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On Steam Workshop and ‘Premium’ Mods

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Games, Rants | Posted on 24-04-2015

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I’m really not entirely sure how I feel about this – I have conflicting opinions so until the dust settles and we all see what happens, posts like this will just be full of vague thoughts based on what we know right now.

On the one hand, I would hate to see terrific mod communities fragment over this, on the other I would have to be quite miserly to say that content creators shouldn’t be able to seek recompense for their work should they wish.

The issues as I see them, boil down to these:

  1. Specifically in the case of Bethesda, is a 25% cut from mod sales to the mod creator(s) reasonable?
  2. Is a 24hr window for refunds sufficient for mods which can often cause conflicts with other mods, bork save files, etc – in other words, cause you problems which don’t become apparent within 24hrs?
  3. How will this affect multiplayer gaming?
  4. Will premium mod creators be obliged to provide tech support?
  5. Will this create a climate of mod-cloning? Will we see a scenario where popular premium mods are copied and then either undercut on price or given away free? How would such a scenario impact mod communities?

Point (1) is horribly subjective. Game creators are providing the game and the mod tools – without the popularity of Skyrim, for example, and therefore the development and marketing costs which went into making it your mod would never reach the potential consumer-base that a game like that offers. In other words, get 100% of the sales from a mod for a game with a handful of people playing it or get 25% of sales from a mod for Skyrim – you’ll do waaaaaay better with the second deal. However, there is already a mechanism for Bethesda to recoup the costs of marketing and development – it’s the price tag of the base game. So why should the value of the pre-existing tools factor into this in such a sizeable way?

Mods can sell a game to those who otherwise would not buy it. How many people bought ARMA 2 exclusively for DayZ? Old games can be rejuvenated by great mods. It’s not infrequent to hear people talk of mods “fixing” games which were considered “broken” or “unbalanced” at launch. Many a game has a set of, so-called, “essential” mods. If an old game finds itself climbing back up the Steam charts on account of a handful of incredible mods, is it fair if the game’s publisher sucks in 100% (minus Steam’s cut) of the sales of the game (sales generated entirely by those mods), and then a further large slice of the sales of the mods themselves? Or is it not reasonable to be happy to see your game generating sales again, the small slice of the mod sales you take the icing on the cake – thankyou very much mod creators?

Fact is, were I employed by some developer and in my spare time I created a huge expansion and the studio decided to package that as DLC, I would expect to see 0% of the sales personally. But that’s a situation where my salary already compensates me for my work and I’ve signed a contract which stipulates that any work I do in my spare time technically belongs to the studio. I’d still feel a bit aggrieved and under-compensated though. In that context, then, a 25% cut isn’t bad considering that publishers have every right to deny you monetising content for their copyright works entirely. Perhaps these large publishers consider 25% to be incredibly generous – and perhaps it is if we look at it through the eyes of big business.

As far as I know, the exact percentage which goes to the mod creator is determined by the publisher so we’ll no doubt see a great degree of variation, ultimately. However, were I going to pick a value as a base-line – a ‘don’t take any more than this’ guideline for all games then given that the percentage must compensate the publisher for the value of the tools/tech/consumer-base, we should also consider the value that Steam brings with its tools/tech/consumer-base. Steam Workshop provides you with infrastructure, 80 million or so potential consumers, and easy download and integration. How much is that worth? Way more. So take whatever percentage Valve takes from the mod sales and match it – no more*.

* Edit: Of course without knowing the specifics of the percentages it’s quite possible this is what the 75% already roughly reflects – but if we presume Valve takes a 30% slice (which would be in line with what many digital distribution services take), then this would leave a more meaty 40% to the mod creators.

UPDATE: According to Nexus Mods (link), the percentage split is as follows: 25% to mod creator, 40% to Bethesda, 35% to Valve. Of the slice Valve take, this can (optionally by the mod creator) be split further – 5% to one or more “service providers” which, in Skyrim’s case, include sites like Nexus Mods themselves. With this in mind, I find Valve’s cut to be quite reasonable considering that the cost to Valve in providing the Workshop service and handling the financial side of things is sizeable. It’s the 40% to Bethesda which raises my eyebrows considering that each and every mod creator has already paid for the mod tools as part of the price of Skyrim. 15% – 25% strikes me as a much more reasonable publisher slice.

All this being said, there is one tremendous up-side to all of this: The prospect of generating income from mods may be the push developers and publishers need to provide modding tools – in the future, perhaps a game being modable will be the norm.