Hannah: Kickstarter, the crowdfunding site whose “mission is to help bring creative projects to life,” turned ten in April. You may know Kickstarter for enabling the Veronica Mars movie to happen. Or you may know it if you’ve played games one of the many Jane Austen games it helped launch (Marrying Mr. Darcy, Polite Society, Good Society). Or many of the “hit” games — Root, Exploding Kittens, Cards Against Humanity, etc. Or you may have invested in comic books or clothes or technological gadgets. A lot of interesting stuff has been made possible because of Kickstarter, and some of it — like niche board games — would not brought to a mass audience through traditional means.
Because of my interest in games, as both an academic and human with hobbies, my main interest in Kickstarter is from that perspective. I’ve both studied Kickstarter games and invested in more than I probably should. Through my experiences, I’ve seen just how important Kickstarter has become to the game industry. Luke Crane, who is the head of the games division at Kickstarter, traces its surge in gaming projects back to March 2012. In a 2017 interview with Tabletop Gaming, Crane noted that Kickstarter: “allows creators who have a mad vision to take a really deep dive into it, and come up with something strange and wonderful like Kingdom Death. In terms of something like Exploding Kittens [a card game by the author of popular web comic The Oatmeal, which raised over $8.7 million (£6.9m)], yeah, a publisher might have picked that up, but there’s such a magic power in a creative team being able to go straight to their community and have a relationship with them.”
There have been questions about how Kickstarter has helped change how games reach their audiences (and how it affects game stores), in addition to how it’s changed whose games get made. So for all of the good Kickstarter has brought successful creators, we should consider if there are drawbacks to using the platform and what those are.
From Mav: So I have a slightly different experience from Hannah with Kickstarter. For one, I’ve never actually bought a game there. But the other thing is my FIRST experience with it was as a creator rather than an investor; I used it to finance the printing of one of my comic books. It worked pretty well. I certainly didn’t get rich off of it or anything like that. But it did work out. We made the money, we shipped the book. What was great about it is that if you have an idea and you believe in it, you can just do it. There’s no working for anyone else. There’s no compromises. It’s self-publishing at its purest. Just like Crane said, it’s you and your community. What sucked about it is that it’s SOOOO much work. There’s a lot that would just be easier if… you know… you were paying someone else to do it. But that’s why publishers exist. Right?
But for every Exploding Kittens that makes a bajillion dollars, there’s probably 50 ventures that make basically nothing or fail altogether. And in a sense, that should be fine. There was a time when self-publishing was always considered a vanity project. If you wrote a book and paid to print it yourself, you weren’t a real author. If you were a real author, a real publisher would want it. That changed for the comic book market way back in the 80s. And now, being self-published (and therefore owning your intellectual property) is pretty much the dream there. Music got there with the MP3 revolution in the 90s. Video games and other software with the Apple App store and Steam and similar platforms. And it’s changed for the fiction market over the last decade or so. On-demand printing has gotten good enough and popular enough that established writers have left their publishers to just put their manuscript up on Amazon Create Space and whatever happens happens. Academic publishing… isn’t quite there yet. We still favor the blessing that you get by being approved by a University Press. We love us some good gatekeeping. But that’s changing. We’re moving to a world where blogging, podcasting (hi!) and even just tweeting is becoming increasingly important. And there’s a belief that if your ideas are good, you’ll build a following. And that’s what Kickstarter is, right? That’s the free market at work, right? The things that are quality get funded and the crap just dies away, right? At least that’s how it’s supposed to work. That’s why crowd-funding and self-publishing is a thing.
Well, sort of. But really, not so much. Because it’s not really always about that. Some Kickstarter stuff is really great. Hell, I love Exploding Kittens (I bought it after the fact). And I’ve gotten a bunch of really great comics that way. But on the other hand, a lot of it is popularity that isn’t really achievable for normal people, without getting really lucky beyond even their talent. The Veronica Mars movie didn’t make $5.7million because people just thought it just “sounded like a good idea.” It made it because it was already blessed with a fanbase from TV. Not everyone has a Kristen Bell in their pocket. And if you don’t, then you need to have a STELLAR idea to set yourself above all of the noise.
And so you also end up with a lot of things on Kickstarter that are just flat out vaporware. Someone has an idea that is too good to be true, but it sounds really awesome, so they sell it to a bunch of people and then disappear, because there’s no promise of… well, anything really. You’re not buying… you’re investing in an idea. And if the idea flops, you’re basically shit out of luck as an investor. My favorite here has always been the Air Umbrella. It was brilliant. It was a wind turbine in a handle that encased you in basically a force field of air to protect your from the weather. It’s the greatest innovation to umbrellas since… umm… actually, I guess umbrella technology has been stagnant for a while. Gee, no wonder so many people wanted this. And they did! Eight hundred and twenty-five people donated more than $100,000, in a single month, back in 2014 for these things! And they got… nothing. Because of course they didn’t. The people who made the Kickstarter apparently didn’t have the foggiest idea how to make the damn things. They did know how to con people out of a quick 100Gs though!
So yeah, I’m with Hannah. Is crowdfunding a good thing? Is it a bad thing? At the end of the day, it’s basically a store with a million products on sale that may or may not ever even exist. How do you decide if something is with pledging your money to? What are the other bright spots and the dark spots that you can think of?