Valve has a very forward-thinking reputation. This is because Valve is a uniquely weird company. In an industry full of business-driven suits, Valve has always been viewed as something better — something akin to a kid who’s absolutely okay with his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle action figures fighting his He-Man toys, copyright be damned. Valve has been viewed as running a different sort of business: one where piracy is viewed as a service problem; one where demonstration videos of the company’s hardware being safely disassembled are made available despite the company telling you to let them disassemble it for you; one where modding is seen as an aspect of the business of game development, rather than a strange growth jutting from it that’s better left ignored or, worse, cut off.
That last thing is really important, because a lot of Valve’s modern reputation is defined as being a company that’s Cool About Mods. But times change, and so especially do the stances of corporations. It’s just time that we recognize that.
In September of last year, two popular Team Fortress 2 mods — TF2Classic and Open Fortress — were handed takedown notices by Valve. In lieu of official access to the source code of the Source Engine on which Team Fortress 2 runs, these projects had been using leaked code that was not strictly legal. I am not a programmer, but what I do know is that making Team Fortress 2 mods on the scale of these projects is relatively difficult without utilizing leaked code. With Team Fortress 2 being a multiplayer game, Valve has a sensibly larger inclination to keep its code under wraps for security reasons, resulting in mods having less wiggle room to make changes compared to singleplayer Valve titles like Half-Life 2.
Modding conflicts like these are fairly common with a lot of other companies— think Bethesda or, more extremely, Nintendo. But the news of these takedowns stirred something up, because in its 25 year history, Valve hadn’t been one of these companies. Their history has been built on being the exact opposite: a forward-thinking Cool About Mods company that actively facilitated and uplifted modding efforts for their games. There’s a classic joke (which is admittedly a misnomer) that the only Valve IP that was internally conceived by Valve employees is Half-Life; almost everything else, from Team Fortress to Counter-Strike to Dota, resulted from them seeing talented work by outside parties (modders) and offering those outside parties (modders) a job.
In an age where official modding support for big games is increasingly uncommon, forcing modders to risk being shut down for going down shadier avenues, Valve’s example has always been seen as the gold standard that everyone should be operating under. This is a very good standard! And this being Valve’s standard, the aforementioned takedown notices for those Team Fortress 2 projects came with a carrot: a chance to make their mods better with official support from Valve, followed by an official Steam release. This, of course, changed the tone of things. The Valve well-beloved by gaming history was seen as alive and well.
Many months later, on May 31st of 2022, both of these projects have come back online. Here’s what one of them (Open Fortress) had to say about it:
“Ever since the day we got the first email from Valve asking us to take down the game, it has take a toll on not only us, but you, the community. In the time that you were all waiting for us to give you information as to what was going on — we were in the background sending emails back and forth to Valve to see if there was a way that they could help us in getting the proper things in order to get the game on Steam.
After some time had passed we never really got a response back from them. We waited, thinking that they would eventually get back to us, but they never did.”
Promises of a Steam release were a carrot, and this was the stick. After invoking their image by making bold promises about uplifting these modders, Valve simply ghosted them. Initially I saw this as something rather frightening: Valve using its image to the extent that it could serve out cease and desists without damaging that image by making promises they had no intent to keep. But I don’t think there’s any malice here. Valve automatically made a promise they might’ve followed through on ten years ago, realized the support onus that promise would require, and went very selectively silent.
At the time of writing, these mods have not been taken down again. I don’t think they will be. Valve has issued takedown notices to modders, but one thing they’ve never done is pursue them with legal action — they don’t really need to, since takedown notices served by a billion-dollar company are a pretty effective motivator. Beyond that, I don’t think being The Pursuing Legal Action Against Mods company is something they’re interested in. In typical Valve fashion, the response was a lot more indirect.
On June 3rd, a few days after Open Fortress and TF2Classic decided to come back online, Valve edited a documentation page that outlined the expectations and do-nots of distributing mods of Source Engine games. Among other changes was a big one under the question “How can I get source code access from Valve?”
“We have in the past granted access to the source code of some of our games to a small number of modding teams who could demonstrate a need that could not be met by the SDK. We may do this again in the future under exceptional circumstances but because of the associated support burden and risk of leaks our default answer is to develop based on the SDK.”
More context is required here: Valve had a pseudo-system in which interested modding teams with needs that exceeded the capabilities of the standard Source SDK could get in contact with the company and, after signing an NDA, acquire the source code for the Source Engine itself (and various games on that engine) along with a chunk of Valve’s internal asset repo. For non-commercial projects, this was entirely free! It enabled a lot of really cool work to be done. Now, it’s likely gone for the foreseeable future.
But that’s only one side of the story. Those with Source Engine licenses know that the grass wasn’t always greener on their side of the fence. Projects with this level of access typically had to manage this access through a single contact at Valve, onboarding coders and people who required access to the asset repo with NDAs issued by the company. This contact was not, as a general rule, reliable. There were many instances where the designated contact had gone on vacation, given his responsibilities to someone else, or left the company entirely without much notice. Some projects had gotten this license easily, while others had been denied or ignored for no immediately clear reason, their being almost no clear set of “expectations” for who Valve would or wouldn’t approve. A handful of projects which required this license to scale otherwise impassable technical barriers never received it, and as a result, were cancelled. The asset repo bundled with this access had been reportedly cleaned out multiple times as a result of people leaking content from it; that cleaning-out process has included files that served a legitimately helpful purpose to modders.
Complaining about this sounds entitled, because even by offering this, Valve was doing something relatively unheard of. It’s impossible to imagine most companies offering proprietary engine access to fans in any capacity for the purpose of making fan projects. Valve being the Cool About Mods company was the natural exception, and it was incredibly cool that this system even existed! But it’s worth noting that the system began to break down precisely when it began to require active support. Now, instead of managing an inconsistent system that was frequently more trouble for modders than it was often worth, Valve decided to shutter it entirely.
And you know what? I’m happy about it. Because Valve has changed, and the way they were operating didn’t always reflect that. The company that famously took the effort to support, uplift, and hire modders doesn’t exist anymore. Valve’s modern-day dealings with mods range from cursory support to autonomic actions like offering Steam releases without following through. It’s objectively better to be “the company that isn’t really interested in helping or uplifting modders” versus “the company that makes modders think they’ll be helped or uplifted when they aren’t going to be.”
Back in 2019, a mod for Valve’s Dota 2 called Auto Chess got so popular that it’s since inspired an entire genre, the autobattler, that several other companies have capitalized on. Valve went through their famous process of offering the modders behind it a job with the intent of turning Auto Chess into an official Valve title, but this time, the modders seemingly didn’t take the deal. At the end of the day, this didn’t stop Valve from simply making their own version of Auto Chess called Dota Underlords — with the blessing of the original creators, but for the first time in Valve’s history, none of their actual involvement.
Today, the state of Dota Underlords is absolutely dire, with support for the game presumed cancelled despite no official word from the company. Checking the game’s official Twitter account reveals that the last tweet was in September of 2020. This was around when new updates for the game quietly stopped coming out, with the last one in December of 2021 being a patch set to extend the game’s “Season One” battle pass until 2031. Underlords players have zero word on what any of this actually means, but are understandably bewildered by the fact that Valve seemingly stopped working on the game only seven months after its full release.
Meanwhile, a quick look at the original Dota Auto Chess mod reveals that it still gets daily updates which actively fix bugs, deliver new balance chances, and add new content to the game. To me, this whole situation perfectly highlights the plight of Valve’s modern dealings with mods. Were Counter-Strike to be created today as a mod for a Valve title, and were Valve to show an interest in acquiring the people behind it for the purpose of creating an official version (a far rarer event now), history would now suggest that this would be a bad thing for the game, or at least not conducive to the game’s longevity.
All of this is to say that Valve is no longer really the Cool About Mods company, they’re just the company That Usually Doesn’t Care About Mods. Their two prior engines, Goldsrc and Source, uplifted entire generations of game developers. While Source 2 might do the same, it probably won’t be with Valve’s involvement. Though Half-Life: Alyx, their first large Source 2 title, includes some really nice tools that have resulted in some really neat stuff being made, they’re a bit lackluster compared to the level of support and capability afforded by their earlier toolsets. The game also notably lacks an actual code SDK, with seemingly none on the way.
Instead, all of the work required to make Source 2 a truly versatile and well-supported toolset for public use has come down to Facepunch, who are doing some excellent work with the upcoming S&Box. S&Box is set to release, and already has for those with access, a much more feature-complete Source 2 development kit. All Valve really did here was accept that this wasn’t work they were going to be doing, at which point they handed the reins to a third-party. This is a very Valve decision, but one tinged by the modern apathy they now have towards supporting these sorts of things. This is in contrast to the way Valve initially spoke about the engine back in the mid-2010s, with statements implying it would be released in a format akin to something like Unity or Unreal Engine. Those statements are all but dead now, or rather, will only come true because a separate company wanted them to be true enough that they requested to do the work for them.
People have been modding Valve games for a really long time, and will surely continue to for the foreseeable future — though the SDKs are antiquated, tools like Hammer still provide a better introduction to level design than most modern game engines. Many game developers can trace their start from Valve accepting and enabling the modding community, and massive games like Team Fortress 2, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, and Dota 2 are a result of Valve’s willingness to play ball with exciting ideas from unlikely sources. But, though decisions made back then will continue to leave huge and often untraceable shockwaves in the industry, Valve’s values no longer reflect decisions last made ten or twenty years ago. Their modern reputation as a company that supports and uplifts modding is a carryover from an age where this was true, not something they actually have to prove anymore.
Like most other modern instances of modding, the practice is now purely back in the hands of the modders themselves. The company’s shuttering of source code access is a policy change that keeps Valve’s interactions with the community to a minimum, while clearly stating that they have no interest in actively supporting it versus merely allowing it to exist with the minimum amount of facilitation necessary. It’s a sad end to an era that defined Valve’s reputation and created a lot of fun things, but it might be best seen as a somewhat welcome one. No more false promises or unsustainable dealings, just clear-cut policy that minimizes both.
Even in a time that facilitates it now less than ever, video game modding is alive and well almost anywhere you look. These modders do largely free work for the fun and fulfillment of extending their favourite games while honing their skills to (hopefully) one day make stuff that’s truly their own. They cannot rely on a large company to recognize or respect their work, and that sucks. But they’ve never needed that. Modern games are routinely moddable to impressively fun extents even in the absolute absence of official modding support or tools. All a company really needs to do is get out of their way.
Modders find a way — they always will. And the only folks modders can rely on are each other. I think that’s enough.