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‘Mods Going Retail.’ Sounds Fantastic, but at What Cost?

Discussion & Analysis Steam

Many moons ago, you might remember an article we posted about how Valve had given the Black Mesa team (now known as the Crowbar Collective) the opportunity to sell their mod as a full retail product. Despite announcing that a Source SDK 2013 version of Black Mesa would also be available for free, the announcement was met with mixed criticism. There was an overwhelming amount of support for the team, but there were a number of people who were concerned with what ‘ethical’ implications this choice to go retail might have. Should community made content that has always been available for free suddenly be given the chance to be monetized?

‘Mods Going Retail.’ Sounds Fantastic, but at What Cost?

You might say that “user generated content has been been monetized in Valve’s games for years! Everything from TF2 to CS:GO, to DOTA 2. This is hardly anything new!” This is indeed true. But those were all cosmetic items, not fleshed out gaming experiences like we see with Source mods and mappacks. That makes this a different, yet admittedly similar, subject altogether. “But Black Mesa is an exception! It’s a project that’s been in development for nearly a decade. It might as well be a major triple A title now.” Again, true, but what if I told you that they weren’t the only team given this opportunity?

A few months ago, Tripmine Studios, the team behind the Source remakes of Blue Shift and Opposing force (Guard Duty and Operation: Black Mesa respectively), announced that they had been contacted by Valve about having the option of selling their Greenlit mods on Steam. Though Tripmine has yet to announce a formal decision on the matter, it should be noted that if they choose to accept Valve’s offer, Source SDK 2013 versions of Operation: Black Mesa and Guard Duty will remain free to the public with the Steam versions running on the fully licensed Source Engine. Just as Black Mesa will have free and retail versions available. But, again, Tripmine has not made a decision on the matter as of the time this article was written. In the last couple of years, many classic Half-Life 2 mods have been licensed and sold on Steam: Dear Esther, Insurgency, Contagion (Zombie Panic Source), The Stanley Parable – just to name a few. Even the No More Room in Hell team was given the chance to go retail, however they declined.

Didn't see that one coming...

Didn’t see that one coming…

All of these titles were excellent as mods and full games, but it suggests that Valve has an increasing interest in the potential of mods becoming full-release titles. Of course it could just be that a whole bunch of mod teams decided they wanted to turn their labors-of-love into something that could help them put food on the table. Which is perfectly understandable and justified. But the fact that Valve has given multiple teams this same offer to release mods that are based on their own IP (Half-Life), raises one very interesting question: is Valve thinking of allowing modders the chance to sell their work? Could all these mods being sold on Steam lately really be Valve testing the waters for possible user interest in purchasing community made campaigns and modifications? It’s not even just conversion mods of Half-Life anymore. Just recently, the team behind the wonderful looking Portal 2 mod Aperture Tag: The Paint Gun Initiative has put their project on Steam for $7 ($4.89 until July 22).

Again, this is all purely speculation of course. Valve hasn’t publicly stated whether they have any intention of monetizing mappacks or mods, but their actions as of late suggest that this may be a possibility. Some people have been wondering how Valve may monetize Half-Life 3, if and when it releases, should they create some sort of marketplace for it. However, they could just as easily monetize it by selling it for $50 and raking in the substantial amount of cash it will inevitably make (just because marketplaces and monetization has been a thing at Valve for a while now doesn’t mean they will or have to do it for every single game they make from here on out). But that’s beside the point, the point is we know Valve has one or two new games in the lineup and this may be their way of seeing if this is how they can incorporate them into the Marketplace.

The release of Aperture Tag on Steam is the most interesting subject thus far. It isn’t a “total” conversion of Portal 2 (though it does a great job redesigning some of the mechanics). It isn’t exactly a full game, either. So the fact that it is getting the same treatment as the likes of Black Mesa or Guard Duty is peculiar to say the least. But in the grand scheme of things, was releasing it with a price tag on day one really the best idea anyway? I haven’t played the mod yet and, as a matter of fact, I think it looks like it could be quite good. So don’t misconstrue this as a mini-review/slam of the work put into Aperture Tag. For all I know, it is the greatest mod ever made and very deserving of its $7 price tag. But the problem with mods is…a lot of them aren’t very good. Again, that’s not to say Aperture Tag is terrible (I don’t know yet), but a lot of people know that the pool of community made mods is filled with a number of well-crafted gems swimming in a plethora of garbage.

The wonderful thing about downloading mods, however, is that whether they are good or bad, it doesn’t matter. Because they are FREE! You don’t lose anything if the product is bad except the loss of harddrive space, and that’s easy to get back. But if you release your mod with a price tag on day one, regardless of how good it looks in screenshots and slick, polished trailers, some people – many people – may be less inclined to play it as there is a pre-established risk of it not living up to expectations. Even if it really is good. Of course, you can say that about any game. But putting that price on your mod could very well scare off potential fans. Making it take longer to reach a wider audience. Not to mention the fact that hardly any mods work the way they should on release day. It’s inevitable, seeing as the teams likely only have so many people to test out their work. If your mod has any game breaking bugs, people who buy it will be left with an awful first impression. Thinking that this was supposed to be a final, polished product. Even if all the bugs get fixed by update two or three, you already have a number of day one purchasers who have no desire to look at the thing again and no kind words to say to their friends about it. It’s not like these teams have massive marketing departments that can convince a huge number of people to buy their games on day one.

mods going retail steam

Steam may not be the best place to first upload your mod just yet…


This is the benefit of sites like ModDb, GameMaps, or Planet Phillip. They are made up of a community that knows that no mod is likely going to be amazing on its first release. That’s why they leave feedback for the authors to help them improve their work and still be able to build support for it. Releasing something for people to buy off of Steam is likely going to result in them thinking the testing has been done and get understandably pissed when it turns out this isn’t the case. If you put your mod under Early Access, you might be able to get away with it. But that comes down to whether or not you think it’s right for someone to pay for an unfinished product that is an unofficial extension of an already complete, polished game that has hundreds of free mods already in its library.

One of the wonderful things about user generated content is that it has always been made out of love for the game or a desire to increase one’s skills in game development. Nothing more and nothing less. But allowing community developers the chance to receive compensation for all of their hard work is absolutely fantastic as well! And Valve have paved the way for plenty of people to turn their labors-of-love into major sources of income. On the other hand, they’ve made it very difficult for people to release this same content through the Steam Workshop for free. And downloading that content from third-party sites is more of a pain than it really should be. They already have two of their games on the Workshop that allow people the chance to share all of their content for no expense and it’s only made the communities for those games thrive even more. Almost as much as the communities for Team Fortress 2, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, and Dota 2 at the very least.

Portal 2, being one of these games; which they tried to monetize with hats for robots, only to find out that people hated the idea and then supported it with the puzzle maker and a Workshop publishing tool. And Left 4 Dead 2, where they had the opportunity to treat it the same way as TF2 and CS:GO by implementing a market well into its life cycle, but they didn’t. They supported skins, sound packs, scripts, maps and more through the Workshop for free. So we know it’s not only possible, but Valve are willing to do it. So out of all the items for sale across their three currently most popular games, why can’t users submit their content to be distributed for free if they so choose? Through Valve’s own very appealing and user-friendly service.

mods going retail csgo

CS:GO’s mappers got it better than most…


Thankfully, Valve has at least allowed mappers for CS:GO to upload their content without a pay-wall, but still find ways for them to “possibly” receive compensation if they become popular enough. But what if they start to allow mappers and modders the chance to upload their content to be sold from the start? What if they make it so that content can “only” be sold from the start? While the ability to receive some small compensation is nice (excellent even), the fact that Valve is making it increasingly more difficult for the community to distribute their content without painting dollar signs on it is somewhat disconcerting.

Should Valve devise a way for people to receive compensation for their maps and mods, hopefully it isn’t done at the expense of giving those creators the ability to distribute that content for free if they so choose. Not every modder wants to make money off of their work and they shouldn’t be forced to potentially limit their audience by slapping a price sticker on it either. Or put it on a third-party site where people have to hack their way into the game just to install a few sounds or some weapon skins. Valve’s system thus far for getting content to be sold through the store is for it to be 1.) approved for use in game and 2.) the item must first be upvoted on the workshop to even be considered for approval. These mods that have gone retail (such as Aperture Tag, Black Mesa, and Tripmine’s work [pending their decision on the matter]) were all Greenlit to go on Steam. So, at the very least, it seems Valve is considering making it so people can’t just post their content and expect to make half a million dollars. At least it appears that way at the moment.

mods going retail half life

God that’s a sexy image of the HEV suit…


It would be really nice to see Half-Life mods and the like get proper support on Steam Workshop. It would also be nice to see people who put so much hard work into their projects get a ‘little something for their trouble’ if they wish. I certainly can’t say I wouldn’t be tempted by the idea of releasing one of my mods and maybe make a few bucks off of it as well. But there really should be a criteria set up to make sure that fans can still enjoy these products without having to pay. One that doesn’t involve random ‘crate drops’. Even if that means making it so that the mods can be downloaded for free on Steam, but users have the option to donate some money to the author if they want to help support them and their future work.

One of the reasons Valve’s games have sold so well is that they have such a massive library of user generated content. To think you could spend $50-$60 on a game and then have hundreds, even thousands of mods and mappacks to choose from for years to come! But imagine you just bought that game and realized that all of those mods were $5-$15 a piece. Regardless of whether or not the creators wanted to sell their work in the first place. That game suddenly doesn’t look as appealing as it did before, does it? Sure it’s all still awesome. It’s a ton of (hopefully) awesome content and the money isn’t just going into some corporate guy’s wallet. That doesn’t mean it won’t leave a bad taste in your mouth. But this is all harmless speculation, of course. Surely Valve don’t want to limit the creative freedom of their content creators by forcing them to “sell” their work just to use the Workshop, do they?

1 Comment

  1. Really I feel as if it has to be evaluated on a case to case basis.

    Some mods feel almost AAA in quality, yet some stand alone titles feel as if they were low end mods.

    Doing QA for No More Room in Hell, the team made the correct decision to release for free.

    On the other hand, Contagion still has issues and doesn’t feel like it’s worthy of a “AAA” branding.

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