This past week, Valve announced that it was rolling out a new system which would allow mod creators to sell their content on the Steam Workshop platform.
It wasn’t long before some declared that this move would be the end of modding, if not the end of Steam itself. Someone even started a Change.org petition, which as of this writing has more than 50,000 signatures.
The premise of the petition is straightforward: "Mods should be a free creation." Many Steam users feel that there is a difference between "real" games and DLC as opposed to mods, which they see as something that should always be free.
They’re wrong. This change is awesome, and ultimately it will be great for Steam, developers and especially players. I've thought a lot about the topic of user-generated content (UGC) as someone who's been making games for 10 years — first in the mod scene, then at a AAA studio working on titles like Call of Duty, and most recently as an indie developer at Flippfly with a published game on Steam.
This is why we should embrace the change.
Better content, and more of it
In 2014, Valve gave a talk at its Steam Dev Days event called "Embracing User Generated Content." Tom Bui described various experiments and lessons that Valve had learned about UGC, primarily through Team Fortress 2, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Dota 2. The talk had a profound effect on me as an indie developer, and remains very illuminating.
In the talk, Tom talks about the power of UGC as a way of extending a game’s content, and gives great arguments for why games should support UGC. But perhaps more interestingly, Valve found that as soon as it added a store system where the top TF2 modders could sell their items, they saw a dramatic improvement in the quality of content submitted.
In essence, adding money to the equation brought out the pros, and encouraged the enthusiasts to put more work into their mods.
Over and over, it’s been shown that when great content is rewarded with cash, better content flows forward. Of course, more crap will also flow in — but Steam has spent years improving its Workshop system to let the best content filter to the top.
Modders will now have a reason to finish their work, and the best modders will find reward in the social aspects of the modding scene — as well as monetarily. The idea that adding a layer of real-world rewards will somehow stifle content is absurd.
A PATH TO PROFESSIONAL GAME DEVELOPMENT
I started working on Unreal mods when I was about 16. Perhaps my proudest creation was the "Health Bot," a mutator that added a friendly healing bot to multiplayer matches.
Players loved it, and I was awarded "honorable mention" in Epic’s first "Make Something Unreal" contest. However, creating mods was never going to be a sustainable path for me. It wasn’t until years later when I had earned a computer science degree, and spent more years spent working on mods for free, that I was able to secure a job at a studio.
This move could change that. I would love to see more enthusiasts dive headfirst into game development in its many forms, and I’d love to see more of them earn a living at it. This will result in more people getting into modding, which will also be great for players. The best modders will earn money from their creations while sharpening their skills, and it could fund their first game with the money they make improving other games.
That’s an amazing change, and an empowering one.
There are opportunities here for entirely new markets within games, thanks to the vast size of Steam’s user base. Perhaps we’ll see folks making a living by writing fan fiction for games, or writing alternate soundtracks, or recording localized VO. The possibilities are staggering, and unprecedented.
People making money creating niche content means higher engagement in games, and a longer shelf life for the games you already own. Which brings us to ...
Better mod support for more games
We launched Workshop support for our game, Race The Sun, in early 2014 along with a contest for custom "worlds." This helped jump-start our modding community — for a while.
The sad truth is the modding community has waned in recent months. We are a two-man studio, and we are in the "long tail" of Race The Sun’s life. In less than a year, we’ll run out of cash unless we ship a new game, and as much as we’d like to go back and support the desires of our modders for Race The Sun, we simply can’t afford to — and many of those modders have moved onto other pursuits.
Paid mods could change this equation dramatically. By receiving a portion of every Workshop item sold, we will have a financial incentive (and ability) to keep supporting the mod tools as long as we can, and to make our modders as happy as possible.
I would love to bring on additional programming and community management help to support a vibrant modding community for our little games. It may not happen for Race The Sun — but it almost certainly makes sense for our next game.
By creating a system where the developers and the modding community benefits from the sale of mods, Valve has incentivized developers to create games with robust mod support. People will create games that are more open as a way to make money as the best modders sell their creations.
There are opportunities here for entirely new types of markets within games
Don’t just think about the games you’re playing now, think about the games that will ship later, with more options for player involvement and more opportunity for creative mods. Games that may not have shipped with any support for the mod scene may be replaced by an indie scene, or even big budget games that welcome the modding scene as a profit base while also extending their life.
Again, this is good for everyone: players get more content, mod creators make money, and developers and publishers have a reason to open their games.
New business models
In the past, I’ve been wary of the free-to-play business model. It’s a model that, in theory, can be non-exploitative, enjoyable and elegant.
In practice, the most successful games are often none of these. In Team Fortress 2, Valve demonstrated that it is possible to make a game that’s financially successful while making players happy, and it did so partially through monetized, player-created content.
Ultimately, I think the most fair type of monetization, and the type that makes players most happy, is one where players pay for content that they want: I buy a game, I receive the game and play it. I buy an expansion pack, and receive that content.
Unfortunately, this isn’t a mechanism that’s viable for many developers. Creating content is expensive, and it’s easier and more profitable to operate on a system of microtransactions and consumable content. You could say that the "bad" forms of F2P dominate in many markets, because they’re the most viable financially.
With paid user-generated content, the "pay for content" model becomes viable again, because we can work with our community to generate this content, and play more of a role of facilitators. Instead of selling consumable cash, or energy, or power ups, we could sell content, and lots of it. If there is demand for certain content, the fans can supply it, and profit from it.
Creating content is expensive
When Valve announced this new change, it sparked all kinds of new ideas for us at Flippfly. What if we could make our next game free, and spend a significant amount of time on creating and supporting tools instead? This is an entirely different paradigm which would allow us to reach a much wider audience, and probably result in a game with much more content — both free and paid.
How will this work? Who knows! That’s the exciting bit. The creation of new opportunity space is what’s exciting; what people do with it is the surprise.
It will be messy, and that's OK
Change is hard. It’s tempting to look at the status quo on Steam where all Workshop content is free, and be fearful of any form of change that might disrupt this awesome system.
I predict that there will be some missteps, and I agree with some of the concerns of those who signed that Change.org petition, and who are taking to Steam’s forums with their concerns. Some mods will be too expensive, or break games in new and interesting ways. Some communities will become divided. Some players will be angry that the mods in their beloved games now cost more money. Perhaps some games will take on a shape that the developers didn’t intend. There’s going to be crap, and controversies.
Also, it should be expected that many, many mods will continue to be free. Valve’s even stated in its announcement that they will support a "pay what you want" model for developers who wish to operate on a donation system. Some people will create content for experience and fun, others will create with monetary goals. Just as people create games for a variety of reasons, people will create mods for the same reasons, and that diversity can only be a good thing.
The first thing I did when Valve announced this change was to take to our forums and ask our users and modders what they thought. As with any potential change, communication with your customers is key.
Ultimately though, a system where creators can be paid for their work will result in a stronger ecosystem, more content, more engaged developers, and better, well-supported games.