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Anna Anthropy's two-dollar experiment
Anna Anthropy's two-dollar experiment Exclusive
October 18, 2013 | By Leigh Alexander

October 18, 2013 | By Leigh Alexander
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    25 comments
More: Indie, Art, Design, Exclusive



Designer and author Anna Anthropy has been making free games almost for the entirety of her career.

While she's sold books -- democratic game-making manifesto Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, and saucy Choose Your Own Adventure story Star Wench -- she's never charged for digital work like Lesbian Spider Queens of Mars, Dys4ia, Triad and countless others.

Anthropy, whose work often explores themes of kink, identity and community, has decided to try a new approach: Her latest interactive story, a gleefully-childlike haunted house-themed Choose Your Own Adventure called a very very VERY scary house, is for sale on Gumroad for $2. It's not just an attempt to monetize her own work, but an experiment in disrupting elements of the traditional economy of art games.

Although crowdfunding, patronage and other non-traditional forms of fundraising for games and game creators are increasingly common in the digital age, some standards and expectations still persist -- more traditional independent developers are celebrated for bootstrapping and become "success stories" when they raise money, while others face criticism, a presumption they're "seeking handouts" when they dare to ask for some small amount of money for their work.

By placing her new Twine story, a very very VERY scary house, for sale, Anthropy hopes to encourage other artists and game makers to feel more comfortable trying to monetize their creations, even in some small way.

"No time like the present," Anthropy tells me of a complicated decision. "The truth is that I need money to pay rent and eat! Putting games behind paywalls is something I've been extremely wary about - the people I want my games to reach are the ones most marginalized within games culture as it stands, the ones with the least money and the least access."

She says for a while she's been able to keep Flash games free for players while still being paid, by selling them to sponsors, but the opportunity isn't there anymore: "That bubble's burst and I still have material needs, so this is an experiment with something more sustainable," she says.

She chose Gumroad, a platform that lets creators sell comics, zines, music and more directly to their audience, because she's seen other friends find success with it. Originally she thought of pricing a very very VERY scary house at $1, but was encouraged to try the $2 point by fellow game maker Merritt Kopas, who pointed out "the kind of person who won't buy it for two dollars is the same kind of person who won't buy it for one."

"I made a deal with her that I'd sell it for $2 if she sold her forthcoming twine game for the same amount," Anthropy says.

"Some people are better trained to navigate the channels of making money -- or even to just feel like they're entitled to make money -- than others," she says of why some types of games seeking money seem more controversial than others. "I see this pattern where white dudes' success at making money is celebrated, is the subject of movies... not unsurprisingly, these games are kind of conservative -- graphically-polished Super Mario Bros [-style] games."

"When a marginalized person asks for a little money for something that doesn't look like our idea of 'the polished commercial game,' though, they face a lot of hostility," she continues. "Most of my women friends are terrified to ask for even a little money for all of the unpaid work that they do."

In her book Rise of the Videogame Zinesters and in her lectures, Anthropy has played a forerunning role in advocating for the diversification of games through low-cost tools, encouraging those who might not have thought games were 'for them' to try self-expression and communication through the medium. But while new voices and new platforms in games are a valuable goal both for the medium and for those creators, it doesn't mean artists can't also seek money for their work, she says.

"We have this narrative that somehow art that comes from poverty or from suffering is more valuable, and that's bullshit - just a way that we justify exploiting artists," Anthropy says, pointing to the "forexposure_txt" Twitter account that's gained popularity by exposing the endless ways people try to manipulate artists, designers and filmmakers into working on their projects for free.

"People are actually being hurt by... the idea that if you do something because you care about it, you shouldn't expect to make money for it," she says. "I think people expect that I have tons of money because my games get lots of exposure and I go on tour all the time, but I couldn't make rent for half of last year. the kind of work I do for communities I care about, people expect for free."

A lot of people seem to feel that the desire to pursue and create games, or any type of expressive art, doesn't "entitle" one to a fulltime living. The word "entitle" feels tricky in this context, as does the prevailing idea that people who want to make art should always "just get a day job."

"It's really sad that so many people have internalized the capitalist myth that we don't deserve to be paid for work that doesn't alienate us - that any real artist should be prepared to get a day job they hate in order to make the art that they care about for free," says Anthropy. "The truth is that making art is work. It's labor. It takes time and energy. We're being asked to make a decision about whether we consider art to have value. Are we willing to compensate people for the work that they do to create things that enrich our lives?"

Existing channels like Kickstarter, Greenlight and patronage for popular artists tend to favor those who already know how to navigate them. "Kickstarter is for dudes who have been in the game industry for 15 years, have an old IP to cash in, and have a lot of experience pitching things for money," she says. "I remember [Deirdra 'Squinky' Kiai] talking about how hard it was to manage their Kickstarter campaign for Dominique Pamplemousse. Greenlight's model filters out anything that strays too far from the idea of a polished commercial game. Patreon is an option i'm going to try: hopefully, it'll allow me to still release games for free sometimes, but to receive something in exchange for them."

Anthropy recognizes she is lucky to be a prominent creator with much community support, and that being visible on social media necessarily helps anyone who wants to monetize projects. "But my hope is to at least create a precedent that'll make people feel comfortable asking for a couple bucks for a little Twine thing. Probably no one's going to get rich, but at least folks will be able to get something for all the work that they do."

I asked Anthropy about the response to her initiative so far, and what the reception has been like -- clearly we expect controversy when an artist, particularly a marginalized woman, asks for some small amount of money.

"Scroll down and read the comments on this piece," she predicts, "and you'll probably have your answer."


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Comments


Christian McCrea
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.. but is it *really* two dollars? Webster's dictionary defines two dollars as etc etc etc

Alfa Etizado
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Kickstarter is not just for people who have established IPs and have been working 15 years in the industry, I wish this myth would go away. It was true once, for a brief period of time. And what exactly is a polished commercial game that she mentions for Greenlight? Genuine question. I see all sorts of stuff getting greenlit and I have a hard time seeing what they all have in common.

Joe V
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I really hope this works out for Anna! I like the idea that people could make money off of a non-traditional game like something made in Twine and I hope we can see more of it. If someone puts a lot of work into a thing like a game, a story, a comic, and you really enjoy it, isn't that worth some money?

Jake Forbes
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Thanks for highlighting this. Anna Anthropy's contributions to the gaming landscape are priceless. There shouldn't be any controversy. We're in her debt.

Tom Battey
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It's a sad time we live in where charging $2 for a piece of entertainment can be seen as unreasonable. People pay more than $2 for a cup of coffee. Surely any piece of art, however slight, has got to be worth more than a weak-ass Starbucks latte?

It's a similar situation in the ebook market. You can spend months writing a book, but if you dare to charge more that $2 for it at retail, no one's going to touch it. In some ways I love what the digital free market has done for us as independent authors and designers, but this race-to-the-bottom pricing trend is a toxic side effect of that. It devalues both art and entertainment, and ensures that those who are making the big money are still the same people who would have been making that big money anyway.

Michael Pianta
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"A lot of people seem to feel that the desire to pursue and create games, or any type of expressive art, doesn't "entitle" one to a fulltime living. The word "entitle" feels tricky in this context, as does the prevailing idea that people who want to make art should always "just get a day job."

"It's really sad that so many people have internalized the capitalist myth that we don't deserve to be paid for work that doesn't alienate us - that any real artist should be prepared to get a day job they hate in order to make the art that they care about for free," says Anthropy. "The truth is that making art is work. It's labor. It takes time and energy. We're being asked to make a decision about whether we consider art to have value. Are we willing to compensate people for the work that they do to create things that enrich our lives?""

I think the last question there answers itself, and for most people the answer is "no." I think the idea that you have to get a day job while making your art for free is more of an economic reality than a myth. Certainly for myself, as a painter, I've always needed a part time job that I then had to supplement (not always successfully) with my artistic work. In my current job I literally pick up garbage. But whatever - it's better than working in "the industry" (whether we mean the game industry or the commercial art/illustration industry) where you will be expected to work 50+ hours a week and will have no time or energy left for your own work.

The fact of the matter, as I see it, is that most people don't care about art. They wouldn't engage with it for FREE and they certainly wouldn't pay money for it. They DO buy entertainment, and what they want from entertainment (and I've actually met people who were able to express this to me in exactly this way) is to be afforded the opportunity to turn their brains off. To zone out. To enjoy on an extremely superficial level a fable where everybody lives happily ever after. This they will pay ten dollars for, roughly.

I used to work at a museum and sometimes we would have exhibits of extremely famous artist. Picasso, Matisse, Caravaggio, etc. Over their entire run these exhibits would attract maybe 200,000 people. The ticket price was approximately $10 (depending on your age). The metropolitan area where I live has roughly 7 million people. So by proportion that means approximately 3% of the population felt that the opportunity to see some of the greatest paintings ever made was worth the price of $10. What hope do you have if you are a young painter with no name recognition, or, heaven forbid, your paintings are NOT recognized as the greatest ever? None. There are simply not enough people who care about art to support you, especially when you think about how many people just like you there are. The same situation happens in every other artistic discipline and THAT is the reason artists have to go get crappy day jobs.

Blake Reynolds
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Michael,
I'm sure you're very gifted and skilled, but monetizing your work is part of being an artist. The onus is on you to figure out a way to make a living doing what you're skilled at, AND being artistically satisfied.

I believe you, like many fine artists, draw a line between "art" and "entertainment." I always advise caution when this line is drawn. Art is the product of human creativity. Once you start narrowing that definition, pretension is bound to start creeping in. People who enjoy going to galleries are being entertained. More importantly, the Rembrandts and Mozarts and Shakespeares were just as beholden to their benefactors and constituents as commercial artists are today. They were making "entertainment" for their time.

I know there is an arm of the entertainment industry...a large arm, that admittedly treats every decision with cold cynicism, and not an ounce of risk, heart, ambition or sophistication goes into the output. I'm not saying schlock doesn't exist. But there are still a lot of dedicated, passionate artists who just want to make great, enriching things that fill people's lives with magic. Breaking Bad is our Shakespeare, John Williams is our Beethoven. It's all too easy to just hem and haw about the cold, heartless industry corroding our culture with this "art vs. entertainment" line. It's easy to do that, and it's hard to just be SO good you're irresistible. That's my goal. And I know I'm a long, long way off from it. But that's my goal.

Michael Pianta
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Well, sure it's up to the artist to monetize their work somehow, but this article is saying (or I took it to be saying) that the challenge for artists is overcoming the myth that they "should work for free" - that is, to have the will power to ask for an appropriate amount of money. Whereas I think the problem is not so much that as it is having/finding enough people who are prepared to pay - not because they believe in principle that artists don't deserve money but because they personally aren't getting anything out of the art.

Regarding the whole art/entertainment thing, I was kind of just picking up on what the article seemed to be going for there. They are explicitly talking about non commercial, niche games. They specifically single out, as not what they are talking about, "conservative Super Mario Bros.-[style]" games. Those games are commercially successful, everyone concedes that, but more personally expressive games are not, or not so often anyway. All I'm saying is that I think that is because the audience for that sort of game is so small, rather than because of a principled refusal to pay artists.

Not to say that artists don't get exploited as well though, because they certainly do.

Michael Joseph
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I think this is part of the problem with referring to games as art and game makers as artists. It's one example of how powerful language is because even subtle differences in terminology can have a profound impact on how creators and audiences view each other and their works.

There is a sense (instilled in us from years of film, tv, journalism, etc) that artists are selfish, self important, have inflated egos and sense of worth, are indulgent, elitist, pretentious, arrogant, etc. And maybe some of them are. But also tucked in there is the idea that real artists don't do what they do for the money. One can have interesting discussion on whether this is true/fair/right/wrong, and while that is going on, one can also change how they view themselves, change how they publicly and privately characterize themselves and their work, and in so doing change the way they are perceived and change the expectations of their audiences AND their coworkers and employers.

One can be an artisan / craftsman (as opposed to artist) and still hold themselves to personal standards of integrity, still be concerned and mindful of the messages their works emit, still decide to use their works to communicate complex ideas and concepts (not just create "fun"), still decide what type of business models are in alignment with their beliefs, all while not relinquishing the expectation amongst audiences that they are professionals earning a living.

... and if you explain to your parents the difference between an artist and artisan and why you consider yourself the latter, it may finally make sense to them. :)

Blake Reynolds
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As a creative professional, this article speaks to me. The digital age has ushered a new brand of consumer entitlement that Bill Maher notoriously calls "white looting."

The triple A propaganda still has consumers convinced they should keep paying $60 for a reskin of the same game they've played for decades, but 2 DOLLARS is a "risky" thing for an indie to do, no matter how good the product.

I have low tolerance for unpolished, sloppy work, but the consumer expects their product to be polished, professional AND free. They'll pay $4 for a(sometimes poorly drawn) superhero comic printed on newsprint, but guffaw at a 2 dollar game that, most of the time, is worth at least $20.

Another branch of this phenomenon is in indie clients looking for artists or musicians. They, of course, want to basically reskin Chrono Trigger as a self-indulgent love letter to their childhood, and they want ONE artist to complete it for like $200. It's unreal. It's easy to forget that, because so many talented people are ready to work for nothing, that a game like Chrono trigger likely cost in the millions, and had a dozen salaried professional artists working for months.

All we can hope to do is just be *that* good. Be more skilled, confident, and professional than your peers and know what you're worth. Eventually you'll find a client who respects your time, and eventually your customers won't be able to resist buying your product. Naive? Maybe. I know *I'm* happy to pay for quality art.

Brenton Haerr
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"It's really sad that so many people have internalized the capitalist myth that we don't deserve to be paid for work that doesn't alienate us - that any real artist should be prepared to get a day job they hate in order to make the art that they care about for free."

This is not a capitalist myth--in fact, it's an incredible corruption and reversal of what capitalists really believe. The free-market capitalists believe that artists should be paid exactly the amount that they are able to earn, whether that be through gallery showings, print sales, patronage, etc.

Brandon Van Every
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The question of how we extract payment from people is a deep and troubling one, from a Marxist perspective. There is no collective support of artists as a class. Yet, if some individual artist happens to make some particular thing, like the author of Minecraft, such a person is showered with money. Is the level of money that that 1 person made for 1 man-year of effort, at the point his cash really started rolling in, to the tune of 40K euros/week, equitable compared to all the janitors and Walmart employees in the world? The same problem manifests for rock stars and other celebrities. Why the concentration of so much wealth in to 1 person who "makes it," and the near poverty of so many others?

Unlike other forms of capitalist labor use, it's not easy to say that Notch "exploited people" into paying him so much money. Rather, the society made a collective choice to have him win some kind of implicit game development lottery.

John Bell
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As someone who has made retro-styled games for over 3 years free of charge, from my perspective attempting to make money comes down to basic economics. When there's a high supply (games) then the demand goes down. When demand goes down, prices go down. This is why when I think about charging money for my games, I dismiss it since nobody is willing to pay. Its painful to think about to say the least.

However talented or hard working I may be, the fact remains that there are thousands of other devs that are just as talented and hard working as I am (if not more so). This creates a situation where understanding consumer psychology, navigating kickstarter, greenlight, and being savvy with social media are things anyone expecting money are required to do in the current market. Having a good game would also be nice, but is by no means a requisite for profit.

"If I work hard I should be compensated" is an emotional statement, not a logical one. "Can the current market afford me compensation if I work hard?" is a far more level headed way of thinking about money. More often than not, the answer is a resounding "no". We have to remember that most consumers have no qualms about buying a sweater made from the exploitation of children overseas. Why would they care about the problems of a game developer?

Brandon Van Every
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They will care about *your* problems as a game developer, to the extent that you brand and sell *yourself*, your own story, as part of the game experience. This clearly happened in the case of Notch, the indie retro art poster child.

Brenton Haerr
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"Having a good game would also be nice, but is by no means a requisite for profit."

I would amend it to say, "is not the SOLE requisite for profit," although sometimes a real hum-dinger slips through and makes it big without being anything special.

Adam Bishop
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Lots of interesting stuff in here but I have to pick a bone with this sentence:

"It's not just an attempt to monetize her own work, but an experiment in disrupting elements of the traditional economy of art games."

"Disruption" has become incredibly overused jargon, usually in regard to tech industry things, that is rarely used to describe anything that is actually particularly disruptive. Charging money for a game is not disruptive. Even when the game is an "art" game, charging money for it is still really only a fairly minor change from the regular order of things, adopting a method of distribution that is totally normal for other very similar products. Calling what Anna is doing here "disruptive" makes it sound like it's aiming to spark some sort of major movement when it's actually mostly unremarkable.

May seem like a strange point to raise, but over- and misused tech jargon really drives me nuts.

Brenton Haerr
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"I asked Anthropy about the response to her initiative so far, and what the reception has been like -- clearly we expect controversy when an artist, particularly a marginalized woman, asks for some small amount of money."

Do we? I gladly tossed Sarah Northway a couple of bucks for rebuild, and I'll do it again when the new one comes out. Did I miss something that makes "charging for a game" a novel idea?

Adam Bishop
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The "marginalised" part is important. How many games made by trans women, women of colour, etc. - particularly ones that reflect their experiences as such - do you see on commercial platforms?

Peter Eisenmann
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Does every life experience out there need its own game? If you want commercial success, make a commercial game. If you decide to make a personal one, be prepared to get very little money out of it.

Katy Smith
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I'm surprised that this is an issue. Nobody should feel bad charging for something they've made.

Peter Eisenmann
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They definitely shouldn't. But they should also not expect to make decent money with it, unless there is at least some mainstream appeal. (I do not imply Anna Antrophy has unrealistic expections here.)

Amir Barak
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I think the term decent money is somewhat misleading here. I'm pretty sure her idea of decent money is enough for rent, food and the next project. It's not a crazy notion to maybe aim for a modest living out of something you love to create (and hopefully some people like to use/play) rather than trying to make a quick buck by appealing to the perceived mainstream. No one here is thinking she's trying to aim for the next Call of Duty... And you know what, if the 'mainstream' idiotic games disappear tomorrow and we're all back to making fun titles for chump change and a bacon sammich, I wouldn't mind that much :D

Peter Eisenmann
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I mean mainstream in a pretty broad sense here. I'd count XCOM and Minecraft into it, for example. But not "The misadventures of Miss Transgender" (again, not to imply someone is working on such, let alone expecting to make good money out of it). While such a game has every right to exist, it probably won't earn a living.

Eric Salmon
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A bit off-topic, but your post reminded me of this:

http://www.gamesforchange.org/play/mainichi/

Free, and definitely worth the time to play through if you haven't.

David Navarro
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"The truth is that I need money to pay rent and eat!"

That's at least one thing in common with the people who are making traditional commercial games, then.


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