An article on Kotaku Australia (April 2015, source) reports that Steam Workshop is now monetised by allowing content creators to charge up front for third party modifications to pre-existing games on the Steam platform. It's not uncommon for content creators to ask for donations to the time developing and supporting a mod, but to charge up front poses several legal ramifications and concerns from the modding community.As a content creator myself, this raises several issues of concern:
- Community: Modding is a community driven exercise to improve the aesthetics, functionality and performance of a pre-existing game where developer support is limited post release. Mods tend to keep a game alive long after the game has been released especially when content creators are producing total-conversions mods and third party maps to create new experiences for existing players. By monetising it typically destroys the community spirit as much of the content are released for free by original authors, or are built by multiple individuals or groups in the spirit of improving a game long forgotten by the developer/publisher.
- Licensing: Third party mods are typically distributed under a Creative Commons license, with no commercial selling allowed. This kind of license allows others to modify, repackage, redistribute and add value to pre-existing mods, and continue that community spirit to improve the features of a game.
- Copyright: Monetisation is a commercial activity which voids any "Fair Use" claims under the local Copyright legislation. I would cite USA and Australia in this context as it seems most relevant to me. This means that you can't legally sell a mod directly to public without written permission from the pre-existing game's copyright owner, which in the article's case would be the game Skyrim, the publisher Bethesda and their assignees. So effectively it puts a lot of mod creators in a bind because they're open to legal challenge (through Copyright legislation). In addition, it seems that Valve will have to police any any potential issues due to Copyright ownership claims (either by a rights holder, or even another modder whose work has been infringed upon by another party - especially when ownership of assets and code is generally vague).
- Recognisable IPs: I'm currently developing mods for a game called VoidExpanse which is a 2D side scrolling space simulator. I'm careful not to use any known trademarks, names or logos of other rights holder's work. However many modders love creating mods to do with recognisable stuff like Star Wars, Star Trek and other game franchises. This is a problem when if you try to profit from the mod because you need permission from the rights holders to use, reproduce, sell and/or redistribute those works in your mod.
- Digital Rights Management: This has been a problem for the last decade of game releases. Modders have to create two or more separate builds to a mod. One tied directly to Steam Workshop as it has a unique way of handling game files and mods, and a fully manual method (which is the preferred by the modding community) that is free of any DRM. The issue is the longer term - when a game is no longer supported, or sold, or even available on Steam, those mods will die with the game. If modders released their content free of any DRM, then someone else may be able to pickup the files down the track, and continue to develop the mod without issues. This is evident in many PC games from the 90s and early 2000 when modding took off and those games still have an active modding community in 2015, despite the original creators, game studios, publishers being long forgotten.
- Pricing: Valve (and probably the partnered publisher) is taking a 75% cut to sales. The mod creator is left with only 25% of the pie. This is not really fair because the mod creator does all the work, even though legally the rights holder can charge whatever they want. It's kind of a scam. I think its not uncommon that people who like certain mods donate to the authors of those mods directly. This has been the case in recent years with Kick Starter projects or indie game developers who don't want to be backed by a publisher, but it also means that they need a revenue source directly from the players or people interested in their project. A fairer ratio of the monetisaton should be 50% modder, 25% developer/publisher, 25% valve. It'll be a shame to see good mods pulled down from free sites in favor of Steam Workshop's sales. It is a poorly conceived idea from top to bottom in my opinion.
- Piracy: Steam has to police a problem that didn't exist before they monetised Steam Workshop. Some crappy individuals will download a freely distributed mod, modify it slightly, redistribute and sell the mod as new content. There is probably no support from Steam regarding this. This will jeopardise the modding community because many good mods are built on the foundations of trust. When money is involved, would you as a content creator be willing to give up your resources, assets and other skills for free, to help someone else develop their mod and sell it? If you live in a capitalist society, it's probably unlikely. Note this is already happening with Skyrim.
- Quality control: Mods have a tendency to stop working the moment an official patch is released. Authors typically cannot be bothered to update or support the mod post patch, or take a long time to get back to it. I know this from experience so if a mod is being sold on Steam, then there is a reasonable expectation on the quality and ongoing support that just isn't going to be available.
I think this is a poorly conceived plan on Valve's part across the board. Should be fun watching it implode over the next couple of months. Valve will need to take an active role over administrating mod sales, moreso than what they traditionally offer particularly with Steam Greenlight and Early Access games.