Since everyone and their cat is talking about this, I thought I’d weigh in. Yesterday the above banner appeared across the Steam homepage heralding the addition of a new system that allows users to charge for their mods. Side note: technically, mods have only been on Steam for about 3 years, so saying that Steam “has always been a great place for discovering community-made mods, maps, and items” is a bit of a stretch, but that’s beside the point. The point is, the Internet quickly exploded with hate for the new “feature.” As of this writing, 13 of the top 15 “most helpful” reviews for Skyrim, the only game with for-pay mods thus far, are negative, not because of the game itself, but because of the for-pay mod system.
EDIT: Scratch that, in the time it took me to finish writing this post the two positive reviews have been pushed down. They’re literally all negative now.
One of the main reasons for playing Elder Scrolls games, at least for the PC Master Race, has always been the mods. For instance, I play an Imperial named Palpatine who uses lightning magic and a red 2-handed lightsaber. That small moon, Secunda? That’s no moon. And, of course, I had to add the Space Core (he currently lives on a shelf in my house and chatters away to Lydia and my adopted daughter all day). There are, of course, many other less silly and universe breaking mods that add everything from new armor to new quests to new NPCs to graphical improvements (yes that’s possible, believe it or not). Do these things add to my enjoyment of the game? Yes. But there’s no way in Oblivion that I would ever pay for them. But I don’t think this is the kind of thing the system was created for in the long run. Granted, a quick glance at the current list of the paid mods shows that they’re mostly to add a handful of cool looking items and expanded versions of existing mods. But I think the real usefulness of this feature is not to add bite-sized DLC, but to incentivize modders who have bigger ideas.
Think about it. How many awesome free projects, whether mods or standalone games, have been abandoned because the creators got burnt out or didn’t have time anymore (in other words, this). People aren’t dedicated to a project they have no prospect of getting money for, even if they’re really excited about said project. They might model a cool set of fantasy armor and dump it into a Skyrim mod, but rarely does anyone create something on the scale of one of Skyrim’s official DLCs. Honestly, people who create DLC-sized mods should be compensated, and conversely, if people know they’re going to be compensated, they’re more likely to make DLC-sized mods. If Bethesda released Morrowind remade in the Skyrim engine, charged $60 for it, all of the Morrowind fanboys would be throwing money at their monitors right now. So you’re saying that if a team of players remade Morrowind within Skyrim and sold it for $10 you’re not going to buy it? I don’t even like Skyrim that much and I would buy that. Yes, there will be plenty of people who create mods for fart magic and dubstep guns and try to sell them for a dollar, but in general I think the hope is to encourage a higher quality of mods.
I have to admit that, judging from the reaction of many players, my opinion is far from popular, and I’ll be honest, I’ve never even attempted to mod anything, so it’s not like I have my finger on the pulse of the modding community. Also, Skyrim is far from my favorite game, so maybe if this was being piloted on a modable game I really like, Torchlight 2 for instance, I would be a little more annoyed. But I’m not going to hate Valve for making this feature available. I’m of the opinion that, if I don’t like a given feature, I’m not going to use it, but I’m not going to label anyone who does use it as a traitor.
In the end, I hope this encourages the already amazing modding community of Elder Scrolls, and eventually other games, to come up with even more amazing things. Yes, there will be a certain number of mediocre mods that would have been free if they were released last week that some guy is now going to try to charge a dollar for, but I think it’ll be fairly self-policing (no one is going to pay for a lame mod, so eventually the creator, if they’re smart, will be forced to make it free). If it means we get just a few projects that are of higher quality and scale than people would have been willing to create without pay, then I think it’s worth it.
EDIT: After just three days, Valve pulled the paid mods from the store and offered refunds to people who purchased them. Valve and Bethesda both apologized for misreading the modding community, though Valve conspicuously didn’t promise never to try this again with other modable games. Only time will tell.