Valves steam workshop practices

Or, some clarifying some things around Valve’s Steam Workshop via Team Fortress 2

On May 16th, Polygon published an article by Tim Colwill called Valve is not your friend, and Steam is not healthy for gaming — which you can read at the previous link. Within it, there was a section on how Valve treats members of the community who are actively part of the Steam workshop for the Valve based games. These workshops include DotA2, Counter Strike: Global Offensive and Team Fortress 2. The section included some things that I feel aren’t accurate, and some things that I didn’t necessarily agree with. So, here’s some stuff.

The section from the article that I’m referencing

Let me begin by saying that I have been an active member of the Team Fortress 2 creative community since 2009, and have contributed work to two community updates, End of the Line and Invasion, and one official update. I was also a senior admin at, the largest and most active TF2 Mapping community online.

So, the following is experiences and opinions from my extended stay in hotel Team Fortress 2. It’s a representation of that portion of the community, and not necessarily one that reflects the CS:GO and DotA2 communities. I was very active in those, so I am not confident enough to talk about it. Finally, I’m going to just try and provide the information and facts that I know, and try and to keep my opinion out of it — at least until the very end (see: My Opinions section)

How you get paid

This seems to be biggest point of confusion and misunderstanding for many people outside (and even inside) the creative community — how do we, those who make stuff for these games — make our money? Where does the 25% that the article mentions come from?

For Team Fortress 2, money is mostly made through key sales, or pass sales. If you’re a modeler and your hat gets accepted into the game, of each key that is used to open a crate (loot boxes for TF2), you receive a pre-determined percent of the total revenue of that key. So, for example if a key costs $2.49 USD, your item would get say, 2% of that. There are multiple items per crate though, so the value is also broken up between all those items. It is then further broken up between the contributors of each item. This value is an arbitrary number and, as I understand it, the percent of revenue has been changing over the past few years, and I’m unsure what it currently is. Hundreds of thousands of keys are sold, if that helps put things into perspective.

For maps, we have something different, and it’s not really been consistent. A few years ago, if your map was accepted into the game, you’d get a decent flat-rate (varied depending on map), and then 100% of revenue (after necessary taxes) from Map Stamps. These are virtual items that players can purchase for $.99 USD each to support their favourite maps and map makers.

Now, if your map is accepted into the game, it has a few options. If it’s part of a campaign, then your map gets a percentage of each campaign pass that is sold. However, these are only sold for a set amount of time, approximately 3–4 months. We’ve only had two campaigns (three if you count a recent competitive map pack) to reference for this. Beyond that, you were able to get revenue from the previously mentioned map stamps.

If your map was accepted for an event like Halloween, then it’s was apparently a bit different. You received a portion of key sales related to the H’ween crate.

How about that 25%?

“ Valve themselves eagerly trumpeted that they had paid more than $57 million to Steam Workshop creators over four years — an enormously impressive figure until you realize that it’s only 25 percent of the sale price, which means Valve just made $171 million profit from … setting up an online form where you can submit finished 3D models.”

The 25% that is advertised on the workshops about page is related to direct sales of their item. That is items that are bought directly from the store. This does not apply to items unlocked via keys. To put it into better context: if I bought an item on the Mann Co store for $9.99, the item creators would get ~$2.50 (rounded up, excluded taxes). However, if I received that item through a crate, then the creators would get a percentage of the sale of the keys — which only costed me $2.49 (+tax). The trade off here is, as I mentioned before, there’s a very high volume of keys being sold, both of “normal” keys, and of the special event keys (H’ween, End of the Line, Spring, etc).

Sales Data confidentiality

… The specific Workshop agreement also forces you to keep the sales data itself confidential. Want to tell someone how well your items are selling? Too bad.

The actual wording of this portion is follows:

8. Sales Data. Valve may provide you with access (via web site or otherwise) to Steam data relating to sales of your Contribution(s) (“Sales Data”). Sales Data is provided for your personal use, and you agree to keep that data confidential.

Now, I need to state that I am not a lawyer and the following interpretation of this is based on my own experiences and interactions. This argreement states that you can not share sales data. That is, I can not tell you how many keys for say, the End of the Line update sold, and I cannot tell you how much money those items made. However, it has been shown through precedence that we’re able to speak about the revenue shares of the contributors and generally speak about how much we have made as creators, or how much a specific item made. So, for example, I can tell you that I receive X% cut of all the money the map I worked on, Snowplow, made. But I can’t tell you what percent of each Gun Mettle Pass sale, Snowplow received. I can tell you that I made over and around Y amount of money in revenue of passes, but I can’t tell you the specific amount.

You generally don’t hear about this, and it’s generally perceived that it’s covered by the workshop argreement, because it’s a personal thing. You don’t go around asking people how much they made at their work last money. If you dig around the web though, you’ll find values and graphs and charts from community members, not just of the TF2 community but others too, that can help give you an idea of the income.

Which leads me into…

How much do people actually make?

Valve reported over a year ago that they’ve paid creators over 57 Million dollars. But, how much does everything make? For TF2, it varies wildly and depends on the items that you make that are accepted into the game. And then, theres the whole “meme” factor that comes in, is it for a single class, is it all class? If it’s a map, is it well known? Does it look good? Does it play well compared to other maps? Etc. etc Point is, there is a lot of variables.

Based on the interactions I’ve had with various members of the TF2 creative community, I’ve generally accepted the following numbers as “probable revenue.” These may not be truely accurate, but they do help paint a picture.

  • Hats and other cosmetics can recieve anywhere between a few thousand to tens of thousands. There was rumours a few individual items made ~30,000 alone. Set items early on, and the birth of the MannCo store made $45,000–$57,000.
  • Taunts can receive the same amount, but is generally towards the higher end of the spectrum. They do still vary wildly.
  • Weapons generally trend towards ~$10,000. These have been rarely added to the game, however.
  • Maps vary wildly based on the method of acquisition. A few years ago, it was anywhere between $3,000 to $9,000. Now, it’s anywhere between a few thousand to tens of thousands.

I would finally like to point out that this is values per item or map. These values are then distributed fairly between the creators of each item/map as determined by the creators themselves.

Speaking about other communities, I have heard some maps for CS:GO make between $10,000 to $30,000. I’ve even heard some DotA2 creators get upwards of six figures. This was, however, across a few items in a popular loot box.

There is no consistent set of rules, regulations or guidelines for how much money people will make based on their item or contribution. Across the games.

Negotiating a better price

I asked this Steam Workshop artist what rights they had when it came to disputing decisions or outcomes with Valve about their work.
“None,” they answered.

The only time I’ve seen a part of a deal, decision or outcome get negotiated, was for community-made TF2 updates. Outside of that however, usually Valve tells you what the percent is going to be.

The article states that Workshop contributors have no rights to dispute decisions or outcomes. When it comes to percent of revenue received, I don’t think anyone has actually tried to negotiate for a better price. I’ve only seen distaste and ask for it to be changed, but no proper negotiations. I will say though, I could be wrong and if that is the case, I would love to know if someone has.

In addition to that, at least for maps, it is my understand that creators still retain rights to the maps, if it’s used in campaign-like-events. They’re not being purchased, they’re being ‘featured.’ So you have the right to do whatever you need to the map, the TF2 team just basically has to approve it. For most fixes, balance changes, etc. they’re generally very receptive, though can sometimes be slow to implement the changes. Thus is game development.

My opinions

Alright, so if you just wanted some facts from my perspective — there you go. This is where I drop some opinions.

Do I think the current workshop ecosystem is exploitative? I can’t give a straight yes, and I can’t give a straight no. The article makes it sound like Valve is forcing artists and designers to work for crap rates. This isn’t the case, no one is forced to do anything. The workshop has always been, and was even launched as, a platform for users to create and share user generated content (UGC) for their favorite games. This is something that has been going on for years, decades! Steam Workshop just provided developers a platform that they could utilize to provide a centralized place for creators to share and publish their creations. It’s not a place for creators to make money.

Do I think that providing monetary compensation for use of their creations in a game is a good idea? Hell yea. Everyone should be paid fairly for that type of thing.

And to touch on something that was mentioned in article. Do I think that this is type of thing is Spec work? No. I think calling creating stuff for the workshop “Speculative work” shows a misunderstanding of what this is. It’s modding, it’s not work. It’s meant to be a fun thing you do, with potentially a fun, monetary reward. It’s never meant to be “work”.

So, do I think that someone should be able to turn this type of thing into a full time job? No. And this is coming from someone who’s been able to live off revenue from TF2 for the past couple of years. I’ve seen people who have tried to do it, and it has only ended in ruins. It should remain a complementary thing, not a primary thing.

Valve isn’t perfect, they admit that, and we all know that. There is problems now, because this is new. We haven’t seen this type of content creation ecosystem before, an ecosystem that has rapidly grown in the past few years. These are growing pains. These will take time to sort out. We will see changes. I don’t want to see this ecosystem go away, because it has enabled so many people to become game developers, to become artists, to do things they might not have been able to do if the Workshop, TF2, DotA2, CSGO didn’t exist.

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