Paywall Is The New Firewall

If You Want It…

Hello everyone. Hope you had an enjoyable Easter. Something has come up on Steam recently that has copped a lot of negative feedback. It seemed inexplicable that Valve would consider going down this route, and now that they have, prompted many users to vent their disappointment (to politely put it). A few days ago, Valve implement a policy where users who wanted ‘mods’ for the game Skyrim would now have to pay for them. This is known as a ‘paywall’, a system where you must pay to gain access to certain information.

Skyrim and Modding

Skyrim is a 2011 game released by Bethesda Softworks. Part of the successful Elder Scrolls series, Skyrim is an action-based role-playing game set in a fictional, mythical universe. In this case, Skyrim is set in the snowy, alpine and Scandinavian-inspired setting of the same name. Like many RPGs, players may customise their character and chose to do whatever they wanted. The ‘open world’ of Skyrim is expansive, providing players with many different opportunities to feel their way throughout the game world.

A large part of the appeal of the game is the act of ‘modding’. Modifications, or mods, are add-ons created by the gaming community to be implemented into the main game via download. These mods can range from anything such as serious add-ons such as new armour, weapons, locations and characters, to humorous and miscellaneous ones like funny sounds and voices.

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Skyrim can accommodate many different mods

The modding community of Skyrim (and Elder Scrolls in general) is large. Several dedicated websites, notably TES: Nexus, are essentially databases for hundreds of different mods that have been added over time. People create these mods either to add something new into the game, to work on their programming skills or for recreational purposes. Most mods are created usually by a single person. The sheer scale of mods can be vast: you can find ones which make small changes to ones which adds entire new quests and missions.

In fact, the longevity of Skyrim is largely down to mods. These are a good way for players to spend more time once they have beaten the core game. There is generally no limit to how many mods a player can have, although it is not surprising that there will be clashes between incompatible ones.

Building a Paywall, Brick by Brick

Until recently, modding in Skyrim had been free on Steam. Players did not have to pay to download and use these mods, although donations were welcomed as a ‘thank-you’ to the creator. This has essentially helped with the continual growth of the modding community.

However, on 23rd April, Valve and Bethesda implemented a change to this on the Steam service. The main feature was that (as far as Steam was concerned), if you wanted to download a mod, you would now have to pay for it. Want to know why? Here is the statement:

Many of our fans have been modding our games since Morrowind, for over 10 years. They now have the opportunity to earn money doing what they love – and all fans have a new way to support their favourite mod authors. We’ve also updated Skyrim and the Creation Kit with new features to help support paid mods including the ability to upload master files, adding more categories and removing filesize limit restrictions.

What does this mean for you? As a modder, you now have the option of listing your creations at a price determined by you. Or, you can continue to share your projects for free. For those shopping for new mods, Valve is making sure you can try any mod risk free.’ – Skyrim Steam page, 2015

At the same time, Valve released their Steam Workshop feature. This is basically a database within Steam of uploaded mods, similar to the Market feature used for buying and selling in-game items. Skyrim happened to be the first game to use the Workshop, which is why this concerned the game. Here’s how it works:

‘Whether you’re just getting started or are already a professional artist or developer, now you can make money from your creations in the Steam Workshop. Starting with The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, you can make new cosmetic items, sound packs, custom skins, fancy houses, epic quests, entire new cities, or just a new hat for Lydia. Once you’ve made your creation, you can easily set a price and earn a portion of each sale made through the Steam Workshop.

Set a price for your creation, list it for sale in the Steam Workshop, and earn a portion of sales. Plus, the Workshop Revenue Activity site will help you track your sales and revenue so you can make better decisions about what to work on next. Workshop games will support paid content in the coming weeks. As creator of your Workshop submission, you get to set the price. You can specify a set price or choose to sell as pay-what-you-want and let the customer decide how much to pay.’ – Steam Workshop page, 2015

When a person wants to release their content for others to access, they upload it into the Workshop. By agreeing to various terms and conditions, and following acceptable content policies, their work will be added to the database within their own account. This acts as a portfolio as a showcase of their work.

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Steam Workshop lists mods, both for free and for sale

The Workshop exists as a central hub of player-created content for everyone to use. This is similar to the Greenlight and Market features we’ve looked at before in regards to Team Fortress 2. Initially, this sounds like a good idea. With Steam being so inter-connected and well-known, people can have their works readily accessible. This is supported by the fact that you needed Steam to actually run Skyrim in the first place.

What Does This Mean?

But there is one problem which we mentioned at the start: paywall. If you wanted to use these mods, you needed to pay for them. How much is dependent on different factors. The more expansive and immersive mods (those which add a lot of features) tend to be more expensive than those that are more limited in design. For example, ‘a Blazing Ringsword or Scrib Crusher – additional weapons – are a mere 17p each, but the Midas Magic Gold pack, introducing 80 new spells to Skyrim’s mystic arsenal, is £3.99’ (Kamen, 2015).

This is the reason why this issue has created such a negative reaction from many people. It is not because they have to pay; it is more of the fact that this policy had been implemented in the first place. Being an online platform for collaboration and sharing between people has been one of Steam’s its strongest points. For a company like Valve who actively encourages community activity, the implementation of a paywall seems to be surprising and disappointing. This was highlighted with hundreds of people quickly posting a negative review, not against the game itself, but against paid mods. There was even a petition created on Change.org for a reversal, gaining 20,000 signatures.

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Just one of the hundreds of negative reviews in the wake of the paid mods policy

The pricing of these mods will be neither Valve’s nor Bethesda’s decision: the creator will make that choice of how much to charge. Valve’s statement for modders to ‘have the opportunity to earn money doing what they love’ is also questionable. For anyone making money out of Steam must file a bunch of tax information, including filling in ‘tax interviews’ for the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). After dealing with this extremely complicated system (isn’t dealing with government services is always fun?), here comes the damning statistic. Modders, regardless of whatever price they set, will only get around 25% of the total revenue for their content. The majority of it is split between Valve and Bethesda. The small print is listed in Steam’s supplemental Workshop terms, another legal wall of confusing text that many would not bother reading. The clue is in the Revenue Sharing section, point 1:

The percentage of Adjusted Gross Revenue that you are entitled to receive will be determined by the developer/publisher of the Application associated with the Workshop to which you have submitted your Contribution (‘Publisher’), and will be described on the applicable Workshop page.’ – Steam supplemental Workshop terms page

In theory, anyone can garner a lot of sales of their work, but the reality is that what they receive at the end is largely reduced. It is ultimately the developer/publisher that decides how much you would get for your work (usually less than 40%). In Skyrim’s case, modders get the 25%. Is that a fair deal? I don’t know but it’s listed on Steam’s terms and conditions. What’s more is that the money they receive is only useable within Steam. In other words, they cannot draw the money out like in a bank; only for use in Steam.

So Long, Goodbye?

About a week after they implemented it, Valve removed the paid mods feature. ‘In a post today, Valve employee Alden Kroll confirmed that the functionality will be removed, and all customers who have paid for mods will be refunded. The move has been made with Bethesda’s blessing, Kroll added. “We’ve done this because it’s clear we didn’t understand exactly what we were doing. We’ve been shipping many features over the years aimed at allowing community creators to receive a share of the rewards, and in the past, they’ve been received well. It’s obvious now that this case is different. To help you understand why we thought this was a good idea, our main goals were to allow mod makers the opportunity to work on their mods full time if they wanted to, and to encourage developers to provide better support to their mod communities. We thought this would result in better mods for everyone, both free and paid. We wanted more great mods becoming great products, like Dota, Counter-strike, DayZ, and Killing Floor, and we wanted that to happen organically for any mod maker who wanted to take a shot at it.” (Prescott, 2015).

The backlash against this policy was so strong, so dense that it seemed they had no other option. You could cut the resentment with a knife, it was that solid. Valve received a ‘dump truck’ of feedback on the matter, of which its disposition was very clear. Many didn’t like the fact that they had to pay to enjoy player-created content.

Here’s my take on it. Nobody expects anything for free and gamers do not expected things to be given away. The trouble is that when you impose restrictions and limitations, you will cause friction and it is no different here. For a long time, mods have been freely and readily accessible for others to enjoy, which has helped to grow the community and in turn keep Skyrim alive.

I don’t think anyone has an issue with the creators getting a financial incentive for their work. However, most people advocate a donation system as the appropriate way to support the content creators. The gaming community is, by and large, very generous and supportive. TES: Nexus, which arguably has a larger database of Skyrim mods than Steam, is still free to use. Its community and supportive feel makes it a popular choice for discussion and sharing.

There is no sense of entitlement from gamers that they have a right to use mods at will. It’s the fact that paid mods was thrown on them rather suddenly. Valve and Bethesda made the mistake of moving too quickly and have suffered considerably for it. If you ask me, having this system is largely counterproductive. Steam is full of creative content that probably will never get experienced or used because people have to pay for them. Perhaps that is the sad thing.

This is not the end of paywall, far from it. With the amount of games that are modified by the community on Steam, I’d say it’s a matter of when not if, this crops up again. Valve talked about using the situation as a ‘social experiment’, but they have a definitive answer to the question. Their reputation has taken a considerable knock so lessons need to be learned.

Bibliography

Matt Kamen’s article: Modders backlash supports paid Steam mods

http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2015-04/30/modders-backlash-supports-paid-steam-mods

Shaun Prescott’s article: Valve has removed paid mods functionality from Steam Workshop

http://www.pcgamer.com/valve-has-removed-paid-mods-functionality-from-steam-workshop/