Monday, April 27, 2015

Money for Mods

Digital distribution platforms are a great way to get games fast and cheap, but they aren't without their drawbacks.  Regional restrictions are my personal pet-peeve.  Another common complaint I hear is the lack of curation.  Piles of shovelware aside, Steam had a recent Greenlight game that was actually outright malware.  It got taken down fairly quickly, thanks to an attentive user community, but the fact remains that Valve takes a sizable cut out of every sale and in return fails to provide much in the way of quality control.

The Better Business Bureau awarded Steam an "F" grade due to a consistent pattern of complaints with regards to customer service issues.  While this is a bit of speculation on my part, the shear amount of deceptively advertised and poorly made games on Steam is going to lead to a lot of people feeling burned when it comes to Valve's refund policy.  Heck, I've picked up more than a few PC games over the years that had un-resolvable hardware incompatibility issues.

Regardless, the big new smudge on Steam's somewhat already tarnished record is the introduction of paid mods.  Traditionally free, Valve has decided to allow mod makers to sell their work on certain games at a nominal fee.  Normally I wouldn't have a problem with this except the person who puts in all the time and effort only gets 25 percent of the proceeds.  The rest winds up in Gabe Newell's pocket or else in the hands of the original game creator.  Now, I know that a few readers here are thinking that the popularity of Steam will ensure sales figures that far outweigh losses from the middleman.  Possibly...but here's the thing, there's a huge amount of overlap when it comes to the modding scene.  What's going to happen when a free mod comes out that does practically the same thing as a paid one?  Are we going to see copyright claims being filed when a mod uses third part assets?  Can Steam be trusted to be a fair and impartial arbiter of these kinds of issues?

I don't really see who this business strategy is supposed to benefit.  "We'll get better mods," is a phrase I've seen bandied about the internet, but I think it's equally likely that all we're going to see is a bunch of overpriced cosmetic garbage (or worse still unofficial patches).  It certainly doesn't benefit the people who make mods.  The best way to help them out wold be to have a Steam Workshop integrated (ideally royalty-free) tip jar.  I don't think Valve or even the original game creators benefit all that much either.  Ignoring the bad publicity that has been going around, games like Homeworld Remastered, Total War and Kerbal Space Program sell as well as they do in large part due to the consumer expectation that lots of free mods will become available for them, thus improving the value proposition of the game's original price tag.  Without that free-of-charge community support, long-term sales figures on highly moddable titles will probably take a substantial dive.  Most people, after all, only have so much money they can spend on games...or mods as the case may be.

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