Or The Seemingly Inescapable Problem Of Kickstarter
I am worried about crowdfunding. Kickstarter has become, in my opinion and for the most part, bad for our hobby. Why do I say this? Well, it’s complicated- which is why I’ve been working on this article since somewhere around August of last year. The issue is so convoluted, so circular, it’s effectively a devil’s trap- a logical loop. And, like some fantastical blight, it’s reaching out into every corner of our hobby. More and more board games are beginning their life on Kickstarter, and more publishers are cashing in on this new model. So, let’s keep it simple to begin with, and start with the easy questions.
What is Kickstarter?
Kickstarter is arguably the premier commercial crowdfunding website. It certainly supersedes other crowdfunding platforms within the board game community. From their ‘About Us’ page: “Kickstarter’s mission is to help bring creative projects to life.” By and large, I think Kickstarter tries to put a good foot forward; and despite the somewhat recent union controversy (which didn’t look good on any one involved), I think they do a decent job of that. If you’d like to know a little more about Kickstarter, their full charter can be found here.
What is crowdfunding?
Merriam-Webster defines crowdfunding as: “The practice of obtaining needed funding (as for a new business) by soliciting contributions from a large number of people; especially from the online community.” Despite some missing punctuation, I feel like this is a solid working definition- but I’d like to direct special attention to the words “needed funding.” Be mindful of that phrase as you read on.
The logic of crowdfunding is simple: It can be very difficult to sustain a company when it begins life, as there are constant financial responsibilities that must be met. Employees must be paid, production, shipping, and even advertising expenses must be met. Through crowdfunding, a business can mitigate those early growing pains, and you the customer have the opportunity to support (and more to the point: receive) a product that might not otherwise make it to the market. They can also gauge interest in their product, and manufacture units based on that information- effectively measuring ‘demand’ prior to producing ‘supply,’ which is a critically powerful tool for small companies. Further, if more people make this initial investment, it can give the developer the opportunity to improve on the initial design- like say metal player tokens instead of plastic ones. The short version is that in it’s initial form, crowdfunding is a good proposition for everyone involved.
Let me be clear about this before we get any further: I’m not an expert. I’ve done a little research, but by no means does this article represent some sort of definitive perspective on the issue. This is just one guy’s token opinion (Hey, that’s the name of this website… Lemonade, anyone?). I’m repeating myself, but I have been feeling this growing sense of unease with the relationship between Kickstarter and the hobby I love; and a lot of what you’re going to read here began life as I was trying to work out in my head why I’ve been so bothered by all of this. Therefore I recommend approaching this article with a grain of salt, because it’s just my very narrow view of an issue that’s much bigger than I am.
The other thing I’d like to touch on before we get into the meat of this is that I love crowdfunding. Whether it be the latest album from Assemblage 23; the recently released “Chai” from the newly minted Steeped Games; to the re-release of “Yedo,” a highly regarded euro title I happen to be very fond of (and doesn’t that new master set look nice?!). I love supporting a product I believe in. I love the process, watching the campaign evolve and grow; cheering the successes, and mourning the failures. It’s fun and exciting! It gives me the opportunity to support companies that really need help to get their product out there; and frankly, it makes me feel good about what I did with my money.
So, what’s the problem?
— 1 —
Business is about risk. That’s it; the entirety of business in four simple words. Entire volumes have been written on this subject. I took a course on Risk Management myself; it is a core precept of business. If your friendly local game store decides to order in the newest game, it may sell really well. It may not sell at all. They are risking a potential outcome where money is lost on this product in the hopes that the reverse will be true. Risk in the board gaming industry is much the same as it is in the majority of commerce- all boiling down to the possibility that the product might not sell.
But for a board game publisher, it’s a little more complicated than that; especially because you’re dealing with a product that is both physical and intellectual media. Think of the sales potential of board games as a matter of form and function. Both of these have to be perfectly executed; and there’s a lot of room in a product like that for something to go wrong. The game might not be fun. The production quality might be insufficient. The art might not be universally appealing in just the right way. Prominent reviewers might give the game a bad review. People may just not like it, because people are unpredictable. Again, there’s just an awful lot of room for something to go wrong.
The crowdfunding model is effectively a hedge on all of this; customers are given an early vector in order to share on that risk by buying a product early, prior to production. Crowdfunding is intended to be a cooperative endeavor; a ‘mutual investment’ built on a solid foundation of good will. Here’s the hitch, or at least the short version- by and large successful, established board game companies aren’t using Kickstarter as a crowdfunding platform. They’re using it as a pre-order program, and to reduce or eliminate any financial burden accrued through the production of a new game; thereby assigning all risks on you, the backer. I suppose that, within the established crowdfunding model, this wouldn’t be so bad in and of itself- but many of these companies are financially stable enough to assume this risk on their own.
Building on that point, this system is also intended to support some sort of payback as a marker of that previously described good will. “Help us fund our product. We will return on that investment to you by doing this.” Traditionally this had been applied as a discount off the retail price. These days, most board game projects throw a few extra bits and bobs in, slap a ‘deluxe’ sticker on the side, charge you extra, and tell you that you’re getting a deal. Especially when you take shipping into account, you’re not saving money when you’re purchasing through a crowdfunding campaign; you’re being up-charged, sometimes significantly. This means instead of being a cooperative mission, that ‘mutual investment’ I mentioned earlier, all of this is at best something we might describe as commercial misdirection; but at it’s worst, well, exploitation might not be far off the mark.
The central crux here is that shiny ‘Kickstarter Exclusive’ label. This is meant to entice; to convince you that buying ahead of time is the wiser decision, as it’s the only way to assure that you will receive all of the stuff. This is often described as “fear of missing out,” and has proven to be a very strong motivator in Kickstarter sales. And many board game companies take this strategy to the extreme, locking in as much as a third of the content exclusively for Kickstarter backers. This type of business strategy would never be considered acceptable in any other industry. “Buy your tickets in advance, or you will have to leave before the final act of the film. Sorry, but the conclusion is just for backers.” It sounds ludicrous, but it’s the truth of the matter. Why are we as consumers supporting companies that do this?! It is an incredibly manipulative, anti-social practice; completely antithetical to the central ethos of our hobby.
Ultimately these companies are, intentionally or otherwise, relying on a deceit: That as Kickstarter is intended by its creators to be a consumer friendly platform (or at least as much as it can be), they will therefore inherently use it in a consumer friendly model. This is bolstered by the general sense of community within the board gaming hobby as a whole, something that publishers take ample advantage of. I think that what scares me the most is that I’m not entirely convinced that many of these companies are aware that they’re abusing the good will of the community. What’s even worse is that I’m reasonably certain some are fully cognizant of the harm they’re doing: to the industry as a whole, the hobby we love, and most importantly the people.
— 2 —
I’d like to talk a little bit about my longstanding favorite game: “Yamataï: For Queen Himiko’s Smile.” The title has some set collection, area control, action selection, growing asymmetrical player powers, indirect conflict… It’s just completely brilliant. In my opinion this is the shining gem in the Days of Wonder crown. A review on this one is coming, though you likely already know what that score is going to look like. Anyhow, in the middle of all of this awesomeness is a currency that is effectively unnecessary. I mean, it serves a purpose within the game economy, but only a small one. with a couple of inconsequential tweaks to the game play, it could have been removed entirely, and might have been even better for it. The game was designed by Bruno Cathala and Mark Paquien; and while Mr. Paquien remains relatively new to board game design, Mr. Cathala has been nothing less than a luminary in this industry for over a decade. Put it this way: If, with all of his knowledge and talent, Bruno Cathala can put something unnecessary into a board game, anyone can make this mistake. As for “Yamataï,” I feel the currency manages to improve upon the game play. But I don’t this we should always assume that this will be the case, because I’ve usually found that the reverse is true.
In my view, part of, if not the central reason that things worked better before the crowdfunding model took center stage is that the publisher functioned as a gatekeeper of sorts. Publishers were financially motivated to make certain that games played well; that the economies they were built on worked. Like it or not, this system was effective. Publishers cared about their name, and they protected it because that name sold games. This is true for a lot of products, but I’d suggest doubly so for board games. True, successful publishers were far less likely to experiment on new products, but they were more likely to turn out a quality product. And yes, while this is all still somewhat true today, you’ll find it’s largely diminished from the mindset of yesterday.
The problem here finds it’s source in the fact that crowdfunding serves as an open revenue stream for publishers and designers, behaving totally outside of commercial norms. All of this money flooding in right away effectively provides a company with a no-lose scenario, reducing both the responsibility and the motivation for quality control. This weakens the need make certain that the game they are shipping to you is the game they’ve promised, because you’ve already paid for it. Now, this is a rather sinister approach, and I don’t want to suggest that any publisher or designer takes it that far, because I highly doubt that’s the case. But this thinking can be applied in gray scale, and will look very different depending on the company involved.
I think the primary fulcrum here is that many companies, large and small, are producing games too quickly. Companies and designers are producing games at an astonishing rate, with Kickstarter projects ‘B’ and ‘C’ planned, announced, and often even started before ‘A’ has even been completed. A lot of companies are running multiple projects through Kickstarter at once (ONE particular company has at least TEN active projects going at the time of this writing), a practice strictly forbidden by Kickstarter policy– this for good reason. Frankly, the “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” strategy doesn’t even seem to work for most board games in my experience (with the noted exception of AEG; but they’re using some sort of dark magic over there).
That said, all of this may be overshadowed by the growing problem of board game players who are trying to transition to designers… and they’re using Kickstarter to do it. Here’s where things get dicey (hehe): Just because you’re creative, that you can invent a system of rules and cobble some components together to put that system into effect, does not make you a game designer. These things take time, fermentation, polishing. Every component and mechanism should be questioned and justified a dozen times over. Different strategies need to be balanced. Unnecessary currency systems might need to be reevaluated. The modern rules for chess were developed over centuries- I don’t think it’s too much to ask that you spend an extra year making sure everything in your game works well before you throw it on Kickstarter. And, not to be too mean, but maybe learn the ropes a bit before designing that big heavy euro title you’ve been imagining. Try a few small titles first. I promise you’ll be a stronger designer for it.
Keep in mind that my logic here is a bit lofty; but in plain language, this is what I’ve been trying to get at, in an admittedly round-about way: Kickstarter applies a defined timeline to a process that, quite arguably, shouldn’t have a timeline (read: deadline) at all. What makes this so sad is that it simply doesn’t need to be the case. The popular video game company Blizzard Entertainment is often pestered for release dates on their games, and their answer is always the same: “When it’s done.” This is a policy the board game industry as a whole should embrace. When should you put your game on Kickstarter? When it’s done.
The number of substandard titles that have managed to make it into the marketplace through Kickstarter is incredibly sobering when you think about it in this light. And I fully recognize that ‘standard’ isn’t necessarily the fairest of measures- I think tabletop gamers have enjoyed an astonishing level of quality in their hobby, something very unique to board games. Unfortunately, I also don’t think we should be seeking to level that playing field. Publishers could dial it down, take their tame, and be certain they’re producing more meaningful experiences to the players that keep their company alive. Adjacent to that thinking, board games should not be produced as if they were disposable. We the gamers, don’t need the many games we already own; and we don’t need to add to that count. If we’re going to buy that new game, there should be a very good reason motivating that purchase. We have the right to demand better, not just more.
— 3 —
I feel as if it’s incredibly important to iterate something here, and frankly, I’ve been kind of late about it in this article: the production of tabletop games is a business. Many board game companies and their employees are wonderful, kind, and friendly people. I love that about this hobby. But they are engaged in a business; and are, for lack of better phrasing, “in it to win it.” Frankly, I’m glad that’s the case; I want these companies to succeed because I want board gaming to grow. I love this hobby, and I want it to prosper. With all of that said, at some point we as consumers have to accept that we have a responsibility to examine when a company is acting responsibly, and when a company is trying to take advantage of crowdfunding solely in order to mitigate potential losses and boost profits. When the latter seems apparent, that should spark concern. When it happens repeatedly, it should spark action; or rather, inaction- stop supporting these companies.
Now, I’d like to refute an argument I’ve been hearing rather frequently as of late, especially in context with recent events within the board game community (I am not going to dance around nor comment directly on the recent CMON controversy in this article). I think there’s this growing hope that these companies will right the boat on their own. That, left to their own devices, they will routinely reevaluate their business practices; and when necessary, reorient themselves to something a little more stable and consumer friendly. I think that, at least historically speaking, this is an unrealistic expectation. What was considered completely unethical yesterday becomes the way business is done tomorrow. We have to intervene today.
Crowdfunding especially, but commerce in general, only functions properly with responsible consumers at the wheel. I believe that properly regulated, capitalism is a very good thing. In the end, the real power in the crowdfunding relationship rests with us, the consumers. You are the regulation in this hobby, the agent of responsible consumerism. And don’t kid yourself- you absolutely have the right to judge- it’s your money. If you have a concern with how a Kickstarter campaign is being managed, well, I’ve usually found that the simplest answer is often the best solution. In this case, you don’t need to jump on social media and harass anyone, although I’d certainly argue that you have the right to call them out on it. Heck, you don’t even need to get angry. Just save your money. Don’t support their project. It’s that simple. Trust me, there’s a campaign just around the corner that you’ll be far more excited about.
— — —
Lastly, and in closing:
This is only the first of a three part series of articles; and while this one was kind of whiny, the other two will be more productive in nature, focusing on how those of us who love this hobby can contribute to improving the situation. They’ll also be presented in a different, list type format, that ought to mesh with this piece while better communicating the ideas within. Plus, I just kinda like lists- don’t you? Anyhow, if you’d like to check out the other two articles, those links are posted below:
Finally, I’ve always liked the idea of reader feedback, and I’m positive you’ve something valuable to add to this conversation. What do you think? How do you feel about Kickstarter these days? What projects are you supporting? Sound out in the comments below!
And as always, thanks for stopping by.