The pros and cons of Bethesda's Creation Club
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Nick Pearce is the veteran modder behind the award-winning, critically acclaimed Skyrim mod, The Forgotten City. He is currently working on a beautiful story-driven game to be announced in late 2017. For news and updates, connect with Nick on Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, or sign up to his mailing list here.
The pros and cons of Bethesda's Creation Club
On 11 June 2017, Bethesda announced Creation Club, a platform through which users on PC, PS4 and Xbox One will be able to purchase content for Skyrim and Fallout 4 developed in partnership between Bethesda and “the very best” third party content developers.
The announcement triggered immediate community concerns that Creation Club is just a rebranded “paid mods” system, which was announced and quickly cancelled back in 2015. However, a close analysis reveals the new system is significantly different. From the information available at present, some of the key differences are:
- “Paid mods” was uncurated, meaning anyone could sell anything for any price. Creation Club is to be curated by Bethesda, meaning content developers must submit a pitch to Bethesda for approval, and undergo quality assurance testing prior to release.
- “Paid mods” allowed content developers to set a price for their content, and receive 25% of the revenue. Creation Club involves Bethesda paying content developers an as-yet-unspecified amount, and selling content on Bethesda.net.
- “Paid mods” allowed content developers to sell content that had previously been free. Creation Club is limited to the creation of new content.
In light of ongoing community concerns and confusion around Creation Club and its relationship to “paid mods”, it’s timely to revisit the most common arguments for and against the monetization of third party content.
The arguments for the monetization of third party content
1. It’s inherently fair for skilled content developers to be paid for their work.
There is no human right more fundamental than the right to be paid for work. This should be self-explanatory, but here’s an illustration: Imagine your neighbor is an amateur handy-man and has made some modifications to your house for free because he enjoys it. Now imagine one day he says he’s started his own business and is going to start charging from now on. Your options are: (a) pay for his services, or (b) decline his services. No reasonable person could deny his right to charge for his services, simply because they used to be free.
2. The current system benefits everyone except content developers.
The current system is broken, in that it benefits everyone except the people doing most of the work. More particularly:
- Bethesda benefits commercially from third party content (even when it’s free) because its games attract a strong following thanks in part to the content that is available.
- Content users get to enjoy a massive amount of additional content.
- Third party content hosting platforms receive revenue from advertising.
- Streamers, who broadcast themselves playing Bethesda games loaded up with content, often receive advertising revenue and donations/subscriptions.
- Content developers lose money. This is because making content tends to take a lot of time, and time has a monetary value. To illustrate the point, content developer Jonx0r wrote that making celebrated Skyrim mod Wyrmstooth took him approximately 2,000 hours. He subsequently decided to quit modding because of the heavy toll his hobby had taken on his career.
3. Bethesda is entitled to introduce paid content.
From a legal or rights-based perspective, Bethesda is entitled to sell intellectual property which it develops jointly with content developers. On the other hand, the role of content users, as prospective purchasers, is limited to either buying content, or not buying it; they have no legal right to free content, nor are they entitled to decide whether content should be available for sale.
4. Creation Club will result in more and better content.
Economics 101 tells us that giving content developers a chance to profit from their work will help attract and retain talented people, and keep them motivated to do their best work. In a competitive marketplace, content users would “vote with their wallets” and reward Bethesda for commissioning good quality content, and penalize them for commissioning bad content. Over time these market forces would create an abundance of good quality content.
This system may even also allow some content developers to generate enough income that they could work on development full time, producing much more content than they could by working only in their spare time.
The arguments against the monetization of third party content
1. Bethesda will sell bad or overpriced content.
The argument goes that Bethesda will try to sell more horse armor DLC, or similar.
However, Economics 101 tells us that in competitive markets, bad or overpriced content generally doesn’t sell. Bethesda’s curation / quality assurance system should ensure bad content is never put on sale. In the case of overpriced content, very few content users would buy it. Bethesda would quickly recognize the need to lower its prices. Realistically, in a paid content system, consumers could collectively exert downward pressure on prices by refusing to pay for content until it came into an acceptable range.
Further, competitive online marketplaces tend to make it easy to browse for content by category, as well as promoting popular content on special lists (such as Steam’s “Popular new releases” and “Top sellers” list). Such features ensure that popular content receives extra attention, while bad content disappears into obscurity.
2. Developers will try to make low effort content.
The argument goes that developers will be lining up to pitch content that requires the lowest possible amount of effort, like retextures or new weapon models.
However, Bethesda's profit motive means it will have an incentive to respond to the desires of content users by carefully selecting the type of content it approves. It no doubt has excellent data already on the relative popularity of each different type of content. In other words, Bethesda will presumably be aiming to match supply with demand from content users.
3. This new content is just “mods” which aren’t worth paying for.
The argument goes that mods aren't worth paying for, for various reasons like quality and simplicity, and should be free.
However, there is very little difference between the work of professional game developers and highly skilled modders / content developers. The idea that one has value but the other has no value is a curious one. Ultimately, the value of something is determined by what people are prepared to pay for it, and since we know gamers in other communities (eg. Valve’s Team Fortress 2) have happily paid millions of dollars for third party content, we can expect there will be many gamers who are happy to pay for Skyrim and Fallout 4 content, even if others are not.
4. A better system would be a donations system.
The argument goes that content users can be trusted to donate to content developers via PayPal or Patreon, so it's unnecessary to put that content behind a paywall.
This is one of the more curious arguments, for two reasons:
First, this argument is usually presented as though a donations system would be a compromise between the current system, and the proposed system. In fact, there is already a donations system in place on the Nexus and it has been in place since before the paid mods system was introduced in 2015. The fact that so many opponents of paid content seem to be oblivious to the existing donation system is clear evidence they have never made a donation.
Second, no matter how good a content item is, the number of people who donate will be negligible. Skyrim mod “The Forgotten City” drew critical acclaim from IGN, PC Gamer, and Kotaku, was the first mod in history to win a national Writers’ Guild award, and was described by Skyrim Mods Weekly as one of the best Skyrim mods of all time, and yet fewer than 0.01% of users donated. In other words, continuing with the current “donation system” simply means that, in practice, over 99.99% of people would access the content for free.
5. Developers who want to monetize their content are just greedy.
The argument goes that content developers who previously worked for free are being greedy in seeking to monetize their work.
By way of background, in the “modding community” there are two groups of people:
- Content developers, a small group of people who create content in their spare time; and
- Content users, a large group of people who use the content of others but create no content.
An example of the relationship between those two groups is as follows: Of the 1.1 million people who downloaded the award-winning, critically acclaimed Skyrim mod, The Forgotten City, as of June 2017:
- Fewer than 5% of players “endorsed” or rated it;
- Fewer than 0.5% left a comment; and
- Fewer than 0.01% made a donation.
Hence, the idea that it is content developers here who are "greedy", and not those content users, who seek to deny content developers the opportunity to generate income from their largely thankless work, is a curious one.
In many cases, high-quality content takes hundreds or thousands of hours to create, as in the case of Wyrmstooth (2000 hours) and The Forgotten City (1700 hours). As above, this time has a monetary value. Allowing content developers to set a price for their work would give them a chance to recover some or all of the time/money they invested in their content. Further, it would allow them to pay the talented artists who contribute to their work, such as composers and voice actors.
6. Bethesda is just being greedy.
The argument goes that Content Club is a cash grab by Bethesda, which is just trying to make a profit from the work of other people, without creating anything new.
On the other hand, Bethesda is a company which exists for the purpose of making a profit. It is arguably reasonable for Bethesda to charge for additional content where it has invested heavily in the creation of that content by providing development tools, a platform for sharing content (which involves software engineers and servers and admin staff), paying staff to curate and test content, and developers to make that content.
7. Some people will steal content made by others and sell it as their own.
The argument goes that some developers will abuse the new system by selling content made by other developers.
However, Bethesda’s decision to curate content for Creation Club should ensure that intellectual property theft is rare, if not impossible. Presumably any theft would be fairly easy to prove and report, and anyone caught stealing a third party’s content would be identified and banned immediately.
8. People will just pirate content.
Many users have pointed to the risk of piracy in response to the unwanted monetization of third party content.
Some piracy is inevitable in the PC games market. And yet, the PC games market continues to thrive. Clearly, piracy is not a reason to shut down the market altogether. In any event, even if piracy became rampant on PC, it would be rare if not impossible on consoles, which would be a much bigger market in any case. Hence, the risk of content piracy has no relevance to whether or not Bethesda sells content.
9. Paid content will kill the collaborative spirit of the modding community.
This argument is based on the premise that there is a lot of collaboration and sharing of information between content developers, and the fear that introducing commercial competition may kill that collaborative dynamic.
To see whether commercial competition kills collaboration and information sharing, we need only look at the indie games industry, where developers form extensive networks and exchange information regularly, even though they are technically competitors. Sharing information is a common way of increasing one’s profile and extending one’s network. Clearly, a profit motive hasn’t stopped this exchange of information in other communities, so there’s no reason to think it will do so in a Creation Club system.
It may even be that new forms of collaboration emerge: the potential for profit may drive enterprising content developers to band together into teams. Since collaboration and the division of labor makes projects more efficient, teams of professional content developers would be able to create more content, more often than they could working as individuals.
10. Content developers who want to make money should just get a job in game development or make an indie game.
The argument goes that modding is only a hobby, albeit one that may lead to a career in the game development industry.
However, for many content developers, a career in game development is simply not a viable option. Reasons for this depend on the individual, but some common ones include:
- there are simply not enough jobs at attractive studios like Bethesda for everyone to work there;
- game development companies are renowned for offering unattractive working conditions;
- many content developers live in countries (ie. outside the US) where game development industries are not well developed, and can’t or don’t want to relocate; and
- indie game development is a speculative way to make a living.
11. Content developers should just make content for fun.
The argument goes that since modding is fun, and so many people have done it for free, it's not real work and no reward is necessary.
However, content developers make content for their own reasons – whether it’s fun, or learning, or a creative outlet, or an intellectual challenge, or to create a folio piece that might land them a job one day. Whatever their reason, the fact that somebody enjoys their work doesn’t diminish their right to charge for it.
12. “I’m a modder and I don’t want to charge for my work.”
The TES Renewal Project team has already tweeted that it will not monetize the eagerly awaited Skyblivion and Skywind projects.
No content creators will be forced to charge for their work, and there are valid reasons why individual content creators might want to make their content freely available. In fact, there is a movement within the modding community called "Forever Free" in which some content developers have pledged to make their content available for free indefinitely. A certain number of developers offering their content for free would be one way of ensuring prices for comparable content remain low. Free content and paid content are entirely compatible. One developer’s desire not to charge for their content is not a reason to oppose the right of others to charge for theirs.
13. Developers may not provide tech support for their content.
The argument goes that third party content will be buggy and purchasers will not receive the tech support they expect in respect of a commercial product.
Creation Club appears to have been set up to minimize issues with the quality of content, by introducing quality assurance and testing phases by Bethesda itself. It may also be that Bethesda provides some form of technical support in relation to paid content, although that remains to be seen.
14. Some content items require other content items/software to work.
An historical argument against monetization of content is that complexities arise when content items depend on other content to work. It remains to be seen how Bethesda deals with such dependencies in Creation Club. However, in a scenario where both content items are for sale, presumably content users would need to either buy both, or neither.
However, in some cases, content is dependent on software which is technically not a mod and/or not for sale, for example, the Skyrim Script Extender (SKSE). The common argument goes that it’s unfair for content developers to make money from their content when the makers of SKSE don’t make anything. This argument overlooks the fact that the creators of SKSE have stated they were comfortable with paid content being dependent on SKSE. However, since SKSE (or its equivalent for Fallout 4) will reportedly not run on consoles, presumably Bethesda would not approve content which depends on SKSE. It is entirely possible to make high quality, complex content that is not dependent on SKSE.
As we have seen, there are many compelling arguments in favor of the monetization of third party content: it's inherently fair for people to be paid for their work, the current system benefits everyone except content creators, Bethesda is entitled to monetize content, and Creation Club should result in a new wave of high-quality content.
On the other hand, it appears none of the 14 common arguments against paid content stand up to critical evaluation. Why, then, do these arguments persist? Perhaps these arguments are simply rationalizations put forward to justify a perceived entitlement to free content. It is understandable that content users, many of whom have enjoyed the privilege of free content since as far back as 2002, would want it to continue. Perhaps they have become so accustomed to this privilege that they now perceive it as an entitlement, and see the introduction of Creation Club as an attempt to take that entitlement away.
The truth is, of course, that nobody is entitled to free access to the work of other people. Bethesda and content developers are, and should be, entitled to decide what happens with the content they create. If Bethesda is able to weather the storm of controversy, and offer fair remuneration to content developers, Creation Club will be a win for content developers, a win for content users looking for more high-quality content, and a win for Bethesda.