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29 July, 2015

Is Sprked the Solution to Valve's Paid Mods Scandal?

From the ashes of the paid mods inferno comes the spark of an idea, inspired by Patreon?

The recent controversy surrounding Valve's implementation of paid mods into its digital games service Steam has highlighted the passion of the modding community. The backlash concerning the division of revenue was particularly severe, and it's not hard to see why. With only 25% of the money going to the developers of the mods and the rest split between Valve and the original game's publisher, the scheme seemed designed to profit existing companies, rather than reward the individuals producing new content. For a modder to make a dollar for every mod they sell,they would need to charge gamers $4 as $3 of it they'd never see. The incentive is then for them to sell their mods at heavily inflated prices, just so their cut equates to more than a pittance. Not exactly a desirable outcome for modders or gamers.

Also Read: From Mods to Millions - The Four Demons Valve's Paid Mods Plan Must Slay

Given the impassioned outcry, it's not surprising to see that alternative systems are cropping up. One such venture is Sprked, a financial support system similar to the popular service Patreon. For those unfamiliar with Patreon, it is a subscription-based system for content creators that acts kind of like an online tip jar, where fans are able to pledge any amount of money they desire to the makers of their favourite content. Pledges are usually made on a periodic basis - every week, every month, or every time a new piece of content is released. Subscriptions can be cancelled at any time, meaning fans are never bound to their donations should circumstances find them unwilling or unable to continue pledging support. Like Kickstarter, there are multiple tiers of support: $1 a month might get you early access to the creator's content, while $3 might net you an exclusive invitation to a bi-monthly Google Hangouts chat with the creator as well as a shout-out at the end of their weekly podcast.

As with all crowdfunding services, Patreon relies on small contributions from a large number of people. It banks on the fans' desire to show their appreciation and enable creators to continue doing what they love. The periodic payment system benefits both gamers and creators, giving the former the freedom to adjust their level of support on the fly and in response to malleable circumstances, while providing the latter with a regular income not too dissimilar to a salary - a marked advantage over the once-off payment model of Kickstarter. Patreon has proven incredibly empowering for many content creators, with notable internet personalities Jim Sterling and Kinda Funny Games finding overwhelming success by interfacing directly with their fans.

Patreon's power lies in facilitating the work of creators with strong, passionate fanbases. Modding, as we've seen, is a practice predicated on a loud and proud community. Sprked aims to fuse the two together by offering that same Patreon support model exclusively for modders. Crucial to its mission statement is the retention of the free distribution model; the mods themselves remain completely gratis, with pledges serving to express gratitude and support for the development of further updates and future endeavours. Unlike Kickstarter or Valve's payment scheme, the pledge system makes it clear that fans are donating their money rather than explicitly purchasing or investing in a product. This helps avoid the problem of buyer's remorse, and eliminates issues such as piracy and illegal collaborations (more on those in my previous article). By crafting a system of appreciation and support that acknowledges the loyalty of the modding community, Sprked has the potential to promote and foster the creativity that is so integral to modding, instead of hampering it with the murky baggage of a mandatory economy.

Sprked has admirable ambitions. It's only early days in the service's life - much too soon to predict whether it will see similar success to Patreon and Kickstarter - but it already exhibits greater awareness of its demographic's attitudes than Valve's botched attempt. Its 5% operating fee is the same as Patreon, meaning modders are not left out in the cold; a 95% return is a whole lot better than 25%. Its existence parallel to the actual distribution of the mods protects the status quo and modus operandi of modding: creativity comes first. It’s a responsive model that connects modders directly with their fans - and that's perhaps the most promising part of all.

I'll certainly be keeping my eye on Sprked. Will you?

Matt Sayer

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