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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Maciej Miszczyk


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.

  1. Brad Donald
    Brad Donald
    April 29, 2015 at 4:58 pm

    To me it comes off as Rent Seeking on Valves part. And they just partnered with Bethesda to test it out, im sure the idea originates at steam itself.. I dont believe them when they try to hold up Bethesda as the mastermind. Steam has the most to gain out of all this.

  2. Loli-Nox-Tan
    April 29, 2015 at 5:01 pm

    Why does that top screenshot look like it’s from *the place that shall not be named*?

  3. Carl B.
    Carl B.
    April 29, 2015 at 5:10 pm

    Mod culture has always been about freedom and liberation. It’s a very, dare I say it, socialist culture in a way. Those who’ve been in it for decades will tell you something similar. They know that it being free is a huge reason why they do it. A “stick it to the man” feeling permeates the scene. People want to do what the white shirt CEOs don’t want them to do or experience.

    It’s like with Roms and rom patches. If you dare to charge for a patch, you’ll get drummed out of the community. Yes, legality is an issue, but even then it’s still heavily punished by the community itself. Teams have even put up paypal links before and been chided for it.

    tl;dr? Real modders do it for free.

  4. Brandon Orselli
    Brandon Orselli
    April 29, 2015 at 5:14 pm

    I’m not sure that I follow, which place are we talking about?

  5. JackDandy
    April 29, 2015 at 5:19 pm

    Looking at the doomworld archives, holy CRUD- there are files older than than 20 there!

    Anyway, very interesting read.

  6. Loli-Nox-Tan
    April 29, 2015 at 5:24 pm

    I don’t wanna say cos it is an Adult oriented site for Adult oriented TES mods

  7. Audie Bakerson
    Audie Bakerson
    April 29, 2015 at 5:35 pm

    You linked DS Fix and not Wesp’s decade+ long obsession with Bloodlines for “Modding can make a broken game playable”?

    If any modder deserves to be paid for their work, it’s Wesp. If given the choice between paying him and Activision (the publisher who is responsible for it being in that state and a commerical failure), I’d totally rather pay Wesp.

  8. Maciej Miszczyk
    Maciej Miszczyk
    April 29, 2015 at 5:48 pm

    completely forgot about that one. damn, I love Troika but all their games were so bugged

  9. deadeye
    April 29, 2015 at 5:48 pm

    That’s very different to how I see it. I don’t see it as some socialist culture, or “sticking it to the man”, or anything like that.

    Hell, many developers love and support modders. Lots of games have editors you can use to make mods. And of course, the steam workshop makes finding mods and installing them easier so that you don’t even have to mess around with any of the game files to do it.

    And how many games throughout history have come with built in level editors? Stuff like Little Big Planet, and Trials have extremely robust level editors that allow people to make a variety of things. The GOTY edition of LBP even had some of the best user created maps already there in the game, and even a little introduction from the people that made the level.

    Modding just comes from a love of whatever game you’re playing. You can put your own little mark on the game. Sure, there are some devs that go to great lengths to make it so games can’t be modded, but I’d say the majority of PC games are made to be easily accessible to those that like tinkering with their games.

    You make it seem like modding is almost something illegal.

  10. Siveon
    April 29, 2015 at 5:49 pm

    At this point he’s essentially finishing the damn game. Jesus, there’s dedication – and then there’s Wesp.

    Kudos, Bloodlines is fucking fantastic, even in a broken state.

  11. Anonymous
    April 29, 2015 at 7:24 pm

    Nice, fair and objective take on the subject, I enjoyed that little background on the history of mods.

    Would like to to mention one of the newer alternatives modders have found to let their fans support them, patreon.
    This might even be worth an article on itself.
    People like https://www.patreon.com/gula who let the community donate and then release content to everyone for free for the game based on the donations are a very interesting thing.

  12. sanic
    April 29, 2015 at 7:44 pm

    To be blunt I feel like mod makers should be allowed to request donations but I don’t feel publishers deserves 25-74.9R% of the money when they did nothing.

  13. Neojames82
    April 29, 2015 at 10:50 pm

    What are you talking about? She’s obviously doing her taxes!!! In her bedroom…naked…and sweating…

  14. evilmajikman
    April 29, 2015 at 11:55 pm

    What Tomb Raider mod is that in the pic?

  15. Psichaos
    April 30, 2015 at 12:30 am

    I wouldn’t go so far as that, but I feel most modders do this for hobby, or because they disagree with an implementation of mechanics or wish to fix a perceived problem the dev team has ignored. And it’s very wrong for Valve or Bethesda to get paid for things they had absolutely no hand in creating. Modders, and most everyone in the gaming community for that matter, don’t want the devs to rely on them to provide free labor and profit off of it.

    Outside that debacle, I’m sure most people don’t terribly mind a donation box to help support the more extensive mods, like a restoration effort for older games, or to support server hosting to keep online multiplayer alive when the devs have to abandon it. But demanding payment for those mods is a big no-no. Not only for the questionable legality of doing so, but it would drive a stake in the current mutual relationship between developers and modders. Mods extend the life of a game and can even revitalize sales long after it’s release. Just Cause 2’s multiplayer mod is a prime example of this. It’s not so much “socialist culture” than it is preserving a delicate balance and a peaceful coexistence between devs and modders.

  16. Obbliglol
    April 30, 2015 at 11:07 am

    LoversLab is actually completely fine. Nexus etc have a childish thing about it and won’t even allow linking, because it’s the home of SexLab and 95% of all sex mods for TES/FO as of now. If you dig deep enough, there’s some good stuff on there. Some of it isn’t completely to my taste, but wow, you have to appreciate some of the effort put into making…well, look for yourself. Every fetish is catered for.

  17. Obbliglol
    April 30, 2015 at 11:13 am

    Very interesting read, and it’s nice to to see someone willing to actually do some research. There are way too many cons to pros when it comes to mod monetization – some big modders, like Fore and Trainwiz, even refuse donations because they believe in the freedom of mods so heavily. As per usual, the “press” didn’t even look into the fact that WAY more modders were against paid mods than for, including Nivea, apollodown, T3nd0, Elianora and elysees. The Russian, Japanese and Korean communities were horrified as well.

    They’ll be back to try for TESVI, but hopefully the community will rise again to put that down. You know you’ve messed up when every TES modding community under the sun stops griping at each other and tells you “NO”.

  18. Random Dude
    Random Dude
    May 1, 2015 at 3:10 am

    Nexus already implemented Donation system but the Nexus admins and moderators themselves forbid mod creators to even mention the donation itself, which consequently make the donation system mostly unheard of for most users (heck, the only thing they mostly remember is to endorse a mod they’ve downloaded and liked).

    If there’s one positive thing from this 4 day shitstorms, then its the fact that Nexus itself slightly relents on the donation rule (albeit just slightly, but still an improvement) and now more people should be aware of that Donate button.

  19. Hagane-Cosplay.tumblr.com
    May 1, 2015 at 4:26 am

    You act as though dev teams have no hand in mods, though, which is wrong. Given, some mods are made completely by the community, but some games like the old Neverwinter Nights put a lot of work into having good mod tools for the community to use.

    Most game editors that are not mod-friendly are barely functional, have very little documentation and are highly unstable (crash-happy).

    Games like Unreal or Neverwinter Nights could only offer those features because the devs spent money on providing that stuff for the community. If a dev does that, then shouldn’t they be able to earn something back?

    EDIT: For the record, this is a more general thing. There are MANY good reasons why suddenly introducing paid mods for Skyrim was a bad idea.

  20. Zombie_Barioth
    May 1, 2015 at 7:06 am

    So they ARE taking to patreon then, that’s nice to know. I wondered about modders using services like it or kickstarter to fund projects when people acted as if there weren’t avenues for modders to get paid if they wanted until now. They already could if they wanted to.

    If anything that’s proof right there they don’t want to. What we’ve seen the past few days was just really opportunistic behavior, like a gold rush or city-wide riot.

  21. Jean-Francois Dionne
    Jean-Francois Dionne
    March 14, 2017 at 5:10 am

    If someone judge his mod should be paid it is is right, it not true that we al would do it in our so called free time just like an hobby, some of us with true skill sometime already work in the industry like myself, I still like do aside works.. but not that much since all poeple want all to be free like if they were all living on the state wellfare…

    I don’t see the issue, if someone want his mod to stay free he should also have the right to do so…

    At the end it the community who is lossing cause a lots of great projects will never be done oir finished…