MOD Scene Mayhem

MOD Scene MayhemEarlier this year, Valve introduced paid mods to its Steam Workshop pages, but it was removed a few days later after a massive online backlash. Rick Lane investigates the falloutOn 23 April, a new feature was launched on Steam that allowed modders -amateur creators of modifications for various games – to charge real money for their work. Starting with Bethesda’s Nordic RPG Skyrim, the plan was to gradually roll out this scheme across a range of games with extensive modding communities, in cooperation with the developers of those games.

Only four days after paid mods were implemented, however, the program was abandoned, after an incendiary backlash from Steam users, Skyrim players and the online community in general.The abrupt succession of announcement, backlash and withdrawal of the paid mods scheme has left the modding community reeling. The debate over whether mods are free by their nature, or whether modders deserve compensation for their work, has revealed striking divides in the community that weren’t visible previously. Meanwhile, the explosive and, in many instances, toxic nature of the backlash has left many modders, especially Skyrim modders, embittered toward the communities of which they have been a part for so long. Some have even decided to abandon modding entirely.For Valve, the paid modding fiasco has proved a rare error in its business judgment, but for the modding community it’s been disastrous. ‘Things have changed,’ says modder Sherri-Lyn. ‘Things that should never have been said have been said, and there’s no going back.’Better known by her online alias Shezrie, Sherri-Lyn is one of the most experienced modders in the Skyrim community. She began modding shortly after the release of The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, back in 2002, after searching online for a ‘house’ mod to add into the game.’Twent through quite a few house mods that I downloaded but couldn’t find anything that suited,’ she explains. ‘So I finally opened that daunting Construction Set that came with Morrowind, and started to disassemble a house mod so that I could figure out how it was put together.’This curiosity gradually became an obsession with modding that’s lasted over a decade. In that time, Sherri-Lyn has created over 50 mods, all for the last three Elder Scrolls games – Morrowind, Oblivion and Skyrim. Most of her work focuses on adding houses, housing extensions and towns to the game. Her largest mod, which expands the sleepy Oblivion hamlet Pells Gate into a bustling town, was the result of three years of work, and added extensive dialogue and entire quest lines.When Oblivion was at its most popular, Sherri-Lyn even ran her own modding community – the Oblivion Real Estate website – dedicated to showcasing the best user-created houses, villages and towns for the game. ‘We had a forum where the house modders could all hang out together and share our love for making house and town mods. We were a very close-knit community and had a lot of fun over the seven years we were going. We also had some serious modding talent among our members and turned out some brilliant new modding talent over the years.’In all that time, through all that work, Sherri-Lyn hasn’t charged a single penny for any of her mods. When asked if she’s thought about becoming a professional developer, she immediately says no. ‘In the game development profession, you create what you’re told to create,’ she explains.’Sure, you have a certain amount of creative freedom, but I need total creative freedom to really let my imagination loose and enjoy what I’m doing.’Making money from mods is difficult for several reasons. Unlike games, mods are always related in some way to another developer’s work, which comes with obvious copyright issues. Furthermore, mods can range enormously in their quantity and quality. Some mods are a simple tweak of a game’s code to make the graphics better or alter the game’s behaviour, while others are huge, total conversions. Essentially games in their own right, these massive projects often only share the toolsets and code in common with their parent game.Sherri-Lyn’s mods land somewhere in the middle of this scale, being substantial creations that involve considerable work, but they exist and function within Bethesda’s fantasy worlds. A few mods, such as Counter-Strike and the hardcore WWII shooter Red Orchestra, have been upgraded into full-priced games. But until recently, it was difficult to see how mods, such as Sherri-Lyn’s Bleakden Town or Old Hroldan, could be anything but freely distributed.Then one day Sherri-Lyn logged into her Bethesda forum account to find a message from Bethesda inviting her to join a private Steam group. ‘It all sounded intriguing and exciting, so I agreed. Then things were explained more fully via email; that it was about allowing content creators to create content and set it for sale.’ The announcement took Sherri-Lyn completely by surprise. ‘I was in a bit of shock for at least a few days.’The specifics of the arrangement are important to note. Sherri emphasises that Valve clearly stated modders could only sell updated versions of mods, while existing mods would remain freely available. ‘The concern from the public about free mods disappearing and then reappearing as items for sale was completely unnecessary. It was never going to happen,’ she says.Furthermore, the modders would receive a 25 per cent revenue share of every mod sale, while the rest of the money was divided between Valve and Bethesda. Sherri-Lyn admits that initially she wasn’t happy with the percentage, but accepted it after considering Valve’s role in providing the distribution platform, and Bethesda’s providence of both the base game and the Creation Kit, which Elder Scrolls modders use to create their work. ‘But I really think that if Bethesda did increase the percentage given to modders, it would make a larger profit in the long run, as more modders would have a greater incentive, and users would feel they’re getting value for money and feel better about buying,’ she adds.When the time came for the grand unveiling, Valve decided to announce the scheme at the same time as implementing it, rather than leaving a gap between announcement and launch. There’s a question over whether the surprise nature of the launch increased the severity of the backlash, but Sherri-Lyn doesn’t believe so.’People weren’t as blindsided as is often claimed.The owner of Nexus [the premiere Skyrim mod community outside of Steam] had written a blog post on his site about paid mods and the likelihood of them coming, weeks before we went public.’Before we delve into the consequences of the launch, it’s worth noting that Skyrim modders didn’t leap on the opportunity like wolves on a fresh kill, exploiting the system for every penny possible. Shortly after the announcement, one of the biggest mods on the scene made a statement explaining how it would remain free.Enderal is an upcoming total conversion for Skyrim, and ‘total’ is most definitely the operative word. A completely separate fantasy RPG, Enderal features a huge new world with its own lore and storyline,full voice acting, overhauled gameplay, a new class system and homebrewed survival mechanics. The German development team behind it, SureAI, is even including complete English localisation.’It’s hard to list everything we’ve improved and changed, because it’s a lot,’says Nicolas Lietzau, creative director on Enderal. This isn’t the first massive Elder Scrolls conversion SureAI has created either. The developer’s last project, Nehrim: At Fate’s Edge, was a total conversion for Oblivion, the product of 25,000 working hours. Enderal currently stands at approximately 22,500 working hours, with some way yet to go. ‘I think the nuts and bolts of pulling through a grand-scale project such as Enderal is a certain mindset. It’s important to feel a certain responsibility and not just see the project as being a pure fun task, simply because it’s non-commercial,’ says Lietzau.Enderal is the product of several dedicated team members and a large body of volunteer designers, artists, voice actors and so on. SureAI is more organised than most modding teams of this scale. Lietzau explains that the team uses management practices and schedules similar to those of commercial game developers. But SureAI’s mindset is shared by all dedicated modders, as are its obstacles, the main one being a lack of funding.’There’s no budget available, which often leads to unavoidable, personal outfalls and deadlines not being met. It’s important to keep everyone intrinsically motivated,’ he says.All of this makes SureAI’s decision to keep Enderal free more intriguing. Lietzau offers two reasons behind this choice. Firstly, charging for Enderal would make it a commercial project, and consequently, SureAI would have to pay all its volunteers for their work, and purchase commercial licences for their software. ‘All of it would have summed up to a six-digit number,’ claims Lietzau. ‘Even if Enderal would have sold well, it would have been unlikely that we could cover the incidental expenses.’Lietzau’s second reason is much simpler: ‘We promised that Enderal would be released for free, and we wanted to stick to that promise.’ That said, SureAI isn’t against the notion of modders being paid for their work. ‘People often underestimate how much time modders put into their projects,’ says Lietzau. ‘It might be worthwhile thinking about some kind of “quality assurance”, which ensures that only projects of a certain quality can be put up for sale.’Such measures could work. Valve’s extremely hands-off approach when it comes to managing its own storefront is arguably one of its failings. Vetting such a vast number of games and mods might be a substantial task, but Valve almost certainly has the resources to do it. Even so, it’s unlikely that such a quality assurance system would have helped to soothe the Internet’s fury at the time of the scheme’s launch.The reaction to the paid mods scheme was explosive; within a couple of days, 133,000 people had signed a petition protesting it. A controversy involving Chesko’s fishing mod, which was pulled from sale, as it was using animations by another modder who was against the idea of paid mods, further fuelled the flames. The Skyrim Steam Workshop page was flooded with ‘protest’ mods – hastily constructed rubbish with absurdly high prices. And those modders who were part of the launch program, such as Sherri-Lyn, were subjected to a tsunami of online abuse.’There were literally hundreds of absolutely foul comments,’ Sherri says. ‘Some as simple as “Go kill yourself, you sell out” to “I will track you down, make you watch while I kill your family, and then kill you and rape your corpse bitch”.’ In addition, Sherri-Lyn was sent images of rude gestures and male genitalia, and her mods were torn apart in dozens of vindictive reviews. Worst of all, she says, were the online campaigns to steal and pirate the updated versions of the mods she had put up for sale.’The community advocating the piracy of our work is the hardest thing for me to forgive or forget,’ she says. ‘We have always rallied against piracy and fought on behalf of our modders, as a community. To see this endorsement of the theft of our mods, and to see the majority of the community encourage and support others stealing our work, was devastating.’Four days after the launch of the paid mods scheme, Valve pulled paid mods from Steam Workshop. Sherri-Lyn explains that there wasn’t much discussion between the modders, Valve and Bethesda.’fValve] said it had its reasons, and after all, it’s a business, and must make decisions as a business.’ At her lowest ebb, Sherri-Lyn pulled all her mods from Steam Workshop and Nexus, and cut off all possible communication between herself and the modding community. ‘I felt sick to my stomach at the thought of giving more of my work to people that wished me dead, among other things, and decided that the only option was to leave.’Sherri-Lyn was far from the only person affected by the fallout. Other modders, including Chesko, have also departed the community as a consequence of harassment, while many more felt betrayed by Valve and Bethesda for caving in so quickly to an angry Internet mob. Although not directly involved, SureAI was equally shocked by the severity of the response. ‘Honestly, we found some of the reactions seriously alarming and, even though they weren’t directed at us, insulting.’Not everyone reacted to Valve’s U-turn with despair, though. One of the more ambitious ideas to emerge from the debacle is Project Ascension, intended as an open source game launcher ‘to promote diversity in the gaming market’.’Currently, there isn’t a non-associated launcher and distribution service,’ says project lead TheDarocker, who gives his first name as Dave. ‘Steam obviously only works with the Steam Storefront, uPlay with its own and so on. [Ascension] is really trying to get the best deal for consumers with minimal effort on their part.’Ascension isn’t setting itself up as a competitor or alternative to Steam. Rather, it intends to integrate harmoniously with existing storefronts, acting as a shell to incorporate them all so users can see all the options available to them in a single glance.This setup,the developers hope, will include modding websites and communities. ‘We’ll be attempting to integrate with popular modding sites, some of which do have this feature, to handle modding,’ Dave says.Ultimately, Ascension plans to help to provide an opportunity for modders to charge for their work if they wish, but such a system involves navigating a host of legal issues first.’Paid mods do have some legal ramifications,’says Dave, ‘especially when you charge for them without the consent of the original game developer.’Ascension currently has a 17-person team, and work is apparently underway, but it’s still very early days. Right now, however, the viability of Ascension is less important than how it demonstrates the effect of the paid mods debacle. The genie might be back in the bottle for the moment, but Valve has shown that charging for mods is a possibility, and the subject will almost certainly rear its head again in the future.Despite her recent traumatic experience, Sherri-Lyn proclaims that she will never give up on modding. Indeed, after withdrawing her work from availability, she started receiving messages of support rather than abuse.’To be honest, I realise now that I was more than happy to be convinced and given a reason to stay, as quite frankly, I didn’t want to leave – I just felt that I had no other option,’ she says. ‘Since then, I’ve been re-uploading my mods so that users aren’t inconvenienced anymore. I will not stop modding.’

7Review earns Amazon affiliate commissions from qualifying purchases. You can support the site directly via Paypal donations ☕. Thank you!
We will be happy to hear your thoughts

Leave a reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.