Patronage Publishing: I Have Reservations

Patronage projects are the latest rage in game publishing, especially role-playing games. Publishers list a project with a monetary target and once fans’ pledges reach the target, project development begins. Sometimes big contributors receive added benefits, such as direct input into the product development or an upgraded product. Initially I thought patronage publishing a good idea for smaller companies and as a new avenue to get fresh product on the market. On reflection, I am reconsidering my stance.

My primary concern with patronage projects is what I call the “American Idol Effect.” Victory requires that everyone from Grandma to tweens enjoy your music. After weeks-long trip through the “American Idol” colon, singers extruded at the end are bland pablum, lacking any artistic merit. Art is not a democratic process and game writing is an art.

I am not saying that every patronage project compromises its artistic vision to reach its target goal, but the incentive is always there to artistically bend to the masses’ will. Perhaps the more adult products never see the light of day in favor of teen-friendly PG-13 games with a broader fan base. I want my games to have a singular vision, not a demographically driven marketing plan. [pullthis] Patronage smacks of financial desperation.[/pullthis]

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In fact, they very act of patronage publishing implies financial weakness in a company. I am well aware that many game companies are on the very edge of solvency and often fall over that edge. I also deeply admire anyone that dives into the brutal gaming market. That said, if your first product did not make enough money to put out subsequent product you should re-evaluate your business plan. That is not to say give up and shut down, but unless you are just a very dedicated hobbyist you should consider radical changes in your business strategy. Yes, you might round-up enough fans to support your next project, but companies survive long-term on sales growth and new customers. Strip-mining existing fans for financing is a stop-gap at best. Evolve or die.

Happily, with every game company that fails, new companies appear. These start-ups are the life-blood of the game industry, with new energy, ideas and designs. Every game on the market today began life on someone’s kitchen table or as an idea on the back of a napkin. There is no game industry without these brave entrepeneurs. I hope they have start-up funds, because patronage publishing hates new companies.

Patronage operates best when the publisher is a known quantity. Michelangelo did not get the Sistine Chapel gig without a proven track-record and some pretty amazing art samples. Established companies have no problem establishing their credibility. Existing products speak for themselves. New companies need an amazing sales pitch to draw investors. This means their product is again under pressure to conform to a known gaming norm. “Our game is like D&D, but we fixed the combat system,” or “…think of our game as ‘Magic:The Gathering’ but with spoons.” Event then, there is no guarantee the product will be worth anything. This is true of any patronage project, but less so when dealing with an existing publisher. Investing with a new company is far more risk. Consequently, new companies are at a tremendous disadvantage in investor recruiting.

MTG reminds me how patronage severely penalizes the original or offbeat game. Ask yourself, would you invest in this game pitch:

It is a fantasy card game that uses cards people collect like baseball cards.

Twenty-years ago no one had any idea that this game would be worth millions. M:TG  took the gaming world like a hurricane hitting a bamboo hut and is now the stuff of legend. I simply do not believe that the patronage model would have supported such an original idea.

There is a place for patronage projects in the gaming community, especially for small press offerings with limited commercial appeal. However, I truly hope it does not become the primary method of game publisher financing.

Because I really hate “American Idol.”

Trask, The Last Tyromancer

trask

Trask is a long-time gamer, world traveler and history buff. He hopes that his scribblings will both inform and advance gaming as a hobby.

4 thoughts on “Patronage Publishing: I Have Reservations

  • May 11, 2010 at 9:42 pm
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    I don’t think it CAN overtake other methods. Simply because as long as people are willing to buy an existing product, publishers will sell existing products. And I doubt that gamers will decide, “I’m not going to buy a product unless I find it before it’s finished and have to contribute for it to ever see the light of day.”

    I don’t have a particular opinion on patronage, except that I don’t think I’ll participate as either a customer or a publisher. As a customer, there are enough awesome existing products to take my attention and wallet without me sinking my hopes and cash into something in production. As a publisher, I feel that it’s my responsibility to deliver kickass content on a regular schedule to all of my fans. I don’t want to feel especially beholden to any one group or project.

  • May 11, 2010 at 11:49 pm
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    Like all things, there is a right way and a wrong way to do patronage. If you want to look at right ways, take a look at Jess Hartley’s Shattered Glass project where cool stuff is routinely sent to patrons and Open Design where you’ve got dialogues and cool stuff breaking out all over.

    Equally, patronage has made possible art like the Sistine Chapel. I will take part if the project is relevant to my interests but with a couple of notable exceptions, the smaller presses are where it’s at.

    Which is a pleasant contrast to the awful dyspeptic horrors of American Idol, X-Factor and (insert countries that know better)’s Got Talent! Gack!!

  • May 12, 2010 at 2:18 am
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    I feel most patronage structures are just another form of pre-order.

    I know GMT http://www.gmtgames.com/ operates on a pre-order basis. Even a miniatures company wargames factory http://www.wargamesfactory.com/ uses pre-order to help pick what miniatures they will produce next.

    I think the incentive to compromise your artistic vision is basically the same if you pre-sell or not*. Some people have used this to let more people into the design process, but i think making a game that incorporates user feedback could also be called an “artistic vision”.

    If that’s something you want to play is another matter entirely 🙂

    *aside from the obvious influence of stopping someone from publishing something that did not make enough pre-orders. but with POD today products like this can still be published on a small scale. The pre-order just saves the publisher the extra 1000 copies of shame that take up space in the garage”

  • May 19, 2010 at 10:32 pm
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    I agree with the sense of your argument, but have lower standards for the business model. I view these kind of projects more as vanity publishing trying to recoup its costs through what are more or less charity pledges. It might work for the person just starting who has no other source of financing and is hoping to make even or enough to buy a few more gaming products, but wouldn’t think it would work as a long-term strategy for the homogenizing you discuss.

    But I think you are setting up a Strawman with your description of MTG. No one would invest on that pitch, but no one would make such a short pitch. A 30+ second pitch would be the entry attempt, not the 3 seconds. You would also probably use comparison to existing competitive card games, and use the collectible aspect as a way to differentiate your card game from others.

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