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.