The best way to critique Steam's new paid mod section? Turns out it's making mods.
The most popular Skyrim mod on Steam right now is a sign. It's a crude, almost sad little thing, with two whole sides of sizzling outrage dedicated to paid mods. "FREE THE MODS," shouts one side. "No paid mods," whispers the other, as though trying to remind its counterpart that they're In A Library, And That Shit Does Not Fly Here.
The dinky little sign's nearly 10,000 ratings average out to a five star score. Thousands of comments and discussions support its message. It made it all the way to the top of Steam's Skyrim mod section in a matter of hours over the weekend. It's been there ever since.
It is just a sign, but it's also more than just a sign. It's a symbol.
Now, this isn't the first mod made to protest Valve's decision to sell mods as part of its Steam Workshop. It did, however, resonate the strongest, grew from a tiny low-res twig ("I don't have time to make an HD texture for a protest sign," wrote its creator) to a mighty tree fort epicentre of civil disobedience. And it's hardly alone. Most of the top Skyrim mods right now allude to dissatisfaction with paid mods in some way or another, and many link to a petition with thousands of signatures.
That's not the only way people are using Steam Workshop to protest Steam Workshop, though. I would argue, actually, that other means stand to be far more productive in the long run. All indications seem to suggest that Valve is sticking with paid mods come hell, high water, or HD tributes to Gabe Newell's genitals. Shouting "no no no no no make them go away" probably isn't going to do much at this point. A better approach might be to identify which particular aspects of the paid Steam Workshop are busted and demonstrate how to make things right.
Some modders have begun working within the system to show what they want from it. For instance, there are now "donation" versions of mods that are otherwise free so you can pay their creators on Steam, but only if you want to. Cases in point: Better Combat AI, Vigilance and Meeko Are Huskies, and Day Night City Lights.
There's no pay-whatever-you-want (or not) functionality on the Steam Workshop yet, but modders have gotten around that by simply posting their mod at a fixed price and writing "donation version" in the title. None of these mods have been approved for sale yet, but regardless of whether or not they do, here's hoping Valve gets the message.
Other modders, like kebrus, creator of the $US0.99 Better Vanilla Hairs mod, are posting their full mods on both Steam Workshop and free mod site Nexus while doing their best to explain their rationale. See, the paid Steam Workshop was pretty much made for someone like kebrus. They tried modding a while back, but life got in the way before they could finish much. With a little money in the equation, however, they can afford to devote more time to modding. That in mind, kebrus hopes to run an experiment by charging a small fee on Steam and linking to a free download of their mod on Nexus. Pick your poison. They explained:
"The paid mod news came with a good promise for me, If I could make a few bucks out of this it could mean less real life work and more 'free' time to continue this or even more than this. But I'm actually pretty concerned about all this and how it was implemented... I also don't like the idea of introducing [capitalism] on system that always lived from community sharing alone. Even less the idea that there's now a new kind of piracy, something that I always deem as a consequence and not a cause."
"One of the things that I believe it will define how this new system will play out is the user reception, or in other words, the users talking with their wallets. People hated this change and bring out arguments like a donation-only system. Well, I'm here to give you the opportunity to live by your words. If I get even one payout from this system I'll do a bit more work on this and create a couple more hairs, and I'll continue doing so until every hair is finished."
So basically, they want to see if the pros of this thing can outweigh the cons, if having people vote with their wallets (and not just by withholding money entirely) will persuade Valve to make some changes. It's an interesting idea, if a somewhat disorganised, perhaps overly ambitious one.
Of course, all of these mods are just drops in a bucket that could contain Niagara Falls, and new ones are popping up at an alarming rate. Many are of the "I'm gonna charge $US99.99 for almost nothing to make A Point" variety, but a few are taking the discussion in more interesting, potentially constructive directions. After all, this is hardly a good-and-evil, black-and-white, open-and-shut issue. Sometimes even cases of perceived "theft" are more complicated than they initially appear. Not always, but sometimes.
When something is this radically different from the norm and, in many ways, poorly executed, protest is only natural. But knocking everything down doesn't mean much if you don't have a plan to rebuild. Whether people like it or not, Steam's paid mods have shined light on a monster of an issue that was quietly snoozing in gaming's collective closet. Making mods isn't always easy. Sometimes, people deserve money for their hard work (or even need money to make their "hobby" possible). Valve's system isn't perfect yet -- and maybe it never will be -- but there's merit to working within it, explaining why, and getting people to ask questions like "How can I support the people who create things I love?" and "What can we do to make this whole situation better for everyone?"