If you're a PC gamer, chances are that you've noticed the storm clouds swirling around Steam over the last 48 hours. Valve have finally allowed mod creators to charge for their wares and let publishers control the cut, resulting in a flurry of premium modifications onto the store.
It's a real mess out there.
Though we love the idea of hard-working content creators to earn money for their efforts, it seems that Steam's first foray is hitting some serious stumbling blocks and fierce resistance both from customers and the community. Seeing as Steam are already still struggling to stop the rising tide of shovelware and Early Access tat from engulfing the quality and deserving titles, there's a case to be made that this is yet another area in which they're throwing quality control to the wind.
All while developers are being paid as little as 25% of the revenue they generate. Is this a great new feature with teething troubles or a disaster waiting to happen?
The answer, I suspect, lies somewhere in the middle.
To briefly recap, Valve unleashed the news on Thursday evening (UK). "The Steam Workshop has always been a great place for sharing mods, maps, and all kinds of items that you’ve created. Now it's also a great place for selling those creations."
"With a new, streamlined process for listing and selling your creations, the Steam Workshop now supports buying mods directly from the Workshop, to be immediately usable in game."
Unfortunately it didn't take long for the first premium mod to be pulled from sale, seeing as it included idle animations created by other artists and used without permission. Meanwhile discontent spread like wildfire, resulting in a Change.org petition urging Valve to scupper the scheme getting tens of thousands of signatures within a matter of hours.
Blimey. There's a lot to unpack here. Let's get involved.
In fairness, their initial announcement got a lot right. The scheme starts with Skyrim: a game with hundreds of mods that many players would gladly pay money for. There's nothing stopping content creators offering their mods for free or asking for donations. Perhaps more importantly, though, there's a money-back guarantee that lets players get a refund if a mod doesn't work as advertised.
"It's still important to spend a little time learning about any product you are about to purchase. But, if after purchase you find that a mod is broken or doesn’t work as promised, you can easily get a refund of that mod within 24 hours of your purchase. View the full refund policy here."
All of this is very pleasing and shows a surprising degree of thought for the customer from a company with atrocious customer service. Though we love Steam, their backward policies regarding refunds (especially regarding Early Access and defective products) are still utterly shocking, arguably even contravening EU law. To include this sort of feature so early in the program's life shows that they're willing to let us punters take less of the risk.
However, it's clear that there will eventually be a slew of poor-quality, cloned or even malicious content onto the store. Just look at the sorry state of Greenlight and Early Access. Yes, players will be able to review, report and then refund broken products, but once again we run the risk of quality content being buried under tat. Discovery will need to be a constant priority for Valve, and to be perfectly honest, I'd urge them to curate. What was once a convenient shop is turning into the warehouse at the end of Raiders, only the boxes are often full of complete crap.
They don't care, obviously. It's more money. And curation doesn't come cheap.
Speaking of money, though, I can't help but feel that modders get the sharp end of the stick here. Their work is open to being stolen and cloned by others, even inadvertently. More to the point, though, the fact that publishers get to set the revenue rate for each game means that they'll end up with a tiny cut - in the case of Skyrim a measly 25%. Sure, it's 25% better than nothing, but frankly it's also an insulting amount of money for what is often a massive amount of effort and original content/assets. For Steam and the publisher to share 75% of the spoils seems... well, that's hard to call. It all depends on the mod itself and surely a flat rate can't be appropriate.
And then there's the Change.org petition. "The workshop is a place for people to share content with each other they made so all can enjoy it for free," it reads. "Since recently this is not the case for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Workshop. Valve has now erected a paywall for the mods."
Well... not exactly. There's nothing stopping content creators making their mods free if they want to. The only difference now is that they don't have to, and they can even let us pay what we want for their mods, what we can or what we think they deserve like a donation scheme. Personally I think that this petition shows the gap between perception and reality, both in terms of customers and creators. Once this gap shrinks, I think there's some real potential here.
This potential, for me, lies in the pay what you want model. "Now you can also find mods with a specified price, or mods where you can choose how much you wish to support the creators. The price is up to the mod creators," reads the original announcement.
Why shouldn't modders be able to ask for a bit of money for their hard work? Why shouldn't we be allowed to donate to them right there in our client? There'll be a few weeks of argy bargy over 'minimum' levels of pricing, but I hope to see more creators setting £0 as the minimum and letting us chip in what we can. I frequently wish I could donate to some of these fantastic projects and the mechanism is now built right into the marketplace. Looking around, I see a lot of irate comments from people who blatantly just like getting something for nothing.
But there's still a lot that can go wrong. Steam needs to honour those refunds. They need to make discovery a breeze and impose massive sanctions on those who abuse the system. There needs to be robust procedures in place for dealing with copyright complaints. Publishers need to think about giving modders a little more scratch. No matter how you slice it, there's a lot that can go wrong.
There's also no denying that it does rather change the relationship we have with mods. If premium content becomes the norm, surely we'll see mods yanked from free sites and exclusively hosted on Steam for a price? Can other marketplaces and distributors compete? Is it healthy for Steam to move yet another step closer to becoming a total monopoly?
More questions. Sorry. I never claimed to have all the answers, but in my opinion we're going to see a few crazy months as everyone acclimatises to the new state of play. Both in terms of pricing, trust and quality before seeing whether any other publishers choose to take the plunge. Perhaps they won't.
Just remember that it ultimately comes down to choice. Modders can choose to set a price, let us pay what we want or keep it free. We can choose to pay or simply go without. Whether Valve chooses to continue their march towards an open marketplace remains to be seen.
And, of course, you can just choose to... not use Steam. Monopolies are bad for any market. Have you looked at all the mods on ModDB lately?