J*Rod

The Silent Catalyst

Mod Workshop: Why Steam's Model Didn't Work

Mods are an integral part of the video game community. Always have, always will. Especially these days, when most games today run off of engines licensed from someone else.

So when Valve announced the ability for Steam Workshop mods to make money, but chose The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim to start it off, I was more than a little skeptical. And so did everyone else. Here’s why.

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What Makes a Mod

The term “mod” is loose enough to be applied to a lot of aspects of games, but it’s usually used in one of two contexts:

  1. Total conversions
  2. Any custom content

And that’s where the confusion begins.

When defending the motive behind the original move, employee Alden Kroll (who incidentally specializes in UI design) explained that Valve “wanted more great mods becoming great products, like Dota, Counter-Strike, DayZ, and Killing Floor”.

But each of those titles listed are what we call total conversions, which are mods that not only change the gameplay, but change the entire experience to the point that it’s essentially a game unto itself. Even a title like Garry’s Mod, which is essentially a Lua wrapper on top of Source, stands tall on its own despite not needing much more than two custom maps and a depot mount.

Steam Workshop, on the other hand, isn’t designed for total conversions. It’s designed for custom content of all kinds. Models, sounds, animations, levels, cheats, you name it. Even the kind of copyrighted stuff that blatantly breaks submission rules manages to sneak in. But while these mods can each completely change the feel of a game, they don’t stand tall enough on their own to be total conversions. They’re merely there to make the dreary, familiar game more interesting.

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The Nitty-Gritty

The reason that items in Team Fortress 2 and Dota 2 work with a price tag is because they’re simply that: items. These things are designed to be crafted, traded, admired, and most of all, used. They compliment the existing gameplay rather than change it, and they are chosen wisely to fit that role.

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Skyrim mods, by contrast, sit in the awkward middle ground of partial conversions, which can significantly change gameplay or aesthetic, but nonetheless remind you that you’re still playing that same game. It would take an entire collection of mods from different creators to make it feel completely fresh, if schizophrenic.

Partial conversions can be found all over the workshops of different games, as well as in server-side plugins. SourceMod, one of the most popular game server addons in the world, is the framework for tons of custom gamemodes like Prophunt and GunGame, which still clearly run on top of the existing game.

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But you won’t see a Prophunt server hidden behind a paywall. And you wouldn’t want to see custom levels do it either.

Where Are They?

The reason you don’t see very many total conversions around is quite simple: game development is hard. Those running on top of engine code aren’t exactly compatible with the system Steam Workshop has, and the few total conversions you do see on there are essentially entire games scrounging on meager scripting resources and limited asset handling.

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The only notable total conversion for Skyrim is Enderal, which according to its website has been in development for over 22,000 man hours. It’s being made by German studio SureAI, who were behind the acclaimed Oblivion total conversion Nehrim.

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You know where you see a lot more of them? Steam Greenlight. That’s where mods like The Stanley Parable go for their shot at a big payday, and they are welcomed with open arms alongside every other game.

But even with the change of scenery, the final hurdle in the path... is licensing.

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