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Skyrim Together code-stealing controversy sends shockwaves around the modding community

As $25,000-a-month Patreon comes under scrutiny.

The Skyrim Together mod is currently embroiled in a controversy that has seen its developers accused of stealing code. Meanwhile, there's increased scrutiny on the modding team's Patreon, which currently pulls in over $25,000-a-month.

Skyrim Together is an ambitious and high-profile mod for Bethesda's hugely-popular fantasy role-playing game that lets players play together. It recently held a beta open to those who backed the Patreon.

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The recent controversy revolves around an accusation the Skyrim Together mod "steals" code from Skyrim Script Extender (SKSE).

The script extender projects are tools that improve the scripting languages built into Bethesda's games, adding new functionality and letting modders do things that weren't possible with the vanilla engine.

Modder Ian "extrwi" Patterson, who has led the script extender projects since Oblivion Script Extender back in 2006, took to the Skyrim Mods subreddit to accuse Skyrim Together of using code from SKSE and failing to disclose it.

In a follow-up interview with Eurogamer, Patterson said the copying of the code was "blatant".

"You can just open their .dll in notepad, then search for 'skse' to find tons of hits," he said. "After the post went up, I was able to examine the loader source code and found it was exactly as my analysis showed. It was code copied directly from SKSE with some very minor modifications."

This accusation sent shockwaves around the Skyrim modding community, with subreddits packed with posts hitting out at the Skyrim Together team. "I think it's setting a terrible standard that is bad for the mod community," Patterson told Eurogamer.

Skyrim Together adds online multiplayer to Bethesda's fantasy RPG.

The lead programmer of Skyrim Together is known as "Yamashi". Yamashi, who has worked on the project since the release of Skyrim in 2011, told Eurogamer: "We did not steal anything.

"We used SKSE to prototype our mod back in 2012 which is the standard way of extending Skyrim, then the SKSE guys decided we weren't allowed to use SKSE for reasons that remain unclear to me and so we rewrote the parts that were using files from the SKSE project so we do not rely on it anymore. We just have an automated build system that included some SKSE files but they are not used in the actual mod."

However, in a recent March report document, the Skyrim Together development team offered a more conciliatory tone, and issued a full apology to the SKSE team.

"We have confirmed the use of protected code and as such have removed any and all dependencies, associated content or related code per their request," the Skyrim Together team said. "We will be reconstructing anything that was made possible by the use of SKSE code or considered in violation.

"There is no excuse as to why this code has remained in the codebase for this long and was distributed without credit or acknowledgement. Going forward we will do our utmost best to respect the SKSE team and their work and ensure the licence request is maintained in the long run."

It appears Patterson and Yamashi have butted heads before, with various accusations flying around about a prior encounter that ended up with Yamashi banned from using any script extender code.

"Back in 2012, Yamashi was working on an earlier online project, which was implemented by copying and redistributing all of SKSE's code," Patterson told Eurogamer. "That's illegal, and horrible modding etiquette. Worse, when I talked with him to resolve the situation, he refused and was generally an jerk about the whole thing. As a result, I explicitly banned him from using any script extender code."

In its March Report, the Skyrim Together team addressed the bad blood between the SKSE team and Yamashi.

"When the project started out in 2011 under the name of Skyrim Online, Yamashi was the kickstarter trying to make this project with a couple of developers who are no longer a part of the current team. Creating an online multiplayer mod requires an in-depth access to all kinds of game components, and this access can only be achieved through reverse engineering. Therefore, in this initial phase of the mod, experimentation was performed with both ScriptDragon and SKSE, the latter of which was ultimately decided upon.

"Unfortunately the relationship between the SKSE team and Yamashi did not go as well as it could've, where their licence was updated specifically to disallow the Skyrim Online team from using their source code in any way. Seeing how this has been a big framework we have used before this announcement / licence change, the base and altered SKSE code was still deep in our project."

Screenshot from The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Special Edition showing a one-to-one battle in action on a grassy plain
The people behind Skyrim Together insist Bethesda has nothing against the mod as long as it's free. | Image credit: Bethesda

Despite the release of this March report document, Skyrim Together is not entirely out of the woods. Its $25,000-a-month Patreon is currently under fire, with some calling it a funnel for a "paid beta".

Video game publishers typically frown upon mods or fan projects that charge for access or profit in any way. Yamashi told Eurogamer the money raised by the Patreon is spent on development and production of the mod only.

"Bethesda is against selling mods, not donations, it has been common practice on Nexus Mods to accept donations since the first days of modding," he said.

"They [Bethesda] have stated in the past that they have nothing against our mod as long as it's free which is what we intend to do."

However, Patterson told Eurogamer he's concerned script extenders could get caught in the crossfire if Bethesda's lawyers take aim at Skyrim Together.

"I am concerned that if Bethesda or Zenimax lawyers get involved then it may result in a bad outcome that would prevent the script extenders from existing," he said.

"Skyrim Together has been running a very profitable Patreon, and was primarily gating access to their private beta on paying them money. They originally claimed this was just to cover server costs, but it's come out that they were using the money for much more than that."

In its March report, the Skyrim Together team said costs include dedicated servers, domain name and SSL certificates, an accountant and taxes. "Currently, the money acquired through Patreon is in a pool and is not being touched or utilised by any member of staff with the exception of the costs mentioned below," the Skyrim Together team said. "The income has exceeded our wildest expectations, and we're aware that it needs to be managed responsibly."

The Skyrim Together Patreon currently pulls in over $25,000 from over 23,000 backers.

So, what happens next? The Skyrim Together team's plans for release are back to "when it's ready". The modders are working to comply with the SKSE team's requests, and are analysing crash reports from the recent beta (around 60,000 reports from 15,000 users were received).

When asked what he plans to do now in response to the current situation, Yamashi told Eurogamer: "Nothing really, we have removed the remaining files that were included by the build system, we are just working on the open beta now, there are still many bugs to fix."

Over on the Skyrim Together subreddit, fans are twiddling their thumbs waiting for the open beta to launch, with some expressing concern that Skyrim Together may die an unceremonious death. What's certain is a shadow has been cast over the most high-profile mod in video games - and serious questions have been asked of its Patreon and how the money it's raising is spent. Will Bethesda step in? If it does, Skyrim Together could be snuffed out of existence before it even gets to open beta - and it could spell trouble for the Skyrim modding community as a whole.

As for Patterson, his demands are clear.

"At the very least, Skyrim Together needs to fix their copyright and licence problems before they can go back to distributing anything," he said.

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