Patronage and Game Development

by Darius Kazemi on November 23, 2008

in business,patronage,publishing

I just came across, via John Rogers, a guy named Wolfgang Baur, who’s been doing this thing called Open Design. In his words, it’s “a series of RPG projects funded by a small group of patrons.” This is pencil and paper RPGs, by the way, not CRPGs. The whole thing got me spending the better part of today thinking about patronage, the internet, and game development.

Some History of Patronage

The patronage model is very old, and different from the sort of cultural fairy tale of “starving artist gets bailed out by rich dude, and can therefore make art.” I am no art historian, but I’ve found Marjorie Garber’s recent book Patronizing the Arts to be an excellent resource for learning about patronage. In particular, the publisher has the full text of the first chapter available at their website, and it provides an illuminating overview of the history of patronage up to and including the present day.

One very important thing to understand about patronage is that it has often been about mutual fantasy fulfillment: the artist gets to hobnob with high society, and the patron gets to feel like they are contributing to culture. Sometimes this relationship goes awry, where the artist lives well above their means for a time, or the patron attempts to hijack a work of art. As Garber writes,

A complicated and contradictory mixture of deep gratitude and powerful resentment is thus built into the dynamic of pa­tronage. Which of these two will predominate in any given en­counter between patron and protégé is never entirely predictable (Garber, 2)

Of course, when we think of old-school patronage in the arts, we often bristle. Why would an artist want to be beholden to the wishes of a patron? Shouldn’t the artist make the art they believe in, and then put the art for sale? The free market would appear to be the solution to the problem: the artist is free to create what they want, and those who like it will serve as the patrons by purchasing it. And this is indeed the solution we have today, particularly in the case of art as mass media, including video games.

Sort of. Again, Garber on the sale of art:

Transactions could be mediated by dealers or dilettantes, do­mestic or foreign—“but,” as Francis Haskell noted, “artists [in Baroque Italy] usually disliked the freedom of working for un­known admirers, and with a few notable exceptions exhibitions were assumed to be the last resort of the unemployed.” (Garber, 4)

Under the patronage system, artists absolutely understand their audience. They’re making a work of art for one person, or one organization. Compare this to art created for the market: you need to understand what potentially millions of people want, and under some economies of scale, particularly in the case of AAA game development, you really do need millions of people to buy your game to pull a profit! How do you create art for millions of people without appealing to the lowest common denominator?

Indeed, this was an issue in the late 18th century. By way of Garber, here is Sir Joshua Reynolds in his Third Discourse on Art:

Be as select in those you endeavour to please, as in those whom you endeavor to imitate. Without love of fame you cannot do anything excellent, but by an excessive and un­distinguishing thirst after it, you will come to have vul­gar views; you will degrade your style; and your taste will be entirely corrupted. It is certain that the lowest style will be the most popular, as it falls within the compass of ignorance itself; and the Vulgar will always be pleased with what is natural, in the confined and misunderstood sense of the word. . . . I MENTION this, because our Ex­hibitions, while they produce such admirable effects, by nourishing emulation and calling our genius, have also a mischievous tendency, by seducing the Painter to an am­bition to please indiscriminately the mixed multitude of people who resort to them.

So yeah, in 1772 there was concern about mass media resulting in lowest common denominator pandering. And this was about a century before reproduction methods made it possible for the common person to own a copy of a work of art in their own home!

Patronage and the Internet

When googling around for articles on patronage, I came across a mini-manifesto about neo-patronage. It’s written by some folks who run Another Sky Press, a publisher in the modern internet model that I first came across through the works of Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross. The idea is that you can read the book completely for free, but if you like the book and would like a hard copy you can buy one, or even just donate directly to the author.

It’s a cool idea, and it certainly works for some people, but reading their manifesto, its connection to historical patronage is tenuous at best. Their argument boils down to “Patronage was bad because the patrons controlled the artists, therefore the new patronage will be donations from enthusiasts with no artistic input from the donor.” I suppose that the donor should be content with the warm fuzzies they get from supporting an artist that they like.

I do occasionally donate money directly to artists whose artwork I love. But I will naturally give more money to an artist if it is to support a project that I am interested in. And I will give even more money if I feel like I have some input as to its outcome.

This is why Baur’s Open Design model is intriguing to me. There’s no date on the page, but lists the page going back to May of 2007, so I assume he’s been doing this for a year and a half. From what I can tell, the way it works is you become a part of the Open Design community by donating money to a specific project. The basic donation ($30) ensures you get a copy of the project when it’s done. Higher level donations, at $75 and $100, mean you get to be a part of the creation process. I’m pretty sure this is done through private forum threads, though I’m not sure how much control the high-level donors have over the final work. I’m guessing it’s just like any other collaboration, although because the donations are distributed between a number of donors the artist isn’t beholden to one person’s vision.

I believe that if you are a particularly high-level donor, you also get to pitch ideas for future projects — those ideas are then voted on by all the past donors until one or two projects are decided on for the next iteration of the Open Design series.

I may have this incorrect, but the summary of my understanding is: $30 means you get a copy of a project that’s in the works, and you get to vote on future projects. $75 means you also get some creative input into the project you’re supporting. $100 means you get to pitch ideas, and, I think, get a little bit more say into what the next projects are (I’m especially not sure if I have that one correct).

The books are also printed in an extremely limited edition run. The only people who are guaranteed a copy of the book are the original patrons. If there are copies of the book left, and you’d like one, you need to support a new project in order to become an Open Design member, and then you have the option of purchasing one of the old books. This is modeled on old-style patronage; one of the benefits of patronage was having a unique work of art to call your own. Obviously, this isn’t a case of owning something completely unique, but it’s pretty analogous regardless.

Actually, in the case of the first book in the Open Design series, the book only went to the original patrons, with no chance for latecomers to own the book. This was the source of some controversy, and the model I described above is the resultant compromise.

Digital Media, Replication, and IP, Oh My!

You can make limited edition or private runs of a book. You can’t really do this for a video game, because games are digital media that can be easily copied. So I think the whole “only members of our community get access to the creative works” might be really great for pencil and paper games, but it’s untenable for digital games.

How does this change things if we want to make video games modeled on the Open Design patronage system? In fact, what would such a system look like in the first place?

First of all, there can be no sense of unique ownership. As a patron of a video game, I am merely supporting an artist who is creating a public work. As a patron, I get some level of creative input.

The next big question for me is what the artist chooses to do with the game when it’s done. Does the artist release the game for free? In this case, the benefit to being a patron is that you get to see a game that you want to play actually created. And then you, and the rest of the world, get to play it. What if the artist decides to sell the game? Does a patron have ownership over the work? Do the patrons get a cut of the profits? Or did the patron merely exist to shepherd the work into existence?

Of course, in the case of selling the patron-backed game, we have the issue of intellectual property. I could easily see a lawsuit where a patron claims that they were the originators of idea X and thus are entitled to a portion of the proceeds. Thinking about this scenario, there is clear benefit to restricting all communication between patrons and the creator to a public forum. At least that way, there’s public record as to who said what, and when.

That said, I don’t believe that patronage really works without some level of creative input from the patrons. This comes back to the historical motivators behind patronage that Garber outlines so well. So maybe bringing patrons together to fund a completely open-source game is really the best way to go.

What do you think about patronage and game development? Do you think it’s tenable at all? Would the Open Design model work as is, copying be damned? If not, how would you change the model so that it worked?


Andrew November 23, 2008 at 10:14 pm

Wow, interesting stuff. I’ve no idea how tenable it is for digital works – but I don’t see why a proper contract couldn’t sort the ownership problems, distribution problems. It’d be like a publisher funding a game (or part of it) – except patrons would be less distributors, and more creatively interested in the game.

I’d certainly like to see it attempted, if any rich millionaire wanted it!

Patrick November 25, 2008 at 8:34 pm

You should check out Core Talent Games:

They’re doing an option – finance round – digitally distribute with back-end for the designer model, which seems like a mature convergence between the market model and the patron model, if implemented correctly. I’m generally not so big a fan of donate and spend models to try and do good, because such models are less effective as proliferating the desired goal than invest-gross profit- reinvest models.

On the other hand Jason Rohrer has a patron, but when I mention this to starving indie artists they just get pissed because they want one. Not enough charity to go around.

Ian Schreiber December 2, 2008 at 7:11 pm

I was actually talking with Brenda about this awhile ago. One thing you say that I disagree with:

You can make limited edition or private runs of a book. You can’t really do this for a video game, because games are digital media that can be easily copied.

Books can be easily copied too. You can scan it in by hand, or even take it to a copy shop and let them do it for you. Google Books? Online checkout of library e-books? I don’t see the distinction between this and games.

I can give you an original, limited-edition copy of a game on CD. Yes, it’s theoretically possible for you to copy it… but if you were a patron and the whole point was for you to own a limited-edition game, why would you dilute the value of the very thing you patronized? It seems to me that the types of people who want the game to be freely available are not the people who would patronize such a project in the first place.

So I would ask, why not? I expect the model would look similar to the older patronage models: wealthy game enthusiast hires indie game studio to make a game for them; or, indie studio pitches a game concept, seeking sponsors. Financially, it’s the difference between selling a few thousand copies at $10 each in the Wal-mart value rack versus selling one copy at $100,000 (or a hundred copies at $1,000). Sponsors get the prestige of owning an incredibly rare title. I don’t know if it’d actually work or not, but I see no reason why it should inherently fail.

I could also see a more gentle variant of Open Design where the artist does intend to sell their work, but they still make a special “limited edition” available to the initial patrons. The LE version would be just like the pre-order specials at Gamestop: maybe it includes original concept art, a “making of” essay, or even just a t-shirt; maybe the CD is hand-signed by the developer(s), perhaps even numbered like LE art prints; or maybe the LE game comes with a full-color printed instruction manual, while normal versions just have a soft-copy PDF.

Another question: where do you draw the line between patronage and mass market? Do advergames follow the traditional “patronage” model, since a single benefactor (the advertising company) hires a studio to make them a custom work — never mind that they then reproduce and distribute the game for free, as such a thing is their right? Could you argue that a 3rd party developer is actually working on the patronage model, in that they’re really developing their game for a single patron (i.e. the publisher)?

Brandon July 28, 2009 at 2:17 am

Why would someone dilute the value of a limited edition copy? For kicks. It only takes 1 such person to make a copy, then the "I'm a patron" barrier is gone. Same with software piracy. Only 1 person has to buy the game in order to rip it off for everyone else. Cynically, the pirates could take up a collection pool. Or, some patron parts with his limited edition copy at some point, and the new owner doesn't have the same warm fuzzies about it being limited edition as the original owner did.

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