Finally, the moment that Fallout 4 modders and players have been waiting for: as promised, Bethesda has released the Creation Kit1, allowing modders access to the same tool used by Bethesda’s own design and development teams.

While the news may sound good to gamers and modders–particularly for console gamers, who are still waiting on mod availability for their versions of Fallout 4–there is more than meets the eye with the Creation Kit’s launch. Along with the Kit, gamers will have to install mods directly through the game from bethesda.net, where modders will go to upload their creations. This change, while it sounds incredibly convenient, raises a few red flags. It was only last year, after all, that Bethesda tried selling community-made mods, for the first time in the company’s history, to disastrous effect.2 Less than a week into the release, after a huge uproar from gamers and modders, the company pulled the plug on the scheme, which would have seen 75% of the money made by modders go to Bethesda and Valve.

Over at Nexus Mods, the main hub for downloading mods for games released by Bethesda and other publishers, the conversation about the Creation Kit’s release is mixed, with some commentators raising a soft alarm, and others fully excusing the company’s actions, with some caveats. (Most, of course, simply raise technical issues caused by the update.) Summing up what may very likely become the future of Fallout 4 mods, Travis999 writes, “To all the Bethsoft fanboys…don’t be surprised when suddenly you have to pay a monthly subscription to Bethesda to keep your game up to date.” Indeed, with mods hosted on bethesda.net, what’s to stop the mammoth publisher from slowly cultivating a modding community and collection to rival Nexus Mods, then update the EULA to forbid distribution of mods outside of bethesda.net, effectively killing the competition? The way will be paved for them to start charging for mods, which any fool can see is the future of gaming, if the evolution of nickle-and-dime DLC’s is any indication. Bethesda is, after all, one of the worst, albeit not the worst, DLC-pimping offenders.

ErosLogos’ response in the Nexus Mods thread is as insightful as it is disturbingly cynical (emphasis added)3:

I do agree that they are scummy as a company, but what I am criticizing is people’s expectations that a profit-making company can behave in any other way.

I do, however, praise its creative staff and largely stick up for their programmers; they’re both doing as well as can be expected laboring under Bethesda’s management, who have goals that inherently conflict with theirs.

…As for dirty sales techniques? No such thing as a dirty sales technique; capitalism is an inherently underhanded and dishonest system. As long as it isn’t explicitly illegal, anything goes. It’s the name of the game.

…Personally I am against paid mods, but look at it this way: they’re hosting bethesda.net mods on their servers–servers that they own. You’d only access them with their permission; their servers are their property. In addition, modders’ content is only hosted there with Bethesda’s permission. Content must comply with their rules, which they are in their rights to set. They are well within their rights to start charging access fees to users and rent to modders; considering that the server load and the costs of upgrading to something that can handle it, it would make sense from their perspective. Besides, modders might want to be compensated; even if it is a hobby, it is a time- and labor-consuming one. It’d be nice to be paid for their work, don’t you think?

But I am against paid modding. Just pointing out that there is a solid case for it.

This response, which is the latest permutation of a common thread in these types of discussions, touches on the dark side of modding, but still only scratches the surface. While gamers can rejoice at the richness that mods bring to their gameplay experiences, and while modders can both express and revel in the outcomes of their creativity, the underbelly of modding consists of the exploitation of hundreds of thousands of free labor hours in order to enhance a company’s product. Gamers purchase titles in series well-known for their splendid mods precisely because they know that the mods will make the games an incredible experience that will only continue to get better at no extra cost. In other words, mods represent value added to the product, and Bethesda’s games, bug-riddled as they always are, are designed precisely with this context in mind.

Indeed, instead of fixing their games’ infamously persistent bugs, Bethesda repeatedly focuses on releasing DLC’s, leaving modders to plug the holes. Hence the Unofficial Morrowind Patch, Unofficial Oblivion Patch, Unofficial Fallout 3 Patch, Unofficial Skyrim Patch, and Unofficial Fallout 4 Patch. See a pattern, here? That’s a decade of Bethesda management’s “let the modders fix it” attitude–and over 1.56 million downloads. As a result, the company exports a huge amount of work to an unpaid labor pool, when basic and well-known bugs ought to be fixed in-house, de facto. Some advocates for paid mods argue that this is precisely why mods should be paid for, and their creators compensated. However, there are at least two major problems with this model:

  1. Paid mods would make games even more expensive than they already are. You used to be able to get a AAA title for $60, and now it typically costs $150 with all of the DLC’s, if not more. What should the ceiling be for the price of a game? With paid mods, the sky’s the limit.
  2. Valve argued, in response to the Skyrim paid mod fiasco, that they wanted to “allow mod makers the opportunity to work on their mods full time if they wanted to.” While this sounds nice at first glance, and it certainly does, the real-world effects need looking at. Transforming a hobby into a full-time profession in such a way that workers only receive payment when the product sells would create an extremely precarious workforce with absolutely no benefits or job security. Even if the mods are successful, creators would still take a vanishingly small percentage of the cut, and it is a certainty that hundreds or even thousands of hopeful modders would compete for funds that they would never receive.

In their response, Valve cited previously successful mods, which went on to become some of the biggest hits in gaming–Dota, Counterstrike, DayZ, and Killing Floor. How often do mods become household names of the PC gaming world? You could count them on one hand. While Valve and Bethesda have consistently put out incredible games for decades now, their stance on paid mods is questionable (again, highlighting the yawning gap between management policy and the people actually making stellar games). Obviously the concept of modding, of pouring free labor into a paid product, carries with it a set of specific internal contradictions (like anything else), and there’s no easy solution that makes everyone happy. For the time being, short of total revolution and eating the rich, the best solution is to let the companies continue selling DLC’s and to let the modding communities do what they do best–for free. We can only hope that at least the latter continues.

  1. Presumably Bethesda renamed the G.E.C.K. in order to make it more sensible to use with Skyrim.
  2. Actually, the timing is almost to the day. Is this Bethesda’s way of not-so-subtly telling us that they intend to plod forward with their scheme to milk modders for more money?
  3. The text has been edited to remove grammatical and punctuation errors.