In the past, for Skyrim and many other computer games, mods were almost universally grafted on by players who loved whatever game they’re working on so much that they were willing to work for free to see their vision through. Just by working on these mods the players who did so were turned into amateur developers, artists, sound designers, level designers, and game designers.
If the mod developer was interested, and had the opportunity, they could use their work as an amateur in a portfolio to use when applying for work as a professional game developer. Most of the people I know who get paid to make video games today got their start over a decade ago making mods for computer games. According to one of Valve’s founders, Gabe Newell, about half of Valve got their start making mods.
Last Thursday Valve and Bethesda added paid mod sales to the Steam Workshop storefront for Skyrim. Mods are any kind of additional items, maps, levels, art, or sounds added to a game. The modifications to Skyrim could range from a new sword or a new companion character to a full, professional quality, series of missions that rival what the professionals who get paid for their work at Bethesda have added on to the game. In this new system it was still possible to distribute a mod for free if the mod developer chose to do so.
There were all kinds of problems with the technical and business implementation for the Skyrim mods being sold through the Steam Workshop. Some level of curation should have been implemented by Valve to monitor the system when people were copying work from other mods and putting it up for sale. The most egregious part of the whole thing was the cut the actual mod developer received, which at 25% of the price charged to the player was completely ludicrous.
I’m writing in the past tense because Valve and Bethesda’s work to reward the people who had spent hours making additional content for Skyrim, a game that had been otherwise abandoned by its developer (Skyrim hasn’t been patched since 2013), when the paid mod sales were killed yesterday after positive feedback from mod developers and almost universally negative feedback from users who seemed to hate it for all of the wrong reasons.
While there were a few well reasoned arguments against paid mod sales, most of the player feedback on public forums consisted of a zero-tolerance policy on paying for anything outside of the original game and whatever horse armor the original developer wanted to sell.
If the only way to distribute mods for Skyrim were for pay and through the Steam Workshop, then the argument against paid mods would make sense. In that scenario you would never have ridiculous licensing nightmares where the dragons are replaced with Thomas the Tank Engine or Macho Man Randy Savage. Instead, all we had was choice. We could have kept downloading most mods for free and paid for the ones we liked. Now the mod developers will continue to get nothing for their labor except pitiful amounts of donations in the few cases where they’re popular enough to receive any at all.