Skyrim modder Chesko didn't have express permission to use an animation system from another modder in his paid Steam Workshop mod, but he did it anyway. Then he removed it because the other modder got upset. End of story? Hardly. That was just the beginning.
Chesko took to Reddit to explain everything that's happened to him in the wake of the controversy surrounding the paid-for Art of the Catch mod, which included an animation system created by another modder called Fore. Despite how black-and-white things might have seemed at the outset, this tale is actually a sludgy slurry of grey.
First Chesko explained why he decided to chain one of his mods to a paywall despite some misgivings with Valve and Bethesda's plan. He wrote:
Things internally stayed rather positive and exciting until some of us discovered that "25% Revenue Share" meant 25% to the modder, not to Valve / Bethesda. This sparked a long internal discussion. My key argument to Bethesda (putting my own head on the chopping block at the time) was that this model incentivizes small, cheap to produce items (time-wise) than it does the large, full-scale mods that this system has the opportunity of championing. It does not reward the best and the biggest.
But at the heart of it, the argument came down to this: How much would you pay for front-page Steam coverage? How much would you pay to use someone else's successful IP (with nearly no restrictions) for a commercial purpose? I know indie developers that would sell their houses for such an opportunity. And 25%, when someone else is doing the marketing, PR, brand building, sales, and so on, and all I have to do is "make stuff", is actually pretty attractive. Is it fair? No. But it was an experiment I was willing to at least try.
And then he got to the heart of matters. Why did he attempt to sell something that wasn't his? Or at least include said mod as part of his for-sale package? Well, he made the call in part because Valve allegedly said it should be fine. His final decision was not what you might call a good one, but he explained his rationale:
Of course, the modding community is a complex, tangled web of interdependencies and contributions. There were a lot of questions surrounding the use of tools and contributed assets, like FNIS, SKSE, SkyUI, and so on. The answer we were given is:
[Valve] Officer Mar 25 @ 4:47pm
Usual caveat: I am not a lawyer, so this does not constitute legal advice. If you are unsure, you should contact a lawyer. That said, I spoke with our lawyer and having mod A depend on mod B is fine — it doesn't matter if mod A is for sale and mod B is free, or if mod A is free or mod B is for sale.
Art of the Catch required the download of a separate animation package, which was available for free, and contained an FNIS behaviour file. Art of the Catch will function without this download, but any layman can of course see that a major component of it's enjoyment required FNIS.
After a discussion with Fore, I made the decision to pull Art of the Catch down myself. (It was not removed by a staff member) Fore and I have talked since and we are OK.
On top of that, Chesko has decided to remove all of his mods from Steam's curated Workshop. He cited the lack of control Valve offers over their pages (no real moderation to speak of, etc) as a big reason he's pulling out. There's just one problem: Chesko says Valve won't let him. He can have mods marked as "unpurchasable," but Valve won't remove their pages from Steam.
Chesko claimed he then heard from a Valve lawyer who had some not super great things to say:
I was just contacted by Valve's lawyer. He stated that they will not remove the content unless "legally compelled to do so", and that they will make the file visible only to currently paid users. I am beside myself with anger right now as they try to tell me what I can do with my own content. The copyright situation with Art of the Catch is shades of grey, but in [separate mod] Arissa 2.0's case, it's black and white; that's 100% mine and Griefmyst's work, and I should be able to dictate its distribution if I so choose. Unbelievable.
So yeah, if true, that's a seriously harsh policy on Valve's part. I did some digging through Steam's subscriber agreement, and it does seem to give Valve the right to pull something like this, albeit through some tricky language. Here's the most pertinent section:
"You may, in your sole discretion, choose to remove a Workshop Contribution from the applicable Workshop pages. If you do so, Valve will no longer have the right to use, distribute, transmit, communicate, publicly display or publicly perform the Workshop Contribution, except that (a) Valve may continue to exercise these rights for any Workshop Contribution that is accepted for distribution in-game or distributed in a manner that allows it to be used in-game, and (b) your removal will not affect the rights of any Subscriber who has already obtained access to a copy of the Workshop Contribution."
If I'm reading that right, it's a pretty fucking big "except." I could see those exceptions working against modders who choose to sell their mods for cash (or even those who don't), given that both A and B could technically apply to any situation in which someone puts a mod up for distribution on Steam at all.
Further, the section on revenue sharing seems to suggest that publishers — not modders — have ultimate say in terms of mod pricing. So that is probably something else to at least be aware of, though it did not specifically come into play here.
All of this, especially the lack of control, has left Chesko tired. I reached out to him in an attempt to clarify recent events, and all he could offer was this terse, tired reply: "Unfortunately I am beyond worn-down. My hobby has suddenly taken over my life and it needs to stop." In the Reddit post he suggested that leaving behind this mad mod world entirely is also an option. " I have other things I could spend my energy on," he wrote. Since then, he has deleted his Reddit account, in addition to multiple social media profiles. He also appears to have deleted the Steam pages for all of his Skyrim mods. Presumably, however, people who purchased or downloaded said mods can still access the pages and their files.
The long and short of it? Valve's opened a veritable Pandora's Box of potential issues with paid-for Steam Workshop mods, and monsters are bound to emerge. There are plenty of possible upsides (more mods, better mods, more focused, professional teams, well-earned money for hardworking people), but there's a lot to be concerned about at this point. Chesko was not entirely blameless in his situation, but he was also, at least in part, a victim of an untested, incomplete system. If a machine designed to benefit modders is capable of chewing them up and spitting them out like this, it might be time to consider a different approach — or at least offer modders a little more control.
And yet, even as I write this, reports have emerged of more modders stealing content (or at least ideas) from other modders. That can't be allowed to continue. So there are good reasons for Valve to have power, assuming they use it correctly. Right now, however, it sure doesn't seem like they are. That said, nobody's ever done anything like this before, so props to Valve for diving headlong into the fire, even if it means getting burned. There were bound to be issues, mistakes made. And I mean, we're talking about Valve. When Steam first launched, it was steaming garbage. Then it got better. When Steam Greenlight first launched, it fizzled, popped, and short-circuited. And now, well... the less said about Greenlight the better, actually.
But you only get one chance to make a first impression. Valve cannot squander this, cannot take their usual approach of making a tangled mess and then slowly letting it work itself out. Modding's been around for ages, and modders have other options — albeit less lucrative ones. It's sink or swim for Valve, and right now the paid-for portion of the Steam Workshop is going anything but swimmingly.