Game Mods: Labor and Value

Steam Workshop Revolt

Last week, Valve made the shocking (though not altogether unanticipated) move toward allowing modders to sell mods through Steam Workshop.  This experiment lasted less than a week before it was abandoned in the face of widespread criticism and general discontent among Steam users.  I don’t feel the need to attempt a complete history of the turmoil, as a number of people have already done an excellent job of recording some of the key events that took place during those few days.  However, since a fair amount of my research surrounds the practice of videogame modding, I thought that I would share my perspectives on a few points that stood out to me – primarily concerning the themes of labor and value.

One of the earliest and most influential academic studies on the value of modding is Hector Postigo’s work with games like Battlefield 1942.  Just looking at large-scale, high-quality mods like the “Homefront” mod, Postigo estimates that were the original development studios to produce this same content themselves (say, as DLC), the cost could be as much as 50 percent of the original development costs1.  Considering that the development costs of some of the most popular games for modding stretch into the tens of millions of dollars, this is no trivial matter.

Hammer EditorEven if you disagree on some of the particulars of how Postigo calculates his figures, one thing is clear – mods have value (and probably a lot of value).  The question, then, is who benefits from the value that is being created through modding labor?  Developers clearly benefit, as mods extend the lifespan of a product, generate good will toward the company, and in some cases, can even drive sales when people are more interested in playing the mod than the vanilla game itself2. Mods also serve as a testing ground for ideas that could be incorporated into later commercial products.  The modding community can also serve as a source of feedback, beta-testers, or even potential employees.

Players also benefit substantially from modding.  While the addition of free content is a fairly obvious perk, it is significant not just for the fact that it is additional content, but that it is often a very different kind of content than developers can create.  One example is the “FinnWars” mod by Iceflake Studio.  While the Finn Wars are a point of great interest for Finnish people, such a small and specific audience makes it an unlikely subject for a large studio to address.  Modding allows for content to be created for groups that might be underserviced or marginalized by the mainstream industry.

The benefits that modders gain from their own work is a somewhat more complicated issue.  As I have discussed elsewhere, while modding can be means of entry into the videogame industry, the lack of wages and general uncertainty of future employment puts modding a step below even the most exploitative internship.  Additionally, while modders generally forfeit the rights to their work when they accept the modding EULA, they frequently come up against the intellectual property rights of others.  They are also subject to the whims of the game developers whose game they mod, and have little recourse if their game is rendered obsolete or unplayable by a patch or an expansion3.

There are certainly other motivations for modding.  Many modders simply see it as an enjoyable hobby, and in that sense, it does not disappoint.  Modding can be a lot of fun, and provides a new way for players to interact with the games they love on a deeper level.  That said, it’s not a fair comparison to look at modding as just another hobby.  Pressing flowers and building model ships can also be rewarding despite the effort involved, but if my pressed flowers started making millions of dollars, you can bet that I would expect some share of the profits.

In the current economic model of game modding, large amounts of modder labor creates a valuable product which disproportionately benefits others.  In this sense, modding is very exploitative, though aspects like the voluntary nature of the labor and complex relationship with employment in the videogame industry make it difficult to compare directly to other forms of economic exploitation.  Regardless, if mods have value, their creators deserve to benefit from it.

It was into this milieu that Valve brought its new system for paid mods.  It’s hard to overstate the significance of this change, as it was the first real system in which modders could directly receive monetary compensation for their work.  Acting as an intermediary, Valve was able to secure revenue sharing agreements with publishers and developers – something that would have been almost impossible for any group of modders on their own.

Steam Mod CommentsThere were, of course, a number of issues with Valve’s system.  The profits from paid mods were divided between Valve, the developers of the original game, and the creators of the mods.  In this arrangement, however, the modders only received 25 percent of the profits, which I believe once again undervalues their contributions to the final product.  Also, as Bethesda pointed out, their hefty 45 percent cut of mod sales is less than one percent of their revenue from Steam, hardly worth twisting the arms of their own modders who’d rather mod than work more hours at their day job.

There is also the issue of collaboration and sharing in the mod community.  While modders can work in structured teams, they also work in ad hoc collaborations, build upon the work of past modders, and make tools that benefit the whole community.  These kinds of complex systems of labor and production are certainly not incompatible with money (few things are), but introducing money into such systems is not a simple transition.  In fact, it only took a few hours before a paid mod was taken down due to incorporating elements from another free mod.  In retrospect, that particular problem could have been avoided were it not for Valve’s non-disclosure agreements preventing any kind of arrangement between the two modders (NDAs are part of a much bigger problem with the videogame industry), but Valve still lacks a policy to effectively deal with the larger issue of mod ownership.

Both of these issues are important and it’s crucial to address them properly, lest paid mods just become a slightly different way of exploiting modders.  Still, I think that the benefits of paid modding justify having these conversations.  Not being able to help people as much as you would like is a poor reason not to help them at all, and while some very valid criticism of the system has been made, the most vocal opposition were players who simply didn’t want to change the status quo.  For those interested in a more in-depth analysis of these arguments, Lars Doucet has posted an excellent analysis of the major points on his blog.

Skyrim Protest ModAlthough the disproportionate and abusive public backlash ultimately forced Valve to discontinue the program, there are a few things that we can take away from the fiasco.  While most of the protest occurred through the usual means – spam comments, forum posts, social media rants – the paid mod debate also saw the rise of protest mods like “Extra Apple” (a mod costing $35 to add a single apple to the game) and “Protest Sign,” which shot to the top of the Steam Workshop during that weekend.  Arguing that your fellow modders don’t deserve to be paid may not be the most altruistic of messages, but regardless, it set a precedent for the use of mods as political speech.

It is also significant that while Valve abandoned the mod store for the time being, many modders and other players still support the idea.  These voices are by far the minority (or are at least less outspoken), but show that there is a community for the kind of modding ecosystem that Valve envisioned.  As for those vocally opposed to paid mods, as Markus “Notch” Persson pointed out on Twitter, one of the reasons he sold Mojang was due to the outrage over not allowing paid mods in Minecraft.  No matter what Valve does, they can’t please everyone.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, even if Valve and Bethesda never manage to relaunch paid mods on Steam, their experiment has shown that it is possible.  Game developers and modders can come to an agreement over rights and profits, overcoming the once insurmountable legal and economic barriers that kept modders as second-class developers.  There are still plenty of details that must be worked out, but now there is a clear example of how to begin.  Even though Valve’s paid mods may have been a failure, we can never look at modding the same way again.



1. Of Mods and Modders. Hector Postigo.
2. Half-Life 2: Raising the Bar. Valve.
3. Between a Mod and a Hard Place. Peter Christiansen. Game Mods: Design, Theory, and Criticism.

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