Bethesda's Creation Club: the fallout
It's been six months since E3 2017, when Bethesda announced its intention to add a Creation Club to Skyrim and Fallout 4, their massively-successful mega-RPGs known for their breadth of content and emphasis on player freedom. This club would task third-party developers with producing new pieces for the publisher's two marquee games, which players could then buy from an online storefront with real money. While some decried the service as yet another attempt to introduce paid mods to the single-player gaming ecosystem, Bethesda insisted the market for free fan-made content would remain unaffected. "We won't allow any existing mods to be retrofitted into Creation Club," reads the FAQ. "It must all be original content."
Following this, in late August Bethesda revealed the initial line-up for Creation Club, which included the Hellfire Power Armour and the Chinese Stealth Suit, both priced at $5 and inspired by similar items introduced in the various expansions for Fallout 3. There was just one little problem - if you searched the Nexus, the massively-populated home of free mods for Bethesda's games, among others, you'd find both the Hellfire Power Armour and the Chinese Stealth Suit already on offer for the low, low price of nothing.
A mild furore erupted. Press pounced on the revelation, which fed the already-boiling fan frenzy over what were considered outrageous prices for sub-par content. Paying $5 for a piece of armour was bad enough, but when the free alternative is superior, the bad deal starts to seem like an out-and-out ripoff. For Road to Liberty, the mod team behind the two projects, it was a confusing development, and one they worked with Bethesda to try to avoid.
"There were 17 of us sitting in the Discord," says NafNaf95, a level and landscape designer who works with the team. "A lot of them are just fans who like to hang out with us. We were sceptical, but we wanted to give it a chance. When we saw the initial line-up, none of us had any idea what was coming up. I know somebody on the team might have, but not me, at least. When we saw it, we got on social media and told people, 'We have nothing to do with this. This is not our work.' But we got thrashed anyway."
"It was more of a coincidence than anything," says Dogtooth, the highly-respected artist behind both armour sets. "We had already shown off the armour, but there were some delays that kept it from coming out for a year. I reached out to Bethesda see what they wanted to do. I was ready to scrap it. They were totally awesome, and we made sure there were no issues.
"Something as simple as our behind-the-scenes naming scheme could have caused issues if a person had them both installed. That was a really excellent experience, being able to communicate directly with them to ensure that it wasn't in direct conflict."
By all accounts, Bethesda handled the apparent controversy well. All of the modders involved describe the incident as a minor misunderstanding. "They're not even that similar," Dogtooth adds. "I took a lot of liberties with both armours. They stuck closer to the originals. It's just an artistic decision."
Beyond this, however, modders were far less kind to the Club itself, an initiative they describe as "valueless," "confusing" and altogether "half-assed." Though many applaud the concept as fresh and invigorating, the execution is another story entirely. "The negativity from fans and modders alike has been overwhelming," says Unoctium, the coding wizard who implements the mods into the game engine. "We ended up creating a separate channel for it on our Discord. But now, almost nobody posts in it."
Across a range of interviews, the various modders describe how they initially hoped the service would provide a standard of content far superior to that of the Nexus. Several referenced the paid mods fiasco of 2015, when Bethesda and Valve worked together to introduce paid content to the Steam Workshop. It was an unmitigated disaster in the community, but Bethesda seemed committed to the cause, publishing a lengthy defense on its blog. Valve was altogether less stalwart - it pulled support after just a week. From the modders' perspective, this experience explains why the Creation Club suffers from both a paucity of content and imagination alike, a service in search of a core audience.
"What they announced sounded really ambitious," says Gopher, a modder and streamer best-known for his modding tutorials. "Essentially, we thought they wanted external developers - ex-mod makers among them - to be able to create the big stuff, the stuff that came along rarely, like Falskaar, an expansion pack-sized mod for Skyrim, or total conversions like Enderal, which replaces the story entirely. But then they roll it out and it's a bunch of stuff that's already out there."
"Mini-DLC is the ideal form for paid mods," adds NafNaf95. "Mods can have content the size of DLCs, but it takes years. Modders, with the support of Bethesda, could do something like that in months."
Even the harrowed defenders of the service express scepticism at what they view as steep prices for the content on offer. Many reference the fact five piddling weapons or suits of armour costs as much as Far Harbor, one of the official DLC packs for Fallout 4. However, according to Dogtooth, who generally holds a far higher opinion of the initiative than his teammates these asking rates aren't quite as ridiculous as some may think.
"The prices are a little skewed, but some of them are made by contractors," he says. "When you work freelance, you have to charge some overhead while you work out a new contract. Salaried workers are discounted. If I was able to sell my content without Bethesda's oversight, taking into account what it costs to produce in man-hours, no one would buy them, because it'd be way too expensive."
From Gopher's perspective, the particulars of production might prove enlightening to some, but the fans are ultimately the ones getting the shaft. "Some people say I'm insulting the modders when I say a suit of armour isn't worth $5. Well, what does that say about the quantity of the game itself? It's got loads of weapons and suits of armour, and you pay $25 for it on-sale. There's definitely a disconnect."
As a whole, the modders view Creation Club as Bethesda's second stab at monetising the secondary content market, albeit in an incredibly limited form. They see it as a missed opportunity. "They don't realise they've monetised modding already," claims Gopher. "Modding is like a game's soundtrack. You don't buy new songs for use in-game. It's an extra that adds value to Bethesda games on PC, and it keeps the sales going strong. That's why it's a PR disaster."
When it comes to the future of Creation Club, the modders vary in tone and outlook, but they all agree it's probably not evaporating into the ether anytime soon. "I'm absolutely certain Elder Scrolls 6 will have some form of this," says Gopher. "And if they have content for it on day one, people are going to call it out for what it is: day one DLC. And we all know how the gaming community feels about that."
For what it's worth, though, the modders don't begrudge Bethesda for trying to pick up a few "cents on the dollar". In their view, the modding market is changing, and not for the better. "Everyone thinks the modders are becoming more mercenary, but that's actually the case for the userbase," says Unoctium. "People expect free content with professional troubleshooting and service. As a result, there's still collaboration between modders, but it's much more transactional, like trading favours."
Dogtooth illustrates this point with an anecdote. When designing the NCR Veteran Ranger armour, he decided to add a little comic flair by attaching a fire extinguisher to the back of the suit. While such a tool might seem slightly incongruous with the post-apocalyptic setting, he stands by the decision. "It was a great design decision for the silhouette," he says. "But we've gotten more flack for that than anything. More than one person has contacted me for the sole purpose of telling me that I have to change it. I'm obligated to, apparently." He gives a heavy sigh, more out of exhaustion than anger. "Times like that, I just log off. I want to be a nice person.
"I would love to see more complex content on the Creation Club," he continues. "But I think anybody who thinks what we have is low-effort should pick it up and try it. There are people out there who might say my work is better than anything on the Creation Club so far, but it's production art. It's heavily-deadlined. I have as much time as I need for a mod project.
"The amount of work I've put into the Enclave X-02 armour alone is like 1500 to 1800 hours. And that's just one of our mods. For the most part, I work on this stuff pretty much full-time. On weekends, six hours a day. If I was to charge money, it would be thousands of dollars.
"They see the quality, they don't see the time."