Inside the Steam Marketplace's Indie Haberdashery
Custom-designed weapon and character skins rely on more than savvy 3D art skills.
Valve, for all of its innovation and invention, has built an empire on the bones of other games. While Half-Life stands alone, one look at its present-day catalog reveals a foundation built on mods. Dota 2 is the Not Quite Sequel to a popular Warcraft III mod. Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, or simply CS:GO, is the most recent iteration of a game produced from Valve's own Half-Life series, alongside fellow first-person shooter Team Fortress.
It's rare to see a developer so willing to incentivize the modification of its own intellectual property. Even rarer is a publishing house and sales platform that allows its own customers to sell content back to the community. The company has molded an entire economy built on the buying and selling of community-built virtual goods, "skins" for guns and new hats for your favorite hero.
Since 2012, the Steam marketplace has grown from a mod shop to a virtual stock exchange. If you log into the marketplace right now, you can watch numbers go up and down, and see items exchange hands in real-time as users spend virtual or physical currency to get a new cosmetic for their favorite game.
You can set buy orders, and even sell your own content to earn more cash to spend in Valve's marketplace. Those drops you've earned, across hours and hours of Dota, could become a hedge fund for profit, or just some spare cash for the next Steam Sale.
For the creators, though, it isn't just a place to buy and sell cosmetics. For some, it's a hobby, and others, a full-time job.
Contracts with Valve prevent content creators from disclosing the pay they receive from the marketplace, and several people contacted for this piece even asked to have their name and quotations removed wholesale if any other artist interviewed disclosed it to me, in fear of being blacklisted.
But going by Valve's own estimates, creators of weapon finishes for Counter-Strike: Global Offensive average $40,000 per finish added to the in-game store. For creators like Stephanie Everett, known as "Anuxinamoon" in the Dota scene, it's become a full-time job to simply create cosmetics for a game she enjoys playing.
It may sound like a dream come true, but for many makers, it's a struggle to get to the top. The process of getting your content onto the marketplace is complicated—anyone can create a Workshop page, but to sell your wares, Valve has to select it from among hundreds for inclusion, where it then becomes part of a crate or chest set that players can purchase.
While it's possible to make a living, there is still a chasm between the amateur artists toying around in Maya and the professionals.
"It's different for each person," said Everett, discussing those who make a full-time job on the marketplace. "So someone who makes something really, really, really popular and sells heaps and heaps of units, they're gonna get obviously different figures from someone who makes something that doesn't sell well."
The marketplace has become a community of its own, a place where artists can go to hone their skills, receive feedback and even find a storefront to sell their best pieces. Creators like Julien Heesterman, known as "Hollandje" on Steam, is a student who makes skins in his free time, in hopes of making headway into the broader industry.
"I started when I was in high school," Heesterman tells me. "I just did this on the side as a hobby, because I like making stuff for video games, and I'm also very interested in video game development. 3D art, 2D art, level environments, all that kind of stuff."
Chris Le is one of the more prolific Workshop artists in modern Counter-Strike skin-making.
"A lot of my friends in the game industry have quit because they make such a good living off the Steam Workshop," said Le. "It's all they do now."
The creation process is different for all three. As Heesterman describes it, success on the marketplace is never a surefire thing. Though upvotes and downvotes can determine which item is popular amongst the community, once that skin enters the game proper, it becomes a whole different situation. A popular, garish pink wrapper for the AK-47 might be entertaining to look at, but how effective is it when you're in-game?
"People really seem to like those," said Heesterman of the pink AK's. "At least, in the Workshop they are being upvoted, and when Valve publishes a skin in-game that [has] very vibrant colors… People, for some reason, even though it's been highly upvoted in the workshop, are like 'the fuck is this? I don't want to play with that!' You can be seen a hundred miles away with that thing."
Heesterman's approach is less visibly noisy. Most of his designs are variations on solid colors and patterns, like the P2000 Oceanic. The Oceanic was Heesterman's case study of hydrographic design, a challenging finish that demands solid colors and less sheen or visual effects than most other styles. Everett's approach avoids the gaudy as well.
Creators have been constantly one-upping each other in a method Everett described as "vertically stacking design": each cosmetic has to out-do the last. Massive animations and text pop-ups permeate fights, and where there was originally subtlety, now there's often distracting eye candy.
"Say someone really likes muted, dark colors, or really simple designs," said Everett. "But they want to be able to have Immortals [rare Dota cosmetics that add particle effects and animations]. But they don't like them, they just wear them because they're Immortal and look cool. Well, not look cool, but have that prestige.
"It's like saying, I want to wear Chanel, but I don't want to look like I'm wearing Chanel."
Most of her designs match that idea, creating rare sets that don't have to one-up every other cosmetic. Everett's a career set-maker, creating entire cosmetic overhauls for Dota heroes using sculpting and molding tools in programs like Maya. Most of her work has moved from creating works just for heroes to developing sets for personalities and pro players, like OG's Johan "n0tail" Sundstein.
For career creators, the market isn't just a place for expression, it's a livelihood. Chris Le describes his brainstorming process as being as much about marketability as creativity.
"I study the Steam workshop first, and then I study updates to the game," said Le. "What guns are popular right now? What's everybody using? I look at popular guns, and what [rarity] tier they need a skin for. Hopefully that will get Valve's attention, and get it in."
Le's work shows his experience in the field, using a mixture of modeling and texturing on much of his work. He described to me a skin where he used Maya to sculpt a Lion, then rendered that into a texture for a gun. Techniques like "baking" textures, which creates perceived depth on a flat surface, can also be seen in his work, like the Nightwing skin for the Galil pictured below.
To get into crates, you have to get noticed. To get noticed, you have to go viral. That's the credo Le gives me when discussing how to make it in the marketplace. It isn't just about a gun skin or item set, but a package, and marketing has seeped into every nook and cranny of Steam content creation.
"With marketing, you could sell shit to anybody," said Le. "It could be the worst skin in the world, but you could have the best marketing, people get blinded by it. You need marketing, because that's how you get Valve's attention. Like, Valve has to sift through 50,000 skins, how are you gonna stand out and make sure they look at you?"
For Counter-Strike creators like Heesterman and Le, videos are key in getting those eyeballs. Le's partnership with Danny Trejo elevated the status of his associated skins based on B-movie films and endorsed by the actor.
Dota 2 creators don't have to go to such great lengths, but that doesn't mean the job is quick or easy. Loading screens, illustrations and particle effects that enhance a hero's ability animations are gradually becoming the norm, something that has significantly increased creators' workloads. Teams are required, more often than not, which ratchets up the time requirement to make a set that will catch the market's eye.
"If I'm working, going crazy at it... to make a full set, back in the day, it took like, two weeks," said Everett. "But these days, because I have to do loading screens and a whole bunch of other supplementary shit, it usually takes four weeks. And because I'm working with other people instead of working for myself, I'll work with them to see if they like it, and if they don't like it I have to change it, and that sort of thing. So there's a lot more iteration these days than there used to be, which slows it down a lot."
Loading screens, animations, textures, unique decals and celebrity endorsements can all be effective tools, but at the end of the day, Valve is still judge, jury and endorser of every skin and set. Since it's a company not usually known for transparency, it can be frustrating for creators struggling to meet a checklist they can't read.
"So say you have a really cool design that's popular, has a million hits, but the gun is blue," said Le. "In reality they like that skin you did, but they wanted the gun red. What sucks is they don't really hit you up and say, 'hey can you change the gun to red?' They just go on the market and look for another gun that's red."
It's a struggle, but even when describing the trials and tribulations of making it into a crate or chest, each creator expressed joy in the process. Skins are their creation, and aren't just a modification or a superficial visual treat; these cosmetics have embedded themselves in the heart of their respective games and communities. Skins and hats are a form of expression for players that has become a part of Dota and Counter-Strike as much as new weapons or characters.
"If you have nice skins, you get reactions from people," said Heesterman. "'Oh he has nice skins, he must have a lot of money to spend' or 'he must be lucky during betting' or stuff. Skins are really now a part of the game, because the economy is so deeply embedded into CS:GO."
Everett says her favorite part of making skins is seeing them in-game; as a Dota player herself, seeing her handiwork come alive in the game world is a joy. She tells me that negative criticism rarely bothers her. She makes what she enjoys, and hopes others find the same pleasure in her sets' aesthetics.
"I'd rather people hate [a set] and [other] people love it, than everyone just not caring," said Everett. "Because if people just don't care, then it's like, 'oh, I didn't make an impact at all.'"
Creators as prestigious as Le or Everett even get noticed in the community during games. Everett says she often compliments players who use her sets in-game, but she's been recognized by her callsign and pitched by random players familiar with her work.
"They'll be like, 'Anuxi make me hats,'" said Everett of her public game admirers. "And I'll be like, 'I can't make you hats. Fuck off, I'm gonna kill you.' [laughs] And then I'll like, make it my mission to stab the guy with my PA set. Throw daggers at him all day and [make him] sad."
From Dragonclaw Hooks to butterfly knives, some items have reached astronomical prices on both the Steam marketplace and third-party re-sellers, where cosmetics can go for hundreds and even thousands.
Initially, this was a good thing for creators. Keys, the paid-for item required to open chests, provided a base metric for an economy, which let players better value items based on their rarity. Creators got to see players tussle over high-profile items, and see their handiwork skyrocket in value.
Gambling, however, changed all of that. You could bet on the outcome of professional matches, dump money into artificial slot machines managed by third-party bots or simply throw items into a pool roulette-style, hoping to either take an entire pot's worth of items. Seemingly innocent at first, a mixture of player controversies and scandals involving high-profile personalities shone a light on shoddy practices, and Valve sent out the cease-and-desists.
Though all three creators had no problem with gambling, each was also concerned about the implications it could have.
"I'm not against gambling at all," said Le. "I am against the shadiness with it, like what the YouTubers are doing, the business ethics of that. Gambling's fine. It should be regulated."
As Le describes it, gambling elevates the profile of his skins, an extra bit of marketing and visibility to help generate interest in his items. When faced with the issue of whether they care if their handiwork is being used for gambling sites, though, most were apathetic to players spinning the slots with their skins.
"If you gamble it, then you obviously don't like it. Well, you might like it, but you don't really care so much for it," said Heesterman. "At that point I'm like 'sure, no problem, it's your opinion. If you don't care so much for it, go ahead, gamble it.' When it's in game, I see 'hey it's my creation,' but not 'hey that's my item.' It's not my possession anymore. The intellectual property, the gun skin is still mine, and Valve uses it and pays me for it, but the actual gun skin in-game? I don't see that anymore as my property."
This entire economy, gambling and cosmetics, paid creators making assets for a living game, has a life all its own. But how long will that continue? For Le, it's a constant conversation he has with other marketplace creators. One update could kill the game, and take with it your livelihood.
"Whatever the next game is gonna be," said Le. "We just gotta evolve and go with that and adapt, and create content for that game instead.
"I know CS:GO's not gonna be around forever."
"You always have plan B's, plan C's," said Everett. "I understand, and everyone understands, that this won't last forever. But we're gonna try and make it last as long as it can, and enjoy the time we have while doing it."
There's a unique air of genuine authenticity to the market. Underneath the "click the Yes button" graphics and glamor shots of Danny Trejo's gorgeous mug, there's a fervent community that's all riding the same high. These aren't skins crafted and created by an in-house team of expert artists, working in tandem to develop a predetermined look. It's messy, erratic, and born of a group that loves what it does, resulting in incredible cosmetics.
"If you have a hundred people creating their own idea from their own experiences," said Everett. "And they're presenting it versus a hundred people in-house, the hundred people who are different or who have been enabled to get this opportunity will always produce something more interesting. The chance of getting something cool or something interesting is much greater than in-house."
Because, after all, it's still Dota. Still Counter-Strike. These games were built on the bones of other systems. They came to define their respective genres by retooling and rethinking the conventions of their predecessors. In mods, filled with repurposed assets and hybridized content, these games gained life of their own.
"I love that Valve is doing this, because the thing is all these guns we're creating, they're all mods," said Le. "Living up to the whole community thing is perfect for the Workshop. Because it goes back to how these games were created in the first place. They were created by the community."
Dota and Counter-Strike grew from grassroots efforts into defining works of the medium. Looking at the work created in half a decade on the marketplace, you can find the same ingenuity and passion. Like their games' spiritual predecessors, Steam cosmetic creators have come to define their games as much as any line of code.