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Is Patreon a viable alternative to funding the indie dev dream?

Breaking the mould: Sokpop's antithetical approach to games development

Following the indie dev dream can be rough. There likely isn't a developer out there who would tell you different. The long hours, the lack of financial security, the sheer pressure of bringing a creative vision to life, it takes its toll.

Whether it's angel investors, publishers, or crowdfunding, budding indie developers need to innovate in order to gain access to much needed finance. That's what piqued our interest with Netherlands-based indie collective Sokpop.

Composed of three recent graduates and a current undergraduate, the young team have taken a new approach to funding their craft, by turning to Patreon over the more conventional crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter.

Patreon, unlike other crowdfunding options, encourages small payments for small rewards. It's hugely popular among YouTubers, podcasters, and writers, but has less of a presence in the world of video game development, where upfront investment is key to completing a project that could take years. Typically, it's a platform for creators able to provide a steady stream of fresh content for fans.

It's entirely antithetical to games development where deadlines are frequently cast out of the window in order to make the game actually work. But, for $3 a month, Sokpop will create two games for your enjoyment with the long-term ideal that this money can be re-appropriated to fund the team's bigger projects.

Obviously, these experimental games are more akin to the products of game jams than Skyrim; nuggets of creative expression packaged and sold to subscribers in return for keeping the lights on.

It's no small undertaking, with the team currently supplementing their income with freelance work, but it's also something that Sokpop is well-positioned to handle.

"Because we started as a collective doing these game jams, it's really something that's in our blood," Sokpop developer Aran Koning tells GamesIndustry.biz. "We're used to it."

"It doesn't matter if you have talent or motivation, because a lot of people have that. The most important thing is creating an environment where you can apply those skills"

Aran Koning, Sokpop

Even so, it remains a daunting task, producing two games a month on top of freelancing and developing bigger projects. The question remains, is it even viable in the long run?

"I think so, but it really depends," says Koning. "There is a certain size of studio, like if it was ten people you would need a lot of money each month, but since we're just four it's doable. If we could get $4,000 a month, it would sustain us completely because we live very cheap."

Even if $4,000 seems like a lofty goal, the Sokpop team are optimistic, and for only $500 a month they can cover their costs for renting a workspace, which fellow developer Tijmen Tio suggests is perhaps the most important thing for the team at present.

"Something I've learned with making games is that it doesn't matter if you have talent or motivation, because a lot of people have that," he says. "The most important thing is creating an environment where you can apply those skills."

It's hardly surprising that this team of young graduate developers has sought out alternatives. When considering options such as publishers, there is a real hesitance born from the group's desire to keep to their strengths.

"What's really helped for us is that we do what we're good at, which is making games, and not talking to lots of publishers trying to give us money or anything," says Koning. "We're good at making games so we try to use our strengths here."

That's not to say that publishing deals are off the table entirely, but Sokpop want to go it alone, hinting towards an innate distrust of publishers and a desire to work together as they currently are, uncompromising when it comes to their long term goals.

"Making games for us is really a personal thing. You wouldn't write a book with 100 people because then it's not your story anymore"

Tijmen Tio, Sokpop

"Publishing is always a hard thing I guess, because you shouldn't do it if you don't need it," says Tio. "You really have to ask yourself why. There are a lot of publishers nowadays and maybe only a handful that we trust. It's hard."

Mutual trust is an intrinsic part of any healthy relationship between a developer and a publisher, a point that Steve Escalante, managing director of indie-focused publisher Versus Evil, stressed in a recent interview with GamesIndustry.biz.

But for Sokpop that trust is in short supply, the team alluding to horror stories they had heard through the grapevine, of publishing deals gone bad that would be ruinous to a development outfit of their size.

"Of course, it could just be confirmation bias, where you hear the bad stories and only remember the bad stories," concedes Koning.

The team at Sokpop veered away from publishers in much the same way they did from AAA development, which lacks the creative appeal of the indie scene.

"Making games for us is really a personal thing," says Tio. "You wouldn't write a book with 100 people because then it's not your story anymore."

Fundamentally, Sokpop's design approach is an egalitarian system with a production pipeline that governs itself through unspoken rules. There is no studio head, no single artist or programmer; just a deadline.

Sokpop's Patreon model isn't perfect, but with reiteration it could act as a blueprint for future indie development teams looking to eschew convention and find an audience of its own.

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