Editorial: On Creation Club

By: Miak

        This year’s E3 was a doozy. Of course, every E3 is a doozy to some extent, in the same way that waking up on Christmas morning is as a young kid. You’re bound to get something good, but not exactly good. Not great good. Not even eh good. Not coal or socks level of good, mind you – you weren’t that bad this year and your parents aren’t that evil, but that doesn’t rule out the possibility of a little bit of adult forgetfulness and the complete disregard of anything that could possibly break bank, even if you did write down on a Christmas list.

This year’s E3 was personally a big fat eh for me. This was the kind of year where you wake up in your pajamas, rush to the Christmas tree, and find out just exactly how much you mean to your parents when you open up your first present and find your favorite Yugioh cards… except they’re Chinese counterfeits – the kind of ones you’d find at a flea market with Google Translate™ pidgin english and the ugly shiny finish.

At least the thought counts… right? No, not really. But thanks Mom.

With all that said, I hope it solidifies in your mind the correct amount of eh I had watching this E3, barring the surprise announcement of a Life Is Strange prequel after Dontnod explicitly said they wouldn’t be showing anything but Vampyr. My fanboyism cannot be understated. Very above eh good, indeed, though the voice acting strike crossing Ashly Burch out of the lead role – while I completely understand and support it – certainly brought a lot of eh to dampen my expectations.

But of course I wasn’t watching each conference with Life Is Strange in mind, or even for Battlefront II, or really anything out of the three juggernauts that is the home console industry. EA and Ubisoft’s presentations, though okay this year, always reminded me of a glorified car commercial. In fact, as far as I’m concerned, I really only watch E3 for one conference. That is, Bethesda’s conference. Oh boy, I know. Lay me down softly and drown me with a pillow.

Ever since Bethesda began presenting at E3 before the release of Fallout 4 I knew instantly they’d have an upcoming drought when it came to meaningful content. That in of itself is not a serious or even interesting observation – They’re a small publisher, especially when compared to EA or Ubisoft, so it would be silly conjecture to say they’d be able to pump out the next Skyrim each year, but regardless I had a hunch they’d soon hit a roadblock when it came to presenting meaningful content. And they did this year. Pretty badly. Coming back to fancy analogies, It was the kind of car commercial that made me cut the cord.

My actual expectations coming up to E3 varied wildly. I’d like to believe I was of sound mind with speculation, but honestly I went bat shit insane for any rumor that could (and would) surface. For Bethesda, such rumors cropping up are a dime a dozen: I still remember the cold sting of Survivor 2299 a few years back, a Fallout fan website so mysterious by design that it just had to be an elaborate ad campaign for Fallout 4. It wasn’t. And I was heartbroken until Fallout 4’s eventual announcement about two years later.

Fool me once, shame on you. You know how it goes.

This year’s hot rumor was Starfield, which was about as substantial as an unopened box of crackers. There was literally nothing to it except for a recurring trademark by Bethesda, but apparently that’s enough for a juicy 4Chan post and for several thirsty news sites to pick up on the idea. What’s not to like about it? Skyrim, but in space? I’d buy it, and then I’d buy it again for the HD re-release five years later, and then I’d buy it on console, and so on and so on.

If you haven’t heard about Starfield, then I’m proud of you, because it was completely unsubstantiated that it would appear in any form at this year’s conference. As were most rumors. For me, I believed it in purely because of the lack of credible foreknowledge about the conference. Except for New Colossus and the appearance of Fallout Shelter for the upteenth time, all bets were off for what Bethesda would show. Which, in hindsight, made too much sense. Because they had nothing. Zilch. Zippo. Nada. The only way it would have been worse is if they literally presented coal on stage. Better than counterfeits, at least: One’s better as kindling.

So, what did they show? You already know. You clicked on this article, after all! I’m stalling, so let’s get to the whole point of this article: An outsourced marketplace such as Creation Club is absolutely the most frightening thing I’ve ever seen. The idea of ever having to paying creators for their hard earned work keeps me up at night.

I’m kidding, of course, but it definitely wasn’t the surprise I was expecting on Christmas morning. Straight away as it was being presented I knew shit was going to hit the fan. For one thing, I knew going on Reddit after the show would be an absolute death sentence, and another thing, I knew even if Starfield was presented it would have paid mods baked in. In short, it killed the conference for me regardless of what Creation Club actually was: To me and everyone else,  it was paid mods. Part two. Electric boogaloo.

Those who are familiar with Bethesda already know about the Steam fiasco a while back, but for those who are blurry on the topic, I’ll sum it up briefly. User created mods, which before then were always forms of donationware, now on a marketplace with price tags. Simple in theory, but those who mod games like Skyrim know just how different mods are compared to other commodities: They’re buggy. They’re unsupported. And they usually require a lot of jury rigging to work coherently, which leads to a kind of product that is completely unviable in any way shape or form. Knowing just how bad Steam’s customer support is, the whole idea sunk pretty fast.

After barely two days the marketplace was shut down, but the effect tainted just about every modding related discussion for months to come. Bethesda, for me, lost a lot of its grandeur, as it did for everyone to some extent. The biggest creators drummed up the Forever Free icon, a declaration for a free modding community not senselessly incentivised by paywalls. Even now you can see the icon on most mods worth their salt. Too be frank, it was a surprisingly impressive movement.

Of course the idea for content creators to get paid for their work is not bad by any stretch of the imagination, but for a community lasting ever since the Morrowind days, (And actually earlier, across many games and genres) it did not surprise me how much it tugged the hearts of fellow gamers. The first problem to the concept, and the one that scared me the most, was the disintegration of a true community, not driven by external reasons but by each player’s own love of the game. Money, as it usually does, can stress these relations incredibly. The idea of having a competitive marketplace compared to a site such as the Nexus, well, you can see how that can fracture the community in many ways: For one thing, why put your mod for free when instead you can put it for sale? For most people that’s a pretty easy answer.

As far as I was concerned, I didn’t see a way to marketize mods that wouldn’t lead to headaches for everyone involved, including for the people publishing them. Excluding mod conflicts and bugs, the whole jazz of setting up a mod for your own Skyrim save isn’t an easy task. My own save, for the record, had to use about four different external programs (TES5edit, LOOT, etc) just to prevent my computer from exploding into a thousand tiny pieces. Granted my situation involved dozens and dozens of mods, but even the idea of one breaking – one that you paid for – is already too much for most folks. Simply put, it’s not a good idea, at least when it came to Steam’s implementation which involved carelessly uploading your own mods to the workshop and adding a price tag.

These issues alone killed the idea and are probably why up until this point it was more or less a fantasy that mods could be monetized. I personally thought Bethesda wouldn’t dare to attempt it again because of the backlash they got the first time, but it’s clear from this E3 they’re willing to try again. Most would think of this as senseless corporate greed, and I wouldn’t disagree with you, but I’ll refrain from that point just to keep a level head.

So does Creation Club attempt to solve these problems? Sort of. Bethesda’s own viewpoint on this, on the Creation Club site, is a decent explanation for what they’re aiming for.

“Most of the Creation Club content is created internally, some with external partners who have worked on our games, and some by external Creators. All the content is approved, curated, and taken through the full internal dev cycle; including localization, polishing, and testing.”

This definition, of course, is much more strict than the usual development cycle for a Skyrim mod, bridging the gap between what could be said is a mod, or flat out DLC. In theory, this explanation is nice and pleasant, but the problem with explanations like these is that they are just words. Words that could quite as well mean jack, especially to most folks who were burned the first time paid mods came to fruition. For me, I trust Bethesda on this topic just as much as I do Comcast handling my internet connection: Zilch. What matters here is execution, which is something we can’t unfortunately see until Creation Club eventually opens its doors.

That said, the supposed aim here is not something I disagree with. If it is constructed well, with proper curation, customer assurance, and just damn good content, I can’t see any problems with having paid mods in that format: Because at that point, it’s not paid mods. It is by all accounts outsourced DLC, and I really don’t mind that. I don’t think you should either.

Ethics aside, there are other logistical problems that can (and will) cripple this kind of storefront, barring good will: Simply put, Bethesda’s Gamebryo engine is a complete hack job – it is very difficult to load multiple mods at once without something going amiss. Most of the time it’s just general instability of loading so many external resources and the occasional memory leak, (The kind of which that are completely unacceptable, mind you) but there are also many, many idiosyncrasies that can prevent two mods from cooperating with each other. Issues like loading different textures for the same model for instance. One is getting overwritten, no doubt about it.

Why does all of this matter? Because what storefront actually punishes you for buying loads of content? It’s absurd, and it is an unpreventable fact for a modded game. For a store to supply a nigh infinite quantity of DLC for a finite game, there reaches a point where things cannot be compatible consistently. It doesn’t work, and anybody who’s modded any Bethesda game knows that fact quite well.

The point is this: Would you buy something as a consumer with the very real chance of it not working? That answer, unless you enjoy thrift shopping or going to the nearest 99 cent store, is probably a very fat no. A product should above all work, and that is simply not possible for Bethesda to assure consistently, across thousands of use cases, across thousands of combinations of hardware.

I think you get the point.

For us little guys at the Nexus, whose passion is making their game the best it can be creating a community from the ground up without any external support for years on end… It doesn’t surprise me how Bethesda barging in sours most people. Creation Club, as far as I’m concerned, might do well or it might not. But it definitely wasn’t a good idea.

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