Tales from the Steam Workshop: we talk to modelers

Craig Pearson

Valve's Steam Workshop is life-changing. The community curated creative space has finally realised the dream of modders everywhere, rewarding them for the work they put into making games better. Team Fortress 2 and Dota 2 enable contributors to earn money from their creations, leading to some modders earning a six-figure income, according to comments made by Gabe Newell at CES. A living wage from making intangible hats, fish, and imaginary weaponry? I had to find out who these people were, and what modding - specifically modding Team Fortress 2 - has added to their lives.

Anthony Carriero is a 35 year-old Australian. He is professional digital artist and a certified baker. Your in-game Demo might be wearing his Ali Baba's Wee Booties, or wielding his Persian Persuader, just two of seven items Anthony's contributed to the game. Anthony's day job was the catalyst for his interest in Valve's Mannconomy.

"Item creation for TF2 came about through working in a game studio," he told me. "I was first exposed to the game there, while I was undertaking style research and development. Every day after work the guys and I would play couple of hours of TF2, among other titles. Being a huge long-time fan of the 40s and 50s commercial art, Ren and Stimpy, WB cartoons, I fell in love with the TF2 art style.

"What got me really making items was the seductive tangibility and illustrative quality of the TF2 art style. I wanted to try it out for myself."

So he did.

"The Pyro's Connoisseur's Cap, was the first item submitted and put into the game, but the first thing I made for TF2 was a slingshot. It was a style test and I never submitted it. I have seen it pop up around the place. Unknown to me, the original finished screenshot was even submitted a couple of times to the workshop by item pirates."

Item pirates! The Steam Workshop has become so profitable it's created rip-off merchants. How profitable has it been for Anthony? He, like many of the other contributors, was coy about the exact mount: "Let me answer this as indirectly as possible. I am sure that Valve has a new Lamborghini in the staff car park."

FYI: you can buy a used Lambourghini for under £200,000. As you'll find out later on, Anthony's guess is about right.

Like Anthony, Shaylyn Hamm works as an artist for a games company, and she began making TF2 items before the Workshop existed: "Part of my Master's project involved modelling playable female versions of the Medic and Heavy classes. When the Polycount contest was announced, I was an art intern at one of the local studios, and one of my co-workers suggested I enter, since I had a bit of background with the game already. It seemed like a lot of fun and potentially some new work to add to my portfolio, so I totally went for it."

"I created the Saharan Spy pack for the Spy, which includes the Familiar Fez hat, the Your Eternal Reward knife, and the L'Etranger revolver."

All of which now dangle from various stabby bastards in-game. Since her items landed in the game in 2010, Shaylyn's stepped away from the Workshop, but even so her contributions continue to spread throughout the servers: "I've been told that the Eternal Reward is the most popular. It's pretty crazy that it's been two years and the set is still selling! All told, I've made enough money from everything in the past few years to set me on the path to paying off my (extremely expensive) education. And that is pretty amazing, since it's generally not something that many people with fine arts degrees are fortunate enough to say!"

It also means, according to Shaylyn, that "whether at work or at home, my butt never has to sit on a non-Herman Miller chair."

Herman Miller chairs are hella-expensive people, but even so that's not why Shaylyn does it: "I love games, and I love art, and it's awesome to be able to combine both of those interests into something that I actually get paid to do all day."

Which is sentiment echoed, somewhat, by Bob Scott. Bob's a self-taught artist from the UK. His route into the business isn't as straight-forward as the others. He loved art and modelling, but ended up a GCSE level art student with a chemical engineering degree. "I think the logic was not wanting to turn something I loved into a job I hated, which with hindsight was dumb because I turned making stuff into a full time job without even thinking about it."

After "graduating with grades I'm not really proud of" and coming into a job market destroyed by the recession, Bob looked back at a childhood dominated by model making and wondered if there was a way of turning that into a career.

"When Valve launched the TF2 Contribute system I'd been playing TF2 since the Orange box release. I took one look at it and decided to use it as a way of getting into digital 3D work. I had been meaning to do this since playing around in Spore, in which I made one of the early featured creatures, a living Chinook helicopter. I submitted my first ever hat two weeks later, which was basically a re-skinned version of the Engineer's hard hat covered in stickers to represent each of the maps in the game at the time. I had no idea what I was doing, but it didn't matter, I was instantly hooked.

"I took all my old experience making models and applied it, and also took everything I had learned about chemical engineering design and adapted anything I could to this unrelated field. It became an obsession, and I gave it all the time I had. I can't remember now exactly when it happened, but there was a point when I realised I was remembering something about myself I had long forgotten. I've been dedicating most of my time to getting better at making things since then."

That hard work paid off, but in a roundabout manner. Bob took part in but didn't win the Polycount contest that so many of the highest-earning entrants come from, but in a follow-up chat with Valve resulted in helpful feedback that gave him a clearer view of what Valve look for in models. The result of which has seen Bob's Airborne Armaments set for the Soldier and the Public Enemy set for the Scout reach the Mann Co. Store.

"Seeing people use stuff I made always brings a smile to my face," he says. "I can't really stay mad at someone for killing me with a weapon I made."

Though the contact with Valve helped immensely, he has struggled a little with the company's practices:

"It's frustrating because you really are letting Valve do whatever they want with what you give them, and that includes ignoring bugs for months/years. The Mannconomy has been around for two years and there's still no means of reliably getting stuff updated, so if they use your work in an unexpected way or accidentally break something implementing it you have to put up with your contributions to the game not being at a standard you're happy with."

They also ignored an incredibly popular submission he made, and haven't explained why: "The most popular thing I uploaded to the workshop was rejected by Valve after they let it stay at the very top of the listings for something like three months."

Bob's Unique Rocket Models are still on the Workshop, if you want to give Valve something to think about.

Miguel Melara, a 24 year-old freelance 3D artist from Spain, is also waiting for a few items in his queue to be chosen for inclusion. Fan popularity doesn't always translate to immediate inclusion, as he pointed out: "The Mini-Dispenser, is currently still standing in the workshop on the first page. It's definitely the model for TF2 I have put the most time and effort to create, it required quite a bit of preparation figuring out how it would look, work and animate."

Happily for Miguel, he had the Scout's #1 Fan accepted into the game, and being part of Valve's game is a reward in and itself: "Getting my own item in my favourite videogame is a great milestone in my life. Seeing other players being able to interact, react, play, enjoy/dislike an item you create is even better. I like creating things for others to see, experience and react to if it was only for myself it would get boring."

But the money helps, and Miguel's plans for it seem to be ambitious: "I'm writing this with a computer that I was able to purchase thanks to TF2 hats! On a more serious note, making the items and having them in-game is amazing, it has given me a springboard for more personal projects and advanced studies in programming and 3D creation and who knows? Maybe I'll have a small game to post on Greenlight in the future?

"I know there are other TF2 contributors doing the same thing: Mister Royzo who already published a game on Greenlight (The Intruder) and Rob Laro is also working on a game, both very talented and inspiring."

Will Segerman's story is also inspiring. The 31 year-old from Brighton in the UK started computer modelling after his brother moved to the United States. The cost of phoning was prohibitive, so the pair took to Second Life. It was there Will realised he could put his real-world skills into good use: he's a prop-master for film and live roleplaying. He said: "I found I had a talent for it, and pretty soon I found I'd stumbled into paid work for a company called The Magicians who made in-world content for educational establishments. For example one job I did was making lots of places of worship for Queensland University RE department so students could take part in simulated religious rituals."

Like everyone else, Will was a TF2 fan who found the lure of Polycount's competition appealing: "I was already very into TF2 at this point and I figured this would be a good excuse to teach myself how to model specifically for modern computer games (Second Life used a very weird format which I won't go into). Interestingly there was no mention of anybody getting monetary rewards for items at this point. Everyone who modelled stuff for the Polycount competition did so for the love of the game and the possibility of getting a shiny particle effect on their items."

Will's creation ended in-game as the Hibernating Bear Set. Pretty much everything Will makes is for the Heavy, his favourite class. He recently had the Fat Fairy set drop a pair of wings onto the Russian's back, which will add more money to his pile. But how much has he made? Of all the respondents, Will was the only one willing to say exactly what he makes from the community.

"So last tax year Valve paid me $88000. About half of that was in the initial month. The graph of money over time would probably look like an exponential decay that has levelled off to around a constant $2000 per month. I completely agree with what you're thinking right now... absolute madness. To me the whole thing still seems very surreal. While before we were by no means going hungry, when I was going to get paid next was always a concern."

Valve have confirmed to us (in an interview that will appear soon) that they give the community developers a 25% cut of the profits, which means in one year Will's items went for a total of $352,000 in one year. To Valve cashflow like that means they get the freedom to carry on experimenting with one of their biggest properties, but it means something a lot more personal to Will.

"I haven't spent the Valve money on anything big (two graphics cards has been my biggest splash) but it means that I can afford to take the more interesting jobs as opposed to the more money one's and I can support my wife through her Phd."

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