If you were to check out the Instagram page for the Sokpop Collective, you’d probably have a hard time figuring out what it actually does. It’s full of shots of four young Dutch guys posing in various Instagram-friendly locations; looking oh-so-casual in front of a rusted garage door, throwing up peace signs and serious faces while riding a carousel. It doesn’t help that the group not only looks the part of a boy band, but describes itself as such.
But beneath its goofy exterior, Sokpop is actually one of the most innovative groups working in video games. Smaller, experimental games have rarely been financially viable, even as their influence on the industry can be significant. They’re typically too short or weird to sell much, but can be full of inventive ideas that eventually make their way into larger games. The 20-somethings at Sokpop have found a novel solution: using Patreon as a game subscription service that allows them to be prolific and creative, while still making some money.
“At the end of last year we were like, ‘Wow, we released 26 games. How did that happen?’” says Sokpop member Tijmen Tio. “But we never really think about it like that. Each game is its own thing.”
Sokpop isn’t a typical game studio; in fact, it’s not a studio at all. The members describe themselves as a collective, where they split all the work and money equally. “We have a lot more freedom within the collective,” says member Ruben Naus. “There’s no boss or anything. You’re almost like a solo game maker, but with the support of other people.” The quartet first met in 2014 through the game jam scene in their hometown of Utrecht, and eventually started thinking of ways they could work together.
They formed the collective, and gained some notoriety on Twitter after posting plenty of GIFs of strange and colorful physics-based games. But turning that into a business proved tricky. They tried making an album of games, and offering tutorials for aspiring developers, but neither venture was very successful. Each member was good at making fun games very quickly, which had to be worth something, they figured. Eventually they decided to test out Patreon as a sort of magazine subscription for games.
Though it’s a group, all of the games that come out of Sokpop are created individually. The members have a system in place: every two months, each of them has to make a game, resulting in a new release roughly every two weeks. There are currently close to 1,000 people paying $3 a month to play them, and the games are also sold for $3 a piece on Itch.io. All of the money from subscriptions and sales is then divided equally among the group.
The dozens of games released over 2018 are an eclectic bunch. Aran Koning channeled his love of biking into skidlocked, a game about the dangers of navigating busy city streets on a bike. Tom van den Boogaart created kart kids, a parallel-dimension Mario Kart for two players with cute cars and wobbly physics. All of the games are purposely small in scope, usually focused on a single gameplay mechanic and offering an experience that lasts around an hour. They’re the kinds of games for which it can be hard to find a commercial home. Some prove to be relatively large hits: Tio’s strategy game simmiland has grossed more than $10,000 and was eventually expanded into a larger release on Steam.
The Patreon schedule means that the group isn’t focused entirely on the subscription games. Each member spends around four weeks working on a Patreon game, and then has another four weeks to focus on other projects before their turn comes up again. This helps alleviate some of the stress that comes from releasing so many games so quickly. “Making a game every two months is super fun, but it’s also pretty straining,” says Koning. “It’s nice to have a bigger project.”
Patreon can often serve as an optimal testing ground for ideas. The games are almost like a form of market research, a demo to see if players are interested in an idea before the creator commits to spending more time fleshing it out into something larger. That’s what happened with simmiland; Tio initially thought it wasn’t a particularly good game, but it proved to be among the most popular things he’s ever made. That response made it easier to decide to dedicate the time necessary for a larger-scale release.
The group says that it’s looked around, but hasn’t found an alternative subscription service that could ease its dependency on Patreon, if the need arises. At the same time, part of what makes the dynamic work is that they’re not entirely focused on any one thing; there’s the subscription, game sales, personal projects, as well as various freelance jobs to help pay the bills. (The collective is also exploring the idea of working with game publishers in the future.) But Patreon is an integral part of that. While Sokpop hasn’t had any major issues with the service to date, they realize that, at least for now, it’s an important avenue. “We kind of have to put up with their stuff a little bit,” Koning says of Patreon. “You always put your eggs in a basket.”
While they have a solid schedule in place, the realities of game development mean that games are sometimes late. Luckily, Sokpop seems to have fostered an extremely friendly and understanding community; on the rare occasion when a game misses its deadline, there haven’t been any issues. “We postpone a release sometimes, and that’s always been fine,” says Tio. This forgiving attitude has also made it easier for the group to avoid burnout, even with such a demanding schedule. It’s something the members say they’ve gotten better with the more they’ve been able to refine their process. “I like making games,” says Koning, “but I also like weekends.”
In just over a year, Sokpop has managed to create a new model for experimental games, one that utilizes new platforms like Patreon to try weird things, but also doesn’t cause dependency on any one source of revenue. Along the way Sokpop has cultivated a very specific style and personality, one that has only increased its growing, if modest, popularity. The boy band schtick started out as a joke, but has since become an easy shorthand for the collective. They even have their individual roles: Boogaart is the quiet one, Tio is described as the dad, and Naus is the sweet one.
“I’m the blonde one,” says Koning. “That’s my personality.”