The shoe finally fell off Valve’s heavily cloaked foot this week.
The company, creator of the wildly popular digital PC gaming distributor Steam and a few great games, has long bathed in unparalleled secrecy despite living in a very loose-lipped video game industry. That may change, however, as a decision to spring a feature on millions of unsuspecting customers was met with a wave of online hatred that damaged public opinion and cost the company $1 million.
On April 23, Valve and video game publisher Bethesda Softworks joined forces to create a new system in which Valve’s Steam client, a one-stop shop for thousands of PC games and extra content, would allow those who modify Bethesda’s iconic “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim” to charge for their wares.
This modification, or modding, is one of the main tenants of PC gaming. Crafty gamers dissect a finished game’s code to add or subtract items, features, characters, levels — pretty much anything they want.
Modding has existed since the dawn of gaming — indeed, many game franchises were born this way. Like hacking in the early 90s, it enjoys this sort of underground communal mystique. The modding community tends to alter games to enhance it for themselves and others or show off their talents.
It is true, however, that many of the world’s richest men have cashed in hacker/modder mentality. Mark Zuckerberg was changing someone else’s program when he created Facebook, and Bill Gates started Microsoft by messing with an established computer product.
I imagine Valve was trying to encourage this entrepreneurial spirit among the modders by starting this program, which could theoretically net them some cash.
On Monday, Valve boss and founder Gabe Newell, lord of the gaming hermit czars himself, took to the popular social website Reddit to try and calm the storm. He countered the popular sentiment that Valve was only out to cash in wherever possible with some interesting rebuttals.
“Let’s assume for a second that we are stupidly greedy,” he wrote in his long stream of Reddit posts. “So far the paid mods have generated $10,000 total. That’s like 1% of the cost of the incremental email the program has generated for Valve employees. Yes, I mean (angering) the Internet costs you a million bucks in just a couple of days. That’s not stupidly greedy, that’s stupidly stupid.”
He went on to mention that he and other Valve employees received more than 3,500 emails each after the launch, forcing the company to invest in costly servers just to handle the volume.
By Wednesday, the paid mod system was dead. Those who bought mods were reimbursed, and a shockingly apologetic forum post explained that Valve had no idea what it was doing.
The weird thing about this entire four-day debacle is that the paid mod system was completely justified. It had merit.
“Skyrim,” already a vast and beautiful game, has some of the most unbelievable mods ever created. Living, breathing humans spent thousands of hours on some of these new and interesting ways to play one of the most popular role-playing games of the last 20 years.
I’ve seen mods that turn “Skyrim,” which was released almost four years ago, into the best-looking game on Earth. I even saw one that transformed the title’s snow-capped landscape into the brown, swampy marshlands found in 2002’s “The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind.”
This is next-level art. It has enormous value, and the artists deserved to be paid. Sure, there was a donation system, but how many people will pay for something that’s always been free without a little prodding?
Now, here’s where it gets dicey.
The modders were only entitled to 25% of the profits. That is unacceptable.
I understand that we are dealing with other people’s property here, and even Naughty by Nature knows that can be tricky.
But you can’t tell me that the creator of a product should get less than 50% of the proceeds, and you can’t get huffy when people accuse your company of greed when that fact becomes clear.
What truly miffed gamers, though, was the delivery. This major change to PC gaming culture was literally sprung on us overnight. We were not consulted or given any warning, and there was no real testing phase.
This is Valve 101. The company has always dictated its terms in such a fashion. Hush now, baby bird, and let momma Valve take care of you.
And it has fed us well. I will be the first to admit that Valve does know better than the community more often than not. The company also does a great job reacting to feedback, as we saw this week.
However, this blitzkrieg approach was bound to backfire at some point, and it finally did. Hopefully Valve never underestimates the power of nerd rage again.
I will be particularly interested to see what happens when the masses learn of a second program unveiled on Thursday, April 30, that allows developers to permanently ban players from playing their games online without needing a specific reason. The game creators simply tell Valve who to ban, and they are banned.
Why hasn’t anyone jumped on that? You can be part of the first wave. Fly my pretties, fly!