Mods & Money: Beyond the Steam Workshop Controversy

skyrim 04-29-15-1

The word ‘modding’ seems to have become an instant flamebait in recent discussions about video games. All this controversy seems to come from Steam introducing – and, a few days later, dropping – the option to create paid mods for Skyrim. There’s been the usual accusations of entitlement (something which always comes up when gamers dislike something), a lot of talk about tearing the community apart and, as always when internet debate turns into a shitstorm, insults and threats.

All this chaos, of course, looks pretty stupid to the outsiders. The media coverage which focuses mostly on the outrage on both sides doesn’t help to understand the underlying issues – and those can’t really be understood without understanding the modding community and modding itself.

Prehistory of modding

Battle City level editor.
Battle City level editor.

It’s hard to pinpoint when exactly did modding begin. It is sometimes said that the first mod ever is Dead Smurf Software’s Castle Smurfenstein, a parody of Castle Wolfenstein which was released in 1983 and changed the original game by replacing the enemies with Smurfs, making a new title screen and playing a painfully low-fi version of the Smurfs theme song upon booting the game. This is verifiably false information as the same people who made it have created Dino Smurf, a similarly Smurf-themed parody of Dino Egg before.

Video games gave the players an option to design their own levels since at least the mid-1980s with titles like Mr. Robot and His Robot Factory, the NES version of Battle City, and Excitebike. It’s difficult to find out if there was any real community surrounding modification of those games (especially given that not all of them allowed saving of finished levels), although they certainly helped the games remain popular – after all, probably everyone who had a famiclone with a stack of pirate carts as a child remembers toying around with Battle City‘s (known as Tank 1990 among those who only experienced it on Chinese knockoffs) construction mode.

Small communities were set up around modifying oldschool roguelike games in the early 1990s, most notably Angband (which stored all the data in text files, allowing the players to change it easily) and NetHack (which had a well-written, easy to understand source code). Mods for those games were known as variants, and while their spread was helped by free and open-source nature of many popular roguelikes, it was also hampered by their relative obscurity.

The modding scene as we know it today is a PC phenomenon and as such, its roots are related to the same games which made IBM-compatibles dominate the home computer market and allowed the PC to compete with consoles and arcades as gaming machines: id Software’s early fist-person shooters. Doom fans quickly started creating their own levels and enemies for the famous game, and created one of the oldest and biggest modder communities: the Doom WAD scene (“WAD” is a synonym for a mod among Doom fans, named after *.wad files the game’s engine used for storing data). This is where it really took off with fan-created websites and newsgroups, filled with hobbyists and their creations.

Great modding controversies

UAC Labs, a Doom 2 level created by one of the Columbine shooters
UAC Labs, a Doom 2 level created by one of the Columbine shooters

The recent Valve fiasco is not the first time mods caused a big stir in the media. In fact, both individual mods and the practice of modding have played a significant part in many big controversies which surrounded gaming over the years.

Outrage and many lawsuits ensued after the release of Nude Raider, a Tomb Raider mod which did exactly what you think it did. After the Columbine High School shooting, one of the reasons for Doom being blamed for the tragedy was the fact that Eric Harris, one of the killers, made his own levels for the game (some of them referencing other controversial titles like Mortal Kombat or Duke Nukem 3D). Flipping a single bit (yes, not even a byte – just a one or zero) in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas sparked an international debate after it allowed gamers to access an unfinished softcore minigame which even famously politically-incorrect Rockstar decided was more trouble than it’s worth (at least until they decided to insert similar content into later GTA games).

Modding has also been controversial among gamers themselves, with a neverending debate about the relationship between modding and cheating. Multiplayer games have been fighting a difficult fight against trainers and other programs which made cheating easier – from wallhacks and aimbots in first-person shooters to bots automating repetitive tasks when the player is away from an MMORPG. While it would be silly to argue that modding is always cheating, it’s clearly a tool which can be used for evil.

Modding culture(s) and why we need it (them)

Logo of the Forever Free movement in the Skyrim modding community.

It’s easy to look at the negative reception of Steam’s paid mod program and see entitled gamers who want everything without paying but the truth is that some of the voices criticizing the idea came from Skyrim modding community itself. Issues that were often brought up included the possibility of people profitting from someone else’s mods, the creators getting only 25% of profits, Steam’s refund policy and the issues related to dependencies between mods as well as the fact that many modders simply want their creations to be free. It’s not that modders don’t have right to get paid – it’s that they don’t want to, or that they don’t like many of the specifics of this particular monetization system.

Most of modders see what they do as a hobby, not a source of income. Like free and open-source software developers and people who focus on the more underground side of gaming culture (ROM hackers, emulator developers, console game homebrewers and many speedrunners and indie devs), they willingly give their work away and don’t want either themselves or anyone else (just see how quickly Notch backpedalled from having people buy modding licenses) to profit from it. But the words ‘most of’ are essential – Skyrim modding community and Steam Workshop are neither the beginning nor the end of paid mods.

This is because paid mods already exist. Fan-made content was the basis of expansion packs or a part of them. Mods were sold on shovelware CDs. Officially licensed games based on engines like id Tech 1 and 2 were not dissimilar from unofficial modifications either and many popular mods were later turned into standalone games, although the quality and popularity of games like that could vary drastically. Modders can profit from their work and even find employment in the video game industry, it’s just that a particular group of modders and mod users didn’t like a specific mod-selling service.

Modders are connected by their passion for the games but the truth is there is no single modding community or modding culture. The focus of those who make NetHack variants is different from that of Doom modders. Content of the mod matters too: people who make games prettier or harder or bloodier are interested in different things than those who make total conversions – and the same goes for players who can use the mods for anything from cheating to making beautiful screenshots to placing something funny and out of place in the game.

But whatever is the intent of those who make mods and those who use them, there’s a reason they became an integral part of the PC gaming culture. Obviously, mods are a part of customization-focused and creative computer culture – but that’s not all they are. Modding can make broken games playable and it can adapt the old game for modern systems better than the official remakes. Most importantly, the variety and quality of mods mean that there is still an active community around Doom and Baldur’s Gate today and it can mean that Skyrim will have an active community ten or twenty years from now. Mods are not really about cheating or nudity or violence or entitlement. They are about a passion for games which can last for years as opposed to them being seen as a worthless, disposable product to be replaced every few months with a new one.

See also:

  • Mod DB – a modding and indie development database

  • Nexus Mods – one of the biggest modding communities

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I play games (I have a preference for old, weird and difficult ones but that's not the rule) and write articles about them that are sometimes a bit too long. Sometimes I also do things other than gaming, I swear.

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