Some Honest Reflections about Patreon as a Game Media Creator
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
You can read more of my writing over at the Meeple Like Us blog, or the Textual Intercourse blog over at Epitaph Online. You can some information about my research interests over at my personal homepage.
I don’t think I’ve ever been quite so anxious as when I pressed the button on launching our Patreon. Job interviews don’t phase me. My PhD Viva was a source of some temporary butterflies but was pretty much fine. Buying a house and getting six figures in debt was a breeze. Opening yourself up to a community though and saying ‘Hello, please support my work’ … that took a degree of courage I had no idea would be required. Our Patreon sat there, configured but unlaunched, for a couple of weeks. Every single day it squat, menacing, in the back of my psyche. It made me feel miserable. I launched it in the end because the stress of seeing it fail would have been less than the stress of thinking it might.
We have an unhealthy relationship with compensation in modern society.
Some people are awarded, by the opaque mechanisms of Capitalism, funds far beyond the comprehension of the vast majority of the population. The social and legal norms that bind us all together simply don’t matter when someone is a billionaire. We talk about someone’s ‘net worth’ as if anyone can be worth a million times what anyone else is. There is a certain lack of shame that comes with being genuinely, properly rich. Obscene wealth itself is a kind of shield against the social judgement of wanting even greater sums of wealth. And to top it off the unabashed capitalists, the ones who played the game of social Darwinism better than the rest of us, are lauded for their slightest philanthropic deeds even when they comes at no real cost or discomfort. It don’t really cost anything to drop a million on a passion project when it’s nothing more than a rounding error in your personal finances, especially when it’s viewed in the context of the destruction you’re reaping elsewhere in your empire. Proper wealth seems to come with sociopathy as a side-effect and part of that is a breezy acceptance of rendering the world down to a series of societal micro transactions. It’s almost magical.
The rest of us can feel anxiety gnawing away at us whenever we talk about being paid for our efforts. ‘I am doing what I think is good work and I would love to be compensated for what I do’ seems like an uncontroversial stance to take. Yet it’s difficult for those of us who haven’t grown up immune to the impact of money because we can still understand the value of the exchange. Patreon has given a platform to many who would otherwise have struggled to get anything from our work, but it hasn’t changed the difficulty of opening ourselves up to the vulnerability of accepting contributions. Patreon provides money, but the cost of it is anxiety.
This editorial, made possible by the support of our generous backers, is going to be an honest, conflicted and rambling account of the way Patreon has supported Meeple Like Us even as it has changed our relationship to the work we’ve been doing. I hope it will be at least enlightening to anyone considering starting a Patreon of their own.
Patreon as an Income Source
Meeple Like Us has been running a Patreon since the start of our third year of operation. By comparative standards, it has done very well but really that’s only because the media landscape of this hobby isn’t particularly well funded outside of a few big names. I have never expected to make a living with this site, and that’s just as well because that’s never going to happen. I’m happy that essentially the income from our Patreon covers all the site’s necessary expenses and a good portion of its unnecessary ones. It pays for hosting, for advertising, for content delivery networks and so on. It also pays for games that we’re buying for review and t-shirts we’re using for conventions. What it doesn’t pay for is anyone’s time. Perhaps it will eventually. I hope one day it might. For now though what our Patreon does is stem the flow of money that would otherwise coming from my pocket. That is a marvelous luxury, one that many sites don’t have – but it doesn’t change the fact that if I shuttered up the site right now I’d have the same amount of money and a lot more free time.
The people who are supporting the Meeple Like Us Patreon are absolutely wonderful. They have taken the decision, in an atmosphere of intense economic uncertainty and difficulty, to transfer some of their money over to us in exchange for – well, pretty much nothing. There’s a Patron newsletter, a Discord, and a few sneak peeks of upcoming Meeple Like Us content. Let’s be honest though – nobody is giving us money for any of that. They’re investing in an idea – in a resource that they feel has value for the community. They’re also doing it pretty much in direct competition to all sensible decision making. After all, this is essentially the core of the problem in funding all social good – the attitude of ‘someone should definitely support this, but I don’t see why that someone should be me’.
Every Meeple Like Us Patron though has decided ‘Yes, that someone should be me’ and as a result they are sustaining a resource that is intended to serve our community in a way that nothing else is We offer an (erratic and imperfect) map of the accessibility landscape of the hobby so that people with disabilities (or more temporary impairments) can make more informed decisions about where they will be able to participate. Obviously I believe that this is a project worth doing because it consumes a vast amount of my time. The value of the Patreon we run though is that it is raw, inarguable evidence that other people believe in the project.
The real value of the MLU Patreon isn’t in how much money it makes, because as soon as I put a price-tag on the work it doesn’t come close to covering it. That’s an incredibly dangerous psychological path to go down. Meeple Like Us earning even a meaningful fraction of the ‘market cost’ of the site (taking into account time to play games, write posts and do all the other things needed) is a pipe dream. It’s just not going to happen. Even funding the work at minimum wage level is a distant dream. In this space, you need to be making funny videos that are consistently posted to Reddit to have a realistic hope for that kind of thing. Either that or launch a dubious Kickstarter full of pandering miniatures. There’s plenty of money in this hobby, just comparatively little of it that goes into the wider ecosystem of the media landscape.
But that’s okay, because the Patreon does something more important than pay us for the work we do.
Patreon as a Vote of Confidence
I’ve been pretty hard-line since we started that Patreon, casting our goals in three primary tiers.
- Short term survival: At this point, we’re using up the posts we wrote months ago. When the posts are done, the project is finished and I’ll call an end to the site. Not because it’s not making any money, but because I don’t think the community values it enough to be worth the considerable effort that goes into sustaining it.
- Medium term survival: That’s where we are right now. This is the point where we look towards the future with the hope that pledge growth will be sufficient to take us to long term sustainability by the end of next year. Here we’re writing new posts and editorials, but the project still has a definite end-point. This goal says to me ‘Enough people care about this work to be patient’. We can wait, but we can’t wait forever.
- Long term survival: That’s where I hope to be by the end of 2019. This goal is the one that keeps us going as long as you’ll have us. We can start making longer term commitments and expand our scope, while continuing to map out the accessibility landscape.
The rest of our goals are ‘nice to have’ – things we’d like to do but nothing we need to do. They’re things like ‘Launch a podcast’ or ‘do more videos’ or ‘get a pool of paid contributors’. They include things I don’t actually want to do like ‘go to Gencon’. I’m not a fan of big conventions as some of our previous coverage would have made clear, but I believe our attendance would be useful. It’s important to me that the site grows, but it’s not important that it grows big. This will always be a niche concern and there is I suspect a hard ceiling on how popular we’re ever going to get.
I’m sure this approach has struck people as somewhat mercenary, and I understand. Part of the problem with our compensation of culture is that we assign a negative price-tag to works of a compassionate nature. Those that work in charities for example are expected that their own passion for a cause should translate into lower remuneration for their efforts. ‘Art for Art’s Sake’ and ‘Charity for Charity’s Sake’ are hard-baked into the value judgement we make when evaluating how much money someone should be getting for their labour. It’s wrong though. Nobody can eat art. Nobody can pay their rent with compassion. Public impact doesn’t pay for school uniforms. And yet the prejudices remain and they’re really hard to overcome. Look at the way society rewards teachers and nurses for a good example of how caring is expected to somehow cover a portion of someone’s life expenses.
For me though, I need to see that people value the work and there’s no argument quite so convincing in a capitalist society as that of currency. You can’t argue with money – it’s the ultimate way to assign value to a project. It might not be very satisfying in that regard, but this is the lens through which our civilization functions – for good and for ill. Mostly for ill, but until we all collectively decide to eat the rich it’s hard to see how and why it would change.
Without visible, tangible support it’s not necessarily the case that I would back away from the topic of board game accessibility. It would however make me seriously question whether this site is the right vehicle to drive into the battle. There are other routes that offer less public engagement but also require much less work. Patreon funding is part of how I make the case for this topic actually mattering enough to warrant that steep differential between effort and remuneration. It’s a public signal of worth. The healthier our Patreon is, the more difficult it becomes to dismiss the work we do. This isn’t an imaginary argument I’m having with people either. It’s a real thing I’ve discussed with real people in real positions of power. It’s also an argument I’ve had many times with myself in the darkest grip of some sleepless night. If I don’t believe there’s public support for the site, I can’t convince others to care. The Patreon is something upon which we can all hang a collective hat.
The Anxiety of Patreon
Hidden in there though is the dirty secret at the heart of the Patreon system. You put yourself out there, you ask people to value what you do, and then you end up judging yourself by the extent to which they do or don’t. Sometimes other people start judging you by the amount of public support you can demonstrate. There are few things quite so illuminating, and occasionally disheartening, as seeing how few people are willing to pay for your efforts. Especially when you stack that up against the raw tonnage of work you’re actually doing.
Thankfully that hasn’t been the case for Meeple Like Us but that’s only comparative to many other Patreons in this area. We have a lot of support, but only if you are very precise in how you define the comparators. Compared to the number of people dropping hundreds of dollars on Kickstarters in any given month, we’re not even a blip on a radar. If you totalled up the amount that the community spends on the long tail of board game media in a year, and compared it to what they spend on Kickstarters in a month… well. It’s a humbling story. People will spend more money on games they won’t play than they will on a media landscape trying to guide them to games they will. It can be galling to think that you don’t even rate consideration when weighed against a game that might never even be taken out of the shrink wrap.
Patreon is a source of income, but where it truly excels is as a source of anxiety.
It’s easy to say ‘Ignore the stats, just do the work you want to do’. What happens if the work you do is intimately linked with public impact? ‘Remember why you got into this’ is great advice, unless your motivations were to change the world – or at least a small part of it. Even if none of that is true, Patreon is in many respects the dollar value that the community has collectively assigned to your existence and your spirits will rise and fall with the tally. Even if you don’t need the money, it’s still a vote of confidence in your work. Or perhaps, a vote that can only be interpreted as lack of confidence. I operate a kind of ‘pay it forward’ scheme where 10% or so of what we get as Patreon income gets pledged to other content creators, and it’s precisely because of how important it is that people feel their work is financially valued.
This maybe sounds bananas to people that don’t have a Patreon of their own – that the presence of an income might cause more angst than its absence . Talk to your favourite creators about it and you might be surprised. Each pledge is an act of tangible support and it’s inevitable that should carry a psychological weight. There are so many calls on the money people have, and Netflix is only $14. Some of the MLU Patrons are pledging more than a Netflix subscription to the site and I don’t really feel we can ever truly deserve that. We don’t have the latest movies. We don’t have exclusive programming. You can’t even watch repeats of Friends on us. We know, on an intellectual level, that people are not choosing us over Netflix and that a pledge is for the work we do. On the level of perpetual anxiety though we’re just waiting for people to realise what a poor return they’re getting on their money in comparison to everything else on which they could be spending it,
Part of the problem here is that Patreon is also a popularity contest. If you’re known, if you’re liked, if you’re signal boosted – that can do wonders in generating the kind of patronage that translates into good mental health. For everyone else – well, there’s only so much money to go around and if nobody thinks of you then you’re not going to be on their mind when it comes time to pledge. Even the extent to which people know about your Patreon is a source of anxiety. The issue becomes one of plugging it and it doesn’t take long before ‘hey, great – gratz on the Patreon’ becomes ‘Please just shut up about this Patreon, we’ve all got one and none of us are doing any better’. You’re constantly stuck between the twin pressures of ‘getting the word out there’ and ‘not being a money-grubbing shill’. So the anxiety comes from not getting new pledges to your Patreon while also feeling like you can keep on advertising its existence. And then it comes from advertising and still not getting pledges because people are sick of hearing about it
‘What a cheek’, said one relative of mine, ‘Asking people for money for a website’. To be fair, he was joking and indeed even pledged – but at the heart of every joke is a kernel of truth. Most of us aren’t great at asking for help, certainly not for things that we’re doing for free anyway. Everything about a Patreon is going to create some anxiety until you’re so big that individual pledges simply don’t matter. Few of us get to that stage.
Patreon and the size of a pledge
There was a conversation on Twitter not long ago – Paul Grogan (the hardest working man in board gaming) was asked by one of his viewers whether a $1 pledge was seen as an insult when so many other people were pledging more. His answer, and I bet the answer of everyone with a Patreon, was essentially ‘God, no!’. As I say, it’s great when people make big pledges but that $1 is someone, somewhere, deciding that money they could spend on themselves is worth giving to someone that they don’t need to support. It maybe doesn’t nudge the funding goals much by itself, but enough people doing that is its own intensely powerful signal that what you’re doing matters. You might think it’s just a droplet but the oceans of the world are made up of droplets. In a world where online cynicism and ironic detachment are eating away at the good in life, a $1 pledge is worth its weight in gold. That’s more than an actual $1 coin is.
And it’s for that reason that I occasionally say ‘I’d rather seventy-five $1 pledges than one $100 pledge’. I speak from experience – we briefly had a $100 pledge and the sense of fragility it lent to the Patreon was overwhelming. It meant meeting the site’s goals were entirely within the gift of one single person. As much as I appreciated that act of generosity it came with a lot of emotional weight. Large pledges are wonderful, lots of large pledges even better, but the smaller the pledge the more likely I am to believe in its reliability. We have some wonderfully generous people supporting Meeple Like Us (thank you all!) but I can only ever count on that month to month because they are donating sums of money that they could easily and noticeably spend elsewhere. Enough of them in large enough numbers creates stability that smaller numbers don’t, but you have to ride the waves of volatility in any case and that can be harrowing.
I have said since the start of this Patreon campaign, and repeated at the bottom of every page, that I don’t want a penny that people can’t comfortably afford because there are other valuable ways to support the site that have just as much impact. However when people can contribute and feel that the site has sufficient value their pledge is more than just a dollar. It’s a strengthening of our bargaining position. It’s like starting a fight with the universe and finding someone you didn’t expect standing shoulder to shoulder with you.
Sharing our content on Reddit is an amazingly useful thing people can do, and the generosity of spirit people have shown with regards to that has done wonders in getting eyeballs on the work that we’re doing. Liking our tweets is lovely (but retweets are even better). Follows and likes on Twitter and Facebook tell a story, and don’t think publishers ignore it. Kind words cost nothing but can genuinely make our day. All of those things are wonderful but there is a kind of person out there that evaluates everything through the lens of cash impact and Patreon pledges are persuasive.
Currently our Patreon overall total is hidden, and it’s for that reason – I don’t think it yet makes a convincing case as to why people should take us seriously. It doesn’t yet say ‘people are voting with their wallets to prove you should listen to this site’. I’m hopeful it will by the end of next year, and if that happens you can bet I’ll be swinging the significance of every single pledge like a hammer. I mean, just look at the word we use there – ‘pledge’. It’s rich with meaning. Look at the synonyms. Promise. Undertaking. Vow. Assurance. Oath. Covenant. Its importance is in the symbolism as much as the size. A $1 pledge is a gift far in excess of what you might think.
I’m still not 100% certain that starting a Patreon was a good idea. I was convinced at the end of our second year that an untested virtue was no virtue at all, and throwing the project and its future out into the crucible of crowdfunding is at least a way to shake yourself out of complacency. In many ways though, it would have been better to launch a Kickstarter that failed because that at least is quick, abrupt and decisive. Patreon requires you take a much longer view, in a system where support is psychologically more difficult to come by. Dropping a few dollars on a one off campaign is always going to have less friction than an ongoing pledge. People feel less obligated with a one-off $20 donation than a year of $1 monthly donations. That obligation creates a barrier between you and someone that supports your work.
I’ve gained more than a low-grade sense of oscilating anxiety from our Patreon. What I have gained most over the past four months is a sense of scale that was previously lacking. Or rather, a sense of perspective that’s more rounded. That’s resulted in me refining expectations, scaling back goals, and being more realistic in what can be expected, and what can be hoped for. That one and done Kickstarter would have subjected me to a month of anxiety but then it would have been over. The Patreon subjects me to revisiting the anxiety on a regular basis. On top of website stats, followers, likes and other quantifiable measures of impact I now have to add the health of a Patreon. The weight of the site was a lot less when I wasn’t constantly confronted with a tangible representation of its cash value. I do now at least have an idea of its value that takes into account the relative reticence of the community to support hobbyist media. I went in to this with all the wrong assumptions, and it’s useful to correct that.
But again – the cash value of effort is an entirely unhealthy frame of reference. I know the site helps people. I get emails on a regular basis about that. I’m contacted by journalists and media outlets every so often asking for guidance for their audiences, and I know that helps raise the profile of the hobby and of this issue within the hobby. All of that is easier to hold on to though when you don’t know there’s also another less validating metric lurking insidiously in the background.
Even so, I am hopeful for the future of the site – and that’s not always been true. That said, it probably won’t be true tomorrow but that’s what ongoing anxiety does to you. It lends every day a new excitement because you don’t know how you’re going to feel about the things with which you’ve currently made peace. It’s like being a small country that has signed a ceasefire with an aggressive, expansionist and erratic neighbour. However, the support that has been provided to the site by our Patreon backers is appreciated more than I can genuinely express and I hope this meandering adventure through my conflicted thinking doesn’t obscure that one core fact.
For those of you who do have favourite media outlets that you can afford to back and have been on the fence about, I’d ask that you please consider it. It doesn’t have to be Meeple Like Us – there are dozens of wonderful content creators out there. You’d be surprised how much positive impact on someone’s life you can buy with a dollar.