I bought Inside a Star-Filled Sky this week. The game is currently being sold via the now-unremarkable (for PC indies, anyway) pay-what-you-want model, with a set minimum of $1.75– which is also how he now sells Sleep is Death. The purchase gets you every version of the game, the source code, unlimited downloads, and a guarantee for access to all future updates.
Why the minimum? Rohrer explains that $1.75 covers “payment processing fees and download bandwidth” only—so, we can guess, it’s money Rohrer himself doesn’t keep. If you wanted, you could pay him a price so low that he wouldn’t see a cent of it. I haven’t seen a pay-what-you-want point out the minimum, break-even price like this before. Normally, when we buy things over the internet, that kind of math is opaque to us: we know that there are transaction fees and bandwith costs floating around out there, but we don’t actually know how much they amount to, and it’s almost as if they don’t really exist. So when Rohrer points out how much he actually gets from every sale, the option of leaving him nothing at all looms larger than it usually does.
Rohrer is a very consciously-‘arty’ designer. He does this kind of thing, and it certainly makes him stand out. In games-world, see, there’s recently been some discussion about what art is worth, and whether art is really something we should expect to pay for—whether we should allow art to be influenced by the demands of a market. Taken generally, that question is an unhelpful one. All art requires a time investment. Wherever food costs money, labor deserves compensation. But when people complain that the experience of art costs them money—as happened with Dear Esther and the ModDB community—or express the idea that it might be a good idea for them to earn zero dollars for their art—as with Star-Filled Sky—it suggests to me that there might be a better way to compensate these games artists. Is there a way that feels more right to us, and to them?
We’ve always had rather intricate, complicated ways of compensating our artists. In the past, patronage made art possible. Italian princes paid Michelangelo so they could brag about it. “Hey,” they would shout at one another in the streets. “I just paid Michelangelo to paint a picture of Jesus for me! Yeah!” Then they’d fist-pump and high-five a peasant, or something. Similarly, admission to the Getty is free because a fat-cat captain of industry established a trust to fund the thing. Public art is generally made possible through taxes or charitable donations– I’m thinking about things like the Crown Fountain in Chicago. Other kinds of art have weirder compensation-rituals. Most ‘literary’ novelists don’t live off of their work: they’re professors, journalists, or other professionals. Creative Writing professors at my college have to publish things to keep their jobs, so the department gives them the time and resources. Their compensation, in the end, is provided by a system only tangentially related to the production and sale of their books.
Allow me, for a moment, to imagine some weird possibilities. What if Rohrer– or another games artist like him– worked at a university, like my published professors? In an alternate universe, could some museum or public institution have funded a Rohrer project? If a games artist got a grant from a government to make public games art– what would that look like, exactly? Like this? I’ve been noticing more and more games floating around the internet which were commissioned by institutions for particular events. The money could be coming from tuitions, or charity, or endowments, or who-the-hell-knows-what mysterious deep-sea money vent. And as public games tied to specific physical places, the commissioned-by-the-college route makes sense for these particular works of art. Public art usually has a strong connection to places and local communities. However, only some kinds of games make sense in a public setting. For the same reason books aren’t ‘public art’, we’ll never see an eighty-hour, story-heavy game as public art.
And while I’m mentioning new ways to pay for games, I think it’s important to point out that the way we pay for things strongly influences the way we think of and value them. Imagine a universe where games started out as public art, and never left public spaces: there wouldn’t be any eighty-hour story-based games at all in that universe, would there? We might not think of such games as having value. The governments paying for them certainly wouldn’t.
I guess you could say that since somebody has got to assign art a value, why shouldn’t each member of an audience do that, for themselves, via PWYW? Maybe this is better than allowing an institution, a government, a corporation, or the artist to do the job. It certainly allows us to choose from a broader variety of ways to assign value to games. To some extent, what a game is ‘actually worth’ depends upon the aggregate philosophical stance of its audience.
So– are we lucky to be living in an environment where this is actually realizable? We’ll have to wait a few more years, at least, to see if PWYW really makes it possible for more artists to get better compensation for their work. But while we’re at it, I think we should keep our minds open for even weirder– weird for games, anyway– compensation systems. I’m hoping that ten years from now, my school will be giving money to games artists in the same way it gives money to writers, filmmakers, and studio artists.
And part of me is also hoping that I’ll be able to drive through my hometown and see, somehow, some kind of public-art game. I know that not all public art is the bee’s knees, but some of it comes pretty close. Why not give it a shot?