November 4, 2011

My Thoughts on Kickstarter

This post may be controversial to some. My intent is not to stir controversy, anger anyone, or be a jerk. I made a comment on Twitter today after reading an article that generated many comments. My comment was that with the huge number of board game projects on Kickstarter and no barrier to entry, this can lead to something bad.

Before I go further, I want to provide some quick disclaimers. This is just my opinion, which is based on my perspective. Your perspective and opinion will be different. I'm going to try to back up my statements with logical thought and examples where possible. That doesn't mean I'm right. In some cases it's purely subjective, in other cases I may have the facts wrong and I'd appreciate it if you would correct me in the comments.

If it helps, my perspective is that of a consumer. I've backed 9 projects on Kickstarter (my profile) and, when the right project loads into my browser, I will do so again. My perspective is also that of a designer. I'd love more than anything to be published. Well, not more than Peaches. But most things!

My thoughts below will sometimes meander beyond Kickstarter, but I think that's a good focus for most of my thoughts.

What I Like About Kickstarter
Kickstarter allows nobodies to compete with somebodies. The board game industry is a very niche, small, discretionary income-based leisure activity that has to compete with movies, electronic devices, video games, television, social networks, and even eating out for dinner. This means that traditionally, a few big publishers publish a few safe-bet games a year. This makes it very difficult for the majority of creators to break into the space. In fact, it puts a huge emphasis on luck and knowing somebody. Safe bets don't create deckbuilding, however!

Kickstarter also works in tandem with fairly new distribution models. A decade ago, people had to sell games through local game stores (which are few and tend to be expensive) or, if God himself is on their side, in Walmart and Target. By leveraging Kickstarter, a well-designed personal site built upon a Paypal payment system, and an Amazon listing, folks can access millions of customers that were previously unavailable to them.

That makes this an exciting time for creative and entrepreneurial people!

There's been similar revolutions in other game spaces. Without Steam the PC gaming industry might be languishing. Hundreds of developers now have access to Steam, where previously they were solely at the mercy of Activision, Electronic Arts, THQ, or Ubisoft. The iTunes App store has done a similar thing for developers who now have millions of palm sized computers floating through millions of consumer pockets.
Raising capital is difficult. Raising capital for something like a board game, which will never interest venture capitalists and won't be a massive business is even harder. Kickstarter allows entrepreneurial creators within this niche to kick-start their idea.

What I don't Like About Kickstarter
Kickstarter has effectively no barrier to entry. Many people corrected me on this comment via Twitter, which is why I've added the word effectively to my statement. Get your red pens ready, because if I say something false, this is where I'll do it!

Based on the Kickstarter guidelines and my assumptions, this barrier is no more that than an application to the local community college. I imagine you must prove you meet their guidelines, answer a questionnaire, then do the basic things like create rewards and reward levels, create a video, fill out the page. I do NOT mean to belittle the effort people put into videos and setting these things up, but in the grand scheme of setting up businesses, this is not a barrier to entry.

If Kickstarter checked your prototype and verified it was fun, that may be a barrier. If they asked for a business plan and verified that the funding you request will cover, say, your production costs, that may be a barrier. I'm not saying these things are feasible for Kickstarter, I'm just stating examples.

No barrier to entry doesn't mean there cannot be quality. Far from it! Alien Frontiers is a beautiful game with amazing components that's also incredibly fun. Same for Eminent Domain. I'm ready to say these are two of my favorite games. But, removing the barrier to entry puts the burden of quality on the consumer, not the creator. At least initially (long term, the customers will stop supporting bad businesses). This reminds me of my vacation to Belize, where the bartender warned me about buying groceries because there was no law preventing grocery stores from selling spoiled meat.

I've only received 1 game that I've backed via Kickstarter, so I honestly cannot say whether I've bought a lemon. I can say some of the components and materials as well as business practices from the campaigns I've supported have been amateur at best. I didn't withdrawal my backing, but on one or two occasions I came close.

I have bought and played several games from The Game Crafter, a print on demand website that allows board game designers (like me!) to "publish" their games and sell them to the public. Some of these games have been downright bad. A few had some fantastic elements and just needed more polish. A few were good. The reason I bring this up is that, like Kickstarter, The Game Crafter has effectively no barrier to entry.

Farmageddon is sadly a good example. Had I put Farmageddon on Kickstarter in July when I first launched it I may have received backing. I say this because my game became the #1 selling game on The Game Crafter -- people clearly like the theme, the name, the art, and the price. Farmageddon in July was well-tested. Unfortunately, well-tested didn't cut it. There were balance problems. New players found issues I hadn't encountered. Some rules were confusing. Even my aunt called me to yell at me about typos in my rules. Farmageddon now is a good game, but I've probably lost some customers forever due to Farmageddon then. Had there been a barrier to entry, an editor, something, I wouldn't have burned those bridges.

Another issue I have with Kickstarter is that in some cases, probably very few, it completely eliminates risk for the stakeholders. In more cases it greatly reduces the risk. I think both of these situations may lead to bad results for consumers because risk forces businesses to make better decisions. A lack of risk leads to bad decisions. A game of Texas Hold 'Em isn't much fun if you're playing for tokens. It doesn't matter! If you play with a dollar, suddenly you're paying attention.

I think Kickstarter should be used to kick-start your plan. It should not be a recurring, risk-free solution. Why? At some point somebody is going to make a very poor decision with very bad implications for customers.

Because there is effectively no barrier to entry, and because a successful campaign may eliminate much of the risk, you have a flood of entrepreneurs entering the Kickstarter frenzy. It dominates my Twitter feed. There are so many games now that good games risk going unfunded. Good games risk not making that New and Noteworthy or Popular this Week sort, which means they're effectively buried.

It also means we may just enter a new version of the old status quo. Folks who expect a successful campaign must have a huge Twitter following. They need to buy ads on They need to be at conventions. They need to ship out dozens of copies to reviewers (which I've done for's not cheap). They need to have a brand name. Suddenly, this sounds a bit like the old game? A few big names dominate the market. A few overused themes dominate the play space. New, innovative, unknown projects get buried. Just scroll through this list!

I know I'm shouting doom and gloom here, but the fact that millions of dollars have been raised on Kickstarter won't go unnoticed. We've all seen established game companies use the site to promote their new titles (no risk!). We've seen folks who previously had overwhelmingly successful campaigns return for a second or third sip. And we've seen bad ideas get in the way of quality (no barrier to entry). I do not think me whining is useful, so I've brainstormed some solutions.
  • Kickstarter could limit the number of campaigns active at once. This would limit people in many ways, but it would also mean that customers would not have to scour through dozens of games simultaneously. It also increase YOUR game's chance of standing out.
  • Kickstarter could limit the time a campaign can last. This pairs with the first point. I don't have the stats in front of me, but if I recall correctly, most games that ultimately get funded do so quickly. Does a game need 60 days? I'm leaning towards no. Perhaps Kickstarter could take a bigger cut if you have a longer campaign? Perhaps you can extend your campaign if you've surpassed your goals and still have momentum? Successful campaigns should be allowed to keep going. Move unsuccessful campaigns off the shelf and make room for others.
  • Kickstarter could require entrepreneurs to file a business plan. Tell them how you will build your product, how you will market and distribute it, how you will use this to take your business to the next phase. I don't think Kickstarter is ultimately in the business of reviewing business plans, so this ultimately isn't feasible. 
  • Be sure to show folks how to play your product. Explain the guts (somewhat). I thought Dice Hate Me's Carnival video did an excellent job of selling the company, establishing the theme, but also showing the game. I watched it and thought "man, I want to play that." Also, explain the game somewhat in your write-up. Don't just tell me the theme. 
  • Kickstarter could limit an entity's ability to re-use the site too often. This is a stupid idea for a few reasons. For one, someone could simply create a new email or have their friend register. Secondly, why would Kickstarter, a business, limit the revenue they could earn from previously successful folks? But, it's a brainstorm!
The good news is, MOST of the games I see look good. There are a few games that I want to support right now. I just worry about the future. A key to success in the world is recognizing a problem before it becomes one and adjusting.

Note: I develop games for mobile platforms for a living. On the iTunes App store there are approximately 50,000 apps, which makes it incredibly difficult to stand out. Moreover, much like Call of Duty, Halo, etc. in the traditional game space, a few key titles absolutely dominate the charts. Because of this, good companies with good games falter, you see a LOT of copy cats and copy/paste games, and really sleazy practices like incentivized downloads have come about. It takes approximately two weeks for Apple to approve an app. They actually receive the build, play it, and check it. Yet, this "barrier" hasn't stopped thousands of bad apps from flooding the platform. If you're curious why I'm preaching measured doom for board games, it's because I've seen it appear elsewhere.

Miscellaneous Comments
It's been my dream to have a game I design published. If the stars align and somebody says "hey, we want to publish Farmageddon," there's a chance they'd use Kickstarter to do so. So, I'm not opposed to the platform. I wouldn't support it so much if I were opposed.

One of the reasons I want to be published is that I want someone to take a risk on it. I want someone to help me polish it. I want someone to push back on me and force me to make it better. I'm NOT trying to be elitist. I just know how easy it is to push out a mediocre game. I've done it. I want my name on an Alien Frontiers, not a Farmageddon circa July.

A final thing I want to throw out is that I personally find the indie vs. non-indie argument/discussion completely irrelevant. I'm noting this here because it's something that comes up often and I think it pertains to the Kickstarter discussion. I afford no handicap to indie products simply because they are indie. A bad game is a bad game, a good one a good one. We need to not make exceptions for people because they are indie. We need to support each other because success for us requires a lot of hard work, luck, and a long road. But, if we make excuses merely because we don't have big name affiliation, we are only hurting ourselves.

I believe I've bloviated enough for one night. I'm not sure I've contributed anything, which is worrisome. To my (many) friends and acquaintances who have run a Kickstarter campaign -- I'm not calling you out. You've done nothing wrong. I don't associate with folks who create trash.


Phil Kilcrease said...


First, good article. It raises good points and will generate discussion.

A few points:
Your 'no barrier' argument is correct. Once you apply for one campaign (which just has you describe what yer doin' and what the rewards will be), you can create projects at-will. I've personally created the templates for my next few campaigns already just to make launch a smoother process when the time comes.

However, I think you are understating the potential for something to go wrong with a Kickstarter project. My cohort and I have discussed this a bit, and have come to the following conclusion: eventually a project creator will create a project without the intent of ever fulfilling the rewards and just pocket the money. It will be bad for both Kickstarter and its community and will result in higher barriers to entry.

One distinction that is a bit blurry is the difference between a designer who just wants to make a game and an upstart publisher. The problem is the same, but the solutions are different in terms of scale. For the designer (unless it's a crazy complex game), the funding goal should match the expectation that it may not get much attention.

Take Lines of Fire, for example ( This was a designer that just wanted to make a game and get it into peoples' hands. He only had 26 backers, but the campaign was a success and the game was made.

Compare that to Carnival ( Chris's goal was to start a game company. Before he took the plunge, Chris built a fanbase with consistent, good content through his blog; went to conventions to show the game to people and get his name out there; essentially everything you listed. But that's good business practice in building and running a company regardless of Kickstarter.

Yes, the Kickstarter market is more crowded now, but that just means we as designers and publishers will have to bring our A game to stand out. And if we weren't bringing our A game before, what the hell were we doing?

Once again, thanks for the thought-provoking piece.

5th Street Games

FarmerLenny said...

These are good thoughts. I face the same discussions often in book publishing. Self-publishing (especially electronically, which requires even less risk and has a lot more people rushing the gates) is seen as a way to get an author's message out there and leave the publisher out of the equation. Here's the problem: with very few exceptions, most self-publishing efforts are self-published for a reason.

I'm not defending book publishers entirely; we print a lot of garbage (because that's what people buy), but often we do that so the idealists in the company can publish what is good, things that are risky but more enduring. (Of course, nobody buys these books, but that's a different issue.)

I've heard a lot of people tout the eventual demise of traditional publishers. I don't think that will happen, at least not anytime soon. Why? Because the majority of self-published books aren't ready to see the light of day. Most self-published authors do not invest in what makes the difference between a self-published and a professionally published book: editing.

Behind every good book, there is a good editor. Behind every bad professionally published book, there's an editor working overtime who makes the book not as bad as it once was and usually at least tolerable (or an author who refuses to budge--there are those, too). The truth is, everyone (without exception) needs an editor. Everyone. Even the editors themselves.

So what's the application for independent game designers? Invest in "editing," or playtesting would probably be more correct in this context. Ultimately, I think there needs to be some stamp of approval saying, yes, people (beyond family members and close friends) think this game is worth it.

I think springboard is a valuable service here. At least from what I've seen, they seem to vet Kickstarter products, and only games that pass muster get their imprimatur. Of course, this, too, sounds an awful lot like traditional publishing (I'm more likely to buy a game that has "Rio Grande Games" on the box), but there are some people who like the traditional system as it does the filtering for them.

Of course, saying this, I'm not opposed to independent designs either. There ARE some really good self-published books, just as there are good independent games. These authors/designers must work harder to show it. Publishing the rulebook in advance helps a great deal in deciding whether a project is worth investing in.

(Full disclosure: I work for "the man.")

Grant said...

FarmerLenny has put a great deal of my own thoughts forward in a far more succinct and compelling way. You could even say his effort shows polish and...editing.

Phil Kilcrease said...

The one thing about Springboard is it's also a fulfillment service. The service takes care of distribution and such (which can be good for a designer), but a publisher needs to consider whether the added cost is worth it.

No right answers, of course; just a matter of business model.


DeadlyAccurate said...

I came in to discuss how book publishing is similar to your points, but I see FarmerLenny already beat me to it and quite well.

I've read some of the stuff that gets published by PublishAmerica, a notorious vanity press with a horrible reputation. Let's just say that not everyone who writes a book would even qualify as fully literate.

There's an infamous book that PA printed a few years ago that a blogger reviewed in hilarious, albeit cruel detail. It's one reason Stuff like that book is the reason I don't buy self-published books. I won't name the book publicly, but if you're curious to check it out yourself, DM me.