As the entire “Are Games Art?” discussion continues to plod onward into infinity and beyond, there’s an interesting thing games are missing besides some random famous critic or cultural milestone. They haven’t got any patrons. In the 15th Century, Florence produced such popular art that it became one of their main exports. An article explains how a commissioned piece of art was originally a way for the wealthy to atone for usury and other sins. As time went by, the art began to change in topic from religion to the personal so that, “Lavish, even ostentatious, public display became more common, even as the fortunes of the city declined. New subjects from mythology found eager audiences impressed by such evidence of learning. And, by the end of the century—for the first time since antiquity—some art was being made simply ‘for art’s sake.’” The wealthy paid the artist to create a piece of work, usually about themselves, and would display it for the entire world to see and experience. Could such a culture find a home with video games?
The first question is what exactly would someone commission to be made if they were talking to a game developer. I asked a few random people and got a lot of interesting answers. One person said they’d want a level that was their favorite rock concert, allowing them to walk around while a bunch of pre-scripted activities took place and the band was on stage. Another said they’d like their house from when they were a kid to be remade so that they could visit it when they got old. Dan Bermegui, an indie developer, has already started a patronage service that lets people choose the topic of his poetry games or just be in the credits. Personally, I’d like it if someone just made a map of my favorite city park at just the right time of year, maybe Fall or Spring, so that I could turn it on whenever I wanted and just walk around. I asked a few level designers and developers in the industry how much it would cost to make such a park. Steve Gaynor, a level designer with 2K, writes, “If a “patron” were going to fund the re-creation of a place they wanted to visit, they could arrange a contract with an established level art outsource company and work with them to produce a level to their specifications. Alternately going the smaller route one might try to solicit the services of kids from a video game college to produce the same thing, which would presumably be cheaper but less reliable.” He estimates that it would only take a handful of people getting paid about $ 4,000 a month to make the bare minimum. Nels Anderson estimated about $50,000 or more if you wanted something on a scale comparable to The Graveyard.
Although some people might have the change to spare for a personalized level about their topic of choice, it’s important for a healthy patron culture to empower both the wealthy and the everyday person. A great example of this necessity can be seen in the Not Just Another Face exhibit in Chicago that was posted in Hyde Park. A huge variety of artists were matched with patrons from everyday walks of life to create a self-portrait. The artists ranged from literal painters to more abstract artists, meaning the artists were matched with what the patron could afford. Paper folding work was cheaper to produce than the oil painting, for example. The curator noted that one of the best parts was how people who had little interest in art were turned on and how artists were able to work with topics they’d never explored. He explains, “Too often artists are viewed as people who have very different sensibilities and attitudes and the patrons are afraid of making some kind of mistake – that they will show that they don’t know much about the art world.” Fortunately, there is already an easy way for a game patron to cut their costs, and it’s by using the art and engines from published games. Mods, a bastion of creativity and independent work, may be the best bet for a Patron who wants to make their favorite park into an interactive world.
Could the park be put together by a modder? There are already several amazing examples of modders simply making private homes in-game. This gets into a very tricky legal question because of the way that video games are copyrighted. As a five year veteran of modding Bethesda’s games, Kateri explains that once you convert all the information into the file format that their games can read then it legally becomes the company’s property due to the EULA. All art and textures made before conversion remain yours but if the level is to be playable by a large group of people then you’d want it to work in the game’s engine. Since a game like Oblivion is filled with hundreds of pre-made plants, trees, and landscape textures the cheapest way to have the level made is to just have to someone put all those pieces together. The problem is that you cannot use any of these assets without Bethesda’s approval. Another problem is that since mods for profit have been illegal for so long, many of the people in the community would be hostile to the notion of someone getting paid for their work. A fierce debate in the Bethesda Forums shows the wide range of opinions people have on the issue. Kateri explains, “If you were to enquire within the Bethesda modding forums about ‘hiring a modder,’ you would likely be met with hostility. However, if you were to say “here’s this wonderful park, would anyone be interested in recreating it?,” you might well get a positive response. The quality of work offered will be variable, but you’d have that issue to consider anyways.”
Frank Lloyd Wright\‘s Falling Water, from freewebs.com
Considering Bethesda’s interest in selling their games and supporting the mod community, it’s possible that they and other developers would consider becoming patrons themselves. Since they own everything in the game, they could support artists by commissioning works that would appeal to fans and newcomers alike. Many modders would jump on the chance to be distributed with the latest batch of DLC on a game because thousands of people would see their work. With so many games continuing to rely on their DLC for profits, they are going to have to get creative about what they’re offering. So why not just have a level for its own sake? Maybe something the company spent minimal money on except some touching up that’s just a beautiful space to be explored a few times? The possibilities for this kind of work can already be seen in video games today. You may not be able to visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water, but you can go there in a Half-Life 2 mod. Ever wanted to visit the island that Shakespeare’s The Tempest takes place on? A student project has created just that. There are even websites that let patrons and artists find one another on the internet. As artist Ron Jones explains about the Chicago art community, “If a city has a good patron community and good critical writing, you don’t have to worry about the artists. They will take care of themselves.” Perhaps what video games really need to be accepted is not an audience, but just someone willing to pay for games to be art for the sake of being art.