The Kickstarter Problem

The lovely Kickstarter logo

Short post today. I want to talk about Kickstarter, the self-described “funding platform for creative projects.” Here’s a link to their guidelines, which constrain but don’t seem that strict.

The concept behind the site is very simple. Let’s say I want to create something. I can start a Kickstarter page, and fill it out with all the details about whatever it is I’m gonna make. Donors can come, see how much my fundraising goal is, and choose to contribute. I set up fundraising “tiers”, much like larger fundraising organizations do, except these tiers provide tangible benefits. The $10 tier might get you a personalized thank you card, the $50 tier might get you a signed copy of whatever I’m creating, and a $500 donation might get your name listed as a Gold Donor or whatever.

The main selling point of Kickstarter is that if the fundraising goal is not met, you don’t end up donating any money. So if my goal is $400, and I only raise $250, the money raised all goes back to the donors, no questions asked. So it’s kind of like risk-free financial supporting: toss some money if you like the idea, but if not enough people do, then there’s no risk.

There are definitely some cool projects that have popped up on Kickstarter in the past year or so. But I am a bit worried that it might get out of hand.

I’m not saying the Kickstarter model is a bad one. In fact, I’m absolutely positive that more projects will see the light of day because of the platform, when in the past they would have been merely the dreams of idle gamers, artists, and programmers. Kickstarter is a fabulous tool for the indie creator, to be able to subsidize the creation of whatever his or her dream project is – and if enough people can get behind it, then it’s worth creating.

There are a few obvious worries. What if the people just run away with the money? I’ve heard that the Kickstarter folks are very serious about fraud so they have your back there. I don’t think there’s any guarantee against “shitty product”, but when tossing your money toward anything, caveat emptor. There’s no way anyone could guarantee the quality of the products supported, which is a bit troubling but not a dealbreaker.

I guess what I am worried about is the fate of the works created – once all of the backers have been compensated, then what happens? To me it seems that the donors are simply putting forward the production cost and then all they get out of it is a copy of the game or a little piece of themselves in the game (or some recognition from the author).  I’m especially wary of the numerous video games which are popping up – the primary option simply seems to be able to pre-order the game. Many of these games have far exceeded their initial fundraising goals – in some cases the creator has a plan for the additional money, but in some he/she does not.

It would all make sense to me in some way if the projects were distributed at-cost or for free following a successful Kickstarter campaign. But, donors are basically paying retail price (and justifying it as “I would have bought a copy anyway”) SIGHT UNSEEN for the game, footing the bill for the production of the game. I feel like there is an evil genius somewhere who loves the idea that the very people who will be buying the game are paying for the production – which just increases the profit margin on every copy sold after the game is produced.

Furthermore, I feel extremely manipulated by some of the projects. I don’t like that we’re “donating” money, because, really, we’re not. We’re paying for a service. Now, that service might be incredibly valuable to me (oh boy, Baldur’s Gate 3?!?!), but I can’t help but feel that it’s not a donation (especially since there is the tiered system of “rewards”). I know that Kickstarter likely must make this decision for tax/legal purposes, but I still don’t like it.

Plus, and I may be stereotyping us gamers here, but I think it’s a very typical desire for people like me to want to be a part of things. I mean, look at conventions where we get to meet William Shatner or Nathan Fillion. How crazy would it be if we got to be on Firefly? or at least a part of the show in some way. We feel the same way about our games. How awesome would it be if my character was one of the main villains in this new campaign setting? This feeling is not at all uncommon and I would say it’s perfectly natural. Thus, I feel somewhat manipulated by the super-expensive options that allow you to “put a piece of yourself in the game”. It’s the same kind of impulse that makes us buy one-of-a-kind collectibles like costumes from the Star Wars movies, or one of the original Browncoats. Except Kickstarter-based projects ask us to do that before the project even comes out. It’s like they’re promising awesomeness, but they aren’t guaranteeing it. The risk-averse angel inside of me is stomping my nerd-glory devil like crazy.

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t fund Kickstarter projects that appeal to you. You absolutely should. If there is a certain webcomic that you have been enjoying, for free, that has a Kickstarter page, by all means support the comic’s work. Reputation is king – our fearless leader has his own game that I’m sure he makes almost no money off, and those are the types of projects we should be supporting, not fan-service bloated-budget revivals of games we used to love. We need to support the indies who are Kickstarting because they literally cannot afford to fund it, not the creators who are Kickstarting because they couldn’t get enough investors. Heck, crowdsourcing works; it’s a lot easier to get 10,000 people to “donate” buck then a single person to chip in 10,000 bucks.

Just be wary. I don’t think we’ve reached the first wave of massive Kickstarter disappointments, but I do honestly believe that it’s coming. And people won’t be happy when they shelled out a few hundred bucks for a limited-edition specialized copy of a game that sucks. Again, Caveat emptor, and don’t get your hopes up too high. And maybe this is the recalcitrant jerk inside me talking, but don’t delude yourself that you’re doing the world a service by donating to some of these projects. You’re investing in their product, and instead of a share, you just get a copy of the game when it’s done.

 

Update: Looks like an already well-established publishing company (Paizo) is getting involved in the kickstarting (though the other links in the article are dead) for their MMO.

16 thoughts on “The Kickstarter Problem

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  1. You raise some great points about Kickstarter, and they basically boil down to my own feelings which is “just be sensible” and judge the quality of material presented in the “pitch” (is there a decent video, is their blurb full of spelling mistakes, are they showing any concept art or actual art from the project, are there any names attached that you recognise or have had dealings with before etc?)

    I also prefer Kickstarter to Indiegogo where you basically cough up your money up front (unless this has changed) before there’s any guarantee of a product if the funding target isn’t reached. I’ve been burned once on this and am therefore far more wary of a person’s motivation for choosing this Indiegogo over Kickstarter at their method of fundraising.

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  2. You say:
    “I feel like there is an evil genius somewhere who loves the idea that the very people who will be buying the game are paying for the production – which just increases the profit margin on every copy sold after the game is produced.”

    I would say that the alternative, that is the standard in most indusries today, is the far less preferrable option. Currently, Large companies take good ideas, thought up by these same creative individuals, and back them *if and only if* the product will meet their specifications for content, which may or may not match the original vision of the artist. They do this, not because *they* like the idea, but because they believe that consumers would pay a meticulously calculated pricetag for such a product.
    In a way, we, the consumers, are STILL paying for production based on an assumed guarantee of sale, but more of our money goes to the publisher than the originator, and the product may be censored or altered to fit a business strategy or corporate identity. It is EASY to see who the evil genius is in THAT scenario.

    In the Kickstarter model, when we like a product’s premise, the donators are the judge. The content originators make the money that the publishing company thinks the project is worth, undiluted by the publishing company’s take! Yes, caveat emptur, and in this sytem we lack the regimented quality controls that large brand names *may* provide, but it is a small price to pay in order to directly congratulate the originator of content you believe in or enjoy.

    Add to these considerations the fact that A) Your donation cost is often less than the retail cost of an equivalent product would be, B) You may receive bonuses above and beyond the original product which caught your interest, and C) The value of your investment increases as a project gains support and funding, and you have the reason that I, and many others feel that Kickstarter is the opening salvo in a new generation of products undiluted and untainted by market and corporate influence.

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    1. I don’t think that a game like Caylus originated in one form and Ystari said to the designer “add this content or no backing”. While I certainly think that is a problem in other creative areas (films, for example), I don’t think that applies that much.

      You could say that how well a game sells is a barometer of how good the game is. Now, a good game may not sell, but rarely does a bad game sell really well (let’s not confuse “simple” games with bad ones here, as well).

      The thing is that you probably don’t just buy games based on their premise, do you? You probably research it, look it up on BGG or another review site, ask people you know what they think of it, and so on. But the Kickstarter model has you pledge the money in advance, before any of that can happen. If it’s $5 you’re pledging, fine, no biggie, but some of these options are in the hundreds of dollars.

      I don’t like the insinuation that publishing companies are evil. They serve a purpose. Yes, they have a take, but generally they exist because the infrastructure for certain things (mass production, marketing, and quality control) are just not affordable by indie developers.

      And I dispute your claim that you often get the item below retail. You get the item below what the creator says retail would be, but there’s no way to know what the game would have retailed for had it been published by a major distributor.

      Anyway, as I said, if there’s a project you like, by all means support it. But I worry that the wave of Kickstarter games will eventually produce some massive failures, and then people will not be so willing to support projects any more.

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  3. As far as the bigger kickstarter campaigns go, such as Wasteland 2, Ogre, and the like, they attract lots of attention to Kickstarter in general. Some, not all of those folks that found the site because of say, Pathfinder, may look around and back other projects. Whenever Kickstarter has a larger campaign there is a site wide bump in contributions to other projects.

    Because of Kickstarter there are so many projects seeing the light of day that would otherwise have been left in isolation. Is there the possibility of a let down because of a sub par project? Absolutely. However, that isn’t solely in the realm of Kickstarter, just ask people that bought Mass Effect 3.

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    1. That’s a good point. Doesn’t it strike you as a little skeevy when major companies like Paizo start Kickstarter campaigns? I mean, they are poised to make a ****ton of money off their MMO. Why are they asking for donations for the demo?

      The difference between ME3 and a Kickstarter game is that you could find out that ME3 sucks before you buy it. You can’t really do that with KS projects. I guess I have the same problem with the pre-order rewards and achievements and bonuses you can get from game companies. Those are a huge scam, in my opinion.

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  4. As for quality, many studies have proved that if the content creator has a good reputation, they are much more likely to be funded and much more likely to be overfunded. I’m a little suspicious about Joe Nobody’s Kickstarter, but when Steve Jackson or Rich Burlew put something up, I know they’ve done quality work in the past. I’m gonna risk more money on them. If you’re worried about disappointment, you can always buy a copy afterwards.

    One issue with extra money over the goal is stretch goals. Once a project is funded, many developers announce that if they reach a new goal, there will be something extra added. More artwork, downloadable content, versions for other game systems, extra maps, whatever. Steve Jackson’s Ogre Kickstarter has added a crazy amount of additional extras, including hiring somebody to manage the revamped Ogre line and develop stuff in the future.

    People who buy a game produced in the normal way are paying for production as well. The only extra profit comes from “Cheap extras” like getting to name a character or getting a signed copy over a regular copy. And some of these could be done with normal production.

    The big thing about Kickstarter is the distribution of risk. Right now, if somebody creates a product and it doesn’t sell, they are often out thousands or tens of thousands of dollars, plus months of their lives. It’s a huge hit, and could possibly lead to other consequences like bankruptcy. With Kickstarter, a lot of people are out a little money. While it will piss you off to lose tens of dollars or even hundreds of dollars, it’s something you should be able to recoup pretty quickly. If this has a major effect on your lifestyle, then you’d still have this hit if you loved the product and you shouldn’t have pledged that money in the first place.

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    1. I couldn’t agree with you more. This is definitely going to become a huge reputation game.

      I think there is an academic but important difference between paying for the production pre- and post- release. If you pay for the production up front, you assume the risk instead of the publisher. Thus there is less incentive for the publisher to make a good game that will sell.

      I don’t know how I should feel about game failures. I honestly believe that not every game can be that good. I mean, we shouldn’t punish people who make bad games with bankruptcy, that is just mean, but there needs to be some negative consequence for making a bad game. If the only one is “you won’t be able to make more games in the future”, is that enough to deter bad games? Also, do we want to deter game making at all?

      Those are philosophical questions I’m not really prepared to answer. I don’t know. I think the model where someone takes risk, and in the end is rewarded by potentially profiting (the publisher model) is preferable to the KS model, which seems to be “distributed risk with no chance of profit”. I say no chance of profit, because best case scenario, you get what is expected.

      I think it would be interesting if Kickstarter could sell “shares” in projects, such that individuals could invest say 10% of the start-up money in return for 5% of the profits of the game, or something like that. I don’t know if that is legal, though. It just seems too much, for me, to assume monetary risk couched in terms of donation.

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      1. “I think the model where someone takes risk, and in the end is rewarded by potentially profiting (the publisher model) is preferable to the KS model, which seems to be “distributed risk with no chance of profit”. I say no chance of profit, because best case scenario, you get what is expected.”

        The advantages to the Kickstarter model are that more risky ideas come out. And in the best case scenario, you get a product that you enjoy more than you expected. Not a huge profit, but you aren’t risking your whole life like in conventional production.

        And you can still be disappointed with a game after reading a review and getting feedback on a game. There may be less risk, but there’s still risk there. But if you are putting the same money into a kickstarter than you are to a conventional project, the downside is the same.

        It’s like gambling, don’t spend more than you can afford to lose. Except that I think if you look at products with a critical eye, you have a lot better odds on Kickstarter.

        If you are risk-averse, then donating to Kickstarter isn’t for you. That doesn’t make it a bad idea.

        Full disclosure: I’ve donated to a Pathfinder module that I’ve enjoyed, The Ogre Kickstarter, but only at a level to get the T-shirts (and I’ve seen the shirts or mockups), and to a couple of graphic novels that I’ve only seen artwork for. I usually don’t contribue to higher levels.

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      2. I agree. Like I said in the post, I think that because of KS, more things will be produced, and that’s a good thing. Just be extremely careful. I’d say be *more* careful than you would with a normal product, but I think the average person lets their inner fanboy take over. Which is why I object to the appeal to that fanboy, and calling it “donations”. It’s a form of emotional manipulation.

        I mean, if someone started a Kickstarter for something I’ve been salivating over for years, like more Firefly or more Ghostbusters, I’d totally donate money. I gave money to Rich Burlew. I pledged to a few other smaller projects that seemed cool.

        I think we can agree that if something wouldn’t be produced w/o Kickstarter, then the service is a godsend. But, I think there are products being Kickstarted which would succeed without a Kickstarter donation drive. Why should we accept the risk in lieu of the publisher who stands to make a ton of money off it?

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  5. Oh, and if the developer makes lots of money and doesn’t annouce stretch goals, then rejoice that they’ve made money. Its a rare thing for RPG developers to do well, and we should rejoice in those that make it.

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  6. “I don’t like the insinuation that publishing companies are evil. … they exist because the infrastructure for certain things (mass production, marketing, and quality control) are just not affordable by indie developers.”

    It used to be that they were the only option, now there is more flexibility. I don’t think they are evil either. But they do limit the ideas that come out, and it’s worth experimenting with other forms.

    “The thing is that you probably don’t just buy games based on their premise, do you? You probably research it … But the Kickstarter model has you pledge the money in advance, before any of that can happen”

    Some points – 1) Reuptation. If Stephen King were to Kickstart a new novel, he’d raise a huge amount of money because people expect it to be good. Has every Stephen King book been awesome? No, but I’d risk money on him.
    2) Updates and previews. If I were to spend money on a new RPG, I’d expect something that shows me how the basic mechanics work and what sort of flavor it is. This can come in many forms, but it’s something I’d expect to see. If it’s a graphic novel, I’d expect to see the art and maybe some sample pages.
    3) Wait until it comes out and read the reviews, etc. Very few Kickstarters are exclusive to Kickstarter. Some of the options will be, but the basic product usually isn’t. If you want the extras, you need to take the risk.

    “And I dispute your claim that you often get the item below retail. You get the item below what the creator says retail would be, but there’s no way to know what the game would have retailed for had it been published by a major distributor.”

    There are ways to estimate that price. And it comes down to “what is this worth to you”. Yes, you can get “fanboyfever”, but you can also change your pledge up until the funding date.

    “Anyway, as I said, if there’s a project you like, by all means support it. But I worry that the wave of Kickstarter games will eventually produce some massive failures, and then people will not be so willing to support projects any more.”

    True. and I believe there have been some failures already. But huge successes will offset this to some extent. I think that somebody who contributes reasonable amounts (for them) to a few Kickstarters will probably regret a few, but will have more successes than failures.

    Contributing to Kickstarter is not for the person that agonizes over every disappointment. If you can’t shrug your shoulders and say “oh well,” then wait for the finished product.

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  7. You make a number of valid points, and I think the first time someone does get ‘burned’ by a project, they’ll grow much more cautious about backing things in the future.

    And that’s why I believe things will only continue to coalesce around trust and community. A record of successfully delivering projects (even small ones) will become more and more essential. And backers will need to feel they’re taking part in something that give them a lift and helps them connect with a group of like-minded people. And of course they’ll need to get value for their pledge. I wouldn’t call the community aspect predatory. We’re all fans of something, and I think it’s just in our DNA to want to connect with the things we admire the most.

    Finally, I agree that respecting backers as more than just seed money is essential. In the Kickstarter I am associated with (which was recently successfully funded), the final product (an electronic utility) is free to all. You have to get a little creative with your rewards when you go this route, but I think it was worth it. Also, the product was available to test for most folks from the start. The funding was only necessary to purchase equipment to make it available on a wider variety of devices. I think people understood the need, and it helped the project succeed.

    So yes, I agree it’s early days for this model of funding, and a backlash will eventually arrive as it’s popularity reaches a ‘bubble point’. But long-term the edges will get smoothed by experience and we’ll see a lot of great things come out of this for the gaming community, especially for ‘niche’ things.
    Finally, I agree that respecting backers as more than just seed money is essential. In the Kickstarter I am associated with (which was recently successfully funded), the final product (an electronic utility) is be free to all. You have to get a little creative with your rewards when you go this route, but I think it was worth it. Also, the product was available to test for most folks from the start. The funding was only necessary to purchase equipment to make it available on a wider variety of devices. I think people understood the need, and it helped the project succeed.

    So yes, I agree it’s early days for this model of funding, and a backlash will eventually arrive as it’s popularity reaches a ‘bubble point’. But long term the edges will get smoothed by experience and we’ll see a lot of great things come out of the gaming community.

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