Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Getting Sweet Patron Money On the Modern Internet

Once, to survive in the arts, you needed someone like this: The profoundly rich product of centuries of inbreeding.

This is a blog post about making a living writing art. Like, say, indie games. So expect a certain amount of despair.

In ye olden days, many talented people wanted to be artists. However, very few of them sold their art for enough money to make a decent living. So they would get a patron. A patron is a very rich person who is amused by you. They provide you with a tiny chunk of their wealth, and you continue to exist as an artist in order to please them.

(This system came into being many centuries ago, long before modern capitalism existed, so save your Capitalism Iz Bad hot takes for a sunnier day.)

Many very talented people are writing indie games, but the competition is soul-crushing and most gamers don't even bother to play the games they buy. Those of us who have the design chops but don't have a hit have to find patrons.

There are currently a number of routes to patronage. Suppose you want to write your indie 2-D roguelike platformer about an old dying man who wants to learn to smile. Yet, at the same time, you don't want to live in poverty. Here are three big paths to hope.

This entire blog post is an advertisement. A very good-intentioned one, but still.

1. Crowdfunding (e.g. Kickstarter, Fig)

Kickstarter achieved a true miracle: They figured out how to monetize goodwill.

I am a big fan of Kickstarter. I currently am Kickstarting a remaster of our cult classic Geneforge. It's going well. I am writing this blog post to get more attention for this effort.

Kickstarter is simultaneously a way for people to pre-order your game and a way to find patrons who will pay more substantial amount of money for a single copy. Once, my fans gave me $20-30 per game. Thanks to Kickstarter, richer people who have been my fans for a long time now have a way to pay more and get more in return. They are enabling us to keep writing games.

In ye olden days, if you were a patron for a playwright, you could actually sit on the stage during performances and make fun of the play as it was going on. If you are a serious patron for me, I let you give me ideas to put in the game. You can pay more on our Kickstarter to name a character or design elements of the game.

(By the way, I actually enjoy this a lot. The ideas we've gotten from our backers have been of a VERY high quality and fun to write. But I don't let you do it unless you help me buy food for my kids.)

I expect that we will kickstart every game we write from now on. It really is making that much of a difference for our business. If something about this makes you mad, remember it's basically just taking pre-orders, and people don't have a problem with that when Activision or EA do it.

A Side Thought: One reason video game kickstarters do so well is because Steam gives out free keys to backers of the game when it lands on Steam. This really helps sales and is very generous of Steam. People really like Steam keys. If Valve stops allowing this, kickstarters for video games will instantly become far less valuable.

Another Side Thought: Kickstarters can fail or turn into frauds. Look, if you kickstart a game and it doesn't work out, hey, it happens. But you need to be honest about it to your backers and, if at all possible, refund some of their money. If you don't do this, you make Kickstarter look like a scam, and you are stabbing all your fellow indie devs in the back.

The Internet lets you be like these guys, if they worked indoors and had your credit card number.

2. Donations (e.g. Patreon)

Of course, not all artists look for wealthy patrons. Others are buskers, warriors of the road, playing their music on a streetcorner for donations of passers by.

Patreon achieved a true miracle: They let you busk from the privacy of your home, and you get your money as a subscription instead of a one-time thing. The second part is REALLY important.

Kickstarter tends to be for creators who have a long-time fan base and who have built up a bit of trust. Patreon tends to depend on someone finding you and having a surge of goodwill for you, enough that they fork over a credit card. Then, every month, you can tap a few drops of precious sap from the mighty maple of their credit rating. Get enough of those temporary surges of goodwill and you have a job!

To keep your Patreon profitable, it really helps to come out with constant drips of content only for backers. For this reason, I believe that Patreon is better for people who make content in many small chunks, like writers, artists, and podcasters. However, some game developers are making really good money out of Patreon, so it must be considered.

I don't do Patreon because of my old-fashioned "Ok, Boomer" attitude towards my business: I make a living by selling stuff. You give me money, and I give you a game. Though, the moment my business feels threatened, that principle will go right out the window.

A Side Thought: This is a great (and long overdue) way for makers of mods and other user-made content to be paid for their efforts.

A Side Thought: A friend of mine who is trying to make a living as an artist online is considering making a Patreon. However, to really make money, she will need to draw lots of smutty versions of cartoon characters. I have no real lesson or purpose in relating this. I just think it's funny.

This is what I look like when contemplating the Internet. It is also what you get when you Google "Baby Boomer public domain image".

3. Corporate Patrons (e.g. Humble Bundle, Epic Game Store)

Of course, you can get patronage in the old-fashioned way: get a rich entity to fork over a wad of cash. These days, the cash wads come from corporations.

If you have an old game that has some appeal, Humble will sell a million copies of it for pennies each. They get chum to throw in the waters, and you get visibility and a nice check.

If you have a new indie game that looks fancy, the Epic Game Store will pay you a huge advance to have an exclusive. Then they get the prestige of selling it, and you get patron bucks. Whether the game actually sells enough to make it profitable for Epic doesn't actually enter into the equation. (Thus, this is more like the patronage of antiquity than it at first appears.)

We have sold many games on Humble, and it really carried our business during some lean times. We want to sell games on Epic, but our tawdry wares have not yet appealed to them. (Hey Epic, we got some really funky old indie games full of prestige, available for a giveaway for but a tiny taste of the Fortnite billions!)

This route to patronage is available to those developers who have skill. You need either a very promising title or a library of quality goods. It won't get you into business, but it can keep you there.

A Side Thought: Apple is also giving out patronage checks to those who put their games into their subscription model Apple Arcade. This is great for participants, but the subscription model for video games will bring developers to the same Hollywood Accounting doom faced by other creators. If you get offered a big check to be in a subscription service, congratulations, but don't pretend you aren't scorching the earth behind you.

Your end goal, of course, is to become this guy.

It's a Glorious World

I say this without irony: The opportunities above are amazing and awesome and without them we wouldn't have a business anymore. Every time the indie games biz gets tighter, the Internet figures out a way to help us survive in it. We feel very, very lucky.

And this isn't even all the possibilities for patronage. I understand in some countries the government will give you tax breaks and actual checks to help write your game. This effort to cure the world's tragic shortage of video games should be applauded.

Of course, none of this will help you if you don't have skill. If you can't write something that has appeal to some audience, nothing will save you.

If you're a skilled indie developer (or musician or artist or creator) and your work is good, kind humans will want to support you. Make something that speaks to a bunch of fans, and they will open their hearts to you. And then, with luck, their wallets. And internet entrepreneurs are figuring out ways to help those fans become patrons.

It's not often I write something in this blog with a smile on my face, but this is one of those times.

Oh, and did I mention I have a Kickstarter? My kids gotta' eat!


I am writing these blog posts to get attention to our upcoming game, Geneforge 1 - Mutagen. You can also follow me on Twitter.


  1. I have become more selective about backing stuff on Kickstarter or Patreon as I have felt ‘taken’ on both, in terms of non-deliveries, ‘asking for more’, and some things that are as much as 5 years late!

    So while I back your stuff immediately, you are right that the ‘bad eggs’ can really mess things up for other promising new projects. Which is sad.

    Glad to see Geneforge funded and looking forward to watching it progress.!

  2. Jeff, been a fan of your games since the 90s. Read the aside about the Epic Games Store, and I was wondering how that fit alongside your stance on not gambling on better art direction/assets. You've stated your core audience doesn't care that much about graphics (and you're right, I don't) and that expenses would exponentially pile up faster than the amount of extra revenue it would generate. However, let's say you were seriously gunning for a patron like Epic Games. How would that change one's cost analysis strategy if, say, a more immediately pleasing presentation increased the likelihood of a payout?

    I'm also offering the idea of pitching free Geneforge creations as Fortnite pets (they apparently have those) for anyone who purchases the remake. If Epic Games wanted to sell a legacy RPG through their storefront, that's exactly how they could do it. For in-game swag, gamers will do... well they'll do just about anything, turns out :p

    1. Honestly, it doesn't take too many more people on a project to take it up to the level where epic would look at it. Plenty of 2 person teams are getting on the Epic Store.

      It's just not my personal style. In the end, I like working alone, and I like spending less time making more games, and that is why my games look like I do. It's just my personal style, and it's hard to argue with your muse.

  3. "the subscription model for video games will bring developers to the same Hollywood Accounting doom faced by other creators", can you expand on this? (I'm not related to the guy just up here)

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