The furor around paid mods for ‘Skyrim’: Listening to the baying mob

Overly Long Preamble

TL;DR: I’m thinking about economic strategies, and looking at the protest movement around Steam’s decision to make Skyrim mods for sale as an example. Look at that, an issue in gaming that’s not about its terrible gender dynamics… much.

When we talk about the economics of the world, we generally talk about macroeconomics. Recessions. Booms and busts. The Trans-Pacific Partnership. We forget the importance of microeconomics – which is sad, because these are where we can be real players. We can’t change the world. We can’t vote heads of state out by ourselves. But we can study smaller cases, see what works and what doesn’t and find ways to use that knowledge in negotiating situations we find ourselves in.

This is on my mind at the moment because I’m involved in the sale of a house. While I don’t have a stake in the property I do have an interest in the outcome because the profit realised will form the deposit on a house that my salary, for the most part, will maintain in the near term future because Fi as a stay at home mother only has access to a few small but useful income streams right now.

The three of us with interests in the property sale work well together as a team. Fi’s ex, Steve provides excellent financial insight, Fi just happens to have a commerce degree with a minor in marketing, and I with my time in customer service delivery and development am a dab hand at negotiating. Our first attempt at auction was a setback, so I used my skillset to renegotiate a relationship with the sales team that incentivised their giving the result that we need for our family’s future.

All this is well and good, but the need for that keeps my mind centred around negotiations, strategies and interpersonal economies. Competing interests, and how they can be turned to mutual benefit. Fi’s possibly a little tired of hearing me describing every single thing in terms of its economic import. So I’m turning my eye to Steam and Bethesda’s decision to give mod developers the option to set a price, if they wish, for for their mods for the game Skyrim.*

The deal

If you haven’t researched the relevant terms as per the asterisk, it’s ok. Here’s the “explain like I’m five” version. There is a well loved game called Skyrim that has the capacity to be modified by content created by members of the community called modders. These mods can do literally anything in the game, from providing navigation aid, to making the normally modest denizens of the world look more like the nice lady hidden behind this non-worksafe link** or indeed (and I’m providing no link), give every horse in the game accurately modeled genitalia in high-resolution.***

Why you’d want to is up to you. Up until now it’s been a free community. Stuff like the horse privates gets prominence because of the “WTF” factor, but it seems to have worked well.

As mentioned, mod creators can now, if they wish, charge. All of the interested parties get a cut. Bethesda, the creator of the original content asked for 40%. Valve, the provider of the marketplace and sales mechanisms get’s 35%. The mod creators get the remaining 25%.

The reaction


This is the second collated “megathread” on Steam about this. It’s full of rants of injustice, promises of boycotts and accusations of betrayal. I haven’t dared go near the megathread they had to close and cap because it just get so out of hand. Oh yes, and yours truly operating under seanfish trying to play the voice of reason.****  The major arguments are around the impact on players, the unfairness of the deal to modders, the alternative of donations and the destruction of the community, and thus availability of good mods. There are also calls for various types of boycotts of Steam, from not paying for anything to not playing any of the games.

What’s right about the reaction:

There are people who bought the game at the start, for U$60. Then they paid U$30 for an expansion to the game. After that, they engaged in the modding community. Some are left with a game substantially different from the original, and in vastly many different ways than the three I touched on above. And some of those have just been asked for another $30 to keep it that way. They’re annoyed.

This reaction I think, is understandable. The user has enjoyed a free commodity, and it’s no longer guaranteed to be free. Some of their mods still are, some of their favourite modders pushed the pay button as soon as the project went live.

I do have a response to that reaction below, but I think it’s worth underlying it. People are feeling cheated. I personally think the process should have gone through with a grandparenting clause. Mods downloaded as free should stay useable, with the caveat that any updates to a mod that the user wants access to will be charged as normal. This would be a generous thing and forestalled the reaction. Don’t want to pay? Keep using the out of date version of your mod which is doing what you want to do anyway. Bethesda and Steam should have considered that option, which would have allowed a smoother transition.

Why I think the major arguments are wrong

Cost to rebuy

With our individual user – are they really facing a $30 rebuy? The figure comes from a side discussion on Reddit as the amount one user cites as having to pay to maintain their preferred experience. I’ve a lot of questions:

I get they don’t want to pay another $30 dollars. I don’t know their set of mods, so I don’t know what they’ve lost that will make the original game plus the expansion plus their remaining free mods unplayable.

Is $30 their real total? How much of that is want to haves (eg cosmetic) vs must haves which will leave the game completely unplayable for them.

If everything’s must-have, how many of the now-paid mods have good enough free substitutes? Is there enough free out there that are in good condition that one could switch and adapt? I posed this question to the person who’ve cited thirty dollars, reddit user McDaioh. Unfortunately, the moderators were running a bit wild, and some of her key comments were deleted. I preserved the best, and quote it here:

I run about 40-50-60 unique mods at any given time when i’m playing Skyrim. So far, 17 mods [needing paying for] turn out to be 30 dollars, so the price of playing is going to go up exponentially for people like me. Most of them are weapons, optimization and texture mods, with a few AI pathings and such. Many mods require other mods to be complimentary to function properly, especially body mods and quest mods, [emphases mine] so the price will go up even more for regular users who at most only use 5 mods at a time.

Not to mention, and its kind of important, Steam workshop is terrible for a mod manager. Playing with a lot of mods at once is like building a house of cards; amazing, but fragile. I need to be able to set the load order, load and unload loose data files, and be able to update mods manually at my digression. If i can’t do that, then the house of cards will just topple over for no reason and just be frustrating.

Mods that are needed by other mods are said to have dependency relationships. So for advanced users like McDaoih, this is a punishing turn of events. Yes, it might be possible to rediscover alternates to the 17 mods directly effected, but it’s possible that in finding those alternates McDaoih will be forced to rebuild her entire set of mods to reclaim her customary playstyle, which would be a project requiring dozens of hours of research and testing. It’s a hard set of choices McDaoih is facing right now. During our discussion she was angry, which is why it was deleted by the moderators. A pity, because for me she explained problem.

The problem is – McDaoih is at the upper end of the mod community. She’s invested to the point where managing her game interface is sometimes as large a task as playing it. She is feeling very real pain, but she’s not necessarily representative of the whole community. The person who, say, likes to ride a zebra and finds their zebra is now for pay, will swap to a generic horse or find another zebra.

What’s hard to know is how much of the community lies at the upper end, how much in the middle and how many are dabblers. Other games have simplified their mechanics, forcing the high end out to make an easier experience for more casual players. In the case of World of Warcraft it was an arguably successful strategy, keeping a stream of new users coming in to somewhat supplement regular exoduses of dissatisfied users who had completed all the hardest content. Certainly the game and franchise is surviving, if diversifying greatly. That’s not what’s happening here. Instead it’s an enforced simplification by lottery. If there is a large community at the upper end, they will each face a choice of a partial, or complete rebuild every time one of the mods they uses goes for pay. Nobody’s forced to pay, but this could be a move that damages a few, or the many. It simply isn’t clear yet. I know I’d rather pay $30 than take on a multi-hour testing project. Would I do either to continue to play a game I already own and have legally modified?

It’s a fair deal for the modders

Some people are complaining about the breakdown. Rather than complaining about the modders who are charging them, they’re pointing the fingers who have allowed the modders the right to charge. They’re saying the 25% cut for the modders is unfair, and suggesting that donations buttons would be better practice.

25% is a fair offer given there are three parties with interests. The request seems to have come from Bethesda who spent a lot to create the original content, which is now an earning income trickle at U$2.50 a pop rather than a stream as a U$60 new release. They’ve asked for a fair 40%. Steam has looked at the remainder and sets 35% for themselves, offering 25% to the minority partners, who they’ve already given free hosting and community development to for years. Being bought in as a partner is far better than being given a donate button.

Let’s look at a comparable, but simpler model – the Apple Store. There, with two partners, Apple takes 30%. About the same as Steam, although without the third party there’s more left over for the developer.

The difference here is that app developers to be genuinely competitive have to build from the ground up, paying for any custom software needed to aid development. To get real money the app developer needs a brilliantly unique idea, or a compellingly fresh take on the current set of app concepts. The modder has no startup costs beyond that super cheap vanilla Skyrim and hobbyist-level time-sink. They’ve the opportunity to earn modestly but happily from their hobby, which is a vastly different profile from leaving one’s career to join an app startup hoping it will work out. A good comparison is RedBubble, which allows users to submit designs for any number of readymade products such as tshirts. Any of their designs that sell, RedBubble will make and send to the buyer, and give a small slice.

Arguments that modders are being treated unfairly are unrealistic.

Donations don’t guarantee income

Many are suggesting a donation button, sidestepping the perceived malicious greed of Bethesda and Valve, as a way of allowing modders to profit. I’m not so sure.

I know we live in a time where sites like kickstarter and indiegogo launch projects from the small and significant regularly, but I’m concerned that donation culture, at least in supporting media, is wearing out. There has been a trend of large companies with access to profit surpluses and venture capital using crowdfunding sources normally seen as the domain of independents to introduce new acts. With their larger publicity machines, they squeeze out the smaller players. Online donation culture is running the risk of being seen as seedy, just as we gingerly step around earnest young people holding clipboards in the street.

My further concern is that donation behaviours on the part of individuals is prone to saturation. I’m no cheapskate. I happen to donate a small amount each month to the Maximum Fun podcast network because they provided me with needed company during some of my loneliest days, and they’re still providing good fun content today. I’m happy that in a very small way I’m supporting content for the benefit of others too, although gratitude, not largesse, is my motivation. Further donations in the media realm must be balanced against the needs of my family, and the fact that for a second $5 I could get a game as good as vanilla Skyrim on Steam. Good modders will likely earn more in a paid scheme than from donations.

There’s a chance this will actually improve available mods

Right now, modifications to that give the finest horse parts dominate the market because it’s a joke that young people will download once and laugh at, and the higher end mod enthusiasts wryly comment about battling screen freeze. What if the positive reviews we saw were only for products someone else found worth buying? What if we paid a second $2.50 – a cup of coffee – for non-glitchy mod that delivered a game that’s twice as good? A mod creator who has a small second income stream may not need to

The opposite possibility is that the mod market will become flooded with low-skill entrepreneurs offering knock-off versions, which happens in the various mobile app stores [every time a new star comes out.]( My guess is that this is less likely. Apps are an easy market to read and understand, and the programming techniques to create a basic app are taught in many places. Skyrim mods are a very niche market, and most modders are self taught. A quick search found only Minecraft mods had official training courses associated with them, and these tended to be delivered through youth camps.

Protests won’t work

If I’m wrong – and this is just a bad move – the market will fail without us shooting our mouths off. With no sales, returning to free has its attractions for Valve because community engagement is a benefit for them, and for Bethesda because an ongoing fanbase attached to their franchise means their next release is money in the bank.

Further more, claims of commitment to protest online often aren’t followed up by action in the private arena. Gamers are a community, but gaming is a selfish pursuit. I know that if I want to play a certain game, and I try to play another, I won’t be interested. Some on Reddit have, declares they’ll avoid Steam for the weekend to signify disapproval will, if they have a strong gaming habit, a difficult weekend ahead of them. If their favourite game is on their Steam account, they’ll likely want to play it. Furthermore, they won’t have the crowd to check on their complaince. They may feel a moment of shame, but they’ll rationalise the decision to play more than likely. A protest in private is different from a public march.

Furthermore, the numbers of even the most massive protest action of Skyrim modders won’t dent Steam’s wellbeing. At this moment, Steam has 65 million users of which between 5 and 9 million accounts have been active in games at any one time over the last 48 hours. Skyrim features promently at position 5 with the top 5 currently games played over that time, however the total number of players needed to achieve that rank is just 75,000. Leaving aside the fact that that top 5 rank is scored presumably at the darkest day of the game’s history, it’s clearly a drop in the bucket for Steam’s user base, even if every single one of them were die hard mod users. Skyrim might have sold 20 million copies since its release in 2011, and it has an impressive user base for a four year old game but the active users just aren’t big enough a crew to persuade two very large companies to change a strategy based on one weekend of protest.

The complication

Since the launch, a complication unforeseen by the baying mob has arisen. A mod was placed for sale using content stolen from another creator without attribution or profit sharing. The damage predicted elsewhere may or may not happen, but solutions to intellectual property conflict issues elsewhere have been controversial to say the least. There is a large industry of underhanded individuals currently using the court systems to attempt to steal intellectual property, or gain a quick out-of-court settlement for preference. There is a distinct possibility, given that this is now a community offering paid and unpaid intellectual property, that theft, misattribution and other malicious behaviours could arise. I don’t believe there’s a large space – given the active community – for profiteering, but there’s certainly  the possibility.

The end of the day

I scanned a few different alternative analyses while writing this to test my ideas.

Two articles from Forbes very much mirror the concerns of the community, with the second link reacting in anger to the profit sharing arrangement. Frankly, someone writing for Forbes should know better about business. Going from no profit to a 25% share is an excellent offer. At an editorial level, I suspect that Forbes is attempting to attract younger readers, and providing overhyped articles playing to their bias. Forbes has a reputation for being authoritatve on business, and in my personal opinion should stay out of gaming commentary unless they apply the rigor that underpins their reputation to their discussions.

I also read an article from my preferred gaming industry blog, RPS. It travels a fine line of providing reviews and discussion that can be strongly critical of both the industry and the community while also celebrating the merits of both. Hearteningly, I found the author largely agreed with my thoughts that there were some good points and bad points in the matter, but largely everything would probably be fine in the long run.

We live in an age of rapid furor. Issues spread across the internet like wildfire, overthrowing governments, ruining careers and yes, making us aware that some people really like high quality horse privates in their videogames. Previous protests aimed at Steam were cited by some as past failures – Day One Downloadable content (interestingly doomcried by one of our Forbes writers above, still present),  preorders (existing in business for centuries, still present) , early access (still present),and Steam’s inhouse development program, Greenlight (responded to by Valve, Steam’s parent company in that article and naturally still present). Each received their day of raving across the internet, and each time the downfall of Steam was predicted. It’s hard not to think of Chicken Licken.

While some players will be strongly affected, they are likely not the majority, who will by no means be forced into buying anything. That being said, it is hard not to feel for them at this time, and certainly Steam could consider grandparenting arrangements.

Arguments around unfairness to modders are frankly ridiculous. Being given the chance to be paid for one’s hobby can be a good, and offering the charity of a donate button for possibly hundreds of hours of work is simply patronising.

Discussions around possible damage to the community have some merit, but their arguments are far from conclusive. Indeed, improvement in quality is a strong possibility. Going back to the dependency model of mod use, a well designed central model being sold for a small amount could be used to create the framework to enable and support the smooth running of a wide range of useful free mods. Integrated sets would compete with the lowest entry price and the best framework, benefitting the community at both the low and the high end.

Protests are likely to be ineffective. At the end of the day, both Steam and Bethesda have the pockets to wait out the furor and see if the experiment will work.

It remains to be seen how much copyright issues affect the mod community, and my guess is that’s where the real story is going to happen.


Since I started investigating and writing this, Valve CEO Gabe Newell has entered the discussion on Reddit and no doubt in the Steam communities themselves, which he consistently does. I’ve seen him contact a user getting a delayed helpdesk response in the past, and his willingness to wade into a torrent of abuse this kind of issue brings out does him great credit. He is consistently cited as PC gaming’s saviour, except for those times when he is being framed as the devil. So far, he’s had about an hour available in his schedule to discuss, and he has promised more later. I’ve left a comment asking my two questions. I hope he’s able to respond.

* I’m just going to let you go ahead and google “Steam”, “Bethesda”, “Skyrim” and “mod” rather than explain them. Come back when you’re done.

**No, it’s not my thing I just have read widely on this. I promise.

***Toootally not my thing. Nope. No.

****You’re welcome to track my reddit activity, but caveat emptor. It’s a place for trolls, and it’s the place I allow myself to troll back. That and facebook. And in face-to-face social situations. OK, I’m a troll. Also, in my discussion there related to this, I make a lot of horse d*ck jokes. It helps the discussion. No really.


About seanmurgatroyd
Library (Shared blog): Personal including infoculture, book reviews: Music: band page: @seanfish

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