Even After The Skyrim Fiasco, Valve Is Still Interested In Paid Mods

Even After The Skyrim Fiasco, Valve Is Still Interested In Paid Mods

Earlier this year, Valve sent the mod community into crisis mode with paid mods for Skyrim. It did not end well.

And yet, Valve never said they were done-done with giving modders the option to charge for their creations. Rather, they concluded that they had some thinking to do about how they presented paid mods, and that they believed there was “a useful feature somewhere here.”

During a recent trip to Valve’s offices in Seattle, I asked Valve business authority Erik Johnson and man of many hats (including TF2’s) Robin Walker about what they have learned while staring into the deep, dark mirror that is hindsight.

“We’re willing to take risks,” said Johnson, “but sometimes we’re just wrong. We definitely screwed up things in the details.”

I asked if they felt like perhaps they Pulled A Valve and relied on numbers too much, rather than talking to human people with flesh and blood and the ability to slough out tiny genetic copies of themselves. Johnson and Walker fully agreed that Valve’s communication of the idea was poor, but not in that way.

“We talked to that community a bunch ahead of time,” said Walker. “That was entirely from customers and mod-makers. What number could we have looked at there?”

“Robin made Team Fortress when he was seven years-old or two or something,” said Johnson, “in the bush in Australia with no electricity. On paper. If you ask Robin in passing, ‘What do you think about people being able to pay for mods,’ his reaction is gonna be like, ‘That’s awesome! I wish I had that option before I was a professional working at Valve. I wanted to pay bills and have a customer base.'”

For sure, some people wanted paid mods to stick around. They felt like the community uproar was just a single, densely packed growing pain — more an angry howl than a seething rage. In the end, though, Valve felt like they poisoned the well with Skyrim, specifically.

“We screwed things up in the details,” Johnson noted. When I suggested that perhaps they could’ve tested the waters with some survey-type forum threads on Steam or Reddit — slowly warmed people up to the idea instead of springing it on them cold — Johnson added, “I agree that we could’ve done it a lot better.”

For Skyrim in particular — with its vast, established modding community, rife with room for drama over attribution, combo mods, etc — Johnson feels like Valve also miscommunicated why they chose to do what they did. “If you look back specifically at the Skyrim situation,” he said, “while it wasn’t our intent, it was really easy to read that as, ‘Remember that thing you love? You pay money for that now.’ That’s an awful plan. That’s a terrible plan.”

“I think the magnitude of the reaction was also like, ‘Did Valve just turn evil on us?'” Johnson continued. “We don’t think we did, but we can see how it got miscommunicated that way. I know Robin will say this too, but it was one of the most awful weekends I’ve had working at Valve. It felt really, really terrible reading through all of that.”

Despite the dumpster explosion disaster that Skyrim‘s paid mods turned into, Johnson explained that Valve is committed to compensating people for their work, even if that work is play.

“In our own games — DOTA, Team Fortress, and Counter-Strike — we have a huge number of people who are making content (which isn’t much different from a mod) who can then sell that and make a living. That’s really important,” he said.

“People who make stickers in Counter-Strike, or item sets in DOTA, or who play professional Counter-Strike or DOTA, or who make mods — we think of all those as part of the same group of people, who are creating value for our online communities,” he added. “It’s all user-generated stuff. Even people just playing games are adding value. And we feel like people should be compensated for that value, whether it’s through dollars or item drops. We need to be the people who are making sure that value is being compensated for appropriately. We think people getting paid is really important.”

Then we moved on to the elephant in the room: thanks to an unsuccessful first attempt, people who would have otherwise been on the fence or slightly opposed to the concept of paid mods are now super opposed. Can Valve make this work in the future with all that baggage trailing behind them? Johnson thinks so.

“You need something that’s like, ‘Here’s the new thing. Somebody spent a couple years on it, and it’s amazing. It’s for sale,'” Johnson explained. “We didn’t really have anything like that [last time], so it came across poorly.”

“I think it’s about being really transparent and offering something that’s cool,” he said. “I think customers are pretty smart. I think they get it.”

The other big thing? No more stomping into colossal, legacied communities like Skyrim‘s. That, Johnson and Walker agreed, was definitely a bad call. If they try again, they will likely start on the ground floor of something, though it won’t necessarily be a Valve game.

“I don’t think it matters whether it’s a game of ours or not,” said Johnson, “but I do agree that walking into a pre-existing, very mature community is probably not the best place to start.”

“Especially if they don’t know us,” added Walker. “That’s one of the main advantages to picking our own games. Our customers are more familar with us and the way we work. I think they understand our thinking.”

“They have a fair reason to trust that we haven’t completely lost the plot,” Johnson chuckled.

Here’s hoping.


  • I think it would have been successful, while also seeing far less resistance, if Valve and Bethesda tried this with Fallout 4 first… Instead of digging themselves a massive hole trying to throw a pricing net over an already existing and very well entrenched community like they did.

    • I think it would have worked with Skyrim just fine if the strong element of greed wasn’t present from the start.
      Trying the same setup with Fallout 4 would’ve had the same backlash.

      Money for the modders was a great idea on paper, but with the lions share going to Bethesda and Valve taking its cut as well it was never going to appeal to many.

      • I don’t think it’s an element of greed that was the issue. I think it was backlash of a company trying to come in to an existing community built by the people for the people to try and take some control over it and make money off of it. The community and mods already existed, and grew without the help of Steam or Bethesda, and all of a sudden the company rolled in with a claim that they now were entitled to a share of it.

        I think there would have been much less backlash if it wasn’t A) A pre-existing community and B) If Bethesda and Steam weren’t taking a cut of the payments.

        • There is a word that perfectly sums up what you are describing…..

          Seriously though, the community reaction to the mention of paid mods was quite popular. Even when there was mention of a cut going to the devs and Valve wasn’t hated by many, but as soon as details of the cut was announced things went downhill very quickly.
          Bethesda wanted 45%, Valve wanted 30% and the creator got a piss poor 25%.
          Now we have to put up with “we are sorry” PR nonsense and stupid analogies as the folks involved act like the situation was much more complex than it seemed.

          You are right, they looked to cash in on a free community and take an extreme return from it in the name of compensating the creators, it is greed in it’s purest sense.

    • The problem is Valve/Bethesda are always going to be the ones announcing it. Even if they move from unfair to extremely generous as far as taking their cut goes, the announcement is going to read as ‘We, the people you purchased a full priced game from, are going to be making money off mods’ rather than ‘like YouTube, Twitch, and a whole bunch of others, we’re creating a way that content creators can make money off their work without having to setup their own sales platform’. It comes across as micro-transactions rather than a marketplace where users can sell user generated content.

      Of course Valve face an absolute nightmare actually running this system even if they get it off the ground. Steam is already a magnet for shovelware and this lowers the bar even further. I really like the idea, but like most of Valve’s best ideas it has a weird level of faith in the idea people won’t abuse it.

  • I think many things would have to change like,
    mod tools/source code availability,
    proper royalties paid to respective creators and owners
    a consumer shift toward modded games that supports the scheme

  • skyrim was the wrong choice, established modding community, thousands of mods already released, and a series known for its free mods, etc but equally you need a game thats popular so people would actually pay.

    least evil option would be a donate button or if you have to go paid mods a new IP and introduce it very gently

  • As much as I despise Greenlight, why not have a similar system for the mods. The Community can vote for which mods can have the ability be purchased or donate to stop everyone wanting to make a shitty mod for a quick buck.

    Honeslty this was just a quick thought and a much better system would need to be put in place for it to work. But the general idea of having a Greenlight system is what I was trying to get at.

    Also what is stopping someone from buying the mod, copying the files then refunding the mod and then copying the files back over.

  • I think the idea behind paid mods is sound. There are a LOT of fantastic content creators out there, that really deserve recognition and reward for the hard work they do, the amount of time that goes into making some mods is ridiculous. Mods like SkyUI, SkyRe/PerMa, Ordinator and Frostfall (to name just a few) that are extremely well made, have support and updates from creators long after release and greatly enhance the way the game is played. I know that I’d be happy to pay for these mods if the authors asked for it.

    The biggest problem I can see with paid mods, is that until you pay to try a mod out, the only thing you know about the mod is what people are saying about it. And I’ve seen mods that have been really quite popular, but may not have been made particularly well, and I probably wouldn’t pay for them, given that knowledge. Not to mention the plethora of very poor mods out there that are buggy or cause major conflicts with other mods, that really should not have any option to make money for their creators.

    So you get the problem of not really knowing exactly what you’re paying for, or whether it’s worth paying for it. Obviously some creators are well known for releasing quality mods (hence those that were approached leading up to ‘modgate’) and the majority of people would be happy to pay for their mods on good faith based on their history, but what of the new modders? Are we going to be paying for mods that end up being abandoned and unsupported? How are Valve going to police paid modding so far as these sorts of things go? There are too many questions that need to be answered before the community in general would actually look at paid mods as an option.

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