Valve and the Paid Mods Shitstorm: A Postmortem, and my Opinions.

 The Timeline

(I’m going to play at being a journalist for a few moments here, so bare with me.)

An undisclosed period of time ago, that we can only look to have started in late 2010, Valve Software (the company behind Steam, and such game titles as Half-Life, Portal, and more) began work on what was to become a system of promoting modifications to video games by third parties on the Steam workshop, a subset of the distribution system that is Steam (more on that later) which primarily is used by third parties to extend existing video games with new content. Typically assets like textures and models, but often with new functionality, and even full transformations of a game from what the original developers released, into something entirely new.

Some investigation leads back to a forum post from 2012 on the Steam Forums where a user pointed out some recent changes to the Subscriber Legal Agreement, by Valve.

Valve may choose to distribute Your Contribution [mods] for free and/or for a fee….

…If Valve chooses to distribute Your Contribution for a fee, then Valve may set the price for such distribution in its sole discretion, and Valve will pay You as follows, conditioned on Your compliance with the obligations contained in this Agreement…

…Valve shall pay You twenty-five percent (25%) of the Adjusted Gross Revenue…

This was long before any modifications started to become a paid commodity. To which they ended up becoming, but without much outcry from the community, but that was to change.

Around this same time, Valve Software and Bethesda Game Studios were in talks about opening up this system to other games, third party ones at that, the likes of the extremely popular and critically acclaimed Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, by Bethesda; whos modding community was well entrenched at that point generating free content typically distributed on the independent modding community site, Nexus Mods.

We know this from a recent public statement by the game studio itself:

In our early discussions regarding Workshop with Valve, they presented data showing the effect paid user content has had on their games, their players, and their modders. All of it hugely positive. They showed, quite clearly, that allowing content creators to make money increased the quality and choice that players had. They asked if we would consider doing the same.

– Bethesda Game Studios. April 27th, 2015 Source

Which they did, and had already hashed out the particulars of the revenue split:

  • 45% to Bethesda Game Studios.
  • 30% to Valve Software.
  • 25% to the Modders themselves (as per the agreement already in place in the Steam Subscriber Legal Agreement, but we’re being lead to believe that this split was namely set by Bethesda themselves, according to statements by Gabe “GabeN” Newell, Founder and CEO of Valve Software.)

Fast forward a bit, we have the background in place, here’s how it went down.

During the time between Early 2012 and 2015, Valve had been working on extending the workshop to other games outside of their own intellectual property, but were held back from doing so earlier than they did by what we’re to understand as technical difficulties. That gives us a good idea that for 3 years Valve had been in development of the system aside from their own implementations of the Workshop, in deliberations with Bethesda, most assuredly their legal team first and foremost, on how to go about bringing this product to fruition. That’s a lot of man hours, salary and legal fees paid, and QA work to get this product up and running, a huge investment by the privately owned Valve Software.

Judgement Day

Thursday, April 23rd, 2015, Valve releases to the public (after a month-long closed period of working with hand-selected mod developers from the Skyrim community to get them on board and developing their products for the initial showing) the Paid Mods section of the Steam Workshop for Skyrim. The internet shitstorm ensues.

Friday

Shit is still-a-stormin’, with users posting hateful content toward Valve, GabeN, Bethesda, having heated discussions, starting petitions, and enacting a massive campaign to destroy Skyrim’s rating percentage (to great effect) and to flood the Workshop with bogus mods in protest. Many users are banned from the Steam Community and Workshop interaction in response, which only acts to pour gasoline onto the flames of the torches held by the internet mob of outraged fans. Polls to depose GabeN as the “lord and savior” of the PC Master Race subreddit, likening GabeN to the “False God’ statue featured in trailer for the upcoming Superman vs. Batman film. Out and out figurative crucifixion of a company, and its founder over the blunder, whence before the two were (albeit most of the time satirically, but the feelings were there none the less) once revered as near deities. Beacons of the things the PC gaming subculture (particularly the “PC Master Race”) held up as one of the big reasons why they felt that their way of video gaming was objectively superior. (I was/am not in disagreement with that fact, as the 3 readers of this site will point out by my own post on the subject).

Saturday Aftermoon

Valve Founder and CEO, Gabe Newell takes to Reddit on his day off to try and calm the masses of raging fans and does an impromptu AMA to answer some questions regarding the paid mods situation.

While some felt that the answers to a small section of the questions that were posed were relatively meaningful (eg: myself included), some felt that GabeN dodged a lot of others, or took a lot of his words out of context to the benefit of either side of the argument.

Article posted on Forbes (a suggested read for those interested) with statements from the creator of DayZ (A hit multiplayer zombie survival full transformation mod to the title ArmA II: Operation Arrowhead by Bohemia Interactive) that outlines some of the opinions on the economics of the revenue share split percentages. (Ones that personally swayed my opinion and that of a few others I spoke to on the subject in support of the percentages.) Echoed in the full recent statement by Bethesda Game Studios (quoted and linked above) as being considered industry standard when taken into consideration that modders making monetary gains from their creations are doing so by way of licensing Bethesda’s intellectual property to create derivative works. Essentially giving them a sanctioned, legal way to monetize their creations in a way they were previously legally obligated against doing.

Sunday

Same continuous flow of hatred and enflamed discussion, both ignorant and well reasoned, with no significant developments.

Monday Afternoon

The internet hate machine comes to a screeching halt as suddenly, a rather unknown (in terms of Reddit, that is) Valve employee makes the rounds to the large gaming subreddits to post that the paid mods system is being taken down (at least for now.) in a statement that was then minutes later echoed on the Steam community news feed, with the subsequent immediate removal of the system from the UI of the Steam workshop/store.

The internet rejoices, but skeptically, knowing that with their battle won, their “enemy” would return in a new form, with a new face in the days/weeks/months to come, and the shitstorm’s clouds appear to be starting to part.

Bethesda makes a full statement on the matter (again, linked above).

My personal take rant on the whole situation.

Here we go, the good part. I had fun playing at journalism, but now I feel it’s time to get my feelings out. You know I love my rants, and it’s been a long time since I posted a good one on here, so let’s fucking do this.

Point One: Hatred against the Workshop Paid Mods

I’ve been a customer of Valve since at least 2002, my steam account is 10 years old, and I’ve been involved in the game development industry in different ways in that time..

Here are my concerns with the addition of paid mods:

  • Players feel like their losing the ability to extend the game for free, organically, with no strings attached, and without anyone censoring them or telling them what they can and cannot do. Beholden to no entity, not even the original game developers themselves.
  • I don’t think anyone likes having to pay for extra content. This is especially true when we can’t have any guarantee that the content is quality, compatible, functional, and will remain that way through continued development of the original title (eg: future patches/expansions/etc).
  • We don’t want the game to suffer by encouraging the developers to release a less-rich game with the assumption that the mod community will fill in the blanks for them.
  • We don’t want to potentially have another layer of DRM getting in the way of our extension of the game. Specially from third party mods that are not released through the steam workshop, such as those from Nexus mods or otherwise.
  • To expand on that last point, we don’t want to open up the possibility of DRM being used censorship of particular mods that the developers of the game do not agree with for whatever reason (be that politically or for PR purposes), which is a natural step when DRM is implemented to stop paid mod piracy, opening it up to being positioned to be the gatekeeper of any third party content.

At the same time a lot of people do agree that the mod creators/developers should get some sort of kickback for their effort when it is deserved, specially when the content is quality and well supported by the developers. As well, we understand that having a sanctioned way to make money from the effort that modders put into their creations will spur higher quality development, but when the concerns listed above are the potential consequences, that’s when the backlash comes.

Some ideas that could improve the system while still maintaining friendliness to the community.

  • A Green Light type system where mods can be approved to be sold before they go up on the workshop commercially. With the ability for a mod to be dis-approved by the community after the fact if the mods stops being functional through lack of being maintained, but only for functionality reasons, and not for censorship.
  • A Steam API wrapper that handles the mod loading and DRM with assurances that censorship will not be possible without legality coming into play for instances of IP infringement (which could be curbed readily by way of the Green Light review period before the mod goes for sale on the workshop), and not just for political/PR reasons. As well, allows for side-loaded non-workshop mods to still be installed without hassle. Game developers can use this (as they do with other Steam APIs) to open up the possibility of modding to their game if the otherwise did not have the resources to do so, leading to more games being moddable. The enablement factor of the Steam platform that has shown to be the golden gem of the industry.

Point Two: Hatred against Valve/GabeN, and the Revenue Percentages

People say that Valve’s 30% is unreasonable, that they contribute no effort and therefore should receive little to none of the revenue, and the content creators, the developers, who’re essentially licensing the intellectual property from Bethesda to make derivative works and being given the okay to turn around and generate revenue from that, should get the lion’s share.

No effort? I mean… it’s not like they have to pay the developers and lawyers for putting the system together, or to maintain the servers hosting the content, or pay for the bandwidth and power to run the servers, or the support personnel to handle the customers.

No. Effort. Whatsoever. You’re totally right.

These people obviously have no idea what it takes to run a backend datacenter, CDN, retail service, social platform, multiplayer gaming platform, etc and so forth.

Hardware failures, power outages, network outages, security threats, software bugs. A datacenter and the software it runs is akin to a large, organic beast that must be fed and groomed at all times. It never ends, and only gets more and more demanding the larger it grows. You have to pay a substantial team of highly educated and skilled people a significant salary to maintain it. Yes, they’re piggybacking off of their existing infrastructure, but they still would have to expand it to accommodate the new influx of demand.

As well, paying the payment processor their cut and service fees to handle all of the transactions. PCI Compliance adherence (which is a constant, constant battle with regulators to ensure that financial data is handled to code). That takes money too. Fees and taxes to the federal, state, and local governments. This too adds to the overhead that 30% represents.

Their stance is one of ignorance about not only the logistics involved, but the economics of it. Their cut is more than justified, and I’d have to throw a marginally educated guess that the profit margin on that 30% is easily less than 10% of that, and that’s being generous. Let’s not forget that the feature/system is at this moment a multi-million dollar net LOSS of revenue, and would surely take many months if not a year or two to recoup the losses and become a profitable product.

Then there’s Bethesda’s claim to the percentage. Skyrim is their intellectual property, so it’s within their right to monetize a license to enable others to earn gains on works based on theirs. Without it and their efforts to release the tools and expose the APIs, the opportunity to mod it wouldn’t exist in the form it does today.

Sure they could be more generous about it. Whether or not they’ve recouped their investment on the game’s development through sales is pretty obvious that they easily have profited handsomely in the several years of Skyrim’s release, its Bethesda-produced paid-for DLCs, and the support thereafter; but again, it’s within their right as the IP holder to do what they want with their property, so be it. In comparison to the industry standard for IP licensing, they’re on the upper end of the generosity scale. So there’s that.

But to blatantly say Valve has done nothing and don’t deserve their share, I feel, is wholly undeserved.

Let’s take another perspective on the issue, Valve contributes A LOT to open source technologies. Things that I know off the top of my head: The Linux kernel, OpenGL, graphics drivers for AMD, NVIDIA, and Intel, the upcoming Vulkan graphics library replacement for OpenGL (they’re a paying member of the Khronos group that is behind the open graphics standards and implementations thereof), tooling around the the development with OpenGL an Vulkan graphics libraries, their releasing their next-gen game engine (Source 2) for free to everyone; not a revenue share at a price point like Unreal/Unity, but FREE.

Valve is instrumental in the freedom of Gaming as we know it, and the move away from the further and further freedom-consuming platforms of Microsoft’s Windows and Apple’s MacOS to the promised land of Linux. They’re leading the charge in this regard, and a lot of companies are following suit; using what Valve has done to do so.

All of that, costs them millions of dollars in salary to accomplish. Then the vocal minority of the community take up pitch forks and start figuratively crucifying them that they’re asking for a 30% cut of an entirely minor revenue stream that equates to far, far less than 1% of their overall income.

Don’t you see where this outrage is all complete horse shit?

Let’s not forget… Valve is a multi-billion dollar company. Who, as I described before, spent multiple millions of dollars in the development and launch of a feature that was years in the making. That’s salary for developers, QA, and server administration team who had to deploy the new code to their system and make sure it was stable; lawyers fees for setting up the deals with Bethesda; and the admitted multiple million dollars in cost associated with all of the feedback that was sent to Valve they had to comb through.

Let’s assume for a second that we are stupidly greedy. So far the paid mods have generated $10K total. That’s like 1% of the cost of the incremental email the program has generated for Valve employees (yes, I mean pissing off the Internet costs you a million bucks in just a couple of days). That’s not stupidly greedy, that’s stupidly stupid.

You need a more robust Valve-is-evil hypothesis.

Gabe “GabeN” Newell, April 25th, 2015 Source

Even after ALL of that loss of revenue. What did they do? They reverted the feature due to community outcry. WITHIN 4 DAYS.

Let’s see a community get that sort of response from any other company that big with regard to an unpopular change in their service/products. Color me fucked to believe that anyone would have one iota of a chance to make that kind of change happen, that fast, let alone at all. (Frankly, even I’m surprised that Valve responded as soon as they did. Not only that, but refunded everyone’s purchases too.)

Point 3: Valve’s Contributions

I may reiterate some things here, but wanted to go into more detail on the subject of the good things that Valve has done. Those good things that the community of reddit and other places have so easily let one miss-step completely overshadow.

They’re criticized for not policing things enough, and they’ve stated that they don’t want to be dictators. I see Valve as more of a company dedicated to enabling the game development industry over anything else they’ve ever done.

I say this not by their words, but by their actions. First, they offer a comparatively WIDE OPEN platform that takes the headache out of sales, distribution, patching, DRM (Yeah we rather not have it, but Steam DRM, I’d say, is probably the least impactful on the customer than any DRM solution on the entire gaming market outside of no DRM at all) social interaction, persistence, and multiplayer. One that is robust, polished, with well over a decade (and not even talking man-hours here, just in actual time it’s been around) of experience, refining, and polishing. Enabling developers of all sizes to get their game to market and not have to reinvent the wheel in terms of all of these challenging problems that are often done very, very poorly. Even by companies with hundreds of millions at their disposal to do so (eg: EA, Ubisoft, etc). They paved the way for digital distribution to be the expected norm for PC gamers, even if they weren’t the first to do it. They did (and still do) it the best of any other service out there.

That’s just Steam. Not to mention all of their contributions to open source, that I’ve tried harder to get people to recognize than Valve themselves have (they’re extremely humble/modest when it comes to that).

Their membership with the Khronos Group and work with/on OpenGL and the soon-to-be successor, Vulkan. OpenGL, a graphics library that is THE ONLY alternative to Direct3D that allows for high performance graphics computing on platforms outside of Windows. The latest iteration (Vulkan) which is entirely based on Mantle (AMD literally gave the Khronos group the code to base the open API off of), and will dominate Direct3D 12 which has only barely been able to squeak by since it’s hyper-focused lock-in on the Windows platform means less development is required in terms of porting to other platforms. As well, is only a continuation of Microsoft’s previous iterations of Direct3D, whereas Vulkan is a complete ground-up project with no technical debt. Vulkan is set to share the same features as Direct3D 12, with the expanded functionality in that it (like OpenGL) will work on everything from your Desktop PC irregardless of the operating system it runs, to your Mobile Phone and even Web browser. All the while you don’t have to be beholden to Microsoft to use it, and it isn’t a black box of proprietary code; it’s fully open source! Valve did huge HUGE work on Vulkan, and the tooling around it to make it easier for developers to use and debug/profile their games with, particularly on Linux, where such tools did not exist for game developers.

All of this, at a major loss of profit. It costs money to be a member of the Khronos group; they have to pay the salary of the developers contributing to the open technologies, and at the same time, their just giving that away to the game development community with no expectation of return on their technical and monetary investment other than ensuring their own survival in the coming years. If one thing is certain, Valve has been pretty damned good at knowing which direction the wind is blowing. By the looks of it; that direction is away from the traditional closed platforms such as Microsoft (Windows, Xbox), Apple (OSX/IOS), and Sony (Playstation) to open ones based on Linux. Which is why Valve has even taken the step to completely port their entire Steam platform to Linux and release a full operating distribution: SteamOS.

I speculate there’s a lot more done by the unseen hand of Valve’s humble developers that we’ve probably never heard of, but likely rely on in so many ways that we can’t even imagine.

Let’s not forget.. Valve is a privately held company. That means there is no stock equity traded on the market. No shareholders that valve must strive to please or must make dividends to. They are their own, private (albeit HUGE) entity and for the foreseeable future, will stay like that. Autonomous. Self-directed. Beholden to no one but themselves, and their loyal, oftentimes fanatical customer base. Why? Because Gabe Newell wanted it like that, so that Valve could do things differently. Go places other companies daren’t go. Make mistakes. Break things. Blaze a path for a more open gaming community, and shape the industry single-handedly as they have time and time again.

Point 4: The other “bads” that Valve has committed

Customer service is one people highlight a lot. My opinion is that it’s really one of the only really genuinely bad things that can be associated with Valve outside of their less-than-appreciated stance of being as hands off as possible when it comes to policing the content of other developers. But more on that in a moment.

Valve’s customer service department has mostly been a myth for some time. Recently, they’ve tried to step up their game, but when companies like EA (multiple-time “winner” of America’s most hated company) starting to be thought of in a positive light any way whatsoever in comparison, you KNOW it’s bad. However, t hat’s just it. I don’t know it’s bad. Reason? I haven’t ever had the pleasure. Not in 10 years can I remember a single incident in which prompted me to seek out a support representative. There MAY have been a forum post at some point, but likely aimed at a particular game title and a problem with that, rather than the Steam platform itself. Either any issues I had were minor and easily solved by myself (although, granted, I am a pretty technically oriented person who solves technical problems for a living…), or the issue had a fix/workaround posted somewhere publicly/was patched before I even knew it was an issue/experienced it in the first place.

Ownership. There’s the issue of banning, and the loss of all Steam games along with it. (Let me just interject the point that, honestly.. how the fuck outside of getting caught using cheat software or trying to commit fraud against Valve or its customers do people managed to get themselves banned? Please someone tell me…) There’s one glaring issue that I still don’t entirely agree with myself, when it comes to the Steam platform. Games purchased on steam are not even that. What you buy on Steam, while a one-time fee that is typically in line with the general retail cost everywhere else (at least during/shortly after launch, as most titles quickly get marked down, and put up for sale regularly), is actually called a “subscription”. This is their way of skirting the issue that you don’t “own” the games that are purchased through Steam. There’s no physical copy associated with them. You can’t order a box to be delivered to you, and almost always the game in question requires Steam to be installed/running/logged-in for you to be able to access the game. Now, that last part isn’t generally considered much of an issue. Steam does support an offline mode that last I knew, requires logging in at least once every two weeks in order to maintain availability. However, in terms of this DRM and it’s impact on gamers compared to every other single service on the market that includes a DRM scheme (eg: EA’s Origin, Ubisoft’s Uplay, etc), Steam’s version is, in my opinion, the least intrusive and burdensome of all outside of having no DRM whatsoever. It doesn’t do shady shit like EA where you can only download/install your game 3-5 times before you lose access to it, and doesn’t regularly cause game-breaking instabilities or unavailability from overzealous DRM methodologies akin to malware or even rootkits (eg: Sony).

Curation. Valve is often criticized that it does not do enough to police the content that its publishing customers release onto the marketplace. Primarily, most criticism is directed at the Steam Green Light system. A system wherein by developers of all backgrounds and budgets, not just AAA publishers who pen content distribution deals with Valve. But regular (primarily) independent game developers and/or hobbyists can get their chance to find their game title on the Steam marketplace for retail sale. With all the benefits therein: a SUPER generous revenue cut, I’d gather besting any traditional publishing deal in the industry outside of self-retail; with things that don’t come with that sort of sales avenue like flexibility to sell your game elsewhere while remaining on Steam. Built-in payment processing, content distribution, beta/release/patching management, progress persistence (achievements and cloud save), social platform including multiplayer lobbies, voice/text chat, friends lists, public game streaming, mod workshop, DRM (yes, I know.. I know), and more. These are the things they get with the Steam platform that are typically hard to do right, and Steam DOES. All available for anyone who gets their game approved through the voting system that is Steam Green Light.

Now, it’s safe to say that it isn’t a perfect system. There’s a lot of garbage that does still seem to make it through. In Valve’s own view, they feel that it’s up to the developers themselves to make the bad decisions. They’re happy to inform them otherwise, but will elect to take the approach of hands off and let the market decide. After all, Valve still gets their cut, so their incentivized to let these idiots be idiots. It’s an unfortunate, but somewhat understandable situation that Valve takes a lot of flak for. Granted, they’ve empowered the community through tools like the Steam community curators feature that they can use to try and help curb this behavior by downvoting shit titles into oblivion and leaving scathing reviews that show up as one of the first things people see before buying the games in question. I think it balances out in my opinion, and Valve takes the high road of not being the evil dictator that so many seem to want to label them as.

Early Access. Now, this is mostly related to the perceived issue of Steam’s curation of games that make it to the marketplace, but this one, I outright deny people the right to complain about for one simple, blatant, and painfully obvious truth. Early Access games are considered to be PRE-PRODUCTION QUALITY. As in: NOT READY FOR FULL PUBLIC RELEASE TO MARKET.

Does that not get the message across well enough? This blue box warning (and the relevant text I highlighted with the red rectangle) is situated JUST above the portion of the store screen where you’d pay for the game. It is the same on EVERY early access game on the market without deviation. This happens to be taken from Tripwire Interactive’s Killing Floor 2, and the quality of the available game is not indicative of every example of an Early Access game. Some are more polished than others, some are less than alphas. The system serves as a way to enable customers to support their favorite developers and essentially pre-order and crowdfund a game similar to IndieGoGo or Kickstarter in order to front-load the revenue the the game would normally only receive once it went for sale. This also allows customers to aid the developers in getting some early feedback on any issues that may exist to allow for a smoother launch at the same time for those customers to feel as if they had an impact on the development of the game. Or just get to be among the first to play it!

There are some shining examples of this, like Killing Foor, or most recently: Squad’s Kerbal Space Program; of which went 1.0, non-beta, retail release to the general public after quite a long time in Early Access, Such only served as a HUGE boon to the game’s quality upon reaching said milestone. Similarly, Keen Software House’s Space Engineers, which sold enough Early Access copies to push the development of the game into overdrive, and even spur the company to hire a whole new team to start on a sister game based on the technologies of the first, Medieval Engineers. There are examples that I am personally familiar with, and isn’t by any stretch a conclusive list. The point remains. People who complain about Early Access are completely, and utterly ill-deserved of the privilege in my opinion.

In conclusion

A lot of hate being slung (even after they reverted the decision) at a company who has only proven themselves to be working in the best interests of the PC gaming industry from their very inception. Who’s done and continues to do outlandishly more good than they ever did bad, but the bad seems to be all that people seem to be blinded by. Ignorant of what Valve earned the high praise that they enjoyed before their blunder, and jumping on the hate bandwagon at the first trickling sign of problems.

Basically, people need to fucking educate themselves before they go off regurgitating the opinions of an uninformed, vocal minority.

</rant>

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *