Money for Art

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?

Leave a comment


  1. I agree that more interesting funding options would do a lot to broaden the opinion of what certain games are. It’s the difference between seeing art at a museum, gallery, place of worship (synagogue gaming?), office (office gaming?!) or home.

    By the way, I’m a big fan of your funny pictures. Please do keep it up, Laura.

  2. Patronage has been a pretty good model in the past, because while art was influenced by the market the result is/was also open for all to enjoy. There was a minor renaissance of this sort of thing in roleplaying material (which seems to have died), but I thought the idea was sound.

    It runs into issues in larger games though, because they simply cost too much money.

  3. M.

     /  March 18, 2011

    If the government was funding games, we’d get games that reflected the reigning ideology of whatever bureaucrats were in charge of giving out the grants. I don’t see that benefiting society, only benefiting ideologues.

    • lauramichet

       /  March 18, 2011

      I’m aware of this facet of the issue– one only has to go into any art museum to see a bajillion 18th and 19th-century painings painted to make governments look cool. But not all government-funded art is demagoguery, and if you think it is, you’d better get your tin hat on quickly, because it’s already happening all over the place– plenty of public-health themed games have been made already. Governments are already funding games. The question is, will they fund games for the sake of art, or will they just continue to see games as a public-education tool? I hope they won’t.

      Additionally, if people want games to be treated like any other art, they’re going to have to be okay with games that are funded the same way other kinds of art are funded, too. The games industry is an INDUSTRY. It’s not going to have the same goals that art funds and other methods of artistic support have.

  4. I wonder what your thoughts are on the crowd-sourced patronage model of Kickstarter? The recent successful funding of Andrew Plotkin’s Hadean Lands and other projects like it has me much more excited about Kickstarter than PWYW or publicly-funded games.

    Emily Short’s thoughts on curated game collections are also pretty intriguing:

  1. CHRISZAMANILLO.COM :: This Week in Videogame Blogging:March 6th ::

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