Mods really are amazing. Armed with nothing but a cracked DOOM client and the sheer power of fandom, gamers back in the 1990s started something amazing: they took the confusing, technical, and business-based world of gaming, and gave power back to the people.

It started with custom maps and re-textures. ‘ORIGWAD’ was a very early one- but as the games changed, so did the mods. Fast forward two decades, to 2011; and people are still playing DOOM. They pick apart and rebuild the game like clay, forming online deathmatches, reskins, and countless additional, custom-made levels. But the king of modding is no longer ID Software. Nope, that title goes to Bethesda Game Studios. And they’d just released their most successful game yet- ‘The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim’.

But why are mods so important? Let’s pause for a moment to think about what Modding means. With mods, the player takes control of the game. They see what they love- the characters, the gameplay, the look and artistic design- and they tweak and build upon it to create their own unique version of it. With mods, you don’t have a single, immutable version of the game. Instead, you have a canvas.

Sure, many people associate ‘modding’ with the act replacing Dragons with ‘Macho Man Randy Savage’. Understandable. It’s the silly stuff that pokes out. But Modding is so much more than that- it is a fundamental paradigm shift between developer and player. In a way that cannot be found anywhere else, players share creative ownership with the developers of the games they play. Remember that- it’s important.

The things modding achieved in this new ‘Skyrim’ sandbox alone were astounding. From the purely technical- such as SkyUI and Unofficial Patch, which surpassed the programming skills of Bethesda’s own team, to places and characters- Falskaar and Inigo come to mind- more lovable than the vanilla game’s own. From the moment the creation kit hit steam, the game was forever changed from a 100+ hour Role-Playing game to a 1,000+ hour game creation sandbox.

The best modders weren’t just hobbyists, but rather amateur game developers in their own right, greatly topping the work of the actual level designers, artists, and programmers that worked for Bethesda. All done on a $0 budget. Working full-time, it wasn’t possible to imagine what potential these individuals had to create new experiences inside the pre-made confines of a video game. It was, truly, art. The mainstream gaming press rarely made mention of these artists, however, instead only really mentioning the silly or otherwise outlandish mods from time to time as a way to generate clicks- the issue of payment was practically never discussed in the press, and so the gaming public never really thought about it, outside of the odd reddit comment thread.

For years, this continued unhindered, nary a bump in the road. Those were the golden years, as far as the comfortable enjoyment of this wondrous community was concerned. But then, two of the most loved figures in the games industry, Todd ‘God’ Howard and GabeN himself, announced a whole new system. Paid mods on the steam workshop. The combination of mods and money has always been a controversial one, with the debates that did take place often heated and polarising.

Safe to say, the paid mods system failed miserably. The backlash from consumers was as torrid as it was hilarious- from $999 mods that added realistic genitals to the game’s horses, to whole subreddits full of enraged fans. People were pissed off. This came from two main areas: some were offended at the fact that the mod-makers were paid a paltry fraction of their income, but most were simply offended that paid mods simply existed. They hated that there was now a part of the sub-culture that wasn’t available to them for free, and the outrage was staggering.

The system was discontinued after only a few days, but the damage was massive. Bethesda had, in one fell swoop, done more to damage the future of the modding scene than anything else had, ever. ‘Paid mods’ was a mainstream term amongst PC gamers. And public opinion was now firmly set to ‘against’.

The damage to the bethesda fanbase was also devastating. What had previously been one of the most loving and dedicated fanbases in the industry was suddenly torn- because, in essence, Bethesda had sold their trust in an attempt to make a quick buck. Zero communication of intent, no warning, no public discussion. Just “Mods can cost money now. Deal with it.” The potential inherent in paid mods had been squandered. The professionally-made ‘Skywind’-esque mods would never come within this system. The chance was lost, and the unthinking public had been led by the nose to hating the idea by Bethesda themselves.

Fast forward to E3 2017, however, and we see that Bethesda are giving it another go. ‘The Creation Club’, they called it. A new system which combined the efforts of modders under the close supervision of Bethesda’s own staff, with the idea being to provide ‘Mini-DLC’ packages. Personally, I was skeptical, but not against the idea. I wanted paid modding to succeed after all.

Unfortunately, when the club launched (for Bethesda’s other huge modding baby, Fallout 4), it was a shambles. The ideal situation would have been bethesda-moderated, but largely fan-made DLC packages ranging from high-quality armour and weapon packs to full-blown new lands mods on par with ‘Nuka World’ and ‘Dragonborn’.

What we got was the option to pay money for tiny assets, like Pip-boy retextures or a recreated lower-quality version to what already existed for free. They even added a ‘Horse Armour’, to about zero laughs. What’s more, Bethesda implemented strangling file size limits which meant that nothing more significant could be even added to the game if the modder wanted. The files pre-loaded, filling your PC or Console with unwanted junk files. The club even manipulatively used a premium currency instead of real money to mask the real costs of the mods, and all of these issues on top of the pre-existing shambles of the console modding experiment combined into a broken mess of a marketplace.

This wasn’t Bethesda bridging the gap between amatuer game fiddle-ing and professional game development. This wasn’t Bethesda creating a marketplace for talented amateurs to sell their wares. It also wasn’t Bethesda creating a new miniature industry, one which would have revolutionised the way games were made, and work in the industry acquired.

What this was, was Bethesda adding buggy micro-transactions into Fallout 4 and palming the job of creating the content off to a once-proud community of modders. Bethesda have done it a second time- they’ve betrayed the most dedicated of their fans turned collaborators. They slaughtered the ‘paid mod’ golden goose. They smothered a home-grown industry in its crib. And, ultimately, they have set back our industry ten, perhaps even twenty years.

In an industry ruled by clueless executives demanding the creation of endlessly repetitive sequels, blatant extortion of the consumer, and creative stagnation before unseen in video games, a proper paid mod marketplace would have given power back to the little guy.

I still believe in the dream- I still believe in that stage between hobbyist and game developer. There is still belief in the idea that one should be able to make it into the games industry by sheer force of will and raw talent, and I still believe that artists who make art should be allowed to make a living from their art. I will never give up on that dream.

I hope you won’t either

  • Will Jones