Paid Modding: A History

April 29, 2015

So, as you probably have already heard, Valve announced several days ago that they would be introducing the option of charging for game mods on their Steam Workshop platform. A few days and a lot of internet outrage later, Valve announced that they had reconsidered their decision and would be removing the option not a week after they had added it.

There were a lot reasons on the negative side of the argument as to why paid game mods were a bad idea, including how profits from mod sales were distributed between the mod creator, game dev and Valve, the lack of any kind of quality control (which Steam hasn’t had in a while anyway) and quite a bit of the ever-present “I just want things I want to be free”. On the other side of things, a lot of people thought that developers of extensive mods that take a lot of work to make and maintain should have the chance of getting something from their efforts. To be honest, all of these points on either side are incredibly valid, but there’s one thing that I never saw brought up during this whole mess and it’s something I think needs to be talked about a little bit.

Paid modding has been a thing before in certain game communities,  and it doesn’t work.

I think I’ve already written a lot on this blog about how I’m kind of an oldbie when it comes to the Sims community. It was the first online community I ever took part in, to be honest, and I was probably way too young to be on the internet unsupervised. But that was my community and it remained so for quite a few years. Paid custom content was a big deal in the Sims community several years ago. I hear it was also a big deal in several similar games with active modding communities at the time, but I wasn’t a part of those communities and can’t talk about them.

During the time in between The Sims 2‘s release and it’s last expansion, the ever-controversial ‘paysites’ were a huge deal in this community. Although they were dying out by the time The Sims 3 rolled around, there were still quite a few active paysites still up and running and still charging for downloads of custom content. Some worked on a pay-per-download basis, while others charged a subscription price for a kind of membership that gave them access to as many downloads of these exclusive items as possible. Some of these websites even maintained ads, despite already having another payment model in place.

The debate and drama surrounding Sims paysites was huge. Not only were many arguments had over the issue of “The Sims Resource (paysite) vs. Mod the Sims 2 (free)” but entire pro-pirate sub-communities were formed with the sole purpose of calling out paid content as against EA’s TOU and, more importantly, distributing that content elsewhere for free.

simss 2 mods

And that’s the biggest problem that faces the idea of paid mods. They’re impossible to police when it comes to illegal distribution. For the large majority of games, mods themselves are just files that can be dropped somewhere into the install directory. They don’t come with keys or always online DRM. They’re not like games themselves where the developer and publisher can put measures in place to make life harder for people who choose to pirate them rather than pay for them. Skyrim mods on the Steam Workshop work no differently from those on Skyrim Nexus, which becomes obvious once you realize that, during the short period of time when paid modding became a thing on Steam, people had unscrupulously ripped mods off of Nexus and put them up, for sale, on Steam without permission.

Hell, even if the game has a mod format that allows for DRM, like The Sims 3 did, when it distributed paid store content in one of the same formats that mods were implemented in, but with an added piece of DLC that could be cracked open in a few seconds with a 48kb executable file courtesy, once again, of the More Awesome Than You/Paysites Must Be Destroyed crowd.

Shortly after the release of The Sims 4, The Sims Resource, the largest and most infamous Sims content paysite, began offering every one of its downloads for free (albeit behind a time wall that one could buy their way out of). And before that, for years, individual paysites had been dying off. They didn’t all either shut down or become completely free-to-use because they decided that they no longer wanted to make money. They died out because they weren’t making money. And it wasn’t even because their mods and custom content weren’t in demand. People just weren’t paying for it.

Where there used to be memberships and paywalls, there are now adf.ly links and banner ads. Even certain old paysites that still offer paid memberships now do not offer exclusive items in exchange, but convenience, such as the ability to download all objects in a set as a single file.

Paid modding isn’t a bad idea, really. Some extensive mods take as much time and effort to make as a small indie game would and I’m all for people being able to make money from their passions. But the way Valve shoddily implemented a pay system to the Steam Workshop last week was not the way to go about it. Charging for game mods is a tricky thing, because it’s been done before in several gaming communities and so far it hasn’t worked. Maybe future games will be able to have systems built into place where paid mods can be protected by some kind of DRM to prevent what happened to paid modding in the Sims community. And maybe there will be a service where mods could be bought from where customers can be assured that they will get a working, and worth it, product. But Steam is certainly not that platform, and Skyrim doesn’t have anything in place that makes the mods people pay for any different in format from those people download for free.

So, as of right now, the paid modding is a bad idea, as was exemplified by the shit show of this past week. If Steam’s foray into charging for mods went on any longer, no doubt it would have ended rather quickly by piracy and drama. Because, unlike with games themselves, paid mods cannot sustain themselves in spite of piracy. They’re just too simple to install, don’t need to be cracked and aren’t reliant on any serial keys or game accounts in order to work.