Postmortem: Analyzing The Catastrophic Failure of Steam's Paid Skyrim Mods

By Published April 30, 2015 at 3:25 pm
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On April 25, Valve revealed to the public a collaborative effort with Bethesda and a handful of selected modders, aiming to bring monetized mods for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim to the Steam Workshop. The concept was received with brutally negative feedback from the community and, less than a week after the release of the system, Valve and Bethesda decided to shut it all down.

When the issue was still hot and the outcome unclear, I made two albums regarding the quality of these mods. You can check them out on imgur here and here. We have rehosted just a few of the dozens of images.

It’s easy to see where Valve is coming from with the original concept: The company solely exists with thanks to mods. The GoldSrc engine was not the first to provide modding capabilities, but it stands as a significant milestone in the existence of this intensive and appreciated gaming niche. It was on GoldSrc that we saw the first cases of free community mods transcending their amateur roots and evolving into full-fledged, professional games. The list is long, but some of the best-known PC games are rooted in this background: Counter-Strike was a Half-Life mod, Team Fortress Classic was a Quake mod remade in the GoldSrc Engine (itself a Quake engine mod) then in Source, Dota was a Warcraft 3 map, Killing Floor was an Unreal Tournament mutator, and the list goes on. With the recent explosion of free-to-play titles with monetized User Generated Content, like Team Fortress 2, Dota 2, and – to some extent – CS:GO, it’s no wonder Valve decided to give Skyrim a shot of the same business model.

Alas, as we now know, that project was a catastrophic failure.

Valve’s not the only culprit in this spiral of PR insanity and community backlash. The very first and most evident problem with the paid mods system was the quality of the products selected as the poster-children. These initial mods were developed by veteran modders approached by Valve and Bethesda, the pair seeking an initial offering worthy of user investment. Unfortunately, the mods that shipped via Steam Workshop were far from quality; in fact, most of them were outright worse than free alternatives available on the workshop itself or on the Nexus.

How, then, could a community with a 3-year history of quality mod releases suddenly exhibit such impropriety?

Pick Two: Cheap, Fast, Good.

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skyrim-paid-mods-2 skyrim-paid-mods-1

(Above, center: Poor quality assurance on a door. Lower left: Pre-baked lighting on poorly-textured swords from DOTA2. Lower right: Armor glitches through UI, among other issues).

As it turns out, the time window to develop the paid mods was offensively short. Several modders and related individuals who were approached by Valve have claimed they received the first emails about a month and a half ago – hardly enough time to design, develop, and quality check. Considering these modders are amateur enthusiasts likely juggling “life” requirements – like work – a month just isn't enough time to release quality content, and it showed.

Legal Implications

And then there's the brooding legal aspect, especially as it pertains to the contents of uploaded mods. Heavy mods that offer more than just a new armor set usually require the work of several individuals who don’t necessarily team-up specifically for a mod; experienced mod users will recognize that modders often require or include work from other, unaffiliated modders. Scripts and assets may be pooled into mods as libraries to increase production speed and save time, and other tools – unseen to the user – may be used in the process of troubleshooting and development. The instant a price is placed on a mod with only one of these modders receiving credit and monetary compensation, we're bound to see problems. And we did. Fast.

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Chesko, author of Frostfall, built a paid “go-fishing” Workshop mod that used animations and a framework by Fore, who quickly protested his unsolicited inclusion. This led to the removal of the curated mod from the workshop, a black mark against Valve & Bethesda's own fact-checking and inspection abilities. Wet and Cold, which was significantly gutted for legal reasons in its paid version, was still issued a DMCA notice as it contained assets from other modders. Some keen eyes found that the Firelink Implements mod added a sword which suspiciously looked a lot like two Dark Souls 2 weapons fused together, although it is unclear if the same assets were used or if the modeler simply was heavily influenced. Finally, some of the mods under review (not yet approved for paid access) contained textures from fellow modders of the community who had accepted to have their textures reused in other mods, but never agreed to these mods becoming monetized.

firelink-sword

Foreign Entities

The last, glaring problem erupting from the mods fiasco was the simple fact that eight of the nineteen mods showcasing the system were not made by known Skyrim modders – or by Skyrim modders at all, for that matter. The three Dota 2 swords, the mod “Lambda Locator,” the Blazing Ringsword, Scrib Crusher, the Shadowscale Armor mod, and The Watcher were all made by individuals who created models and textures for Dota 2, Team Fortress 2, and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive; to our knowledge, none of these modders have clout in the Skyrim mods community. Considering the secrecy of the project before its ill-advised reveal on the 25th, these modelers almost assuredly had to be contacted by Valve to work on Skyrim mods to add some content to the paid workshop. While it was never explained by Valve why exactly this decision was taken, it is our informed speculation that the root-cause was resultant of the refusal by well-known Skyrim modders to partake in the program. This goes to show the community’s attachment to its free nature.

The ridiculously short deadline and the ill-advised decision to approach modelers who had never worked on Skyrim mods both hurt the project considerably, and it is directly the fault of Valve and Bethesda for failing to give the modders more time to work and release truly worthwhile mods. If the selection had been smarter and the lead time longer, the workshop would have at least been able to present a solid list of mods that were all worth a shot.

Immediately following the turn of events, we reached-out to Valve for official statement and asked the company to address concerns, but didn't receive a response.

"It’s not even a bad idea by itself – some modders out there deserve some form of payment for the tremendous work released, but these modders were not the ones who put their mod behind a paywall on that day."

As usual in these sort of debacles, Valve’s lack of PR response and complete secrecy when it came to the implementation ensured chaos in the userbase. This isn’t the first time Valve’s lack of contact with its own consumer and fan base has left people enraged and confused. In 2013, the Diretide event for Dota 2 caused a large uproar as Valve had simply not planned on repeating the 2012 event for a second year, but neglected to tell the community. This resulted in players eagerly expecting another shot of Diretide for nearly a month before the company finally made a decision and addressed the issue. Another, easy example is the infamously secretive state of the next Half-Life game, which has been awaited by players since the cliffhanger of 2007’s Half Life 2: Episode 2.

Valve just cannot communicate efficiently with its consumer base, and will even deny communication entirely while resorting to censorship.

Censoring the Users

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Soon after the initial backlash of the paid mods announcement, Valve took the decision to censor the discussion around the mods by disabling comments and five-star based ratings; the company further edited and removed some of the promotional text, a decision which caused yet another uproar. Soon after, Gabe Newell, founder and CEO of the Valve, opened a Reddit AMA in which he explained a lack of direct communication of the censorship occurring and had not even been consulted on the decision; Newell later claimed he would shut down the system if it turned out to be that poorly received – a promise which, for once, was kept.

The entire series of events (and the AMA itself) showed that something rare and very meaningful had happened in the community: users lost their trust in “Gaben.” The likable creator of Valve, who had brought to gaming a genuine revolution with Half-Life and later Half-Life 2, had suddenly lost his pedigree and faced a fanbase that grew exhausted of the situation. Accusations of greed and a disconnection from the needs of players were on open display in public discussion for nearly a week.

The entire operation brutally cleaved the modding community.

Along with the debate on whether or not paid mods were even a good idea, there's the further concern of just payment. Modders received a 25% revenue share, with Valve, Bethesda, and the modder's choice of select services (up to 5%) receiving the remainder. Speaking as experts in operating on internet-based revenue share models – that's how we monetize nearly all of our content – a 25-split is among the worst, most dismissive and insulting rates we've encountered. Our own thoughts aside, the userbase split itself amongst defenders of the rev-share and assailants toward its uneven split. It's common to see the community tear at itself over Valve’s policies, but the users persecuting the modders was new, and has created a rift that is still fresh and may remain here for a long time.

Most of the modders who promoted the system faced an immediate backlash with the same violence and intensity as faced by Valve but, unlike Valve, these are lowly-compensated individuals unaccustomed to handling such aggression. Chesko was the most affected by this, announcing his indefinite retirement from modding following backlash.

The largest source of controversy within the community itself was by far the decision of the creators of SkyUI to monetize their mod. SkyUI, which has existed almost since the original release of Skyrim, is necessary both for ergonomy and to run several sourcing mods, as they use the Mod Configuration Menu which comes with it. The mod had not been updated for nearly a year, and the creators started teasing a new version a week before the announcement of the paid workshop. After the reveal of the paid system, they announced that SkyUI 5.0 would be monetized, and that the only reason they had started working on it was to monetize it. Co-Creator of the mod Mardoxx was seen on a reddit discussion blaming the community for its lack of support and was immediately shot down.

The Idea Isn't Inherently Bad

It’s undeniable that the concept of paid mods had its appeal to some people; this wasn't some act of greed by modders – who were to make pennies on the dollar for each sale – but could have been a legitimate means of compensation. It’s not even a bad idea by itself – some modders out there deserve some form of payment for the tremendous work released, but these modders were not the ones who put their mod behind a paywall on that day. The system itself was flawed and the selection was abysmal. Embarrassing, even. If Valve and Bethesda had given the modders more time to work, if the selection had been more intelligently curated, and if the payment system allowed for a payment of zero dollar amounts (a system that Gabe Newell promised to include before the entire paid workshop was shut down), then the community may have reacted more positively to this decision. As the system’s failure showed, simply porting over the Dota 2/TF2 system in a single-player, rooted game does not work at all.

The Biggest Concern: Community Reaction

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(Above: A paid mod added a new dress to the game. The dress, which had to be crafted at a blacksmith, offered no inventory model).

The biggest issue outlined by this whole ordeal was not Valve’s decision or Bethesda’s decision. It was the community clawing at its own eyes, going on a hunt against those who disagreed or attempted to participate.

The only good thing that came out of this whole mess is an increased awareness toward the ability to donate directly to creators on the Skyrim Nexus as well as the addition of an optional awareness pop-up which asks to kindly consider donations before a download. Coming from the largest mod hosting website for Skyrim, this is quite a significant change, and it may allow modders to actually make some money off their work without using a paywall.

- Gael “Ganerumo” Mouren.

Last modified on April 30, 2015 at 3:25 pm

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