In Episode 34 of the Exponent podcast, Ben Thompson talked about the process of starting his blog and turning it into a substantial business. (The discussion starts around 18 minutes in.) It’s an interesting counterpoint to all of the recent discussions of how to turn video game criticism blogging into a business: so many people have started patreons, and there are a fair number of magazines trying to make a go at games criticism.
Ben’s major point is: it’s great to do what you love and are good at, but if you want to make a business, it’s extremely important to check your hypothesis that there’s a market out there willing to pay money for what you’re selling, and to modify your plan accordingly. This is not a model that most game criticism patreons seem to be following (though there are exceptions); in fact, the word “selling” doesn’t even apply to any of the game criticism website patreons that I’m aware of (though it does apply to several of the magazines), because the works produced under the patreon are available for free! (Thompson, in contrast, writes one freely available post and four paywalled posts a week; he also has a members-only discussion forums.) Instead, it’s people who want to write about games, who are generally quite good at writing about games, and who seem to be setting up the patreon as a tip jar in hopes that a bit of windfall profits will come out of that.
Nothing wrong with tip jars, of course; I would be interested in seeing somebody really make a go at making a business out of games criticism, but I certainly don’t have any great ideas for how a business would come out of a games criticism website. And my understanding is that, when placed next to freelance income, the amounts involved can make a difference. A patronage model has interesting overtones, of course, but so does a capitalist model.
What this actually reminds me of as much as anything is academia. Colleges are a sort of patronage model writ large: find people who are good about thinking about some subject, let them spend time thinking about it, and hope that something good will come to society as a whole. It’s not as simple as that, of course: professors teach, which puts some sort of floor on the value that society will receive from professors; peer review and tenure give some measure of quality check; and grants can either give more texture to the patronage or introduce more capitalism into the model, for better or for worse. But still, ultimately: at its best, academia finds people who have an interesting way of thinking about a subject, and hopes something good will come out of them following their interests beyond what the marketplace would be willing to pay for.
So: games criticism patreons are a broadening of academia? In part, maybe. But I do wish we could broaden this further: I don’t believe that academia does a great job of picking winners, and I also don’t believe that patreon does. Really, I just wish that we had a guaranteed minimum income: aside from the other problems that that would help with, it would give a little more space for situations like this. There are lots of people out there good at lots of different things, and who could get even better with more breathing room to try out ideas; capitalism is one way to help figure out where value will come from, but I’d like to see a wider range of experiments out there.
This post has not been revised since publication.