To start the argument, one of the largest games on the planet (League of Legends) owes its ENTIRE EXISTENCE to mods. DOTA was a mod for Warcraft 3 and birthed a genre. Counterstrike is probably the most known about mod and still played professionally – now with scandals! WoW wouldn’t work without mods and over the years, the most popular have been integrated into the core UI. And the FPS wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for the Doom mods.
So, mods have been here for ages. They have been free, for the wide majority. The most popular have been worked on my dozens of people over the years, with it either being based on passion or as a sort of internship for an actual career. There have always been donations as an option but nearly all of them have avoided the direct money transfer. The main reason? EULA.
Who Owns It
See, a mod is using a registered IP, which is owned by a company, who makes money off said game. They tolerate mods as it keeps the game relevant and can greatly extend sales for minimal effort. Some games are more restrictive on mods, since it impacts the experience. If someone were to ask for payment for a mod, using someone else’s IP, then they would be in breach of contract (WoW’s glider mod is a famous example). It gets even worse when a mod uses another set of mods and asks for money. You eventually turn into a variant of a pyramid payment system.
A rather simple analogy is sampling in the music industry. There was a precedent set this year that is going go spiral into all digital media at some point. Using someone else’s material for your own gain, in part or in whole, is theft. So you’re stuck with 2 options. Either you do it for free, or you pay the company who owns the IP. Option 1 is what we’ve seen for nearly 30 years. Modding is getting more and more complex (as the games are) and there surely be someway to compensate a quality modder.
While it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that Valve’s implementation of mod sales was flawed, the intent was solid. Find a way for modders to get some money from their work, in a legitimate fashion. The problems though, are quite similar to the app store for iOS and Android – quality and quantity.
Both of these systems use a curator model, where applications are tested/vetted and then put on sale. That requires some overhead and time, naturally. It also ends up filtering the junk, well some of the junk at least. User ratings and black magic put games to the top of the list and there’s a search tool to help as well. You can’t really say market forces are at play here, since Apple and Android hold all the rules. If you have a complaint about copyright infringement, you can ask for some help. Well, unless you’re talking about Zynga or EA….
To top it off, if a dev is paying a cut to someone else, that someone else has to earn that money. There’s a tiny drop of difference between the Steam Workshop and the Steam main page, so what exactly were modders paying Steam and Bethesda for?
Valve has never been very good at curating, they’ve always let the players decide on what’s valid. Greenlight is an example of what works and doesn’t work in that regard. I don’t think it’s even part of their psyche or business values to judge games on merit. That conflict is the main reason they disabled mod sales, the water got too deep and too murky for their comfort level.
Solid question. Mods are back to being free with donate buttons. Bethesda and Valve are going back to the drawing board. My gut would say that a new mechanism around donating (or having an optional price when downloading a mod) would be the next step. Many modders put in hundreds of hours and I don’t think it’s unreasonable for them to get some compensation for their efforts. After all, they are the main source of new game ideas…