It's not easy to make money running a video game website. In June 2015, popular mobile outlet TouchArcade said it was having cash problems and asked for help, and lots of people did — including mobile developers. But recently, following a mixed game review, one developer decided to pull their funding. "We could load the site up with the same obnoxious advertising you see on most other sites these days," said TouchArcade EIC Eli Hodapp last year. "We could start doing sponsored posts, as we're always being asked to publish those. Or we could do a number of other really nasty things which have become 'normal' for sites trying to survive. The problem with all these possibilities is that they all come with the significant drawback of making TouchArcade worse for our readers."
Hodapp and TouchArcade turned to Patreon, an increasingly popular service to help fund creatives. (Gaming critics Jim Sterling and Greg Miller's Kinda Funny group helped achieve independence using Patreon.) Funding was a success, eventually getting as high as $US9127.55, according to tracking site Graphtreon.
TouchArcade never quite hit $US10,000, which the site described as "operating without worrying about needing to do anything crazy to keep the lights on".
Unfortunately, contributions have declined in the last few months, with enormous dips in both December and January. (Side note: not long ago, Patreon recalculated how funds are displayed, resulting in an across-the-board dip for how much it looked like most were making.) Most recently, the nearly $US1000 funding drop came as the result of one specific backer pulling out: a developer.
On January 18, TouchArcade reviewed 8-bit platformer Venture Kid as 3.5 out of 5, concluding the FDG Entertainment game was "entertaining, but unspectacular".
Venture Kid is unquestionably a decent game, a platformer that's entertaining enough if you were curious about it. There are far better retro tributes and original platformers, and Venture Kid never really gets past the "Hey, remember Mega Man" stage of being a good platformer.
Only a day later, FDG publicly announced it was pulling support for TouchArcade's Patreon, saying it was "not an easy decision" but deciding "it's not a good idea to support a game review oriented site as a developer and publisher" because "there'll always be a subtle feel of editors being biased".
The statement, penned by FDG co-founder Thomas Kern, claimed the move had nothing to do with Venture Kid's score and everything to do with transparency.
LONEWOLF, one of our new games was recently chosen as 'Game of the Week' and we've been very happy about it. Unfortunately, since we've been a Top Patreon supporter, the coverage had to come with a disclaimer explaining this fact, saying that journalism is in no way influenced. For many readers this goes without saying but we also heard multiple doubts and there's always this stale taste when positive news can only come with a disclaimer. In a subtle way it's discrediting our work.
One week later, our new game Venture Kid got a review score of 3.5 stars. Obviously a bad score, because the review didn't come with a disclaimer. So yeah - in this case, it was not necessary. We could go even further and say: this review makes an example that Toucharcade is not biased. And here's the dilemma on a different perspective. We believe Venture Kid is a fine example of a mobile action platformer and delivers a lot of fun at just $.99. We can't stop but having a stale taste when reading the review. Did it get a worse score to make an example ? Of course not, but we're not having peace in our minds.
Kern concluded by encouraging others to support TouchArcade's Patreon, but it set off a fiery back-and-forth between the community and the site's editors, including EIC Eli Hodapp.
Kern seemed to take the review personally, remarking in the TouchArcade comments for Venture Kid that he had to walk away "so [he] can stop crying".
Trying to push back on criticisms that FDG's move was vindictive, Kern said they previously "already had a 3.5 star review during our Patreon support".
"We continue to support Toucharcade with ads for new releases," said Kern, "a healthy relationship between dev and press. As Philipp [Doeschl, another FDG co-founder] says the market is tough for both developer and press and we need to do what is healthy for our business and relationships."
Everyone seems to have a point in this uncomfortable mess.
It's understandable why a developer financially backed TouchArcade — mobile games don't get the same level of coverage on other sites, including Kotaku. It's also understandable why Kern and FDG would want some distance between themselves and TouchArcade. And it's definitely understandable why TouchArcade would question why this move comes right after a less-than-glowing review.
I spoke with Hodapp about this incident, and while he expressed concern over the Patreon numbers, he said TouchArcade's financial eggs aren't in a single basket, and the website has been working hard to ensure it's making money elsewhere. In other words, Patreon dipping won't mean the end of TouchArcade.
The lesson here? Running websites and selling mobile games really sucks.