#NaBoMaMo: The First 15 Bots

Poetry, Rambles

I am, absurdly, trying to make 30 Twitterbots in 30 days, as part of the great collaborative endurance drafting celebration that is #NaXxXxMo. I’ll write at more length about it all, but here are some rough thoughts on the first 15 days, and details on the first 15 bots. These are all first or early drafts rather than complete works, but I’m happy.

Why I Love Twitterbots

1. Twitterbots are a wonderful form for sketching out artistic ideas. This is because procedural art makes sketching out a lot of results very quickly (this bot took under an hour to make), and also because Twitter is the sketchbook and commonplace book of the world. That is, it’s a social spae where everyone is sketching out very rough ideas, early thoughts, first drafts, messy poems, little doodles, and sharing them with each other. It allows process to exist in a casual social space. And it also allows that process to be infinite: you never stop sketching.

2. Twitterbots are the telos of a number of significant artistic movements’ ideas:
– Suprematism’s interest in objective relations between elements;
– Futurism’s obsession with technology, automation and obsolescence;
– The Oulipo’s keenness to write not poems but machines to generate poems and to implement processes to exhaust those machines;
– Modernism’s flirting with intertextuality, because a Twitterbot is incontrovertibly in a corrupt social space and defined by its relation to the elements around it;
– Flarf’s anti-poetry and internet fixation;
– Uncreative writing’s valorisation of process over product, because Twitterbots successfully remove the author from the individual product, remove any suggestion of authorial choice or agential production: you author the process only

3. That last point is the most essential. Because by automating and infininitising some artistic processes, you draw attentiomn to when human agency is actually important. Twitterbots are not the enemy of human poets, but a troublesome friend locked in dialectical relations. We show each other how we work. We see when automation matters and when agency matters. Massive exercises in uncreative writing or painting now take trivial or low effort, so when they are done by a human, the artistic value is found in the very pointlessness of the effort, how it expresses agency in a deterministic world. Individual insight can be simulated, but only badly and occasionally, so insight becomes both more clear and more suspect. We see the human in the robot and the robot in the human.

4. They are the best comedians: they repeat a joke until it isn’t funny, then until it is again, then until it isn’t again, then…

5. They are an awkward intervention into a hypercapitalist space. While they clearly contribute to the success of Twitter by making it more pleasurable to be there, they disrupt the smooth collection of data for the purpose of advertising sales. Their strange follower patterns and uninterpretable tweets gum up the algorithms which make lives valuable. Their wholly inappropriate affective stances are gentle disruptions of the emotional timeline. They do not destroy capital, but they do make awkward spaces of critique within it, sometimes complict, sometimes destructive.

6. I’ve now made around 20 bots, and I feel like a farmer, quietly tending to my herd, my crops, feeding them, giving them to feed you.

The First Fifteen

1. Bot Vaizey

Former UK Culture Secretary Ed Vaizey made a crashingly silly speech in which he demonstrated the same level of creative acumen that earned him the mockery of most artists in the UK. James Varney asked if I could respond with a bot. I hadn’t planned to start #NaBoMaMo with something fairly slight, but doing a snap response bot (see also: @HardBiscuitsUK) by request felt very much in the spirit of the month.

This was knocked together very quickly, and then later given an update to give it more variety and depth. I find that the easiest and most fun bit of making a CBDQ bot is coming up with pleasing syntax varieties: the hard long busywork is synonyms. The two things that quickly give a new bot depth are *long* wordlists for every variable term, and nested syntaxes generating tweet variety. Once my bot is sketched, the big job is going through it word by word and asking “Can this be randomised? Or expanded to a new syntax?”

Platform: Cheap Bots Done Quick (source)
Dev time:  1 hour to get a passable version, 45 more minutes to current completion level
To do: Rake a thesaurus to expand basic elements, add some more syntaxes

2. Orkney Bot o Wirds

This is an extremely simple bot programming-wise: it has a long list of words to pick from, and a 1/7 chance of tweeting a random book, resource or encouraging creative message instead. It involved a lot more actual writing than most of my bots, though, because I wanted to make an interesting usage example for each word. Usually the writing of a bot is a trial-and-error process of combining and recombining elements until you get the right feel (more like cookery than writing), but this involved switching back to a different type of thinking.

I think this bot has broad appeal: it picked up the most followes the most quickly. It’s interesting how little that’s related to programming depth! Often the bots that take me the most time to code have the least broad interest, though they’re often the more appealing ones to boteurs. It’s that difference between being interested in the process and being interested in the result.

Platform: Cheap Bots Done Quick (source)
Dev time:  30 minutes to release, 3-4 hours since getting the word list up to the end of F.
To do: Keep going to the end of the dictionary, tend indefinitely as more books and resources become available.

3. Jamie Jones, Urban Explorer

Inspired by @str_voyage and @spacetravelbot, I wanted to make a horror version of the infinite journey bot, so I came up with the scenario of an urban explorer trapped in an endless series of tunnels. Aesthetically, I decided to go for panicked and impressionistic rather than straightforwardly narrative. This led to a problem that the results seemed quite vague and uninterpretable, and then I realised it would work better with a clearer cultural context, so I set Jamie’s journey in tunnels beneath Detroit and packed the bot with relevant references. This got it to a decent level of consistency. There’s also a cast of four characters in there, but they’re not currently functioning well narratively. The source includes some good techniques for randomising number of lines and line length, as well as a nifty text-glitch-generator.

Platform: Cheap Bots Done Quick (source)
Dev time:  1.5 hours
To do: Introduce more running plot, so it’s more satisfying to read a sequence; make the characters work better by giving them more specifics; intelligent replies if you try to speak to JJ; more variety in possible speech; ev̵e͝n m̷͘͝o̷̸͢r̴̵͞e͘ ẗ́͟͠҉̯͉̱̟̲e̢͍͙͖͚̞̘̲̰̖̔̌̚͘͘xͩ͜҉̨͕̤̥̹̦t͚̟̽ ǧ͐̈͆ͭͤͨ͗ͬ̋͑͏̧̹͎̬̕l̤̜̫̼̫̫̯̫̥͓̦̰̠͖͇̬͎ͯ̓ͨ̒̋̓͛̊̑̑̃̇̔ͮ̅͆̀̀͘͝i̡͇̺͖͙̘̼̜̪͛́͑̊̑͐̃̿̽̏ͤt̶ͪͥ͗͂͆ͩ̒͒̍̑̅͋̾͠͏͖̜̜̝͍̬̹͙̦͇̲̹̬̙̦̱̤c̾̌̊ͪ̎̿ͥ̊̔ͨ̂̇̄̐̽͊̊͏̡̺͉̼̘̤͇̥͙̘̳̞̖̦̦̮̮̯͜͠͡h͊ͦ̈́͗̎͗͛ͫͧ̽̔ͬ͒̕͏̢͍̯̘̬̥̰͖̼̀͝ ́ͣ͏̶͈͇͞

4. Awful Emoji

This was my first SVG bot. I used w3schools to teach myself svg, and cribbed from @someboxes and @hashfacade to figure out how to use it in CBDQ. The concept is simple and self-explanatory! I wanted to generate emoji to express every possible emotion. I tried to tweak the results so that they ranged from obvious feelings to just-over-the-edge-of-ridiculousness, and also to use some positional randomness to ensure that every face was a little bit askew, just like every human.

Platform: Cheap Bots Done Quick (source)
Dev time:  3.5 hours
To do: I could add more different types of eyes and mouth, and introduce elements for hair, blushing, &c, but I might be totally happy with the conceptual clarity of the current result! Scrolling down the feed, it’s interesting how much variety there is in emotion there from so few elements, and I may want to preserve that variety-through-simplicity.

5. Be the Bot You Want to See in the World

A straightforward joke bot, using the classic bot form of “Taking a sentence and having a couple of elements be randomly selected [verbs] or [adjective] [nouns].” In this case having a dig at the inspiring quote industry. The source has a couple of useful lists of nouns, adjectives and present tense verbs I culled from various internet sources by googling “massive list of nouns” and similar (you can just cull them from me). Text Mechanic and Delim.Co were vital for parsing these lists into a format CBDQ could read; I used those tools for almost every other bot this month.

Platform: Cheap Bots Done Quick (source)
Dev time:  30 minutes
To do: Add more quotes to substitute; find more good word lists to add.

6. Plural Fan

The bot version of a running joke I once shared, appending blatantly incorrect latinate plural endings to ordinary words, to make fun of people who like to say “octopodes” and “rhinocerotes” (I am one of these people). I had a really bad and funny version of this bot running in 15 minutes, which just took a list of singular nouns and whacked a plural ending on. Then I realised that it was even funnier if you trimmed one, two or three characters off the end of the word first, and spend 2 more hours figuring out how to do that. This would, I know, be trivial in a bot written in javascript, which could do the processing one each word automatically, but CBDQ has no such functionality. So I had to work out how to use a spreadsheet to do the processing on the 4000+ nouns, and learning that CBDQ’s parent project Tracery could create persistent variables (so that calling one noun would call one of its abbreviations). This was a ridiculous thing to do for this joke bot, and a lot of laborious busywork that could have been done better in another programme, but it was useful to learn how to do these things for future projects where it might be more necessary. And doing it was the last straw for me deciding that I really, really needed to learn how to code a bot in javascript and host it myself.

Platform: Cheap Bots Done Quick (source)
Dev time:  2.5 hours
To do: She is perfect. She is written in the wrong programme but the results can’t be improved.

7. Quittr

Inspired by carebots like @hydratebot and @check_o_tron, I decided to make a more aggressive version that would put regular reminders in my timeline to quit twitter when I didn’t really want to be on it and was only being kept there by the addiction mechanics created by its designers. I also wanted to make a bot quickly because I was feeling the #NaXxXxMo burn. While the bot is simple, there’s some neat work in the code, with different syntaxes reusing different variables lists in subtly different ways, and employing Tracery’s .modifier system to do so. I learned making this bot that all strings in CBDQ are best off being written in lowercase, using #variable.capitalize# when you need it, for maximum flexibility.

Platform: Cheap Bots Done Quick (source)
Dev time:  30 mins
To do: Bot complete. He doesn’t need anything else.

8. failurebot

I was in the middle of touring and performing and too tired to make a good bot. So I made myself a bot in 15 minutes to remind me that failure is OK. Very appropriately, it got banned by Twitter because the code was so basic (just a single list of options to tweet) that it looked like spam to the algorithms. So I had to spend another 15 minutes adding a tin bit of variety to the code to prevent this from happening. There are now 144 possible tweets. I hope this is enough for Twitter to be kind.

Platform: Cheap Bots Done Quick (source)
Dev time:  30 mins
To do: I could add a lot more syntactical and word-choice variety and this would improve the bot, but wouldn’t that miss the point?

9. Daily Antifascism

This was my immediate creative response to My Arse’s election. I was also hosting a performance installation that night where people built buildings and then destroyed them, which felt appropriate. I ripped the idea direct from Henry Bell’s @Radical_Glasgow and then put a call out to my social media followers for good content. I think that, due to the current lack of diverse content, this is my worst bot of the month so far, but that it has the potential to be one of the best when I put the time in.

Platform: Cheap Bots Done Quick (source)
Dev time:  30 mins
To do: Much longer content lists; find a way to schedule historical tweets for their on-this-day day and repeat annually.

10. hg_ebooks

I needed to teach myself how to code bots in javascript and host my own bots, so I decided to make the most common sort of bot: an _ebooks warped mirror which generates markov chains based on your own Twitterfeed. Nothing original about this, but a very useful exercise for learning the necessary for future bots. I followed this tutorial because it was the most step-by-step, even though it uses python rather than js. By doing that, I started to learn how to use the command line, began to gain a vague and uncertain understanding of what words like “repo” and “stack” mean, and how to host a bot on Heroku. Alongside that tutorial, I had to google a lot more tutorials and questions like “How do I use GitHub?” and “What is a dyno?”, and regularly copy-pasted an error message into google and fished until I found a result I understood enough to copy-paste the right bit of the answer. I still don’t really understand any of it, but I can do it. Mostly.

Platform: Ruby and Python, Heroku (I’m not sharing the source (a) because it’s less useful to you than any of the tutorials online (b) because everything that’s my bit is bad code (c) I actually don’t know how to do this properly because I don’t understand GitHub yet). The same goes for Heroku-hosted bots below. But if you’re desparate to know how I did a thing, message me and I’ll try and share the relevant bit.)
Dev time:  1 hour (plus 4 hours preparatory time relearning js for free at CodeCademy)
To do: I might redo this using Mispy’s version, partly because it produces slightly more satisfying results by building a bigger corpus, and partly because doing so would teach me more useful things for future bots.

11. Bot Save the Queen

Inspired by the beautiful @f__lb_tt_r, I decided to push it a bit further and have fun with the Sex Pistols, based on a suggestion from @inky. The implementation is straightforward in CBDQ, with most of the time spent compiling good rhyming word lists from RhymeBrain. As with @PluralFan, this would be much quicker to programme in JS using an API from RhymeBrain to automatically select a rhyme, but on the other hand the bot is already so chaotic that I like the creative control of handpicking the wordlists. The creative work of this bot is in getting the balance right and the probabilities of each option right, so that the bot as a whole has the right amount of entropy, and distance from and connection to the original. This is harder than it sounds! Which rhyme is too far away to still be funny? How many syllables can I break a word down into before it becomes too much like nonsense? How frequently should Johnny sing a line from the original? This kind of tweaking is at the heart of satisfying procedural generation.

Platform: CBDQ (source)
Dev time:  1 hour to get the first two verses working, another 30 mins later to add a third
To do: Add the remaining 9 verses at my leisure, tweak to perfection.

12. Anarcoo

This was a pre-existing account I’d let lapse, so I decided to resurrect it as an automated propaganimal. I used this tutorial to learn how to make a picbot, mashing it up with the previous tutorial to host on Heroku. I also had to use more of the JS skills I’d picked up to write some of my own code. A lot went wrong. I didn’t know what a Procfile or a package.json were (I think I do now?) and apparently I needed both of those, and I have a vague sense of what git init and npm install do when I put them in the command line. It took three hours to hash through it all, but it was worth it. And the results make me very happy.

Platform: JS, Heroku
Dev time: 3 hours
To do: Reduce posting schedule through some math randomisation, vary the moos more.

13. 500 Dollar Words

Going back to making more original bots, this one is an automated tribute to Aram Saroyan’s beautiful poem “lighght“. It takes a random word and repeats two characters near the middle of it. I wrote the javascript to do that to a random word in 10 minutes. Then I spent four learning how to use the Wordnik API and wordnik-bb so that I could use much longer corpora for my bots, which involved a very lengthy detour learning that node-gyp and contextify were a thing that I didn’t understand but were not working properly, and trying out various things google told me to do to fix them, which I didn’t know what they were doing to my computer but I think it’s OK. I was originally going to try and have each word appear in colour on a pleasant cvg background, but (a) I was exhausted by the end of it, and (b) it turns out this is really hard for anyone to do in node.js on Windows and has made adults weep. So partly because of that, and partly because I aesthetically like the accessible directness of tweeting a single word, I think I’ll leave this bot as it is.

The good thing about spending 4 hours banging my head against what should be a simple thing is, next time I want to interact with the Wordnik API, I’ll be able to do it in around 15 minutes, and next time I want to interact with any API, I’ll have a much better sense of how to go about it. I love learning new skills.

14. 5×5

After an exhausting weekend of heavy coding, I wanted to do something light and easy. I didn’t need to learn anything new for this, but I did get to reprise what I’d learned about SVG and element randomisation. The bot has no deep meaning or artistic purpose: it’s a sketch, an experiment in seeing what happens when you define a set of parameters for randomising elements and put them in objective relation to each other. It will roll on experimenting forever. Instead of making a complicated bot, I wrote the thoughts I opened with in this post.

Platform: CBDQ (source)
Dev time: 30 minutes
To do: Nothing.


From an idea suggested by @ammonite, this is an automated tribute to Kurt Schwitters’ classic Ursonate. It was a total joy to make, with quite a fancy but neat source code. There’s a nice use of nested saved variables here, I think. And the whole thing is built out of elements of no more than two characters. As a method, I went through the whole of the Ursonate, and parsed the semantic structure of all of the stanzas and a good chunk of the words.

It did make me realise that the power of the Ursonate isn’t just in the playfulness of individual verses, but in the impressive intertwining of elements and patterns across the whole of the piece. This is worrying, because now I’ve got the method down, I may have to do a 50,000 word procedural version for #NaNoGenMo

Platform: CBDQ (source)
Dev time: 2 hours.
To do: Nothing.

Brief Feelings on the Halfway Mark

I am quite tired and I don’t know if I’m going to make it. This feels good. I like the obsessiveness of this project, the self-destructiveness of it. I am willing to fail, but I also like pushing myself past all sense. I also like giving myself permissionm to just make, regardless of quality, and I’m quite surprised by the quality of some of what’s come 0ut. I do need to pace myself a bit better, but I’m also happy.

I’ve learned a huge amount. Technically, obviously: I have way more skills and understanding than I started the month with, which was part of my reasoning for doing the month. I think it’s important to learn some of the languages and rituals our world is now built on. But I’m also learning a great deal about the aesthetics and mechanics of procedural generation: of what is satisfying and what is beautiful, of how to balance simplicty and complexity, of how generated texts can function as standalone objects or social interventions or both.  And this, in turn, is learning for poetry in general. What is the sonnet form if not a machine for producing poems? What is concrete poetry if not an exercise in manipulating elements? What is an artist if not a supremely complicated bot?


to my backers on Patreon, who give me the freedom to do very strange and free projects like this.

Working and Earning as an Artist: My Annual Finances

Personal, Rambles

This post follows on from two previous posts, “What I mean when I say I’m working as an artist”, parts one and two. As part of my artistic work I talk about my finances as openly and publicly as I can manage. I’m not going to cover the same ground as those posts now, but if you’re a geek about this stuff, or a voyeur, or are just interested on what the day-to-day of an artist’s life is like, they’re worth reading.

Why I Put My Money Online

First, I’m obsessed by money. I love learning how it works, how it flows. I genuinely enjoy spreadsheets, and I like visualising artistic projects through juggling their budgets. When I was an undergraduate, which thanks to proper state support was the single most privileged period of my life, I thought it was somehow anticapitalist to just not care about money. This was silly and wrong and also I hit the bottom of my overdraft a few times. These days, I write and chart obsessively about money because I feel like it gives me some measure of control or power over the systems which run our world. Though maybe I take it a bit far.

I also feel like I have some sort of general duty to talk about it. Most of my earnings come, ultimately, through taxes; a truly worrying proportion comes from either Creative Scotland or the Arts Council of England. I feel like a few hours a year telling the taxpayer how their money works for me is worth doing. Perhaps more importantly, I think that small-scale artists talking about this stuff helps to explain to the general public why it’s worth funding the arts: as I talked about in much more detail in my last post, the majority of artists work for absurdly long hours for absurdly little pay and to much unseen public benefit.

Equally, small-scale artists sharing this kind of information is a form of mutual aid. If you’re an artist and you can see how I earn, it might give you some ideas. As a Creative Scotland report, coincidentally published today, has shown, I actually earn more than the majority of Scottish artists, and I’m still not making the living wage. Maybe this information can help us all do better.

The Juicy Numbers

Here’s how much money I’ve earned in the last four financial years:

income table

(“Gross” is my total income, the actual amount of money that came into my bank account. “Expenses” is my business expenses as a self-employed artist, which I talk about below: it’s mostly travel. “Net” is gross minus expenses, and is more or less my actual spending money as a living human, except it also includes my taxes, which given my income are rather low.)

Here’s how that money breaks down into artistic and non-artistic income.

Income pies

(The non-artistic is mostly an environmental management/consultancy contract and a political organising contract, with some other bits and bobs.)

And here’s what the different income strands were last year:

income strands

(“Reader in Residence” was a big community arts contract; “Creative Scotland” was a grant for a single self-organised art project; “Patreon” is my crowdfunding scheme; “Workshops” is a lot of one-day or half-day arts training jobs for different organisations; “Commissions” and “Performances” are a lot of small and medium-sized contracts to create or perform art for different organisations. “Other” is my non-artistic income. The notable missing thing is sales, for complex accountancy reasons, but know that the products I sell are usually just about at cost (including labour of distributing) and I haven’t started earning royalties yet.)

Some important numbers to know to make a comparison:

  • The Scottish Living Wage is £17,160 per year.
  • The median (a kind of average) annual pay for full-time workers in Scotland is £27,710; the median for my age bracket including part-time workers is £19,292. I haven’t found numbers for the mean (another kind of average), but it’s likely a bit lower than those.
  • The poverty line (defined as 60% of median income) is £16,626. But then, the Tory government abolished that measure, so I’m probably fine.
  • I have never come close to these measures off artistic income, and have managed the living wage only once

Finally, some notes on my assets and liabilities:

  • I have a very small student loan for my undergrad (in Scotland, so paid no tuition fees), which I began paying back in my 2013-14 tax return. I had a bank loan for my Masters, but I have paid it off. I have no other debts.
  • I have no dependants, and no allowance.
  • I rent, in Edinburgh, sharing with a partner (though for half of 2013-14 and half of 2014-15 I lived alone). My parents now own their house outright.
  • Expenses includes a small portion of my rent and energy bills, half my phone and internet bills, and most of my artistic purchases, along with show materials, office supplies, and so on. The majority of it is simply travel. So if you were to compare me to a PAYE worker, you might want to imagine something like an income a little under halfway between gross and net. But closer to net.
  • I have very gradually built up savings, first as a cushion against lean years as a freelancer, and now in the hopes of getting out of the rental market. I’ve got to roughly £10k, mostly because I learned how to live on £10k a year and so put cash away in the good years.

How I Feel About  All This

I feel great about where I’ve managed to get to. I’ve spent the last two calendar years working almost entirely as an artist, and without a big annual contract to get me through, and I feel like I’ve proven to myself that I can do it. I can, for at least two years, live, just about, off my earnings as an artist. I know that that’s unlikely to be permanently possible, but I have managed it. Seeing the blue half of the pie chart expand is something I’m proud of.

I’m also pleased that the last financial year has a lot of income diversity – much more than I expected. If I were to be really detailed, I’d break down the strands by how much of each was expenses and how much was net income, but I have to stop somewhere. I suspect it would make my income look a bit less diverse, however, because the bigger the wedge the small the proportion of the wedge tends to be expenses. Despite this diversity, though, over half my income came from just two big contracts. Without landing 2-4 big (£4000+) and highly competitive contracts each year, there’s no way I’d be able to live off being an artist, and to get those I have to be very good at applying for them and apply for probably about four times as many as I get.

However, despite all this, what I also know is that the idea of being a full-time artist is a lie. I wrote about this more last time. Very few people get to Just Make Art, and most of them are highly economically privileged already. For the rest of us who want to live off art, we have two choices: spend at least half our working week on a day job, or spend at least half our working week answering emails, filling out funding applications, sitting in meetings, and generally hustling. There is no moral or artistic difference between people who support themselves to make art by waiting tables and people who support themselves to make art by filling out funding applications: they’re both drudge work and hustle. Neither of us are full-time artists. Or, rather, all of us are. I make a living as an artist, which means I make a living sending emails and filling out forms. No wonder my art has so many spreadsheets in it.

What Happens Next

My life mission is to be able to earn the living wage out of making art (and thus also writing emails and filling out funding applications and doing workshops). Currently, where I live, that’s £17,160 after expenses and before taxes, based on a 40 hour work week. My other three life missions are to reside in a housing co-op, work in a workers’ co-op, and live in an anarcho-syndicalist utopia. I figure if I can get one of those three, plus the living wage, I’ll feel OK about my life. I’m a long way off any of these missions, but I can feel myself getting closer.

In the short term, I’m escaping the freelance hustle, for the most part. I’m completely astonished and delighted by this: I’ve been awarded an AHRC scholarship to study a PhD in Creative Writing, which covers tuition and a non-taxable stipend of £14,400 for three years. This could not be closer to my dream. (I mean, it could, but taking into account the practical considerations of being an artist in a neoliberal society, it could not be closer.) That’s still not a living wage and it’s supposed to be full-time, so I will have to work beyond my hours earning elsewhere. I’ll be less able to take on the many small gigs, so I’ll be looking for one or two big contracts to make up the rest.

My ideal scenario – total creative freedom – for the next three years would be mostly working on my PhD and making the rest of my income from my Patreon. I’m not there yet, but it’s feasible by the end of the PhD, when, well, who knows what will happen. Getting there is trickier than it looks, though: the first year of my Patreon has been boosted by getting a lot of small commissions, which I’m then able to share freely with backers to add to the unfundable oddities I make solely thanks to their support. That is, it might be harder for my backers to feel they’re getting “value for money” unless I’m able to be doing those commissions as well. If I’m able to earn around £3k a year from Patreon (i.e. three times as much as I do now) then I really could do that – what a dream! But getting there is harder.

So that’s me. As openly and honestly as I can put it: my income, how it happens, and my plans. If I were to give one piece of advice to other artists who are trying to “make it” (I have not “made it”), it would be: Get good at spreadsheets. Understand how money works. Think practically and with brutal honesty about how you can financially support yourselves. Make money work for you. Try to get to the point where the time you spend thinking about money saves you far more time than if you were trying not to think about it. If you want more creative advice, Action Hero has the beautiful goods.

If I had one message to taxpayers reading this, it would be, and is: please protect arts funding. My case puts me in maybe the top 20% of working artists in Scotland in terms of income earned solely from art, and in the bottom 20% of workers in terms of income earned. You have no idea how much you’re going to lose.

Releasing a Tiny Game and Trying to Get Paid

Game, Politics, Rambles, Uncategorized

Raik Money


Raik is a text-based game I released in December 2015. It’s a Scots fantasia about anxiety. I work professionally mostly in theatre and poetry, but I do quite a bit of crossover work in games (mostly physical, public and other non-digital forms of games). I was interested to find out how well the self-producing strategies I’ve learned in other artforms could work in games, so I decided to do something like a commercial release: hiring an illustrator to give it a good cover, sending out press packs to try and get coverage, asking people to pay for the game. There’s a creatively thriving sector of independent games, working from obscure artgame-makers to quite wealthy full-time indie studios (a bit like so-called independent music, really), and I wanted to dip my toe in. Six months down the line, I thought it might be useful to share what I’ve learned with other very small-scale game-makers. I’m obsessed by how money works and how it interacts with the arts – partly because I’m trying to make a living, and partly because I think that if you don’t learn how to make the obscene money-system work for you then you’ll end up working for it. I love tiny games and small-scale makers, so I hope what I’ve learned helps you out.

How I Did Publicity

My game is not exactly a commercial heavy-hitter. It’s only 30 minutes long; it’s text-only; half of it is written in an obscure European language; and it’s about mental health and fantasy. Going into this, I knew that sales and coverage weren’t going to by high – instead, I needed to trade on the unique aspects of the game. I billed it extensively as “the first game in Scots”, hoping that that would be enough to grab interest in people’s inboxes, pulling them in with a discussion about the game’s themes. I commissioned an illustrator (Kitt Byrne) to do some lovely cover art, which would grab better attention on social media feeds (I think this was the best commercial decision I made, but I also love the result). And as well as selling it as an unusual game to the indie games community, I sold it as an unusual way to do poetry and Scots to the literary community.

I asked professional games friends for their advice on marketing a game, and also Googled “how to sell a game” a lot. The blogs I found most useful were Chris Priestman, Kieron Gillen and Retro Remakes. I made a very simple two-page presskit with details about the game, me, and Scots. I then made a list of every games journalist and website I thought might be interested, gouging this (out of date) list of websites from Pixel Prospector, Googling, and asking friends for good contacts. In each case, I wrote down some notes about why I thought my game might appeal to them in particular, so that I could personalise each email. Emailing people about my work is my least favourite job in all of the arts, and the one I’m worst at, and the one that has the highest mental cost for me, so I set aside two days to do this and made sure I had plenty of chocolate on hand. I sent around 30 emails, most of which did not get a reply, but two of these emails led directly to my two biggest pieces of coverage.

I decided to extend the experiment and release the game under a “Trust System Sliding Scale Pricing”. In my performance work, I do a lot of “Pay-What-You-Decide” gigs, because I like how accessible they are, and I find that I often get a larger audience and the same size of income as when I set a specific ticket price. In games, I’m a total unknown, so I thought that people were unlikely to download my game unless they could get it free or cheap, and I also like spreading a bit of consciousness about the economics of art. After a preamble about trying to make a living from my art, I wrote, “I’ve set £4 as a rough price for this game based on a triangulation of how long it took me, how much I hope to sell, how experienced I am, how the art market functions, how much I think folk are willing to pay, and sheer guesswork. (Mostly guesswork.) If you’re earning an average wage (UK: c£26k) then pay me that. If you’re earning more, pay me more. If you’re earning less, pay me less. If you’re earning less than the Living Wage (UK: c£16k) then don’t pay me anything, and I hope you enjoy the game. This system isn’t policed, and if you’ve got a better idea of how artists should make a living (I hope you do!) then pay whatever you think is right.”

Then I launched the game! This involved posting release notices on relevant forums, and doing a lot of tweeting and Facebooking for a few days. I didn’t directly ask friends to tweet about it for me (which I think is a totally reasonable thing to do, but I make a lot of art and don’t want to have to do this constantly, so I save up my asks for when I really need it), but lots of them did anyway, which was nice. Then I sat back and waited to get rich.

How Coverage Went

Because I had a pretty unique game, and because I did a halfway competent job of publicity, I got far more coverage for the game than I expected. I was covered in Rock Paper Shotgun and PC Gamer in their indie games round-ups, got a small feature on IndieGames.com (which led to a lot of reposts from various reblogging websites and Twitter accounts), and had a big interview and feature video on Eurogamer. The Twitter and Facebook launch went exceptionally well, getting more interest than most of my publicity for theatre and poetry shows (I didn’t keep track of clicks and website visits though, whoops), with a few prominent games figures and journalists giving shout-outs to the game. This felt great!

On the other hand, most of the coverage referred to Raik as a “free game”. There’s an existing infrastructure for “free games”, and trying to get across the messaging that actually it was on a Trust System Sliding Scale price was too much to get into major games platforms. This is a shame, but I also could have foreseen it.

How Sales Went

Raik has been downloaded 861 times, and paid for 46 times.

I was not actually expecting to get rich. I was hoping to cover my costs and get a bit extra on top. I’ve made £206 and 50 pence (about $300 American money). That covers the illustration commission, but on top of that it does not even pay for a single professional day of press and publicity work, let alone the weeks I spent writing it.

On the other hand, that is twice the number of downloads I was aiming for: the game, and thus my wider work, got much wider coverage than I expected. More people have read my work than would have happened if I’d done this without putting serious publicity work in, and that feels good.

Here’s the graph of visits and views to the game’s page on Itch:


This is exactly the graph you’d expect: a big spike of interest followed by a long tail-off. The tail dwindled to 20 views a day by the end of March, 10 views a fay by the end of April, and is now down at 5. For what it’s worth, visitors referred from IndieGames.com were more likely to pay for the game than Rock Paper Shotgun, though the game was billed as primarily free on both sites: I don’t know why, and maybe this is within the margin of error. I didn’t keep accurate records, but from memory folk in launch week were as likely to be referred by social media as from one of these sites; in the long tail, folk are as likely to be referred by my professional website as by the archives of indie games sites, but those sites still do provide a decent number of clicks.

What I Learned

Trying to make money from a tiny game when you’re a complete unknown is a silly idea. If you want to make money from small games or artgames, you need to expect to spend years building up skills and reputation. This is the same as in the other artforms I work in.

That said, games is a bit more financially brutal than either theatre or poetry, which is funny, because poetry is already financially brutal. It is harder to get people to pay for games than for any other artform I work in. I could make more money for less work elsewhere. That said, in both theatre and poetry most of my money comes not from sales but from commissions and public funding: trying to make a living off sales in any small-scale artform is a mug’s game.

However, even if you’re extremely small-scale then treating your game professionally – making a presskit, doing professional publicity work – is actually worth it, and if your game is good or interesting enough it can lead to more attention for your work. I only spent 2-3 working days on publicity in total, and I’m glad I did.

A significant proportion of the people who actually paid for my game were people who already had an existing relationship with my work: they’d come to a show, or bought a book, or we were part of the same artistic community in some way. If people had a social connection to me, they were more likely to pay attention to my pricing model; most people felt free to ignore it.

That said, from talking to friends who’ve released similar-scale games on a “voluntary donation” model rather than a “trust system sliding scale” model, I think I got a better sold:downloaded ratio than I would have done if I’d just shaken a tip jar. It’s a bit galling to see so many people just ignore your text about pricing, but it might be worth it just to get a little extra cash and spread a little awareness about money.

I don’t think the game would have done so well if I didn’t already have a decent career in theatre and poetry: it meant I had an existing audience to market a new artform too. Leveraging all existing connections and communities was well worth it.

I could have done a lot more work. I have a tendency to just move on from a project after launch week – I don’t look after the long tail of sales, I don’t do lots of extra plugs and promotions later on, I didn’t in this case use the initial press I got to try and leverage extra press. This is because I find marketing miserable and gruelling: every day I spend doing this is a day I’m not actually making art (or writing funding applications, which is where I can actually make money), and whittles down my desire to make art a bit further. I wasn’t actually out to make money on this, but to learn: if I’d worked harder on sales, I could have sold a bit more. Maybe. But there would definitely have been diminishing returns. In theatre, I’m moving away from self-producing and towards working with professionals to do my sales and marketing for me, because I’m currently hiring a substandard employee (me). When I next do a game on a significant scale, I might do the same.

How I Feel About All This

I feel great! This post may sound cynical and mercenary, but that’s just because I’m letting my money brain out of the box for a while, to try and share learning with you. I had a great time making the game, I’m proud of the result, and it got much better coverage and playership than I expected. I’ve learned a lot that I can build on next time.

That said, if I was wanted to make my living primarily from games, I’d feel terrible. Essentially, I was able to subsidise my work on Raik through my other artistic work; if I wasn’t making a living from that, I would have been subsidising Raik through waitressing (or environmental management, which is what I actually did before going full-time artist). Games is a harder market than I expected, and at the small-scale end of things, it looks to be getting harder. It’s not just tiny makers like me who find it hard to make a buck, but also significant professional independent studios.

I can only make a living as an artist because of public funding. The majority of my income comes not from sales but from grants or via charities and institutions who hire me or commission me and who are themselves largely publicly-funded. I’m doing OK (I’m going to be writing up some more details of this soon), but even then I find the freelance hustle exhausting and not always conducive to good work: I’m actually escaping it for a while into the arms of academia, having successfully nabbed government funding to do a creative writing PhD for three years. If I were in a country (like America) where public funding is very scarce, or an industry (like games) where public funding is very scarce, I don’t know how I’d survive. I think the huge success of games at the mega-commercial scale makes it harder to advocate for public funding for games: I see this in theatre, even, where the success of West End musicals is used as a hammer to hit the subsidised sector, despite the vast majority of West End actors spending large sections of their career also in the subsidised sector.

It seems to me a miracle that artgames have been such a creative success so far. We have a huge wealth of cultural creation that is having an increasingly significant impact on the public imagination. I don’t know if that can keep going. My sense is that more and more game-makers are getting disillusioned, and that enthusiasm for artgames is decreasing (or at least hitting blunt reality) even as commercial games seem to make more and more money. I’m not sure what comes next. Art always seems to find a way, because it’s so central to human living – but who’s making that art, and how, and whether they can live: those are harder questions.


My favourite essay on how to make a buck from art is Why Your Music Is Worthless (And How To Sell It Anyway) by the Indelicates. They’re in music, another arts sector which has sod-all public funding and so has to find a way to live off sales, but their thinking applies very widely. Read it!