Don't Exploit People - A Steam Modding Story
Another day, another example of a corporate giant trying to exploit the little guy. This time, though, the little guy won! Valve and Bethesda tried to make money on the backs of modders, and public outcry made them stop. This is truly a victory for public decency, and all that jazz. But did we actually say what we needed them to understand? Did we do an adequate job of communicating to Valve and Bethesda exactly why we thought it was a problem? Did we?
If you've been following gaming news sites, you should already know that Valve has cancelled the feature in Steam Workshop that allowed for paid mods on Skyrim, after public outcry and backlash and a change.org petition that got over 130,000 signatures. It seems a reasonable course of action, given that their goal was to allow modders to get paid for their work while simultaneously inspiring new people to lend their talents towards the modding community, and instead all eyes were focused on the controversy, but I think that Valve missed the point.
Put yourself in the shoes of a modder: you spend countless hours on a passion project, spending your time and talent on it just because you want to contribute to the community. The occasional donation comes in from someone who enjoys your work, but basically you're working for free - and you're okay with that, because that's not why you're doing it in the first place.
Then Valve introduces a way for you to get paid for your work on the mod; it's a nice idea, since it would feel good to see some real financial compensation for the time you spent on it, so you look into it. And the first thing you see is that you're only getting 25% of the sale price; Valve takes 30%, for doing basically nothing, and Bethesda takes 45%, also for doing basically nothing. You put in all the work on that mod, but the lion's share of the profits if it's sold will go to giant companies who had nothing to do with what you did. That is not you getting paid for your work; that is Valve and Bethesda getting paid for your work, and throwing you some scraps so you don't bite them.
And that is the point, right there. Modders should absolutely have the ability to get paid for their work, but it's the modders who should be the ones getting paid. Steam Workshop already exists; updating it to add the ability to sell mods as well as share them for free, given the framework they already have in place, is trivial. Bethesda haven't cared about Skyrim for almost 2 years - that's how long it's been since they released DLC for it. There is no good reason for those two companies to take 3x as much as the modder for new work the modder did on their own.
What the payment structure demonstrated here was nothing other than corporate greed. Valve and Bethesda wanted to treat the modders as employees, rather than independent workers, because when an employee creates something for a company, the company is the one that profits from it. In a lot of cases, the mods people create are for things that should have been in the game in the first place; Bethesda has no business taking 45% of the profit for someone else fixing their game, and Valve has no business taking 30% of the profit for facilitating that exploitation.
In his statement about the cancellation of the paid mods program, Steam employee Alden said "we believe there's a useful feature somewhere here." Alden is correct; as I said earlier, modders deserve to get paid for their hard work. But an exploitative payment setup is not the way to do it. It's the modder's work that's being purchased - not Bethesda's that the modder happened to work on - so give the modder control over where the money goes, the same way you get to choose who gets what when you buy a Humble Bundle. If the modder wants to give 20% each to Valve and Bethesda, they can do that. If they want to give 15% to Valve and nothing to Bethesda, let them. And if they want to keep it all themselves, that's their choice too. Hell, sign on a charity and give the modder a chance to donate a portion to charity as well. But if it's the modder's work being paid for, then it's the modder who should be the one deciding where the money goes.
And this isn't just an issue with video game mods, either; this should apply to any case where someone is creating on their own, and catches the eye of someone with a leaning towards making money. If someone writes a story, and they use an agent to sell it to a publication, the agent doesn't take more than the writer does. When someone with talent spends their time working on something, that person is the one who deserves to get paid for their work; nobody else.
Now, as for the other obvious problems with paid mods, such as people selling mods that aren't theirs, or including other people's free mods in one they're charging for, those are problems I don't have the experience to deal with, and I have no solutions to offer for them. But this much I know: if someone told me they wanted to sell my music and keep 75% of the profit for themselves, I'd tell them to go fuck themselves.