Editorial

Are Publishers Taking Too Much Advantage of Modders?

Are modders hurting games?

Just asking that question leaves a bad taste in my mouth (and a target on my back). We all love mods, myself included. It’s one of the biggest appeals of PC gaming. Mods can add expansive, appealing content like new weapons and armor, new characters, even new zones. They can be serious in tone or lighter, making a dire game downright silly. After all, who doesn’t want Thomas the Tank Engine in their Skyrim game?

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Does this look like the face of mercy?

Mods can even patch broken features, fixing issues in a game that the developer can’t. Or won’t. And here’s where we start running into trouble. At what point do modders start doing the publishers’ jobs? And at what point do publishers just…let them?

Let me get one thing straight off the bat, any criticisms I am about to level at modding in general are not aimed at modders. I know modders are passionate about what they do. Most of them do it for love of a game or gaming in general, or to challenge themselves in a field they hope to one day be employed. I hold no contempt for modders and love what they do.

But when I see modders doing the work that publishers should be doing, I just worry a bit that these hard-working, dedicated souls are going to be taken advantage of and downright abused. This was an underexplored consequence of the Steam paid mods fiasco several months ago. I have no qualms about modders getting paid for their work. I take umbrage at Steam and Bethesda getting paid for the modders’ work, however, particularly at the split that was being offered. Especially when some of that work fixes bugs, improves graphical quality in their games, etc. You know, things we would expect Bethesda to do for the price of admission that we’ve already paid.

But Bethesda isn’t nearly the worst offender in this regard. In fact, I rather like Bethesda as a company. No, for me, the worst example of this is EA.

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Challenge everything…except our undying hatred of your terrible business practices!

I’m a huge fan of the Sims. There. I said it. Revoke my hardcore gamer license. Part of it is because no other company will touch the “life sim” genre. So the Sims has no competition for me to turn to when it continuously kicks me in the crotch and makes me beg for more. The Sims is far from perfect, but it’s the only thing I’ve got to scratch that particular itch.

The Sims 4, however, finally broke me of this habit by stripping away just about every aspect of gameplay we’d gotten used to and throwing us very little “new” in return. I think almost all of what the Sims 4 gave us could have been done in an expansion for the Sims 3, but that’s neither here nor there.

Anyone who has played the Sims as much as I have knows that to enjoy the game to its fullest, mods are needed. My experience with the Sims 3 was so intensely enhanced by mods that I doubt I would have played it at all without them and my game would have been all but unrecognizable to someone who didn’t use mods.

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And of course watching your Sim pee, which is of dire importance.

The Sims 4 is turning out to be no different with mods already being released that add playable schools to the game, colleges, hotels, apartments, traits, jobs…mods are expanding on a game that even many hardcore fans were complaining was bare bones right out of the box. Mods are adding things that we traditionally associate with expansion packs from EA themselves.

But at what point are these modders hurting the games that they love? I readily admit that I would have stopped playing the Sims 3 months, maybe even years before I finally uninstalled it for good. That means EA got a lot more money from me, not because of any hard work on their part (in fact, they all but refused to acknowledge some long-running and persistent bugs in the game) but because of the (free) work of some diligent modder (love you Pescado and Twallan). I’m not sure if I’m up to the point where I think EA is consciously banking on the hard work of these hard-working few, but they certainly are reaping the benefits when the answer to “how do you fix this bug in the game?” usually results in a response of “download this mod.”

And honestly, it really wouldn’t surprise me to find that they are consciously reaping the benefit of these mods and putting off the “free” work of fixing the problems in their game in lieu of delivering us more methods to suck our wallets dry. Before you scoff, let me remind you that Warner Brothers’ response to the buggy Arkham Origins’ PC release was to tell us they were too busy working on more DLC to fix the problems. It was only after Steam had a refund policy in place that they were suddenly on the side of the angels with the abysmal Arkham Knight PC release.

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Maybe Batman’s new crusade should be to avenge the credibility of his games’ PC ports.

I’m not entirely sure where I’m going with this. I know EA threw those of us who bought the Sims 4 a bone with some free extra content, but all of those things were stripped from the game and were gameplay features we’d come to expect from the base game experience…except toddlers, of course, which are still absent and still one of the most widely-requested features. And even still, this felt more like a desperate attempt to silence the waves of displeasure at the bare bones experience they delivered to us in the latest installment of their much-beloved yet highly-abused franchise. And the fact still remains that some of the best and most innovative features of the game come from modders, not EA. And, like the Sims 3’s underwhelming story progression, modders are still expanding and improving on EA’s own gameplay mechanics.

Which means EA won’t have to.

Of course, I think it’s silly to beseech modders to stop doing what they’re doing and I would never do that. That is not a world that I want to live – or game – in. Modders add countless hours of fun to games that we already love and, at its core, there’s nothing wrong with that deal. I love the idea that we can get more out of games than we could have years ago. And some of the mods are such high quality that they put the original work done by the game’s team to shame (which is a fact worthy of some scorn in and of itself).

But in an industry where EA feels like it’s ok to completely strip down one of its biggest franchises every decade or so and sell it back to us piecemeal, where DLC and expansion packs are becoming so ubiquitous that we’re almost disappointed if we don’t hear news of one months after a game’s release, I worry that developers are going to start quietly leaning more and more on modder support to provide the experiences that they can’t…or won’t.

What about you, esteemed reader? Do you think I’m being tin foil hat-wearingly paranoid? Or do you agree that modders make it so developers can get away with doing less? Do you feel like developers are or will start abusing modders? What about Steam’s much-maligned attempt to charge for mods? Sound off in the comments below.

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3 comments

Nickolaidas August 18, 2015 at 11:53 am

I don’t think that Bethesda made Skyrim a walking mess of bugs because they rely on their modding community to sort (most of) them out. I think they made it a mess of bugs for the same reason Arkham Origins was a mess of bugs. Lack of time they had (or allowed to have) because of other projects and because they suck donkey d&$k at bug-testing. Bad publicity is bad publicity and a game crashing or freezing after five minutes won’t make its buyers forgive the publishers because ‘mods are on the way’.
CD Project makes tons of bug fixes and I love them for that, but I’m starting to feel they’re doing it to keep their “we care” status in the minds of gamers. Or because they have a lot more spare time. Either way, I doubt they’re saints. Witcher 2 had DRM but after the negative backlash they made it DRM-free and even went to the point of saying that “DRM doesn’t help piracy”. The thing is that they didn’t remove DRM because they don’t agree with the principle; they removed it because it didn’t effin’ work. Think of it as saving a guy’s life, not because you think it’s the right thing to do, but because you estimate that he will introduce you to his hot daughter you’ve been watching and help you marry her.
Or look at Capcom’s Street Fighter V DLC policy – they’re not doing it because they’re awesome guys, they’re doing it because their credibility and fame took a major hit with the utter craptastic DLC policies they had in the past five years.
But anyway, I doubt that companies rely on modders to help them sell their copies. Mods are usually released far after the publisher takes note of how many copies the game sold and is rarely affecting sales. Never once did I buy / didn’t buy a game based on its mod support. But maybe that’s just me. And seriously, if you check Bethesda’s track record in the Elder Scrolls series, you’ll see that they suck bigtime in bugtesting or engine flaws.
Long story short: I think that yeah, you are a bit paranoid, but I completely understand your ‘suspicions’.

Whimsy August 26, 2015 at 11:39 am

Thanks for the response. I probably am a bit paranoid, but I think this problem (if there is a problem) is more in the future than in the past. I certainly don’t think Bethesda had much of an inkling about the modding support Skyrim would get (and you’re right, the bugs for that game were probably not left in with the hope that someone else would fix it), largely because Skyrim seemed to start, at least in my eyes, a renaissance of modding. I know mods have been big for awhile, but they really seemed to explode when Skyrim came out. Or maybe I just started to notice them more, it’s hard to say.

But for me, it feels like mods are becoming much more ambitious and even ubiquitous now, so I worry more about this becoming a problem in the future. I don’t think we’re there yet and I don’t know if we ever will be, but I keep seeing really ambitious Sims 4 mods and think to myself, “Well, this is another thing EA probably will never give us. Why would they?”

Nick Bäsler Spires August 18, 2015 at 4:02 pm

As the industry makes me more cynical every day, I wouldn’t put it past certain devs and publishers to release unfinished games so modders can “complete” them for free.

Comments are closed.