Valve are set to announce (any minute now!) a new way for creators of Dota 2 custom games to make money from their work. The 'Custom Game Pass', available as an in-game purchase, will add 'features, content, or other changes' at the discretion of each individual custom game creator. Below you'll find details about the system as well as an in-depth interview with Valve.
If you're unaware, custom games were introduced to Dota 2 in the Reborn update last September. Creators use a powerful toolset to build new modes and minigames within the Dota 2 client, which can then be shared—and played—for free. Popular examples include Pudge Wars, Roshpit Champions, Dota IMBA, and a wide range of tower defense variants (as it happens, we've got a list of the best ones right here.)
The Custom Game Pass will debut with Roshpit Champions, an ambitious project that turns Dota 2 into a co-op dungeon crawler. A $1 purchase will get you access to extra character slots, stash space, and an XP and loot boost for a month.
There are a few key details to note. The first is that all custom games will remain free: the Custom Game Pass can only grant the buyer additional bonuses, and can't gate access to the custom game itself. Secondly, these passes will last thirty days at a time and won't automatically renew. Valve are curating the system themselves, rather than using Greenlight-style user voting, and will only support Custom Game Passes for games "which have already established a sizable community and are mature enough to offer good value to customers."
Custom game creators will receive the same revenue share as any other developer who distributes their work through Steam.
This development marks Valve's return to the idea of paid modding—an idea that backfired when the Skyrim community rejected paid mods in 2015. As with any instance where payment is introduced to a system that was previously entirely free, it's likely that the community will have questions about how their experience will be protected from abuse.
Last week, Valve reached out to PC Gamer in order to settle some of those questions in advance of today's announcement. We challenged them on the failure of the Skyrim paid mods experiment, how Valve plan to curate and manage this new system, and the relationship they intend to build with creators. They also put us in contact with Ryan 'ChalkyBrush' Racioppo, part of the Roshpit Champions team, in order to get a creator's perspective on the system.
We've chosen to present the entire transcript of that Q&A below.
What is the reasoning behind this decision, from both the company and the Dota 2 team's perspective?
Valve: As a company we have our roots in the mod community. We firmly believe the mod community has been responsible for finding many of the unique gameplay experiences we all love today, an obvious example being Dota itself. As we improved the tools available to Dota custom game creators, and saw more and more interesting things coming from that community, we found ourselves pondering this question: in what way is a custom game creator any different from any other developer on Steam?
Both of them are creating brand new experiences. Both often start with a bunch of existing code & assets, whether it's Dota's custom game framework or Unity/Unreal's developer community. Both face similar challenges in design, execution, attaining visibility, managing their community, and so on.
If a custom game creator has built a game that many people love, we think they should have an opportunity to be rewarded for it.
To put it bluntly, what is the difference between this initiative and the decision to introduce paid mods to Skyrim—a decision that had to be withdrawn?
Valve: We learned a lot from the community's feedback on paid mods in Skyrim. While it may appear similar on the surface, the system we're providing for custom games is quite different. There are important details to how it works, and we can walk through some of the community's most important concerns so you can see how they informed our design.
One of the first concerns the community had was that paid mods meant an end to free content. In this new system, only a small number of custom games will have passes for sale, and those games will continue to be freely downloadable and playable, with Custom Game Passes representing optional additions.
The community was also worried about quality control and the general 'worthiness' of a mod being paid for. What stopped a mod maker from asking $10 for a minor gameplay tweak? We will be carefully selecting which custom games are able to offer a Custom Game Pass, selecting only games which have already established a sizeable community and are mature enough to offer good value to customers. The community also had concerns about the potential for stolen content in paid mods. The Dota team's curation of the process addresses this, requiring a custom game to be free of copyrighted materials to be considered for a pass.
Another concern the community had was related to ongoing support. What if a creator made a good game, but then stopped supporting it? It's a fact that custom games require ongoing maintenance from their creator, both to update the game with new content, and to adapt to changes in the base game. We think it is important to support the developer in a way that encourages them to build large, vibrant, long-term communities around their games. As a result, we've set Custom Game Passes to have a 30-day duration. This activation period will allow customers to continually reassess their choice to support a game, and to support the creators of the games they most enjoy playing. We also now have a Steam-wide refund system that'll help ensure custom game pass purchasers are happy with their pass.
Customers also had concerns around the fairness of the revenue share between the mod makers and the publisher of the base product. Once we started thinking of custom game creators as being similar to any developer on Steam, it seemed obvious that we should simply use the exact same revenue share.
For ChalkyBrush: what does this mean to you as a creator? Does this change the nature of your relationship with your players?
Ryan 'ChalkyBrush' Racioppo: Fundamentally my relationship with the players will remain the same. I have always treated the players with respect and kept a cool head when faced with seemingly unfair criticism, and I have never silenced anybody's opinions. However, since there is now a more formal contractual obligation between myself and premium players there is a greater responsibility on me to keep the game up to date and bug-free.
The monthly pass aligns my incentives with what the players want, which is more content and bug fixes. If a player is unhappy with the amount of content released in a month, they can choose not to buy a premium pass the following month. The players now have the power to vote for what they want—if I see a month of reduced premium sales, I know the game isn't going in the best direction—and vice versa.
Will custom game passes be sold through Steam proper, through the Dota 2 client, or both?
Valve: Custom Game Passes will be an item in the Dota 2 store and sold within the Dota client. There will also be a purchase button from the individual Custom Game's home page. The Roshpit Champions pass will sell for $1.
Are passes purely for additional benefits, or can access to a game itself be dependent on purchasing a pass?
Valve: Passes are purely for additional content and are only available to games that have proven themselves to fans.
ChalkyBrush: In the case of Roshpit Champions, the entirety of the game's content will be available to players who are playing for free. The premium pass offers the following benefits:
- Increased Character Save Slots (4 -> 12)
- Increased Stash Space (6 -> 24 slots)
- 50% increased chance of finding rare items and 10% EXP gain, which stacks with other players.
Free players may still have up to 4 characters that can reach the same potential as a premium player and explore all of the same content. Free players even get the Bonus EXP and Magic Find from premium players in their party.
How will the Dota 2 team determine which creators can offer a custom game pass?
Valve: The ability to offer a Custom Game Pass will be something we enable on a game-by-game basis, by looking for games that have been very successful in providing ongoing value to their community of players.
How much communication will there be between creators offering custom game passes and Valve/the Dota 2 team?
Valve: We work closely with many custom games authors today, providing API support, collaboratively tracking down bugs, and getting feedback to steer the feature set of the custom games platform. We expect that relationship to continue with all custom game creators, regardless of whether they choose to offer a Custom Game Pass or not.
ChalkyBrush: So far Valve has been incredibly responsive with me. I think it will be up to the creators to keep the requests or questions at a reasonable level.
Will Valve take a role in quality assurance, or will this be done differently—such as via community voting, a la Greenlight?
Valve: The community will naturally vote with their time and energy by choosing which games to play and how often—we've got pretty good data on that in aggregate. We'll use that data as a filter, and only Custom Games that are successfully providing value to an active community will be able to offer a Custom Game Pass.
ChalkyBrush: Valve will have some responsibility attached to the quality of premium custom games. It would however be extremely difficult to monitor the games once there are many available. For this reason I think there will need to be some community policing—perhaps a review system similar to Steam Games.
Are there restrictions on creators implementing 'pay to win' systems or aggressive monetisation mechanics like energy bars, etc?
Valve: If we see custom game developers designing Custom Game Pass rewards that are hostile to custom game players, we will work with the developers to improve their design. If necessary, we will remove the custom game's right to sell Custom Game Passes. We believe it's unlikely that custom game creators who have successfully created and continuously maintained a high-quality custom game would knowingly destroy both their game and their community with a badly-designed premium reward scheme.
ChalkyBrush: I personally hope so. I wouldn't like to see custom games drop to the level of money-grab mobile games. I have high standards for myself and Roshpit Champions and I would appreciate if peer games did as well.
What standard of customer support does Valve expect from creators who offer game passes? How will support be assessed, and what measures will be taken in the event that creators don't meet Valve's standard?
Valve: We expect creators will be motivated to provide a high level of customer service to their customers. A customer has only paid to support that creator for a month,so it's easy for a customer to decide not to support the game after the one-month pass expires—passes are not subscriptions and do not automatically renew.
ChalkyBrush: As said above a certain level of professionalism should be expected from custom game creators offering premium passes. Probably the most efficient way to assess it is through community reviews. As much as it puts the creators in a vulnerable position, I think Valve should have the ability to withdraw premium access at any time if the game no longer meets their quality standard. I think as long as the players are happy and sales are being made, Valve has no reason to stop a custom game from carrying on offering premium.
Will refunds be available if customers are unhappy with a custom game pass or the service they subsequently receive?
Valve: Yes, Custom Game Passes are refundable. Players have up to 48 hours after purchase to try out a Custom Game Pass and make sure it matches their expectations. We have a page that describes the refund system located here.
To editorialise briefly: Valve's answers suggest to me that they have learned from the mistakes of Skyrim paid modding and their plan for custom game passes seems sound. It's also notable that they have chosen to change the way they communicate about initiatives of this kind. In part, the drama of 2015 was caused by the fact that such a major set of changes were delivered out of nowhere and without external scrutiny. Dota 2's custom game pass seems like a smarter take on the same idea, delivered in a way that will hopefully avoid a repeat of history. Of course, as with Greenlight, custom games themselves, and any such initiative, the proof will be in the way the system develops when it is launched. Valve did not confirm an exact date for the debut of the Custom Game Pass, but expect it soon.
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