Akabur, one of the true frontiersman of porn games, is finally cashing in. His two most popular erotic games, Princess Trainer and Witch Trainer, remain free for anyone to download on his website, but the public is paying him over $5,000 a month to facilitate his work.
Both of his hits follow the same straightforward formula. They are management sims, essentially; players take the role of an Arabian despot, or a grubby Harry Potter professor, and use a calendar system like the one in the role-playing game series Persona to generate income and develop relationships with the shopkeepers, teachers, and students. The win condition is to corrupt either a nubile Princess Jasmine or a bookish Hermione Granger into increasingly perverse versions of themselves. In Witch Trainer, for instance, players engineer the point totals of the different Hogwarts Houses in order to coerce Hermione into selling brash sexual favors in exchange for Gryffindor bounties. In an early game scenario, the player must convince her to tease the Slytherin Quidditch team.
It goes without saying that everything about Witch Trainer and Princess Trainer is commercially radioactive. It liberally borrows copyrighted characters that belong to some of the most family-friendly corporations in the world, sexualizes a character usually portrayed as being a student, and it indulges in fringe kinks like sex slavery, which, while rampant and accepted on fanfiction.net, has scarcely crossed the canonical Rubicon. Naturally, those games are not available at Gamestop, nor the newly democratized Steam PC gaming store.
But that doesn’t matter anymore. Akabur, who declined to give his real name but said he is Russian and in his mid-30s, has been churning out erotica anonymously for over a decade. He said he used to make about $8,400 a year from his work. In 2013, he turned to Patreon and now is pulling a miraculous $5,100 monthly stipend from loyal subscribers, making him the harbinger for a new class of developers who are making an ample living by developing explicit video games. This is a job that was nearly impossible a few years ago, explained Akabur. While there was always a demand for gamer smut, the market needed to correct itself to find it.
“Before Patreon, it was crap,” he said. “It was still possible to get paid for your work, but it was a damn nightmare.” The crowdfunding revolution changed things. “You could start your own website with membership and a credit card processor but it would take a lot of time and effort and money. You would also have to have an already established fan-base for this to succeed. Option number two was to join one of those shady adult cartoon porn websites. Membership would cost about $20 to $30 per month, and artists would also get only about 50 percent of what the subscriber paid, the rest would go to the site. It was messy and scammy and wasn’t about providing good service but about milking people for money. I was a part of a website like that, and it was very depressing time.”
So Akabur turned the tables. He found the loophole, bet on himself, and changed the rules. He was one of the first porn game designers to embrace Patreon, and he’s left a renaissance in his wake. In 2018, there are now hundreds of designers turning a profit on adult games thanks to the emancipation of crowdfunding, and the lack of any barriers of taste, taboo, or publishing power standing in their way. It’s a creative boon or a moral crisis. It’s the ultimate victory for the democracy of crowdfunding, or it’s gamer culture regressing to the mean. It’s everything you feared, or it’s everything you ever hoped for. Or maybe, most accurately, it’s all of those things at once.
The idea of a “porn game” is not necessarily new or novel. In the early ‘80s, a studio called Mystique shoveled out prehistoric Atari 2600 sexploitation games including Beat ‘Em & Eat ‘Em and the infamously tawdry Custer’s Revenge. Al Lowe followed suit in 1987 with the much more fondly remembered Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards, (which itself was cribbed directly from a DOS text adventure called Softporn Adventure.)
However, by the early ‘90s Nintendo had firmly recontextualized the games business as a place for kids and colorful mascots, and the sex and violence panic summoned up by the B-movie viscera in Night Trap lead to notoriously uninformed Congressional hearings and the eventual creation of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board. The committee’s “Adult’s Only” designation emerged a kiss of death, as any game brandished with the rating would be ostracized by traditional retailers. With that, the culture flipped, and the brief, wondrous era of the mainstream Western porn game was no more. Ours was now a world where the existence of a buried, half-made sex minigame in the code of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was grounds for a political indignation and a product recall. You sure as hell weren’t getting away with a filthy Harry Potter send-up.
That’s what makes crowdfunding different. The ESRB can’t regulate the distribution of Witch Trainer, because the product operates outside of their merchant channels. Creators eventually awakened to those provisional shifts, and in 2018 there’s no longer an artificial filter between consumers and salacious video games.
In the past, rudimentary porn games lived on Flash aggregation sites like Newgrounds. They were created for free, and were expected to be consumed for free. Now, a creator like Akabur can reach out and raise funds from his users directly, which simply wouldn’t be possible if game sales were still hamstrung by the boundaries of retail decency law. That economic paradigm has proven to be a true economic boom for smut; Graphtreon counts at least 2,000 Patreon campaigns for adult games, many of which have opened up bidding within the last two years.
The practicalities of Patreon’s relationship with adult content has been controversial, with a crackdown last year on projects that involve “incest, bestiality, sexual depiction of minors, and suggestive sexual violence.” But it’s undeniably the only reliable monetization model for erotic filmmakers, boudoir cosplayers, and hentai artists—especially when compared to Kickstarter and GoFundMe’s comparatively puritanical policies. Akabur tells me it’s better than nothing: “They sort of acknowledge my presence, and even try to be nice to me, but it’s not that genuine,” he quips, when I ask him about his relationship with Patreon’s constitutional authorities. “They just sort of tolerate me and others like me.”
The upshot of this, says Akabur, is that consumers have professionalized a community of NSFW programmers, who now have the resources to pursue a sustainable development ecosystem. The subreddit r/lewdgames, one of the primary bazaar for western porn games, was founded on February 27, 2017. It hosts almost 30,000 subscribers. Everyday, the symposium bustles with developers hawking the latest updates of their libidinous goods. The best-funded, by far, is DarkCookie’s Summertime Saga, which is pulling a ridiculous $41,000 a month on Patreon, and has the fifth most number of patrons on the entire platform, two notches ahead of musician Amanda Palmer. It’s a simple adventure game starring a ne’er-do-well high schooler who happens to pack a massive schlong. Using dialogue trees and puzzle solving abilities, you’ll brazenly fuck your way through the teachers, relatives, and buxom neighborhood MILFs who dot the game map.
Snow Daze, which is earning $6,000 a month, is a visual novel that serves a double-shot of hypnosis kink and incest kink, where the player takes the guise of an aimless younger brother who entrances and conquests each of the female members of his ...”adoptive” family. (This is a common practice for erotic game makers; they often get around Patreon’s blacklisting of incest content by saying their characters are not blood related in the fiction.)
A 3D animator named Fek has cornered the market on furry bondage games, and his hard work has earned him a $28,000 monthly payroll. Currently, he’s working on a new simulation set in a yiff-happy brothel. Outside of the nudity and puerility, these projects all mirror the same basic trials of indie development. Most of them are in some form of beta, or early access, and all of them subsist on the niche passion of a very specific community that likes the ideas they’re selling. That can be true for Space Engineers, and that can be true for Princess Trainer.
“Since now you can get paid properly for this, adult professionals with experience and a skill-set can now work on their projects full-time,” says Akabur. “In turn, that leads to a better games.”
He’s right. The best games of this renaissance are shockingly well-realized. Most of them are visual novels, because visual novels are easy to make and easy to sexualize. Then there’s something like Jessika’s Curse, which places a horny veneer over the entirely unsexy roleplaying game tenets of Disgaea and Darkest Dungeon. Players take control of a party of curvaceous anime girls and slice their way through a treacherous army of orcs, trolls, and giants with attack formations and a mechanic called “Battle-Lust,” which will allow players to fuck those beasties into a sated submission. The game is not yet available for the public, but some of the pre-release animations have already caught the lust of the r/lewdgames community. This post in particular, which highlights the protagonist prevailing over a catatonic goblin with the tactical superiority of reverse cowgirl, has earned 185 upvotes.
Jessika’s Curse is pulling $1,164 from Patreon, and the 34-year old British creative lead who goes by the name Lord Arioch tells me he’s able to subsidize payroll with the funds he’s earned with his previous adult game, Seeds of Chaos; a dark fantasy narrative adventure that does $6,600 a month and remains in active development. Seeds of Chaos’ success encouraged him to get more ambitious with his gameplay, and thankfully he had the resources to employ a four-person development team.
“I was able to hire a former triple-A programmer to build [the game] in Unity, which has expanded the options when it comes to complexity,” he tells me. “Working with people who’ve been part of the industry has taught me a lot about the process of making games professionally, from detailed design documents, to assigning and managing tasks using software such as HacknPlan, and I think if both of these things continue, we’ll continue to see [lewd games] on an upward trend.”
It’s hard to imagine migrating away from a job at a major publisher in order to take a check by building a pervy strategy game, especially one with such a distinct teratophiliac curve. But that’s also been one of the lessons of the Western lewd game comeback; kink, no matter how forbidden, can pay the bills. The sex game renaissance is not just a Patreon trend, it’s a culture trend, where anyone selling a given fetish can find a reciprocating community.
In my time browsing through r/lewdgames I scarcely came across a project that you could consider “vanilla,” at least in the way society defines vanilla porn. Instead, some of the most revered endeavors in the scene are also the most taboo. Free Cities stands out in particular. It’s a text-based sex slave management game set in a fully radicalized patriarchal society, where women are routinely bought and sold for pleasure. The anonymous developer puts everything on the table with a Dwarf Fortress level of modular specificity. You can torture and mutilate the women in your harem; you can amputate and modify their body parts; you can impregnate a slave and have her bear a child that will be born into bondage. These are fantasies that are scarcely replicated in even the most extreme edges of the adult industry, and Free Cities takes them on with an eerie sense of enthusiasm that seems beyond the pale.
Naturally, Free Cities doesn’t have much of a presence on Patreon, save for a meager, scarcely-updated “tip jar” hosted by the anonymous solo creator. They choose their words carefully in the pitch: “By pledging, you are not supporting the creation of more content. I’m doing what I’m doing in my free time, so you can enjoy it in yours.” One thing is clear though, Free Cities is a hit. There are 3,200 subscribers to its very own subreddit, making it the closest a bona fide sex slave module has ever come to the mainstream.
The reality is that Free Cities’ casual sadism isn’t really an exception. While it’s the most outwardly brutal project I’ve come across, it has plenty of peers on r/lewdgames that test the outer limits of taste. MrDots’ Melody is a 3D visual novel where the player takes the role of a session musician who’s returned to his hometown to tutor (and eventually seduce) the niece of a woman the player knows. It’s about as close to an incest game as possible without breaking Patreon’s rules, which makes sense considering how MrDots previous game, Dating My Daughter, was purged off the service last year and is now hosted on a private domain. Melody walks the same tightrope as Palmer’s Daughter for Dessert, which comes with a disclaimer that reads, “There is no blood relationship between any characters, and all intercourse is completely consensual.” In DerelictHelmsman’s Unreal Engine-developed Breeders of the Nephelym, players will be be mating together different hybrid catgirl creatures to find a combination that suits their fancy. (It falls under the “breeder” genre, which also includes games like the intergalactic cross-fertilization sandbox, Pandorium.) Porn has always been in a state of evolution, but it’s certainly been strange to witness the delirious, abstract, and occasionally sinister ideas developers are exploring, while still managing to stay financially solvent.
Lord Arioch chalks up the scene’s aggressive aversion to conventional erotica as a core piece of the lewd game ethos. “You can only depict some things with writing or art, you couldn’t do it on film,” he says, when I ask about the unique demographic that Jessika’s Curse caters towards. “Games also seem to be less noticeable, meaning there is less backlash to the sort of content that some people find objectionable.” It’s a point that Redamz, the man behind the VR sex retreat Monster Girl Island, echoes more directly: “You are not gonna get an expensive CGI monster girl in a porn movie. At best their costume work would be a hilarious parody.”
When I asked Akabur how he’d respond if someone objected to the overarching political baggage of a slave training game, he was predictably cagey: “They should give one of my games a try,” he said. “I hear they’re good.” He went on to cite the history of periphery kink that’s always existed on the outskirts of fandoms. The virtual world Second Life has long served as an iconic safe space for deviance, as have slash-fics and perverse Tumblr galleries. The only difference now is that there’s money involved, and the invisible hand is slowly bringing the lewd game underground to the light.
None of the creators I talked to are sure what’s going to happen from here. Valve had signaled a more hands-off approach to sex games on Steam but then recently switched to holding them back, supposedly temporarily. Akabur predicts that there might be a Patreon reckoning for NSFW artists. The company is at the mercy of Visa and Mastercard, who’ve always been reluctant to facilitate transactions in the sex industry. Eventually, the Patreon boardroom might formally turn their back on the community it helped nurture. “I just hope I will be able to stay on Patreon for a while longer, before they ban all adult content creators or something,” he laughs.
Regardless of what happens with Patreon, Pandora’s Box is open, and we now live in the era where commercial porn games will be an ongoing concern. The gatekeepers have been circumvented, and the demand is here and eager. Developers like Arioch, Redamz, and Akabur will continue to make a lot of money, and will continue to establish their templates and best practices for everyone else they inspire.
“Before, nobody took Western lewd games seriously. I did though. I worked on projects that would require a lot of effort and Patreon allowed me to get paid for my work. Many people saw that and figured they could do the same,” says Akabur. “It just snowballed from there. I used to be at the peak of the industry, now I am just one of many. And I can’t be happier about it.”
Luke Winkie is a writer and former pizza maker from San Diego, currently living in Brooklyn. In addition to Kotaku, he contributes to Vice, PC Gamer, Playboy, Rolling Stone, and Polygon.