Compared to the lawless hunter-gatherers of the average mod scene, the Nexus network is Ancient Rome. Infrastructure, learning and law have built an empire of some 31,000 modders, who serve over five million members. Ridiculed by some for its chainmail bikinis and attacked by the odd barbarian – not everyone shares its code of etiquette or respect for intellectual property – it’s nonetheless a wonder of the gaming world. Hosting over 28,000 mods for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim alone, its importance for developer Bethesda can’t be overstated.
This makes it rather surprising that Robin Scott, the site’s young entrepreneurial emperor, barely speaks to the company at all. “I saw how they just handed out the [modding] tools and set up a wiki, so I’m not going to get in their way,” he tells us. “I really try not to contact them at all. Probably less than once a year I talk to [community lead] Matt Grandstaff, and usually it’s just legal things. You can have this Sliding Doors scenario, where if I had bothered Bethesda a lot more and maybe done some advertising deals with them… But it’s just something I don’t want to get into. I don’t want to bother them and I don’t want them to bother me.
“It’s almost like they say, ‘Don’t ask us too much, because if you do, you might open a can of worms you can’t shut again.’ Because there’s a general feeling that if modding becomes too much of a hassle for them, past the obvious making of the tools, they’re just going to wipe their hands clean and go, ‘Fuck it. This is too much of a pain in the arse.’ It’s about trying to keep the community in check so they’re not bothering Bethesda with what seem like petty squabbles.”
Scott got into the game website business when he was 15, and had built and sold two networks by the time the Nexus was rebranded in 2007. He is now 26. In the eyes of Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs, he is his company’s fifth employee, alongside four programmers: two for the site and two for Nexus Mod Manager, an increasingly invaluable tool for all but the most hardcore modder.
“But I don’t really see myself as an employee,” he says. “I reply to all the private messages and emails because I want to keep the site going. As soon it becomes a pain, or I stop enjoying games, I think there might be an issue, but it’s not. I’ve got three monitors in front of me. I’ve got shares running down the left-hand side of my monitor, because I do quite a lot of the share market. A lot of people say that I must be doing pretty well. And the Nexus does do pretty well, but the money it does pretty well with just goes right back into hiring more people and buying more servers.”
Scott blogs regularly about the trials and tribulations of running such a bandwidth-hungry monster without totally selling out. Things have certainly improved since the days when the sites would regularly crash, keeping him up in the dead of night restarting MySQL. Nowadays, bedtime is just after 2am, taking him past US peak time, and breakfast is at around 10:30am, after which he gets right back into the routine. He starts by checking emails and private messages, most concerned with site registration delays and the like, and three hours later he talks to the programmers.
“They’ll show me what they’ve been doing, and I’ll try to show them what I think it should look like. I’m working on a few new designs for the Nexus sites right now. Every once in a while I’ll dabble in the code, but it’s so far above me now that I can’t just bring up a PHP file and start editing away. It just looks like Japanese to me,” he admits.
The release of Nexus Mod Manager, which intercepts download clicks from the site, stores and then installs the mods for several supported games, roughly coincided with the announcement of Steam Workshop support for Skyrim. Scott is a Dota 2 fanatic, but he’s not shy of discussing just what makes Mod Manager so much healthier for the modding community than Valve’s solution – and it goes far beyond extra control.
“Steam Workshop’s been great for a lot of things, but if you look at the Valve games, they’re making games like Dota 2 that they’ll give away for free, then they’re making so much money on those microtransactions. The one thing I do buy is the subscriptions to the tournaments; that’s brilliant, I really love that idea. But if you look at TF2 and Dota 2, it’s not the modding you and I know. It’s not the modding Nexus does. It’s a completely controlled, exclusive-to-Steam modding where they get to choose the mods that go on their service based on how well they think it will sell.
“If you say to mod authors that they can start making money out of their mods, are they going to be inclined to share their secrets, the stuff that they found that makes modding easier? That makes it great? Or are they going to hold on to it, because [that] means fewer people are doing what they’re doing? The general dilemma we’ve got with modding at the moment, with what Valve are trying to do, is that people are now competing financially with other people and are going to be a lot less helpful.”