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A case for paid mods

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I began as a modder by creating the "Fall from Heaven" mod for Civilization 4. That led me to working with Firaxis on developing two scenarios for their Beyond the Sword expansion, one of which got included in the base game, as well as creating the Modder’s Guide for Civilization 5 and the first mods for that game.

After that experience I left my non-gaming career and joined Stardock, where I have been designing and producing games for the past 5 years. I came to Stardock because they viewed modding as an important part of PC gaming.

Modding capabilities are often expensive to implement and support, but it’s an investment Stardock continues to make. We can only make one version of Galactic Civilizations 3, but with mods an effectively infinite number of game experiences become possible. Modders and players can then pick (or create) the one they enjoy most, which is a no-brainer win for Stardock and its customers both.

As a gamer I love mods. Diablo 2 is one of my top 10 games of all time, but I spent more time playing its Eastern Sun mod than the base game. I spent more time with the "Rhye’s and Fall of Civilization" mod than I did with Civilization 4. And the Warcraft 3 modding community is where I and many other gamers encountered tower defense and MOBA games for the first time.

Everything I’ve mentioned has been a free mod, so the assumption may be that if the current (free mods) system was able to produce such great content, why change anything? Because it can be so much better. Paid mods makes life better for modders, game developers and players.

Let’s walk through the argument for each.

Modders

Obviously getting paid for their work is a great thing for modders. Mods can take years of weekends and evenings, in addition to the modder’s already busy work and school life, to complete. With paid mods, talented modders have the option to quit their jobs and work on their mods full time. Currently modders either stop modding and we lose their talent, or they go to work for a game studio. Imagine the mods we would have if there was a third option to continue developing mods for a living.

Even without the breakout success that would allow a modder to quit his or her job, a modest income still rewards people for their work and contribution. Modding communities are littered with promising but abandoned mods, great ideas never finished because real life got in the way. Being able to sell your mod is a powerful incentive to finish the mod and to make sure it remains working and bug-free as the base game is updated.

Game Developers

In 2005, when I started modding, most games were bought at retail. Developers liked mods because they promoted their games and increased their shelf life. Developers had no interest in selling relatively small changes to their game because of the manufacturing and distribution involved to get an update to store shelves. So modders were the ones who could add a hundred different tweaks, weapons, civilizations, vehicles, maps, et cetera to their game.

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Then came digital distribution. At that point DLC became very profitable, and modders could be seen as competition to game developers. If the game developer wants to sell a set of maps, or a new playable faction, how much money should it invest in adding modding capability to its game to allow modders to easily do the same thing for free? The even larger question is how much a company should invest of developing modding functionality at all — what is the business case for it? How many additional units will a game sell because of mods?

With paid mods this problem goes away. Game developers have a clear business case for not only supporting mods, but making sure that their game is the most open and mod-friendly game available. They want to attract top tier modders.

As a side effect, the addition of better modding capabilities in the base game will improve the quality of the free mods and our own ability to tweak our games.

Players

Imagine the mods we will get in a world where game developers have a strong business incentive to support mods, and the best modders are able to pursue mods full-time and contract with artists, voice actors and musicians to make their mods better.

We will still have free mods. Modders will still be making things just to share them. The prices will need a little time to settle and there will be a big difference between the free mods (with the occasional big mod for free) and premium mods (with the occasion undeserving small mod someone is trying to charge for).

But if you want to play in Arkham City as Commissioner Gordon or as a bank robber trying to avoid the Dark Knight (and a city full of supervillians), give modders the tools, time, and incentive to make it happen. If you want a totally moddable version of Diablo IV from skills, weapons, monsters and maps on up, then you should support paid mods.

Where do we go from here?

I believe Valve made two mistakes with their recent paid mods announcement. Firstly, they shouldn’t have heavily promoted the ability to charge for mods. The goal isn’t the ability to charge for mods. The goal is to create a community of modders and a golden age for modding. Paid mods is just a step in that direction. Wait until the best mods come out, where millions are playing mods (free or paid), and then promote.

Secondly, tying the announcement to a game that already has a huge base of mod content is dangerous. The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim is an incredibly mod-friendly game with a huge community of mod players and creators; don’t risk upsetting that ecosystem with such a big change this late in the product's lifecycle. Paid mods are a new world. Let new titles, not established communities, test out the waters.

There are also two safe guards I think the system needs to work:

• Require certification before being able to produce paid content

Stardock has allowed modders to create and sell content for WinCustomize for years. The best control we had to keeping IP-infringing and non-owned content from showing up was to require approval before an individual could begin selling content. This creates a nice incentive to produce free content to become known, and a powerful incentive to make sure the content of your mods is appropriate or risk losing your ability to create paid mods for that game.

Approval would come from the game developer. They are making a portion of the sales, so they should be invested in making sure they approve at least the content creator, if not the content itself. That way different developers can adopt whatever strategy they would like like for their game and player community. Some may only open up paid content to a few top tier modders. Others may allow the community to upvote free content and award the ability to sell content to those that pass certain thresholds.

• Paid mods should have a trial period

We can trust established game companies (though sometimes we get burned) but it’s probably too much to ask us to trust a random internet modder. So let’s set a higher bar for modders. All mods can be played for three days without charge; at the end of that period the player has to decide if he wants to buy it or not. This encourages modders to make sure their mods are the best, and allows players to go experiment with mods.

With these changes we can look forward to great mod teams that produce mods for various games. We will have shared characters and stories that cross worlds. We will find new IP, we will find that professional modder is as real of a job as a professional game player, and games will become toy boxes of abilities we can tweak and play with. I can’t wait to see it happen.

Derek Paxton is the Vice President of Stardock Entertainment. He's the creator of one of the most popular mods for Civilization IV, Fall From Heaven. Formerly he worked for Fortune 500 companies as a project manager and has 20+ years experience leading teams to success in the tech industry. He will crush you in Galactic Civilizations 3.