OPINION : Dear Bethesda, stop trying to commercialise the mod scene.

Sep
23

OPINION : Dear Bethesda, stop trying to commercialise the mod scene.

(Opinion pieces are just that, they are the opinion of a specific author, they are not representative of the views of the site, nor do they attempt to frame as fact the events described, they are merely the authors’ interpretation of said events, standard legal boilerplate we have to include with any op-ed piece, with that, let’s begin. – Hobbes).

Well, we all knew that this one was coming. Grab your hot choc and marshmallows and take up a pew.

Like most sites that have reported on this rolling pile of garbage, it was only going to be a matter of time before I decided to pitch a stump at the campfire, grab a pack of hotdogs, put a few on the fork and then warm them over the still roaring inferno that is Bethesda’s Creation Club. To say that this was a doomed venture from the start would be a slight understatement, the last attempt to commercialise the mod scene which happened over on Valves’ Steam platform went about as well as you’d imagine. That is to say, a massive dumpster fire which proceeded to roll downhill which spread contagion and disease wherever it went, with some modders even taking hiatuses from the mod scene after attempting to go fully commercial (whilst people are quite happy to countenance the concept of donations, and that’s a discussion which needs airing because the level of donations is not great, they still get some monetary return) and Reddit even coming up with r/modpiracy, not to mention a weekend where Valve’s customer support system literally had a cardiac arrest and waved the white flag under a tidal wave of complaints, refund requests and the like, well, Valve have decided not to bat for user-created content except in strictly controlled conditions. Conditions where it can absolutely guarantee interoperability and where the devs essentially sign off on the work as if it’s their own (say if it was entered in a competition) which limits it to models and skins.

At this point something of an uneasy peace descended on the mod scene, Nexus has been working on providing ways for mod creators to open up more ways to voluntarily monetise their work, and that has met with some success, modders have returned to the status quo, and everything has mostly returned to normal. There are still some very legitimate concerns about the fact that mods are becoming progressively more and more complex and are slowly moving from the realm of amateur to pro-am and soon may become the realm of strictly “casual professionals”, there may even become a cottage industry of people who work on modding games to improve their quality and appearance long after release as more and more games allow users to get under the hood and work on the games in a more in-depth manner. This, however, is much more “long-term” thinking and is more incumbent on the modders, developers and community to work together as a common goal entity. Problem is, some developers didn’t get the memo about the whole “working toward a common goal for the good of all”.

Enter Bethesda, who after the mess with Steam’s paid mod system, decide that no, one disaster isn’t good enough, they need two disasters on the board because clearly, shooting themselves in one foot isn’t enough, they have to go for gold and get both feet. Enter the Creator’s Club! A place where modders could submit “Mini DLC” (their words) and where you would get paid for your efforts in exchange for visibility and guaranteed interoperability (Bethesda would QA the work and make sure it works reliably on all platforms). Now the bit about professional QA I can get, and if they’d structured it in such a way that you could see how much money a mod would cost, and if the mods were all original, interesting, and added something to the game, then perhaps the Creation Club would have a justified argument for existing. Except that’s not quite how Bethesda envisaged the Creation Club. Bethesda decided that merely charging for the mods wasn’t good enough, no, they would abstract the purchases behind an “imaginary currency” which you would have to pay for first. This two-step process, which disassociates the real cost of purchase from the item you are buying is something that casinos perfected way back in the day by making you trade in your real money for poker chips, items which have no intrinsic value outside of the casino, and are far easier to gamble with than real, physical money.

This is how nearly all Free-To-Play currencies operate on mobile platforms and the idea is exactly the same, it makes it easier to spend in larger slices, and it’s always designed to leave you with “some leftover”, so say there are three items you want, and they all cost 750 of this funny money, the purchases will either be in 200, 450, or 950 units. So you can’t get the exact quantity, you’ll either pay over the odds or you’ll end up with currency left which you didn’t intend to have and that remainder will not add up to another purchase of 250, meaning you have to pay out more if you want to use up that spare change. It’s deliberate, it’s evil and it’s sheer genius, and it’s designed to hook into the same places that casinos and gambling hook into, and this is for selling mods (not getting into the whole loot box stuff, that’s a discussion for another time).

Then you get to the store itself, which by dint of selling items in this funny currency makes it hard to work out the “real cost” of the items you’re buying, it’s a lot easier to spend (and spend more) when you’re spending funny currency as opposed to money that comes out of your account. When you run out of this funny currency, you’ll be tempted to buy more, because you’ll not feel the immediate sting that comes with using money directly. Then we come to the real meat of the Creation Club. It’s not “mini DLC”, it’s mods, mods that you pay for. It’s a repackage of the paid mod system that was set up on Valve’s storefront, except now Beth doesn’t have to pay the thirty percent or so that Valve charges for storefront usage and more critically, Valve has no say in what revenue goes where. Bethesda gets to set the terms of the agreement and from what little has been hinted at, the terms sound very unfriendly to the modders in question. I can’t confirm (and from what I understand, nobody else can) the precise details but the vague arrangement goes thus – Bethesda pay you milestone payments up until the mod is released, Bethesda then take full IP control of the mod, and collect the full revenue share of all sales of the mod going forward. This means the modder gets a fixed payment, and Beth gets all the sales revenue, regardless of how much sales revenue that might work out to be.

Bethesda gets to set the terms of the agreement and from what little has been hinted at, the terms sound very unfriendly to the modders in question. I can’t confirm (and from what I understand, nobody else can) the precise details but the vague arrangement goes thus – Bethesda pay you milestone payments up until the mod is released, Bethesda then take full IP control of the mod, and collect the full revenue share of all sales of the mod going forward. This means the modder gets a fixed payment, and Beth gets all the sales revenue, regardless of how much sales revenue that might work out to be. Doesn’t take much to work out that if a mod is popular, this works out to be a very, very good deal for Beth.

On the technical side, because clearly, this manure spongecake needs more than a few layers, these mods are subject to a five thousand record limit, which means they’re unable to house a lot of the more complex mods that are the mainstay of the PC modding scene, things like Falskaar are right out for instance, because there’s simply no way you’d be able to package the mod into such a small space. Records are basically the points of data the mod needs to refer to, and you can use up a good number of them simply on re-texturing and remodeling existing items so they look better, or by adding in original items with new properties, let alone rich narrative quest chains with new NPC’s and the like. This means that the most you’re likely to see on the Creation Club is a singular original item, or a remake of an existing item, or simple fetch quests, nothing that drastically changes the game world, resulting in things which barely qualify as “mod”, more reskins of existing items, but you’re being charged for these reskins (which would have minimal impact on the base game) because Bethesda supposedly QA’s them.

You can see where this is going by now. I think everyone saw where this was going.

A badly implemented system with constraints that entirely limit modders abilities to create rich content for the platform with hostile policies in place by the platform owner who has used a mixture of the worst monetization systems in the hope they will game more money out of the people who might buy from said platform. Result? Big rolling inferno that has attracted criticism from just about everywhere on the internet ranging from SidAlpha to Jim Sterling to YongYea, there’s practically universal damnation, at least from outside the mainstream media outlets, places like Polygon (who won’t be getting a link) and RockPaperShotgun (your coverage too has been terrible, no link for you either) have been exceptionally light on the matter, lacking the kind of journalistic curiosity that would be warranted given the current sorry state of the Creation Club.

It’s not likely to improve either, with reports that the Club downloads all of the content available whether you’ve bought it or not (a problem that is likely to be fixed for PC but not for consoles), other reports that it scrambles existing mods, and generalised issues that simply isn’t even doing the one job that it’s supposed to do. This may well go down as one of the most impressive disasters Bethesda has managed to concoct, which is a crying shame because Death of the Outsider, DOOM, Prey and so on have all been remarkably excellent games under the Publishers watch. It’s genuinely amazing how they put out great games yet they screw up stuff like this with such magnitude.

Can Bethesda save the Creation Club? Possibly. It will take an awful lot of work, and a lot of PR damage control too because the initial design iteration has incorporated a lot of really bad decisions, decisions that would require some significant man-hours to address (such as disposing of the funny money so people can see the actual value of the things they’re buying). Improving the terms the Modders get as well might help, because as it stands most will likely stick with Nexus and the voluntary system which, whilst far from perfect, is light years better than the Creation Club.

Save or Quit was always envisaged to be more than just a review site, it’s also going to be a place where without fear or favour, pieces like this will pull up the rug on some of the less pleasant practices that are used by some of the bigger players in the industry, and then analysed (as I’ve done above with the micro-transaction mess). In the near future, we’ll be publishing more opinion pieces about these practices in an effort to shed some light where there apparently has been a bit too much shadow of late in the gaming industry.

– Hobbes

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About Hobbes

Hobbes / ThatFuzzyTiger / FelisCatus is one of the oldest members of SoQ, and is one part human, one part digital tiger. Likes Tuna. Spent a while working in some fun jobs, now catsits and reviews.

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