Back in the early 90s, John Carmack and John Romero were adamant their upcoming game Doom had to support fan made modifications. Growing up with a love of hacker culture, they both saw the power of programmers collaborating and sharing ideas freely. To them, letting people change their game was the right thing to do, even if others argued it wasn’t a smart business move for id Software, their still growing company.
But in time, their choice to allow mods had the side effect of giving Doom a much longer shelf life by fostering an environment of creativity. By allowing people to mod their games they built a community of creators that could do things even they couldn’t have envisaged.
Of course, id Software wasn’t the first studio develop a game and see it modified by their fans. Back in the 70s arcade owners would change parts of pinball machines to adjust the playfield, and in the 80s programmers modified the chipsets of arcade machines to create harder game modes. What id Software can take credit for is being the first studio to openly encourage gamers to pull their game apart and see what they could do with it – provided the community stuck to a few simple rules.
The first was that all mods could only work with the full version of Doom, not the free shareware version. The second rule was that id Software would not be held liable for any damage a mod may cause to anyones copy of Doom, and that mod makers must state they’re in no way associated with id Software.
These rules over time have become the defacto standard all games use – except for one. Carmack and Romero also stated they were fine with people charging money for mods – no royalties required. This move wasn’t popular with other members of id Software who saw it as giving up too much control, but for the two Johns this ability for anyone to build upon their games and make a career out of it was paramount. The free exchange of ideas and the right to charge for your creations if you so chose was a cornerstone of programming in their eyes. Since then though, the concept of selling mods has been controversial at best and rage enducing at its worst.
MAKING MONEY WITH PAID MODS
For years after the release of Doom, the PC gaming mod scene continued to grow, and for the most part remained completely free. Paid mods weren’t unheard of, such as the once free Half-Life mod Counter-Strike eventually being sold separately. But these were usually bigger, standalone releases – not smaller mods like new weapons or a maps.
As the modding community grew, game development powerhouse Valve began to leverage their ability to distribute mods via their Steam platform through the Steam Workshop. This gave the modding community a centralized point to gather around and share mods with fans, but it wasn’t long before the business model behind it reared its head. And a lot of gamers weren’t happy about it. Around April 2015, the internet was ablaze with angry comments as gamers vented their rage at Valve and their partner in crime Bethesda. The flagship title for paid mods initiative was Skyrim, a Bethesda developed game and the latest entry in the long-running (and much-loved) Elder Scrolls series.
For a while, the two companies tried to assuage fans fear and anger, but the heat grew to be too much to bear and Bethesda eventually backed away from the program. A large number of gamers were delighted – they got their free add-ons back and seemingly won the war – but many others felt disheartened by the move. For them, allowing people to pay for mods was a way to make money and keep food on the table while working on ways to enhance the games they loved.
One mod maker caught up in this storm was Thiago Vidotto, a Skyrim mod maker who spoke to Polygon shortly after the Bethesda/Valve deal was introduced. He said that “some modders are really good at what they do. They create a whole new experience for a lot of gamers. Their work demands a lot of time and effort to produce. I believe it is fair for them to be compensated for their work.”
Having been part of the mod scene since the 90s, beginning with the original Quake (an id Software game oddly enough), Vidotto understood why some gamers were opposed to the idea, saying that “most [mod makers] are doing this as a hobby. They may not feel comfortable charging for something they enjoy doing.” But he also added that “modders should be free to decide how their work is distributed, and not forced to keep working for free.”
MAKING YOUR OWN CAREER
Advocates of keeping mods free argued that good modders will be able to find paid work off the back of their portfolio. On the flipside, others said that expecting people to work for free is unrealistic and that people should be able to charge for their work and let the market decide. But that begged the question not many could answer – how realistic is it to expect to get a job from being a modder?
One person who knows better than most is Brendan Green, also known as PlayerUnknown online. If that handle rings a bell for you, it’s because Greene is also the creator of Battlegrounds, a game inspired by his previous work as a developer on H1Z1 where he created the King of Kill mode.
Starting his career as a modder on the DayZ mod for Arma II, he openly acknowledges how important the mod scene is to gamers, which is why he wants Battlegrounds to remain open to mods from the community.
“I’ve been given a huge opportunity,” said Greene in an interview with GamesIndustry.biz, “and I’m very lucky with the chances I’ve had to come from modding to making my own game and have it be such a success. I want to find the next PlayerUnknown, I want to find that person who creates something using my game that lets them go on to create their own game.”
There are other examples of mod makers becoming professional game developers, and it’s telling that many of them recognize the importance of paying it forward and letting fans mod their games. But that doesn’t mean they all think it should be free.
Garry’s Mod creator Garry Newman told me that his mod would have died if he couldn’t charge players for it, saying that asking people to pay meant he “could justify rewriting it and doing all the stuff I wanted to do.” That one mod got him a house, a car, and even his parents a new home. It also allowed him to start a studio and employ over 40 staff. “But yeah,” adds Newman sarcastically, “fuck paid mods.”
THEY PAY ME TO MOD
Selling mods directly to the consumer has introduced a number of hurdles for publishers and developers to overcome, not the least of which is the public relations nightmare it tends to bring. But the value that mods add to a game is undeniable. And it’s for this reason that Studio Wildcard introduced a unique solution – they would pay modders to make free content for their game, ARK: Survival Evolved.
Their plan is to select 15 mods each month, and for the creators of those mods to receive $4,000 to support them while they work. In an interview with Develop magazine, Jeremy Stieglitz, lead designer, programmer and co-creative director of ARK, said that ”we can enable them to, if not make a complete, full-time job out of it, spend more time to make these mods higher quality. Indeed, even finish them and ultimately benefit the overall ARK community as a result.”
Looking at it objectively, it’s clear that Studio Wildcard sees mods as being more than fun add-ons for their game, they’re part of the core experience. Their solution to getting more mods for their game is a unique one, but just like selling mods on a platform like Steam, the end result is the same – the mod makers get money to do something they love, while also covering their own expenses.
IT’S ONLY JUST BEGUN
Despite the shaky start, paid mods are coming back. It’s just a matter of finding a way to do it that’s both fair to the community of mod makers and gamers. “Mod people create a lot of value,” said Valve boss Gabe Newell at a recent video games media roundtable discussion, “and we think that absolutely they need to be compensated.”
Newell openly acknowledges that the Skyrim paid mods launch was “a mess”. He clarified that it wasn’t the right time to launch it and that “we did some ham-fisted things in the way we rolled it out. But the fundamental concept that the gaming community needs to reward the people who are creating value is pretty important.”
Regardless of your opinion about paid mods, the best thing anyone can do is look at it from someone else’s perspective – if you’re fine with paid mods, maybe ask yourself if you can understand why gamers are worried about a long-standing tradition of free content going away. On the flipside, if you think all mods should be free, ask yourself how you’d feel if you didn’t even have the option of charging for something you created that was used by thousands of people.
Paid mods are a touchy subject for gamers; on the one hand, they’ve been a staple of PC gaming since the 90s, but on the other hand, they’re also a selling point for many games. Countless mods have increased gamers enjoyment of so many games, so it could be argued that modders should be entitled to some compensation. In the end, like any other commercial venture, the market will sort it out. The obvious downside of this type of thinking is that while the ‘market is sorting it out’ the value of the idea can be damaged, but the mod scene has proven to be nothing if not resilient.
For now, all we can do is wait and see what comes next. And if nothing else, this ability to vote with our wallets will at the very least give us gamers the chance to either support smaller creators, or show we don’t want to be a part of this new mod economy. The reality is that the genie is out of the bottle and paid mods won’t go away. For a lot of people, the exposure that from modding is more valuable than being paid upfront, but it’s hard to argue against a person’s right to play by the rules of the market and charge for their work if they so choose.
No matter what you think about this, one thing is certain – change is coming once more, so get yourself some fireproof blankets because the internet is going to be ablaze like it’s 2015 all over again.
What do you think? Should modders be allowed to charge for their work? Or does that harm the traditionally free mod scene? Let us know what you think in the comments or on Facebook!
Valve boss Gabe Newell Still Thinks You Should Pay for Game Mods
Jeff Grubb (VentureBeat)
Facing extreme abuse, Skyrim modders defend paid work
Colin Campbell (Polygon)
PlayerUnknown Battlegrounds dev: “I want to find the next me”
James Batchelor (GamesIndustry.biz)
Valve Nixes Paid Skyrim Mods After Huge Backlash
Bo Moore (Wired)
Cover image source: SPolygon