothered to look it up… or worse. Worse, in that the person who made the paid mod can force the person with the free mod to take it down and, possibly, be sued. Suddenly, riding across the virtual world in a motorcycle has gotten you in a courtroom in the real world for riding a bike you don't even own!

Finally, to top it all off, some mods require other mods to even work in the first place! Paying for a mod to let your character back-flip might seem okay at first but then you discover that not only does it not work, but in order to make it work you have to buy a much more expensive mod that alters character skeleton set-ups. That sounds horrible!

It seems, then, like paid mods are a pretty bad thing, right? Between the mods that can crash, conflict, or not work at all, the mods that would be little more than rip-offs or not worth their value, the potential for legal lawsuits or rip-off mods, and that no return policy could ever effectively cover it, it should be obvious this is a bad thing… right?

That's what I thought, at first. It wasn't even a question in my mind. Not until late one night when I was browsing a mod site. Many of the mods weren't all that eye-catching. Things like armour re-skins, houses, and the like. Then I found one of the larger mods that added in a bunch of NPCs to the game, with things like full voice acting and unique story threads. It wasn't even a question if I wanted it or not… I was already downloading it. While it was downloading, though, I stopped myself for a second and thought to myself…

"This mod is huge. It's not just random people, either. It's people with full voice-acting who made this content on their own with no hope of being paid. It's not even cruddy voice-acting like someone just used a computer microphone. It's near-professional level stuff. I'm getting this for free. There is a donate option but how many people downloaded this for free?"

Then it hit me, full-on. All this time, for all those months, I had only been thinking about all the inherent flaws and arrogantly dismissing the notion that any mod could really be worth all that much money. I already had one mod that offered expansion-level content, multiple that vastly altered how the game played to make it how I wanted, and almost one-hundred re-skinned armour and weapon piece mods, not to mention a few various miscellaneous types. Had they been released by the developer, how much would I have paid? Was that mod in my sci-fi game that replaced the ships with ones from Star Trek really worth no coin at all? Not even a few pennies, when I had just spent some money on minor DLC for other games? It was easy to point to things like EA's tendency to soak people for money with its DLC and pay-to-win options, but did this modder who probably wasn't associated with them in any way deserve to suffer for EA's practices?

I had to stop and think for a moment. People when downloading mods only rarely donate. It's perfectly understandable. A sizeable chunk don't work or aren't worth it and, if someone donated for every mod, quite a few people would have lost a lot of money. I would have lost a lot trying to get some of my mods to work simply because of dependencies. Was that the right thing, to say mods shouldn't be paid for, or just my own greed and spite? I didn't know.

It's easy to think that you're above it all, to say you will donate to the good mods, but even if you are, how many other people aren't? What is the right answer? To pay or not to pay? That seemed like such an obvious question, with such an obvious answer for so long. Now I want to at least think about it and hope you will, as well.

Is it right to make some users who make simply impressive and huge mods not receive any money for it simply because some other people are horrible modders? Is it right to charge people for something that may not even work? Is it right to accuse people of practices they don't use? Is it right to use exploitive practices to soak someone for money?

Paid mods, should the topic ever arise again, will be a hot topic in the future of gaming. It's very easy to lash out and claim that it's a horrible practice or that people are being greedy. No good will come from simple lashing out, though. A solution may not be obvious, at least for now, but apathy and reactionary movements solve nothing. It might be as simple as making it so that good mods can be nominated to developers to pay the makers to include it in the game or add it as DLC. It might be something very complicated. The answer won't come about from not thinking about it at all, though...

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Holy crud! You went out and actually found a video of the Civ V Hyperdimension mods! I didn't even know they had videos of that! Wow. That is so nice. With luck the creator will get a bit more popularity as a result and that is always great.

Anyways, I haven't found a concrete solution yet; especially since a sizable chunk of mods are for adult content. That would be very risky at the least to include in games. But it's almost certain this topic will come around again and I hope you've found a good answer to it.

That Skyrim mod looks crazy!

It's a brilliant topic, Ian. Some people put so much effort into these! It's stunning to see the passion.

Adam Riley [ Director :: Cubed3 ]

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