Let’s Talk About Buying And Selling Mods On Steam, And The Greed Of Valve


Valve has taken the big step of allowing modders to sell their work via the Steam Workshop, letting them decide whether to have it available for free or to set a specific price, or just let people pay what they want. Before we head into this piece, then, take a moment to check out my original news post on the subject so that we’re all on the same page.

It’s a move with a lot of ramifications that warrant at least some discussion. I’m not going to delve overly deeply into everything here, but let’s try to work through this decision sensibly, and consider the possible benefits and pitfalls. At the moment only Skyrim has purchasable mods, but the intention is for other games to also support the feature. Unsurprisingly the Steam Workship community is currently going bananas, and the majority of it is entirely negative.

So, here’s how the whole thing works: you make some content for your chosen game, provided it supports the Steam Workshop, and then head into the tricky terrain of pricing. You can opt to simply let your work roam free, letting everyone and their grandmother download it and enjoy whatever you’ve created. Or you could choose to slap a price-tag on efforts, asking that people pony up some cash.  Or you could simply let people pay what they want for your mod, consulting the very depths of their soul to decided if your little Dagger of Daggerness is worth a few pennies. Except, oddly, Valve lets creators set a minimum price that players can pay, making the idea somewhat redundant.

It’s a slippery slope. On the one hand we absolutely must consider the many modders out there who have created outstanding work that rivals professional developers, sinking untold amounts of hours into crafting amazing new armor, weapons, levels and more for us regular gamers to enjoy. They have taken numerous games and kept them alive well past their natural expiration date. Would so many people still be playing Skyrim if it wasn’t for the wealth of mods available that add huge swathes of content to the game and make it more beautiful? And it’s hard to argue against these talented folk being allowed to earn some money for their work. Indeed, truly talented people could potentially turn modding into a profitable side venture, or even a career.

Gifts of Akatosh, price £0.99
Gifts of Akatosh, pay as you want, minimum price £0.99

For many people, though, this goes against the community spirit of modding. Creating new content for games has never been something you do for profit: it has always been something done for the love of a game, and for the sheer enjoyment of creation, a hobby to be cherished and shared with the world. These arguments are somewhat similiar to those used against Youtubers before it became an accepted thing. Now, of course, many famous Youtubers create videos as their primary source of income.

But the biggest concern is one of an unregulated market akin to that of the Early Access mode where now see a constant flood of crap that was clearly tossed together in a cheap effort to make a few quid. With people able to sell their mods could see a torrent of tat? Crappy items tossed together out of some basic assets in the hope of at least a few people buying it? Could we see people putting together one tiny piece of content after another and drowning games in a sea of useless, costly junk that slowly drags the worthwhile mods down into the abyss, never to be found again?

The option to allow people to simply pay if they want to seems like such a better way to go, that or allowing creators to put up a donation button for anyone with some extra cash to spend. This way truly creative and impressive work can be rewarded, and I firmly believe it would be. The gaming community may be a harsh place these days, and Hades’ knows I’ve ranted about it enough, but there’s a lot of good people out there willing to support legitimately terrific work. Meanwhile obvious attempts to cash-in would be essentially regulated by the community, quickly earning a bad reputation and little cash.

It should be noted that Steam has implemented a refund policy where the purchaser has 24-hours to issue a refund request “If you discover that a mod does not work for you, or does not meet your expectations based on the description of the mod.” This will hopefully stop people from wasting money on trash that doesn’t work, assuming its more lenient than the standard Steam refund policy which has been notably viewed as incredibly strict and hard to succeed with. This policy, though, won’t help you very much if you run into any major problems after that 24-hour period, which is quite common. Valve politely state that in such cases you should simply talk to the mod author via Workshop, a fine solution when dealing with good creators and a terrible one when dealing with an author that has abandoned their work or has a bad track record with patching. Given that mods naturally don’t tend to have thorough testing this could be a huge problem for people, especially given how easy it is to fluff up one mod by installing another. What could be more annoying then spending 10-hours playing through a mod only to run into a major problem? Furthermore, what if it isn’t the modders fault? Official game updates from the developers can often cause problems with mods, so what happens then? What if the mod creator can’t fix the problem?

Arissa, a companion character. Pay want you want, minimum price £1.99
Arissa, a companion character. Pay want you want, minimum price £1.99

There’s another potential problem, too: users stealing content. People using other people’s work in their own mods is actually quite common, and is often done with the full agreement of the second party. However, once money is involved things can become somewhat…tricky. Could we see waves of content being stolen from older mods where the author is no longer active and resold on the Workshop? What about lazy reskins? According to the Valve if you see your content being used by someone else you have to file a DMCA, but that means that you have to be active on the Workshop in order to spot it. It’s ripe for abuse.

In fairness, though, Valve have at least included an option to share revenue with other users for instances of modders user other people’s work with the second party’s approval. That’s nice.

As for developers and publishers Steam have ensured that there shouldn’t be any backlash from them regarding people making money using their games as a platform by making it so the companies have to enable to the option to sell mods via the Workshop. Of course, they had too really because almost all game’s have something in their terms of service that clearly states people can use gain profit from the use of a game’s assets. That’s one legal battle not worth getting into.

We do have to consider, though, that companies may begin to simply block modding as it could be seen as competition to their own DLC plans. Why would we buy some crappy map pack if a modder has released something far more substantial for much less money? Look at the modding community for Cities: Skylines which has become a thriving hub of activity. Many of the mods created their are arguably offering up free content that the developers would likely have been planning on releasing later, possibly as free updates or as DLC.

There’s also the question of mods that require other mods to run. Indeed, there are quite a few “lynchpin” mods that are required for other content to work in Skyrim. Even if one mod is free the creator of the lynchpin could start charging excessive prices in order to take advantage of the situation.

But let’s consider one potential huge positive: though we might see floods of horrible reskins and useless junk, in the long-term we could see more ambitious projects born of modders who have earned some decent money from previous work and have put it straight back into creating something even better. We could see little companies started, their goal to create brilliant new expansions for games, and thus serving the community by giving us more of what we love. And if we don’t like it, we can simply not buy it.

The chance of that happening, though, is slim because of Valve’s own greed. Though they don’t advertise it too publically for obvious reasons anyone who opts to sell their mod via the Steam Workshop also agrees to give Valve 75% of the sale price, which is absolutely insulting considering that Valve are doing nothing more than hosting the files. The modders do the work using a game that isn’t Valve’s, and in return Valve take the vast majority of the money. But that’s not all, because once Valve have taken their hefty share the game’s original developer also gets a slice of the pie, and can determine the exact amount This in turn will likely encourage modders to raise prices. If a modder believes he or she should get £5.00 for their work, for example, they would actually have to charge gamers £12.50 in order to get that sum. Likewise someone wanting to get £1.00 for their mod would actually have to price it at £2.50, not including the slice the original game developers get. Valve’s absurd desire to take 75% of the money for a service they were previously offering completely free of charge is one of my biggest problems with the scheme.

Midas Magic. Pay what you want, minimum price £1.99
Midas Magic. Pay what you want, minimum price £1.99

That’s a lot of potential positives and pitfalls to consider. So now let me through fairness out the window and issue my own opinion, to be ignored as you see fit. I see nothing wrong with hard-working modders being allowed to earn some cash from their creations, and indeed wholly support that concept. While many argue that it somehow goes against what modding should be and that they shouldn’t earn cash for a hobby, I can”t help but feel those same arguments were levied against Youtubers earning money for their work. I also love the idea I presented above, that we could see more ambitious projects come to fruition because of it. Who knows where the industry could go to next if something like that were to happen. That’s a best case scenario, however, and it seems unlikely.  I don’t support  Steam’s method where Valve steal 75%, and much prefer people being able to pay what they believe a mod is worth or being allowed to donate to the creator with Valve taking a far, far lower slice, if any at all. Of course I’m likely being far too forgiving of the community, who may well simply never donate a penny. But having such set prices, including ones that rival the price of the core game itself, feels like it goes against the spirit of modding. Maybe I’m set in my ways, and worse I hate to think that I’m becoming the person who argues against change for the better without even realising it, but at the moment I’m seeing far more pitfalls that I am positive outcomes here.

It’s a tricky situation, and one that requires much more thought. My opinion may change in the coming days, weeks and months. At the moment, though, I’m unconvinced that this was a smart move, and encourage modders to allow the community to make a donation by letting them pay what they want. That, in my view, maintains the spirit of modding, while letting talented people hopefully earn some cash for their work. The future of modding may very well be one where modders can earn a healthy living, but this isn’t the right model. As gamers this is a prime example of how we can affect something by voting with our wallets. Be smart, and consider the implications of what you’re supporting if you decide to click the buy button.


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