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New Skyrim mod feature pulling the mod community apart

In 2015, Bethesda’s attempt at paid mods lasted just a few days

The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim Special Edition screenshot, showing a Dragonborne with a helmet walking into a quaint city. Image: Bethesda Game Studios/Bethesda Softworks
Nicole Carpenter is a senior reporter specializing in investigative features about labor issues in the game industry, as well as the business and culture of games.

On Tuesday, Bethesda published a surprise patch for The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim Special Edition that combined free mods and paid mods under a single Creations banner. It also eliminated the previous Creation Club section for Special Edition and The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim Anniversary Edition players. Players are able to upload free mods to Creations, but there’s also a new program called the Bethesda Game Studios Verified Creator Program.

Modders must apply to join the program, and if they’re approved, they’ll be able to get royalties from the sale of their mods — the only way to “officially” make money from mods. (Bethesda doesn’t otherwise let modders sell their creations, but there are ways around that for modders, like using Patreon or tip jars.) This is different from Skyrim’s Creation Club program, where previous paid mods were housed, as those modders were hired and paid by Bethesda as contractors. “Now, Verified Creators can be professionals who earn royalties directly from the sale of their Creations, with an easier path to releasing their work,” Bethesda said in its FAQ.

Bethesda says this new paid program is a way for creators and modders to have more flexibility, but the whole community doesn’t agree. Paid mods have long been a pain point in the community, going back to a Skyrim paid mod system set up with Valve on Steam in 2015. At the time, the community revolted: The majority did not want paid mods added to an already thriving, established community. Bethesda and Valve ended up pulling the program just days after it was announced. “We understand our own game’s communities pretty well, but stepping into an established, years old modding community in Skyrim was probably not the right place to start iterating,” Valve said at the time. “We think this made us miss the mark pretty badly, even though we believe there’s a useful feature somewhere here.”

Creations is Bethesda’s second go at the idea, with years’ worth of iteration on the Creation Club system that was introduced in 2017 with Fallout 4 and later brought to Skyrim. Some said Creation Club didn’t add any value, because free mods already largely did the same things. Others thought it made finding quality mods easier. Creations is facing a similar discourse: For some, there are too many unanswered questions with Creations — related to both utility and mod interactions. Others see it as a way for modders to get paid for their hard work. (Bethesda pays a royalty, but has not shared the revenue split. Polygon has reached out for more information and will update the story when we get a response.)

“So much of the DNA of Skyrim modding is based on the idea of a free and open community,” modder Simon Magus, who created the wildly popular Simonrim mod set, told Polygon. “When paid mods get introduced into the modding ecosystem, it changes that dynamic significantly. For example, when one creator releases a tool that helps other creators make mods, they do so under the assumption that you’ll be using their tool for a free release. What happens to the creators of xEdit, of CK Fixes, of NifSkope, or of Outfit Studio when their tools are used to make paid mods? Do they get compensated in any way?”

The other issue, Simon Magus said, is one of compatibility: “And what about when two mods conflict with each other?” he said. “Normally, when two mods conflict, you either remove one of the mods, or you find a compatibility patch. But when a paid mod starts conflicting with popular free mods — and one of the paid mods that was released yesterday is going to conflict heavily with tons of popular, free content — whose responsibility is it to make patches? Is the paid modder going to support their mod by making patches for free? Or are the authors of free mods going to be expected to pay money to make patches for paid mods?”

It may create a tiered system for creators, with verified Creations modders seen as more legitimate, which might decrease the prominence of free mods just because of that verified designation — something that may be exacerbated by the investment in paid mods.

The Skyrim modding subreddit is almost entirely packed with discussion of the Creations addition — everything from help fixing broken things (the update broke a ton of existing mods, players said) to debate over the feature itself. Supporters of the Creations update encourage people to just ignore the mod marketplace and stick to Nexus Mods — saying that the update won’t negatively impact people who like free mods, and that it’s an opportunity for creators to get paid for their work. Others say it’s really not too different from Creation Club. On Nexus Mods, someone’s even created a mod to remove the Creations menu option itself from Skyrim. But the Skyrim modding community is not nearly as united in the hatred of paid mods as it was in 2015.

Free mods are not going away; there are several creators vowing on Reddit to never ask for money for a mod. But the largest concerns aren’t around money, but rather the big, unanswered questions from modders themselves. And without those answered, the community remains divided.

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