Today, Valve announced that modders can sell their mods on the Steam Workshop. The program requires participation from the game's publisher (by default, most don't allow profit from user-created content), and the first to take the leap is Bethesda, which as of today is letting Skyrim mods be sold and purchased on Steam.
The announcement has not been met well. The broad reaction is that Bethesda and Valve have, to summarize, 'killed the modding community.' It's that, or ASCII art of a middle finger.
I don't think modding is dead, but there are a lot of potential problems with selling mods on Steam. As Bethesda notes in its announcement, this open market "will not be curated." Practically, I don't think a company the size of Valve could ever hope to curate Skyrim's modding scene, but I also worry about an entirely hands-off approach. The lack of curation on Steam proper has lead to some ripe garbage—including games with stolen assets—being sold to people who expect at least some baseline level of quality. I expect it to get even worse on the Skyrim Workshop. The modding scene has always shared work—respectfully when credit is given—but now that money's on the line asset theft becomes a more serious kind of theft. Then there are the crappy knock-off mods, the compatibility issues, and the just plain bad stuff. It could become a mess of differently priced versions of the same thing.
At least Steam will offer refunds within 24 hours of purchasing a mod from the Workshop. I think that time limit should be extended, though. It isn't always immediately apparent that a mod has done what you want it to do, and experimenting with them, or combinations of them, now becomes a race against your refund.
But none of this is why the early outrage has been so hot. The complaint is more philosophical than that: exchanging money feels to many like it runs counter to the culture of modding. Modding feels like it isn't supposed to be about money. Until now, it's been about passionate fans making stuff that makes games more fun, and then sharing those things so we can all have more fun. It's about taking control away from publishers and developers and making their products our canvases. It's passion, not capitalism that drives modders. And now Bethesda and Valve are inviting the rebels into the boardroom—come in here, dear boy, have a cigar—and a lot of PC gamers are looking on in disgust.
I'm also uneasy about all that, but before I raise my own ASCII finger, I want to give this a chance. First of all, we're not stopped from finding free mods elsewhere. For Skyrim especially, Steam Workshop has been about convenience more than anything. Skyrim Nexus is not gone, and having the choice to instead throw as little as 99 cents at a pay-what-you-want mod on Workshop doesn't distress me (unless, as I fear above, the original creator isn't earning from it). It also isn't unprecedented. Team Fortress 2, for instance, has not killed modding. Many of its player-made additions are fantastic, and they cost money, and the great PC gaming fortress has not crumbled and collapsed.
By paying for mods, we can directly offer an incentive to talented modders—people who have jobs and families and all kinds of things they could be doing other than making mods for us—and potentially help encourage ever more talented groups to undertake massive projects such as Endral. And, if we assume that Valve and the game's publisher take a cut (exact details are unconfirmed, but we're investigating), it could add incentive for publishers to include mod support. One of the biggest things stopping them, I think, is that the people in charge of making money can't assign a profit figure to mod tools. Perhaps now developers will be able to make a stronger case. Instead of banking on DLC, they can allow the selling of mods, and make that money with the community instead of just from it. Daybreak has taken an approach like that with its PlayerStudio.
I'm concerned with Valve's execution of this, and I don't want the Steam Marketplace to become host to a thousand 99 cent Skyrim Flappy Bird mods. I also don't want modders to get screwed, to have their free work stolen and sold, or to make so little on mod sales that the whole thing only benefits publishers. But I don't outright reject it.
It doesn't feel right to celebrate when great modders get job offers from developers, but then balk at the idea of supporting them directly. I love a good success story, in which great talent leads to a good living, but should I be content always letting someone else provide the living while I ride for free? Now that I have the option to support modders directly, I have trouble taking the stance that I shouldn't—at best, it makes me feel like a tightwad, and at worst, unappreciative and disingenuous. So, if a paid mod is good enough, I'll pay for it, and I hope that works out in everyone's favor. And if it doesn't work, it won't take off and we'll be back to where we were yesterday. Modding doesn't need Valve to live, so Valve can't kill it.