Facebook’s Fan Subscriptions, Patreon, and the Problem of Games as Products
With Facebook encroaching on the world of content creators, this made me think of the struggle between art and business in the games industry.
Not only is the introduction of Facebook’s “Fan Subscription” a bad sign for independent creators hoping to make a living through crowdfunded means, but it’s also another entry on the long list of ways that corporations place profit above art. As has already been pointed out by outlets such as The Verge and TechCrunch, as well as creators themselves such as @Iron_Spike and @MattSaincome, the Facebook version of Patreon, a (usually) monthly subscription service by which fans can directly contribute to their favorite creators’ funding, is a joke. Facebook wants to take a 30% cut of subscription revenue, compared to the 5% that Patreon currently takes. That alone is enough to make any potential creator balk, but on top of it are some more insidious rules in their Terms of Service. Facebook also will have the ability to give away your content for free to non-subscribers as part of a free trial and own personal information gathered due to the service.
Currently, trust in Facebook is super low and for good reason. Facebook is largely responsible for layoffs that have occurred at multiple media sites, whose now-infamous “pivot-to-video” was based on expected ad revenue gained through creating and sharing videos on Facebook’s news feed. However, Facebook decided to feature less videos in order to shift from a “passive experience” to more “meaningful interaction.” Of course their own video feeds, Facebook Watch and Facebook Live, have been unaffected by the change in focus. It soon also became clear that Facebook had lied about viewership numbers.
This of course comes on the heel of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg being interviewed by Congress in April 2018 in the wake of the platform’s apparent role for various political means in the 2016 election, most notoriously in the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Suffice it to say, Facebook is not a reliable source for the truth. Despite this, it believes it can rope in creators to utilize its massive platform of over a billion worldwide users in order to fund everything from YouTube videos to game development, all for Facebook’s profit.
Patreon’s purpose is to provide funding for individuals and groups who otherwise would not be able to obtain the money necessary to do whatever it may be that they do. Patreons that I currently support include Bullet Points, Jenny Nicholson, Goodnight Moon, and Red Letter Media, all who use their funds to pay for the production of articles, podcasts, and videos. Without Patreon, they would be required to fund their work with online or YouTube ad revenue (which is unsustainable) or sponsorships. These are people who are creating things not for profit, but out of their love of it. Patreon’s namesake is from “patron,” meaning a person who gives financial support to another, historically for the arts.
Patreon’s progenitor was Kickstarter, the now somewhat infamous crowdfunding platform that turned out games such as Wasteland 2, Pillars of Eternity, Mighty No. 9, and the upcoming Shenmue 3. Some of these crowdfunded projects were a middle finger to publishers who were uninterested in doing anything but holding onto long-dormant IPs; it was a way to fund the creation of things that people wanted, but corporations didn’t view as profitable. Patreon took the same basic idea–a large crowd of every-people donating money for a specific cause or project–and translated it into a longer subscription service. This is an elongated way of showing that because of these funding models, worthwhile things were created that wouldn’t have otherwise been funded. Not that there haven’t been many Kickstarter failures or disappointing launches: but it was, and is, a somewhat reliable way to make something that corporations with the necessary money were not interested in.
That’s all just a way of saying that large publishers and developers for video games do not fund titles out of creative fulfillment: it is done to make money. This is why despite what Sony, Microsoft, or even Nintendo executives may say, they view the things created under them as products to be sold to the largest amount of people in order to bring in the biggest profit.
It’s easy to see this when a company like Microsoft channeled television back during their reveal event for the original Xbox One. However, it’s harder to say this when the question over whether they would have pursued backwards compatibility or an adaptive controller was viable, had they not needed to improve their image. This form of greed is best shown by the recent example of Activision/Blizzard attaining a record year of revenue. Yet because they failed to “meet projections,” they laid off 800 workers whose jobs were no longer viewed as necessary, aka profitable.
These are not companies who are funding things out of the goodness of their heart. Video games are a business, a way to make money, first and foremost. This is why everyone is collectively afraid of losing BioWare in the face of Anthem‘s rocky launch. This is why people love Nintendo for presenting themselves as more interested in creating worthwhile things than profit, whether successful or not. This is why the call to unionize the games industry continues year after year.
The connection between Facebook’s attempt to provide a Patreon model and the video game industry is that these companies view others’ creations as a means to make money. Games are not art: they are products to be sold. Major franchises are viewed not as a way to further the medium, but as a way to fill bank accounts. Facebook moving in on Patreon is a sign that large corporations have taken notice of the flow of money from consumers to creators and want a piece of that, even if most Patreons make less than $100 a month. Facebook could easily fund a million different indie companies, but why should they do that when they could have consumers pay out of pocket for that while they skim off the top 30% for themselves?
Layoffs that continue to happen in the face of record revenue, or just in the name of reducing expenses, is indicative of the larger problem that everything is viewed as a way to accrue capital. Even Patreon itself has been rumored to be seeking a way to increase income, because just being profitable isn’t enough. A change that was attempted in late 2017 saw many Patreons lose subscribers, and therefore funding, due to an incremental increase in charges as an attempt to reduce cost. That was reversed, but the pressure to increase profits continues.
You need to be continually growing and increasing your revenue year-over-year. Simply being in the black isn’t good enough, even though it’s what all Patreon users and subscribers want. Games are art, but frequently it is a byproduct and not the intention.