My 2017 Thoughts on Kickstarter and the Industry

Yesterday, February 19, 2017, a new series of threads regarding Kickstarter and really, the industry as a whole, popped up on Twitter. You have people on all sides of the aisle chiming in with this or that. Instead of writing 25 Tweets on a platform not intended for such content, I thought I'd write a quick blog post on the topic. 

My views on Kickstarter have evolved over the years. If you follow me publically, you know I have mixed opinions. If you're allowed into my private correspondence, you probably know I have downright despised it at times. Before I share my current views on Kickstarter, which are succinct, here is my definition of what Kickstarter is (in no order):

  • A marketing tool
  • A method of gauging interest from consumers
  • A pre-order tool
  • A method of raising capital directly through consumers instead of traditional methods such as a bank loan

Kickstarter is used by individual peasants such as myself and incredibly large, established entities such as Queen Games. I've seen publishers swear it off for years, publically, then use it. I've seen some publishers swear by it, publically, and then abandon it. It is all of these things in the bullets above. You can present an argument concerning who should use it, but until Kickstarter alters their Terms of Service, this is a pointless debate. Personally? I think everyone should use it that finds value in doing so.

What do I think of Kickstarter?

  • I still largely loathe Stretch Goals. I think having them is a lousy way to create a tight, cohesive product. I also think it's a fairly overt manipulation of human psychology to raise additional money.
  • I think it is a fascinating ecosystem. It has evolved so much and with it, the expectations, demands, the thrills, are all very interesting to watch. If you're at all interested in psychology, public relations, communication, or economics, check it out.
  • I think without it, I couldn't sell my games. I tried this with Farmageddon and failed entirely. There are multiple circumstances behind this, of which I've written, but not using Kickstarter was a big one. I could go directly to a POD site, but I'd sell ten games instead of two hundred. Kickstarter brings in more customers. Full stop.
  • Most of the customers I deal with via Kickstarter are really nice, cool people.

So, that covers Kickstarter, right?

Well, when you discuss Kickstarter at this point, you're discussing the greater industry. Ultimately, when the discussion comes up (and it always does), folks say things such as "a good game should have/could have been traditionally published," or "Kickstarter allows bad games to exist." I've spent seven years now seeking traditional publishing deals as a designer (with mixed success), seeking to BE a traditional publisher (with mixed success), and promoting smaller craft level projects (with high success, by my definitions). The thing is, it's complicated.

Working with board game publishers is maybe the single most frustrating aspect of my life, and I say that as a married man and middle-manager in a massive corporation. Working with publishers can be maddening. The truth is, though, is that this is an incredibly competitive business, with high up front capital costs and very low margins on the back-end, a string of middle-men a mile long, and publishers cannot afford (frequently) to sign games that won't sell. They want sure things. Distribution wants sure things. Retail wants sure things. Customers want sure things. And, knowing what a sure thing is? It's nebulous, until you know it. I understand why publishers do what they do. I just don't always appreciate being on the receiving end!

Nobody in their right mind enters this industry for the money, especially not the designers. I create because I have to, because I love to, and because there are games I really want to make. I do this flying in the face of good business sense and I make things that are far from sure things. Hocus is too thinky and was rejected for those precise words. Compare Farmageddon's text length to Munchkin's and you'll know why it fails. Some people flat-out do not understand the core movement mechanism of Druids. I do, my testers do, and enough of my customers do, but that doesn't mean it'll move beyond that tiny, tiny pool. 

I, and people like me, have to made a decision: do we continue to chase publishers who need a sure thing, who probably won't respond to our communication (because they're legitimately busy or simply bad at managing their time), who probably won't sign our game? Or, do we make the thing we love to make on our own? I completely get that some people don't want to oversee the art, or pack the games, or respond to angry emails, but I love that stuff. I like being responsible for every length of the chain. I'm also not very good at making things publishers want. It seems like there are two clear paths, one of which has boulders.

Kickstarter lets me pursue these things. It is likely I sell 50 copies of Solstice at most. This means it'll be a loss due to my art costs. But, I set money aside to pay for this, in the same way someone might pay for a small vacation. Why? Because it brings me joy. Chasing a publisher? Far less joy. Far more uncertainty. And at the end of the road? Not really much more satisfaction, even if the sales figures dwarf those people like me are able to execute ourselves.

Kickstarter does a lot of things wrongly. It brings a lot of bad games to the market, or just to its customers. But, it also allows some of us to make stuff in a way that reaches customers. In a way that isn't about the money, isn't exploitive, and isn't evil. If you're fortunate enough to have figured out the publisher relationship circuit, or have a contact, or know how to make a sure thing? Damn, I'm jealous. Sincerely, I am. And if you ask Josh, or Chris, or Brett, they'll back up this jealousy. They've heard my angst on the topic countless times.

I haven't figured it out, though, and after seven years, I have to make my hobby -- making stuff -- more fun than painful. 

Those are my thoughts on Kickstarter.