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How good is Steam Workshop? [Feature] – Mods without rockers

6 Jul 2012  by   Tim McDonald
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I haven’t quite decided what to make of the Steam Workshop. Fundamentally, there’s nothing wrong with it – in fact, it works so well that I’m damned if I can think of a single technical flaw with it. But… actually, never mind. We’ll get to the “but” later.

Steam Workshop is, in essence, a very simple way of installing, updating and activating mods for your Steam games; and it’s one of the most ludicrously simple ways of doing so that I’ve ever seen. If you have a game on Steam that supports the Workshop, then all you need to do is highlight the game in your Steam library, click “Browse Workshop”, and hunt through the list of mods (assisted by an able search function, user ratings, and – if you’re into the sort of thing – user comments.)

When you find something you want to install – the Vanilla Enhanced Mod for Civilization V, say – then you just click the Subscribe button next to it, aaaand… that’s about it. Seriously. The next time you launch Civ V and click on the in-game Mods tab, Vanilla Enhanced will automatically download and install. Once that’s done, all you need to do is select it and it’s good to go.

As simple as it is elegant.

It’s wonderful. No more faffing around with precise install locations, lengthy command lines, separate shortcuts for each mod, or esoteric errors (which, admittedly, are four things that don’t crop up all that often any more, even when trying to mod games that don’t inherently support them). Better still, there’s a reason why that button is “Subscribe” rather than “Install”: the game will automatically check the Workshop for updates whenever you launch it, so you don’t need to manually check back on a regular basis.

In short: the Steam Workshop is quick, tremendously easy to use, and contains plenty of features that make installing and using mods a painless experience.

But there are a few problems which, while not the fault of either Valve or the Steam Workshop system itself, are problems nonetheless.

The first is the most easily forgiveable: right now, the selection of games that support the Steam Workshop is incredibly sparse. It’s so small, in fact, that I can list them all right here. Ready? Okay!Team Fortress 2Portal 2DOTA 2SkyrimCivilization VDungeons of Dredmor, and, of all things, Naval War: Arctic Circle.

There’s no denying that the list comprises games of generally high quality (nearly half of them are Valve products, for crying out loud) and two of the most popular titles for modders – Skyrim and Civ V -are included. But seven games, one of which isn’t actually out and another of which is purely cosmetic, isn’t the most awe-inspiring of numbers.

Again, though, that’s not a big problem. More games will come to the Workshop and, while some will certainly focus entirely on cosmetic additions, there’s no doubt we’ll see plenty more games with full mod support.

The second problem – that the Steam Workshop is a Steam product – is a bit more thorny. “Good lord,” I hear you cry, your monocle slipping from your face as your eyes widen in mock surprise. “TheSteam Workshop is related to Steam? I would never have guessed!”

First: shut up. Second: this is a problem, because there are publishers out there which would doubtless rather focus on their own digital distribution platforms than give you a reason to shop on Steam. Dragon Age: Origins has a sizeable modding community, despite the game’s lack of direct support for mods, but – age notwithstanding – I’d be surprised if it ever turned up on there. The same goes for The Sims 3, which is still going strong. The new SimCity, which is reportedly likely to gain mod support sometime after launch, is unlikely to support Steam Workshop simply because, as an ea game, it’s unlikely to turn up on Steam.

It’s true that all three of those are EA products, but it’s a dangerous sign that some of the titles most likely to get a boost from user-generated content are highly unlikely to use this new, user-friendly service. Even aside from the Steam aspect, many major publishers have traditionally been a little wary of heavily associating themselves with mods because of potential legal issues, so it’s possible that the Workshop will largely be populated with a plethora of independent games. A shame, particularly considering how much success SimCity 4 had with mods.

The other big problem is that Steam is a moderated service, which means that the mods you’ll see will never, ever be all of the mods that exist. To quote the Skyrim Creation Kit wiki’s page on the Steam Workshop: “We won’t host offensive, copyrighted or trademarked material on the Skyrim Workshop. Mods with this kind of content will be banned, so please don’t bother uploading them.” (On the plus side, this moderation does mean that publishers might feel a bit more comfortable opening themselves up to mods.)

In other words: if your mod is likely to be controversial, it won’t appear there. For Skyrim that means no nude skins, no replacing dragons with My Little Ponies, no mods that disable the invulnerability flags on children, no Warhammer 40,000 Power Armour or chainswords. Gore mods? Mods that replace all swords with giant floppy cocks? Unlikely. (I’m not actually sure that last one exists, but let’s face it: if it doesn’t, it’s only a matter of time.)

For some, this will doubtless be a good thing; scrolling through the armour listings without being visually molested by men in chainmail thongs (or, worse, men very clearly without undergarments of any kind, chainmail or otherwise) has never been easier. But it also means that – as a list of content available for the game – the Steam Workshop is a distant second to Skyrim Nexus, which lets you skip past most of the adult-themed content anyway.

Although in light of the above image, I’m starting to think that maybe I’ll just stick with Steam Workshop anyway. Just in case.

Regardless: despite everything the Steam Workshop does right (which is pretty much everything on the technical end of the platform) it has some inherent disadvantages. Thankfully, as gamers, we’re not beholden to one platform or another. There’s no reason we can’t get our gameplay modifiers from Steam and then head over to another site for the content that the devs and publishers can’t easily, or legally, support.

And it’s hard to argue that the Steam Workshop will have any sort of negative effect on the modding community. It’s possible that it may fragment things a little, but it’s far more likely that this will introduce a wave of new people to the joy of modding – which, in turn, may mean increased demand for mod support in our PC games. I don’t know about you, but considering the ease of use, the extra exposure (did you know Naval War had mod support?), and the prominence of Steam itself, it’s hard to see the Workshop as anything less than a boon to gamers in general.

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