Continuing on from the previous entry on Permissive IPs. This post considers creators as costs, and what ‘Early Access’ artistic practices might look like as new forms of funding mechanisms emerge with Dweb financial plumbing. Inspired by a recent THREAD by Jacob Navok co-author of the Epic Primer.
3. Creators Are Costs
What do publishers do? Video games publishers operate very much like the old school music label system.
Games publishers give Studios money upfront to make a game. A deal is made between them for the studio to realise a game according to an agreed brief. Contracts are signed and the publisher checks in regularly with the studio to make sure the game’s being made as agreed, to budget and on time etc.
This relationship sucks a lot of creativity from the field. Developers working to brief (even if it is their own) and on commission.
The market place for games in the last 10 years or so has become less gatekept and slightly more democratised. With the emergence and direct access to games stores like Steam, Epic Games Store, Xbox Arcade and Google Play/Apple App store etc. A contributing factor has been digital distribution and high speed internet.
An ‘Indie’ studio in 2020 is basically any developer that doesn’t have a publisher for their game.
Publishers provide a lot of resources for developers (as do record labels): project management functions, branding, go to market narrative, advertising resources (well beyond the might of a Indie Studio purse), Technical knowhow EG networking and server infrastructure, legal advice, and budget handling. Some studios releasing with a publisher will take or leave various elements and services depending on their size and maturity.
This all has its advantages and disadvantages. For musicians, having a label front you cash to provide space to explore a creative space and make an album is in fact preferable to the future the Spotify CEO envisages. Apparently musicians should be recording and releasing music nonstop in order to make ends meet.
“The artists today that are making it realise that it’s about creating a continuous engagement with their fans. It is about putting the work in, about the storytelling around the album, and about keeping a continuous dialogue with your fans.”
Ek cited Taylor Swift’s activity around her new album ‘Folklore’ as just one recent example of an artist benefitting from that kind of effort.
“I feel, really, that the ones that aren’t doing well in streaming are predominantly people who want to release music the way it used to be released,” he said, as the interview ended.
Red Dead Redemption 2
Games like Red Dead Redemption 2 are masterpieces – singular works of art made by 2000+ people. I wrote an article for a print zine a while back on how Red Dead Redemption 2 should be compared to Wagner’s Bayreuth Festspielhaus. Rather than something like a movie franchise. Rockstar not only built a game, but a whole world as a stage. A place for its story telling.
Rockstar also had a lot of revenues from Grand Theft Auto V, which sold more than 100 million copies. Multiply that by $40, and you get $4 billion in revenue. Maybe the marketing costs were $500 million. So Rockstar had something like $4.1 billion in cash to spend on the development of its next major title. I’m not even counting revenue yet from GTA Online, which regularly generates item sales revenue for Rockstar. (Analyst Michael Pachter of Wedbush believes it peaked at $125 million per quarter, and it is about $100 million quarter now). So maybe Rockstar spent $600 million to make Red Dead Redemption 2. It may spend $300 million to market it.
The idea that there is 600 million dollars worth of money onscreen and 2000 peoples hands on the work when you boot your games console to play Red Dead Redemption 2 is astonishing. Video game worlds and future endeavours of similar scale in the Metaverse will be our new Opera. The combination of a vast array of creative disciplines towards a common goal. But far more ambitious in scope and scale.
Playing Red Dead Redemption 2 without doubt gives you more joy, immersion, and value for money than watching all 3 Hobbit movies back to back. (Their combine cost sits at $623 million.)
Unlike movies – virtual worlds are places.
Indeed GTA 5, a game that came out in 2013 broke records this year for player numbers:
In 2020, the number of players actually logging in each month has actually grown, even outstripping developer Rockstar’s more recent competitor Red Dead Online. Around the turn of the year, GTA broke its own record for most players in a month, according to the studio, with thousands joining during lockdown as the PC version of the game was given away free on Epic Games Store in May. Rockstar is typically tight-lipped about how many players that actually is, beyond labelling it a “record”. But numbers playing on Steam – just a fraction of the total across all platforms – hit 260,000 playing at one time in February (its highest total since the first month it debuted on PC.)
The games online multiplayer mode – Grand Theft Auto Online is an important ‘place’ that people continue to return to. As a result the game is now 7 years old, and still being ported to new console generations, having gone though Xbox 360, Xbox One, and most recently an update to support the Xbox Series X/S. A key metric in the industry is dwell time.
Though, as I said when reading the Roblox IPO filing, this may become less important as the Metaverse and IRL become more enmeshed.
Without publishers and their huge war chests of money a game like Red Dead Redemption 2 wouldn’t get made. Or be possible though any other funding method, that said neither would Bayreuth Festspielhaus have been. They certainly wouldn’t get made if the video games industry were to take advice from the CEO of Spotify.
Albums and ‘Great Works’ require time. Instead we will need TOOLS, SERVICES and new cultures of participation to meet somewhere in the middle.
Yes, studios that develop games (and films, and musicians) are currently cost centres under the legacy IP ownership model. But given the trends mentioned in previous Dimensino entries: Sources of Value vs Organising Value and more importantly Permissive IPs – it won’t be long until this no longer applies.
Be Your Own Publisher
With the exception of maybe music streaming and sharing platform Audius, the access to market, opportunities for creativity that the app store ecosystem provided for video games and independent developers, do not currently exist for musicians and other art forms. For example, how does an indie film maker get their movie into the ODEON via a platform with crowd booking? etc.
Using Supergiant Games recent success with the game Hades as an example, perhaps we can tease out opportunities for other kinds of art forms if platforms/app store like spaces become available with Web3 technologies?
A game that has been available in Steam Early Access since December 2018.
What is Early Access?
Steam Early Access enables you to sell your game on Steam while it is still being developed, and provide context to customers that a product should be considered “unfinished.” Early Access is a place for games that are in a playable alpha or beta state, are worth the current value of the playable build, and that you plan to continue to develop for release.
Releasing a game in Early Access helps set context for prospective customers and provides them with information about your plans and goals before a “final” release.
Early Access is not a way to crowdfund development of your product.You should not use Early Access solely to fund development. If you are counting on selling a specific number of units to complete your game, then you need to think carefully about what it would mean for you or your team if you don’t sell that many units. Are you willing to continue developing the game without any sales? Are you willing to seek other forms of investment?
Early Access is not a pre-purchaseEarly Access is not meant to be a form of pre-purchase, but a tool to get your game in front of Steam users and gather feedback while finishing your game.
Early Access titles must deliver a playable game or usable software to the customer at the time of purchase, while pre-purchase games are delivered at a future date. Read more about Pre-Purchasing on Steam.
Steam early access has been an important innovation in video games development ecosystem. Despite it taking 10 years Steams launch in 2003 to become an option for developers in 2013.
Despite Valves insistence that “Early Access is not a way to crowdfund development”. It has become an important line item in a game studios budget.
In fact Supergiant sold 700,000 copies of the game before it was even ‘finished’.
Noclip‘s documentary series (Ep1 below) covering the game’s development provides valuable insight into how important the developers relationship with its community has been throughout the games development. In some sense there is also co-creation based on user feedback and behaviour from the community.
As the game continued development, the studio also adjusted the price of early access to signal the creations maturity and value.
A post on Reddit notes that the developers posted to Discord last night saying “we wanted to let you know Hades is currently on sale for $14.99 after discounts on the Epic Games store.” The post also stated that “the game’s retail price is now $24.99, up from $19.99 at launch, based on continued improvements and additions we’ve made so far in early access,” and that “we think this new price point reflects the game’s current value in early access.”
There is something interesting about games like Hades, whilst it is almost certainly a ‘success’ story of early access. There will be more. As a final cultural product that was funded by its community (essentially) based in an IP that isn’t owned by anyone.
Supergiant in many ways feel like an example of what could be possible with ‘Squad Production’. Another Proto-Permissive IP.
A game like Hades is no where near a half a billion dollar ‘great work’ like Red Dead Redemption. It however does point towards an emerging trend – I don’t doubt that there will be bigger and more elaborate early access games that are (essentially) community funded to come.
Another example is Elite Dangerous. A Space Flight game set in a 1:1 simulation of the Milky Way. A game that began life on Kickstarter in 2012 and is STILL UNFNISHED and yet, has generated more than £100 million in revenue.
As new companies are founded and run by experienced devs (or creators) with track records. The types of funding models that Dweb will allow for will mean current innovative equity crowdfunding models like fig.co are going to be quickly surpassed by more capable PLATFORMS enabled by the Dweb ecosystem.
Groups of people will come together collectively to fund, create, lunch projects as sub organisations. With fluid allocation of value continuing rates of return.
With all this in mind, and the emergence of musicans issuing community tokens though platforms like ZORA and all the kinds of options and potential audius.co provides for managing and releasing content. One wonders how artists will bridge the gap between the continuous content production treadmill of Spotify and ‘the great work’ production style of Albums.
Instead of only issuing a set amount of 10 million, hoping that it would be a systemically efficient way to reward future pro-social behaviour, over time, communities move onto new seasons of tokens.
Every year (or any chosen timeframe), the expectation is created that a community token will move into a new season. Using $RAC for example, $RAC Season 1 will give way to $RAC Season 2.
The distribution event will be similar to $RAC’s initial distribution, but it will also reward the previous season token holders.
For example, $RAC Season 2, will have the following distribution:
1) 50% of $RAC Season 2 issuance will be directly given to $RAC Season 1 holders.
2) The other 50% will be doled out like in $RAC Season 1: given to active, pro-social contributors.
Thus: if you were only a speculator in $RAC Season 1, you would effectively be diluted. However, if you were an $RAC Season 1 holder AND an active contributor, not much would change. You would receive $RAC Season 2 tokens for holding $RAC Season 1 tokens and for having actively contributed during season 1. Contributors that did NOT have $RAC Season 1 tokens can now also form a part of Season 2, by having done things like: attended a gig, bought an album, bought an artwork, etc.
When I first read his blog post I miss read speculator for spectator. And given the success of the model in video games. I’ve often wondered what early access would look like for musicians or filmmakers.
I understand that the idea of releasing an album / great work before it is ‘done’ for some musicians is horrifying anathema. However I do think that ideas like ‘Minimum Lovable Product‘ in the software world are useful. As we will discuss. Its 2020, you can always update an album after you’ve released it ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Early Access Artists
I’m 35 and a huge Starwars fan and throughout my life George Lucas has continually tinkered elements of the original trilogy. There is no definitive version of the Starwars Trilogy for any fan. Only the one you grew up with.
One of the features of the digital media environment is the ability to have control over source files. The idea that an ‘artwork’ is done when it is released into the world is – in my opinion – over. As discussed, games are now containers for future interaction, designed as ongoing worlds/places to visit and re-engage with. Content coming in and moving out the value of the world is in its aliveness.
Shipping ‘Unfinished Games‘ has become common place in the video games world. It is not uncommon for games costing millions of dollars to ship basically unplayable. It used to happen at a rate of about 2 or 3 high profile games a year last decade by my reckoning. Shipping a buggy or unfinished game of course breeds huge amounts of ill will in your fandom/community. But early access for smaller games has mitigated a lot of the financial risk around budget/time/quality triangle. But even after launch, bugs will get fixed. Content added for free or a paid DLC.
CATS was the first movie to have its CGI updated and improved *in the cinema*. This was only surprising to me because I assumed it had happened before.. Games ship buggy, why not movies?. Growing up with Star Wars constantly being tinkered with the idea that a movie would be patched ‘in production’ is obvious.
This “fix it in post” mentality is a byproduct of tech’s pervasiveness. As consumers grow accustomed to software upgrades, they expect perpetual improvements on their devices, cars, and—maybe now—their movies. Take, for instance, the case of Sonic the Hedgehog. This movie adaptation of the iconic video-game character was meant for a Thanksgiving 2019 theatrical release. But after the internet responded in horror to the film’s approach to Sonic’s design, Sonic was pushed to Feb. 14, 2020, and director Jeff Fowler promised to fix the character’s likeness:
Growing up in the ever changing and shifting world of Star Wars means I feel no real attachment to ‘canonical’ or final works.
Indeed Lucas introduced fairly major changes in characterisation, one of which was not well received by the community at all.
Han Shot First
With musicians objecting to politicians use of their songs on the campaign trail, or comedians asking their networks to drop previous work. The trend is moving towards artists wanting more control over their creative works after launch. Mat Dryhurst’s Saga is still a strong, important and urgent idea yet to be realised. Doubly so as uniquely identifiable content gets created in the Metaverse.
Movies and Games funded by their communities as Permissive IPs or Community tokens will be produced in early access of one kind or another. I think what these might look like are straight forward and quite easy imagine. I once followed a documentary being made via kickstarter and they were posting daily rushes and various cuts and edits throughout the development process to the community discord.
One of the reports takeaways was that alongside developments in technology, there needs to be parallel development in the way that art created with new technologies gets funded. New platform funding mechanisms, community issued NFTs, tokenised seasons of records and all the other platform opportunities are coming online day by day. One of the single most important developments that has yet to materialise in this space is the emergence of a Web3 RSS like content delivery protocol.
Early Access Artists are emboldened by the Dweb. A new kind of artistic practice who’s funding, production and release of material looks very different from anything that currently exists in the culture industry and art world.
But What About Musicians?
Historically, artists and record labels treated the album as a static collection of tracks that were complete upon release. Albums would be delivered to consumers via physical formats like vinyl LPs, cassettes, and CDs, the contents of which were fundamentally unchangeable. Even if an artist or label did want to modify an album, it would be a marketing and logistical nightmare: They would have to issue entirely new physical copies to reflect the change, then make sure that new version got out to all the fans who wanted to hear it.
An example we could point toward would be Kanye’s release of his 2016 album The Life of Pablo.
The complex article these quotes are taken from is great and well worth your time.
West was the first celebrity to take advantage of this new, fluid technological landscape with The Life of Pablo, which first came out on Valentine’s Day in 2016, but ultimately had multiple versions released to the public. The rapper first premiered a nine-track version of the album four years ago today (February 11, 2016) at his Madison Square Garden fashion show, then made a different, 18-track version available for sale briefly on Tidal with slightly modified lyrics—before taking it down and making a separate “partial version” available to stream as a Tidal exclusive. By the time TLOP was made available on Spotify, Apple Music, and other streaming services nearly two months later, there were yet more changes, most notably some new celebrity features on “Wolves” (which were leaked a few weeks prior anyway).
I not only agree that it ‘re-invented the album as we know it’ and I agued that at the time.
What if albums were released to token holding community/fans when they ‘lovable?’. Then tweaked, updated and polished?
The history of music fandom is full of obsessive bootleg collectors, alternate versions, takes etc. Perhaps these *pre-final* versions of tracks could only be accessible to fans with NTF / season community tokens – introducing some scarcity into the mix.
Here’s the push back to an Early Access Artist model in 2016:
The music media went wild in reaction to this tumult. Fortune, TechCrunch, NME, and The Los Angeles Times all suggested that, in openly tweaking TLOP, West was turning the album into “software.” Most recently, in October 2019, Axios revisited The Life of Pablo as a case study for how streaming platforms have “made music mutable,” and how “the ability to instantaneously edit music after its release could be used in ways we can’t expect in the future.”
“Could be used in ways we can’t expect in the future.” seriously we ain’t seen nothing yet! One example I’ve heard is the the Audius.co platform can restrict playback on files by altitude. So I can ensure that my theoretical ‘Music for Mountain Tops’ album will always be heard in the context I conceived it for.
The fact that the US and UK versions of Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell differ not only in copy edits but also narrative! shouldn’t be seen as a huge fuckup, but instead as an inspiration. I think ongoing tinkering engagement and developments of works of art are more in keeping within the media environment we now exist in. Imagine an album diverging algorithmically based on the listeners location, or other music in the library.
Whilst a lot of energy has gone into discussing types of governance of DAOs etc. With musicians trying to innovate with Dweb tools, I think there is an opportunity to change the culture over musical releases completely. The development of their ‘Great Works’ and how they are received. After all if you are buying a season token to a musician, why not change the way the music is released and developed too? As i’ve already mentioned, I don’t think all artists will adopt such working practices, but some most certainly will.
During Lockdown 1, I watched Hana livestream the making an album from their studio for hours. I had it on int he back ground whilst I was doing other things. I would consider this an example of an Early Access Artist doing their thing.
I feel a lot more investment in this album than any other, and am looking forward to listening to it even more I was the last one.
I would be even more stoked if the album got updated and tweaked after launch to complete the check list.
This isn’t an issue of technology; it’s an issue of culture. For many artists, albums are long form manifestos that take months, or even years, to craft in a way that accurately reflects their own creative vision. Under this approach, releasing an album is almost like birthing a child: The process is intensely personal and cannot be rushed, and there’s a collective sigh of relief, awe and/or wonder among the artist, the fans, and the wider public once the album is alive in the wild.
In contrast, for artists to treat albums the same way West treated TLOP, they have to be okay with albums existing as perpetual works-in-progress that are appealing because of their unfixed nature. They have to be okay with releasing album “updates” often—monthly, or even weekly—rather than waiting several months or years to feed new content to fans, even if they feel that the update isn’t “ready enough” yet.
I’m on the look out for artist, musicians, film makers, (anyone really) who are experimenting with both paid community support, releasing music in early access, and investigating new distribution methods etc.
Drop me a line if you are working on this. I’ve very interested in chatting.
Well my brain is fried and thats enough for now.
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