So, What’s the Real Deal With Kickstarter? (part 2)

PhotobucketIn part 1 of this article, I spent a lot of time exploring the motivations of designers, publishers, and patrons to use Kickstarter.  I feel pretty solid about what I said there, and to me, there’s not much in it that I feel is really disputable.  In this article, however, I’m going to get a heck of a lot more speculative.  And in some cases, I’m practically going to talk outta my butt or simply repeat things I’ve heard elsewhere.  But I’m going to do it anyway, because I still think that someone needs to take the time to present these issues and start some more reasonable conversation about them.

So, let’s start with the big one…

Is Kickstarter Good for the Boardgame Hobby?

Starting with the “NO!” side, I think that the first danger that Kickstarter poses is in providing an avenue for the publication of a lot of games that, quite frankly, just aren’t good enough to get published in the conventional way.  Whether the design itself just isn’t strong enough or of it’s more a matter of inadequate playtesting and development, quality is a real concern for these games.  

And for the most part, this is a really valid concern.  I know of one particular game that I had a chance to play prior to its Kickstarter campaign, which in fact did totally suck.  But it’s campaign was successful, and I can only imagine that there are a number of disappointed people out there somewhere who are stuck with it now.  

But are all the games published through Kickstarter bad?  Not at all.  Two of my top 5 games from last year were actually Kickstarted (Eminent Domain and Alien Frontiers).  And as I mentioned last time, it’s pretty easy to see from browsing Kickstarter pages which games have been given the proper attention.  It’s not always perfect, of course, but in general, you can assume that designers and publishers who work out all the details of their project have probably put just as much (and probably a heck of a lot more) effort into the game itself.  

And you need to remember also, of course, that buying from established designers or publishers is no guarantee of quality either.  Just look at the Fantasy Flight debacle with the Mansions of Madness expansion (and the core game too, based on most of the opinions I’ve read about it) in regards to its lack of playtesting and quality control.     

The other thing to really understand about Kickstarter is that it is not a product in and of itself.  It is a market; a means of buying and selling and finding support for your project.  If you bought a book from Amazon that you didn’t like or that was poorly written, would you blame Amazon?  Of course not.  You’d blame the publisher or author and be a lot more wary in the future about their other books.  So, to me, the biggest danger in Kickstarter due to poor quality is to the reputation of the designer or publisher, and especially if they’re looking for a long-term career in the hobby, they’d better do everything they can to ensure that they’re releasing the best game that they possibly can.  

But are there any real benefits to the hobby? 

I think so.  First of all, from a monetary perspective, selling direct to the consumer is far more profitable for the publisher.  And I’ve definitely heard a number of both new and established publishers say that funding through Kickstarter and its direct-sale model (as opposed to the traditional 3-tiered distribution chain) allowed them to offer the game to customers at a lower base price.  So for everyone other than the distributors, there really can be a real financial benefit from Kickstarter.

Probably Kickstarter’s biggest benefit is, of course, the chance to foster more creativity and innovation in game design.  Whether from a total unknown who had a crazy idea that just might work or from a big-name publisher who wants to try something a little risker than they’d normally want to offer, Kickstarter helps make it possible.  Designers no longer have to compromise their vision just to meet the thematic or mechanical demands of publishers and their established game lines.  

Along those same lines, the Kickstarter model offers a level of speed that is a real game-changer.  In the conventional model of game publishing, designers submit their game to a publisher and then wait… a long time, really, for the company to get around to trying it out and making a decision.  Then, assuming that they agree to publish it, the game is put into a schedule that may easily take another year or two before it ever sees the light of day.  Some of these delays are due to fiscal limitations that the company may have (since they have to have the capital to produce the game before it’s ever actually sold) or be based on their release schedule and not wanting to flood the market too quickly.  But with Kickstarter as an option, designers and small, independent publishers have a real opportunity to get games into the market much faster, whether in response to trends in what games are hot or, once again, because they have something truly original to offer.

And finally, the last benefit is probably more of a philosophical one.  On Kickstarter, the decisions about what games will be published is turned over to the consumers.  Rather than a game company holding all the power to make choices about what sort of games and themes they think we want, on Kickstarter we actually have the power to choose which projects will succeed and fail.  That’s sort of what the internet age is all about, right?  Empowering people, freedom of choice, full accessibility and transparency, making dreams a reality… that kind of stuff?  
Is Kickstarter Headed for a Crash?

When I hear this question, I think there are actually a couple of different things going on, and I want to address them separately.

First of all, the bigger question is actually, “Is the boardgame industry headed for a crash?”  With the crazy number of games being released every year, a lot of people seem to continually question whether or not it’s a bubble market that’s on the verge of bursting.  This question is really too big for me to answer with any sort of completeness right now, but let me just make one point.  The hobby boardgame industry is incredibly small, and the rest of the world is really big.  Any sort of glut i
n our little niche of a niche is pretty insignificant when compared to any sort of growth and penetration into the greater consciousness of the larger culture at all.  And fortunately, we are, in fact, seeing growth. 

So are there “too many” games being produced each year?  Probably.  Some will not sell well and some companies will go out of business.  But that’s not a bubble at all.  A bubble is when both good and bad assets see an unmerited increase in perceived value, and I don’t see that at all.  If anything, I think the boardgame hobby has a quite healthy system for evaluating the merits and failures of games, and the cream will consistently rise to the top while the dregs will fade away.  And as long as there is interest to buy and play these games, which is only growing from all that I’ve read, our hobby is pretty safe.

PhotobucketBut is there a Kickstarter Bubble?

This is a little harder for me to answer.  Certainly, the sheer excitement surrounding Kickstarter itself these days has probably helped a number of mediocre (at best) games and projects get funded.  But really, how much damage will having 100 or so members of the community shell out $4,000 dollars total for a crappy game really have? 

Once the newness of the concept wears off a little, will there be a decrease in the excitement and therefore some of the funding of projects?  Maybe so.  But I seriously doubt that it will just up and go away, especially when so many new and established publishers see so much potential in changing their whole production model to incorporate it.

And one other thing to consider about Kickstarter is that, for the most part, the rest of the world still doesn’t know anything about it.  But with more and more movies and especially video games being funded through it, that will very likely begin to change.  Richard Bliss recently pointed out on his blog or podcast or somewhere that both boardgames and video games fall under the “Games” category on Kickstarter.  And with projects like the crazy Double Fine Adventure video game out there (which currently has over $2 million from over 61,000 backers), things may change a lot.  All that needs to happen is almost any fraction of the tens of thousands of most-likely new Kickstarter patrons clicking over to browse the other Games and seeing awesome projects like Farmageddon, Chicken Caesar, Agensts of SMERSH, and Gunship: First Strike staring them in the face to have a whole new level of funding become available.

But what if some big scandal happened on Kickstarter?

The thing that probably started me thinking about putting together this article was a statement made by Geoff Engelstein on episode 24 of the Lugology podcast, where he prophesied that some sort of “incident” with Kickstarter in the next year or so.

First of all, I doubt that it would really be possible for a total scam artist to put forth a convincing con and keep it up for the whole length of the campaign (especially if they were trying to get anything more than a few hundred dollars, anyway).  Because if you haven’t heard Kickstarter campaign owners talk about it yet, there’s a ton of work involved in getting the word out about the game, keeping momentum going, providing the sort of evidence that most savvy Kickstarter backers want (like pictures, videos, game rules, etc.), and I don’t think that sort of thing would be possible if no game actually existed somewhere.  And even once you’ve chosen to back a project, if you had any real bad feeling about it (or for any other reason, for that matter), you can back out at any time before it closes.

Now, on the other hand, it’s certainly possible that something could happen due to a designer/publisher getting in over their head and being unable to provide the game they promised.  Whether they didn’t do the math well enough or had unseen expenses come up that they didn’t expect, maybe they’d fail to deliver on their promises.  But in this sort of “honest mistake” case, you’d hope that at least some sort of refund might be possible.  And even if not, I think that this sort of lack of preparation would probably show through in the rest of their campaign as well, which would make it a lot less likely that they would get funded at all or affect all that many people.

But, you know what, I actually lost money in preordering a game once.  I pre-bought Ascendancy from JKLM after playtesting it and getting all excited about it.  And as you may already know, JKLM then closed their doors before ever getting around to actually producing it.  Some people got other games out of the deal or some level of refund, but maybe because I was a little late in asking about it, I never got any response from my emails and therefore lost the $50 or so bucks that I gave for it.  But, as far as I know, the whole concept of preordering games didn’t fall apart because JKLM sucked at being a game company.  And in fact, I even got over it, since I’ve Kickstarted a number of games so far and plan to do so again in the future.

However, let me also say that I have heard that Kickstarter could probably do a better job in protecting its customers.  I have no basis for saying that other than having heard it somewhere, though, so I don’t really know what it means.  In looking at the Kickstarter FAQ, the only thing they really talk about in terms of backer protection and fulfillment of promised rewards are the social forces related to having a public project and, presumably, the reputation that being slow or failing to deliver would give project owners. 

While I acknowledge that this is a reasonable approach to take, it did seem a little weak to me.  So, I made a couple of inquiries to Kickstarter concerning any other potential protection that they had built into the system for backers.  For instance, I know that there is an “approval” process for the projects, and I wonder if part of that is some level of financial checking on the project owner.  But unfortunately, I haven’t heard anything back from them yet.  Maybe I’m just being a little impatient with wanting to get this article published, though, and I promise to add an update if I do receive any information from them anytime soon.

So, as of right now, I’d say that, as with most everything you do on the internet, there is possibly some level of financial risk involved with backing a project.  But personally, with all the research I do into projects and the online relationships I usually have with their designers/producers, I’ve felt very safe in every single one that I’ve been involved in. 
Anything Else?

You know, Kickstarter isn’t going to be for everyone, and I understand the complaints and fears that I hear from a lot of people.  When I participate in projects, I go in with my eyes wide open, fully aware of all the risks about quality and delivery and everything else.  But good projects do a lot these days to allay most of those fears and answer most of the questions you might have. 

And still, even when a little warning bell goes off in my head about a project, maybe just an inkling that I may not like the game for some reason, sometimes I throw in a little support anyway because I want to help that person out to make their dream come true.  That’s what Kickstarter is all about.