In December 2018, Cardboard Computer, the trio behind Lynchian cult hit Kentucky Route Zero, joined Patreon. Ben Babbitt, Jake Elliott, and Tamas Kemenczy made the decision, in part, to alleviate financial challenges impacting the project’s final stages. “It’s been difficult continuing to make the work that we make in the context of a very unpredictable income stream,” says Babbitt, the game’s composer and sound designer. “We’ve never prioritized PR and we’ve never had the bandwidth to be strategic about marketing or sustaining interest over the development period.”
Cardboard Computer’s turn to the membership-based crowdfunding platform is surprising, both because Kentucky Route Zero has garnered such a warm public response and because Annapurna Interactive, a publisher with definite clout, is set to release the upcoming console versions of the game. But the episodic adventure exploring debt, Greek mythology, and the forgotten corners of America has never been a straightforward project. Its discrete chapters, the first of which was released in 2013, have only grown more complex and detailed. With an expanded scope and unchanging team, the length of time between releases has naturally extended, stretching the limits of revenue generated through game sales. Its last episode saw the light of day in 2016, while the highly anticipated final entry is being helped over the finish line by the generous support of the game’s fans.
The team behind Kentucky Route Zero isn’t the first studio to use the crowdfunding platform, which also supports artists and creators in other industries. Kitty Horrorshow has been distributing her self-proclaimed “haunted cities” through Patreon since 2015, while Puppet Combo, the developer behind gruesome pulp horror titles such as Feed me, BILLY!, signed up in 2017. Rebecca Cordingley started utilizing its services the same year to help finance the altogether more wholesome-looking life simulator Ooblets.
Even since Kentucky Route Zero was first released in 2013, the landscape of video games, independent or otherwise, has changed immeasurably. Steam has grown to the point of a de-facto monopoly for PC titles, its mostly automated storefront dealing with an increasingly vast number of games (only recently has there been a significant challenge to its position by the Epic Games Store). Blockbuster video games have grown steadily bigger, if fewer in number, with titles such as Fornite and Red Dead Redemption 2 demanding more time and attention than ever before. With the imminent arrival of streaming and subscription services such as Google Stadia and Apple Arcade potentially signaling a further shift in how we value games, the position of independent game makers may become more precarious.
It’s unclear whether Patreon offers a full-blown solution or a stopgap remedy for game makers grappling with the current landscape. What it does unequivocally provide is the business infrastructure for creators to implement a fan-subscription model of funding. Communities surrounding artists and their work can often appear diffused online, particularly as forums have given way to broader social media platforms. Patreon centralizes communication between creators and fans, ultimately providing creators with a means to monetize support and goodwill.
Take the Sokpop Collective for example. Supporters can opt to give the hip Dutch video game quartet $3 in return for two new games every month, while higher price tiers offer exclusive access to betas and even source codes for its games. For small studios working on big projects such as Cardboard Computer and Bay 12 Games, the maker of notoriously complex and free-to-play strategy game Dwarf Fortress, fans are supporting the ongoing creation of a work they care about.
“Even though I don’t have a huge number of subscribers, it’s consistent every month and it helps pay some of my bills,” says Connor Sherlock, the altgame maker behind The Walking Simulator A Month Club, which is currently supported by 80 patrons totaling $299. While his eerie walking sims eventually end up on itch.io, a digital store similar to Steam albeit geared toward experimental games, this rarely matches his Patreon income. The itch.io revenue fluctuates, contingent on traffic generated from news posts covering his work. Babbitt is similarly welcoming of the consistency Cardboard Computer’s Patreon brings, its $1,870 a month proving an invaluable contribution to the daily operations of the studio and expensive software licenses. “It’s certainly not at the point where it translates to personal income,” he says. “But it’s supporting the studio.”
Babbitt welcomes the extent to which Patreon offers a site of interaction between artist and fan through comments, blog posts, and invitations to view exclusive streams. “There’s an inherent lack of community around Kentucky Route Zero, which has been in development for so long and is made by three people who all live in different cities,” he says. “So just having a consistent reminder that there are people out there who care about what we’re doing is a huge positive.” Cardboard Computer’s different tiers of support also lack the bells and whistles of, say, Sokpop, an approach which chimes with Babbitt’s hopes that Patreon might become less transactional and focused on exclusive content.
Patreon is rarely a creator’s sole income stream. Cardboard Computer’s three members have taken on other work at various stages during the project. Babbitt toured Europe with indie folk artist Weyes Blood in 2016 and he’s recently written string parts for the upcoming Angel Olsen record, while Elliott has taught at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where the group met as students. Sherlock, meanwhile, crafts his walking sims on Sundays when he’s not working as a SalesForce administrator in London, his two-hour commute leaving little time to make games during weekday evenings.
Kitty Horrorshow says her monthly target of $1,000 means she can make rent, but also “buy clothes, books, software extensions” while still stowing away some cash for taxes. Bay 12 Games might make $7,561 each month on Patreon, but the brothers announced plans earlier this year to bring its 13-year-old game to Steam to help fund medical treatment for a family member. Patreon isn’t affording luxurious lifestyles, but simply enabling altgame makers to continue their work, sometimes at little more than a subsistence level.
Patreon’s reliability, particularly when compared to Steam’s infamously opaque practices, shouldn’t be understated. In October 2018, Steam made a change to a discoverability algorithm without first informing developers, which resulted in some games experiencing a huge slump in traffic. Then, in June this year, what appeared to be a wording error on Steam’s part resulted in the mass deletion of wishlisted games. It’s tempting to read such failures as a natural result of Steam’s monopoly, the platform enjoying curiously little in the way of consequences aside from negative news stories because, well, everybody needs to use it.
Jim Rossignol, founder of Big Robot, the studio behind Sir, You Are Being Hunted and The Signal From Tölva, views such events as indicative of Steam’s uneven communication. “Sometimes there will be notifications in the developer forums but other times they’ll just be pulling levers and seeing what happens,” he says. “We just see the fallout.”
Steam might also be an inappropriate platform for those whose work doesn’t fit neatly into its philosophy of games. “It’s always been a store geared towards what sells,” explains Rossignol, who achieved success with Sir, You Are Being Hunted in the early days of Early Access. “They’ve very much been, ‘If you sell well, then you sell well,’ and that becomes self-fulfilling.” But Steam’s reliance on algorithms as well as user reviews is perhaps discouraging for developers like Connor Sherlock who are making willfully weird, often unpolished, and uncommercial work. “If I’m making a game once a month, I have to cut a lot,” he says. “Often they don’t have pause menus and I approach them more like a work of sculpture or a landscape painting. The games on Patreon are not story, action, or skill games at all.”
Pressure from video game streaming and subscription services such as Apple Arcade and Google Stadia might present further upheaval, shifting emphasis from one-off transactions to a Spotify-like service. Looking to the music industry as a possible guide for developments, Spotify’s market-dominating music platform — which pays out $0.006 to $0.0084 to artists per stream — has, alongside the likes of Apple Music and others, essentially hollowed out the incomes of many artists. The fallout has seen notable independent musicians such as Zola Jesus and Amanda Palmer turn to Patreon as a means of income.
At the moment, both Apple and Google appear to be handsomely remunerating the studios and publishers they’re working with. But for everyone else who isn’t part of that elite group, things might not be so rosy. Looking further forward, it might not only be indie game makers who utilize Patreon, but more established creators, studios, and even publishers — at least those with already sizable fan bases to call upon — that are locked out of what might be an exclusive streaming club.
In addition to this potential for increased competition on the service, comments from Patreon’s CEO Jack Conte might be equally as worrying for video game makers using the platform. “The reality is Patreon needs to build new businesses, new services, and new revenue lines in order to build a sustainable business,” he said in February, just prior to the platform upping the cut it takes of monthly subscriptions from 5 to 8 percent for those on its Pro plan. What sustainable means for a company established off the back of exhaustive venture capital is unclear, but if Patreon significantly alters its service or, worst-case scenario, eventually shuts down because it fails to meet the expectations of its financiers, a raft of video game makers would be left without crucial income. For now, the platform is a stable revenue source, but it might not be long term.
Ultimately, in spite of the benefits Patreon offers, Babbitt believes video game makers may need to look further afield than the crowdfunding platform in the future, toward more equitable, cooperative funding models. “A lot of the information out there about what it takes to make a game and how much it costs seems a little bit too prescriptive and rooted in a particular economic vantage point,” he says. “It’s crucial we do the work of not only imagining new models [of funding], but building them, too.”