Only one of the top five projects on crowdfunding website Patreon isn’t a podcast. A videogame called Summertime Saga is currently ranked number three by number of patrons (it has 29,000), sitting below True Crime Obsessed and Chapo Trap House. Like all the videogames doing well on Patreon, it’s an adult game: a dating sim/visual novel that earns over $74,000 per month. The surprising thing is that its creator, who goes by the pseudonym DarkCookie (DC for short), didn’t have any experience with adult games before he started making one.
“I had no idea that type of content really existed, or at least was that popular, and I had never really played adult games before,” says DC. What began as a much more innocent game, admittedly with some “sexy but comical dialogue,” was steered in a more and more NSFW direction based entirely on suggestions from its early players. Now DC spends his days fielding requests for extremely specific fetishes from his many and vocal fans.
DC is a father of three in his 30s who doesn’t watch hentai, and yet making an adult videogame has become his main source of income. He can even afford to pay six other people to help. It started back in 2016, when he was working as a freelance concept artist, making character designs for animated movies and games. He dreamed of creating his own videogame, but had enough experience in the industry to know not to set his goals too high right out of the gate. He’d make his dream game some day, but first he’d try something small.
He downloaded Ren’Py, a popular engine for making visual novels, and set to work. “I was also trying to learn to code in Python, so there was no point in diving straight into something too ambitious,” says DC. “The plan was to do a test build with the Ren’Py engine, learn Python and get comfortable with code since I excelled mainly in art and writing.”
As part of that learning process, he signed up for a forum where people making visual novels gave each other advice, and joined some of them in a Skype group. He traded art tips for help with code, and asked for ideas he could put into his test build. Their suggestions led to a simple scene on a beach and a summer theme, hence the name.
But his art—a cut above the “my first visual novel” standard—attracted attention from outside that inner circle. People who liked it asked what he was going to add next and had plenty of their own suggestions, which weren’t so innocent. “It was just a common pressure from everyone interested to add more adult-oriented gameplay,” is how DC puts it. “Dialogue options leading to lewd content essentially. The inevitable result is what we see now in the game, full on naughty.” He’d still been thinking of it as a test rather than something he needed to feel attached to, and took on any and all input as part of the learning process. “Then everyone wanted more.”
Roughly three months in, DC was still working freelance and making Summertime Saga in his spare time as a personal project. “Someone had suggested to use Patreon to see if people were willing to support the project, which seemed pointless at the time, but gave it a try anyway. The first week I think one person subscribed?”
It didn’t take long for that to change, with players sharing it across the internet. “A month later there was over a thousand subscriptions and it just kept going. That’s when I figured I could cut down on the freelancing and see where this could go and turn it into an actual proper game.” Over the years that followed, what started as a “test build” became DC’s career.
Summertime Saga is about a young man in a town called Summerville. He tries not to fail his final year of school, works part-time jobs, and either pursues or is pursued by basically every mother and teacher in the town, as well as several of his classmates. Its tone is that of an American movie aimed at teenage boys from the ’90s or early ’00s, somewhere between American Pie and a Trey Parker/Matt Stone production (right down to a borderline racist caricature of a North Korean leader).
Where other games in its genre are more likely to go with anime art or 3D models direct from the uncanny valley of rendering software Poser, Summertime Saga’s art is simple, cartoonish, and more like Mad Magazine than a traditional dating sim. Maybe that’s part of its appeal.
Or maybe it’s the checklist of 24 included fetishes, like “mild BDSM”, “librarian”, “impregnation”, and “milking”. While DC describes himself as pretty vanilla, when his patrons request specifics in detail they are not shy about it. “Oh, not at all shy,” he says. “I’m quite open to communicating with the fan base so people send me all sorts of suggestions, in short and long form. Emails, Patreon, Discord and streaming. It comes from everywhere and I get all sorts!”
And though he’s had plenty of success thanks to simply shrugging and saying yes to these requests, there are some things he says no to. “The Patreon platform obviously sets guidelines as to what’s allowed but we also have lines we try not to cross when it comes to fetishes,” says DC. “I stay away from the poop stuff and anything sexual violence is a big no go. I find all of that unnecessary, personally.”
Where a lot of adult games either dwell on asshole protagonists who manipulate and coerce, or suddenly veer into explicitly non-consensual territory, Summertime Saga is relatively wholesome for the genre.
And yet, one of the entries on that list of fetishes is “trans”. It’s disappointing to see a trans character’s identity treated as a fetish, and it’s gross that the achievement for romancing her is named “The full Ackbar” in reference to the Star Wars character who says “It’s a trap!” That said, the romance in question is written with a degree of sensitivity at odds with everything around it. In a game so unsubtle its Donald Trump parody is named “Mayor Rump”, having the main character casually say “I think personality is more important than gender” feels practically progressive.
I wouldn’t blame anyone for writing off Summertime Saga because of that shitty achievement, but this is a game that puts a transgender character written like a human being in front of a lot of dudes with Pepe the Frog avatars. It’s not an unqualified win for human rights, but compared to the majority of horny games? It could be worse. Look, it’s a low bar. (For a Patreon-backed porn game about trans women made by trans women, I recommend Hardcoded.)
Another thing worth mentioning is that there’s an oddly somber undercurrent to Summertime Saga. The plot begins with your father’s funeral, and there’s an unfolding storyline about the debt he left behind. In addition to worrying about who you’re going to take to prom, you have to worry about how your father was murdered and whether his killer might come for you next. It’s a morbid element in a goofy sex comedy.
“The contrast is what makes it interesting!” insists DC. “To make a compelling story you need relatable characters, but you also need conflict and change. I always try to give a combination of elements.”
Perhaps that’s part of the appeal as well—along with competent-at-a-sentence-level writing, atypical art, and the fact you can always download a recent version for free. That last one certainly can’t hurt. DC sums up Summertime Saga’s merits as, “Fun open world, large variety of characters with unique stories, huge amount of art content with interesting style, tons of minigames, some comedy, some drama and obviously… Boobs.”
Summertime Saga is not the game DC set out to make, and he has ideas for what something different he’d like to do next, but he’s pleased with its success nonetheless. “I’m a ‘streamer’ now and I get to work on my projects and creations which is fantastic,” he says. “I work with amazing developers and interact with a huge community of fans who love what we make. No complaints!”