Thursday, November 17, 2011

More navel-gazing about Kickstarter

In response to this post, reader Wordman says the following:

Grant's critique rings hollow to me. Not because his analysis is wrong, but because... well... consider this...

You live in a world that has games, but Kickstarter doesn't exist. A magic man appears and says "if you open this magic box, the world will transformed into a place that has many, many more games for you to choose from. Many of them might be worse than games you have now. A few of them, though, will probably be awesome." Do you open the box?

I would. I don't see the downside. I guess Grant's concern is that some people somewhere might be duped into buying a bad game. Or, perhaps that I, with my powers to choose for myself, might spend my money un-optimally on a game that wouldn't have had the opportunity to take my money if I hadn't opened the box. Why is that Grant's problem? I'd rather have the choice.
A good hypothetical.  I didn't mean to indicate that I thought Kickstarter shouldn't exist, or that it was bad for boardgame designers - on the contrary, I think it's terrific that it exists, and it's great that people are having success using it to produce games.  One of the biggest barriers to entry to the board game market is the huge up-front investment required for game production, as I've discussed frequently (e.g. here).  Kickstarter and similar crowd-funding places smooth out that barrier.

My problem with it, and I don't really have much of one, is that it nearly completely shifts the burden of the process from the designer to the consumer.  The model for traditional publishing normally like either of these:

Design a game --> Invest a bunch of money --> Produce and sell game --> Recoup money

Design a game --> Invest a bunch of money --> Produce game, sell hardly any --> Become poor and bitter

Obviously, the second part of that chain is the barrier, and the potential costs are borne by the designer or publisher.  With Kickstarter, the designer benefits by not having to risk lots of money, shifting that burden directly to the customer.  However, if the game isn't good, the bitterness is still present, but shifted to his/her funders.  So, it's win-win for the designer/publisher, but a mixed bag for the funder.  But for both parties, there is a dilution of both risk and of bitterness there, which is good - I'm less bummed having dropped $20 on a bad Kickstarter game than I am having blown $10,000 to get a game printed that nobody buys.

I think Grant's major complaint is not that Kickstarter is bad, but that because it's win-win for the designer, there's a much weaker filter for the projects in question.  That means the average quality of published games will have to go down (perhaps precipitously so on Kickstarter) while the number of published games will go way up.  A little of this is a great thing - Wordman rightly points out that with a bigger pool of games to choose from, more awesome games will be produced rather than sitting in desk drawers and hard drives, and we may see great games that would never have come out.  There's a downside here too, especially if the barrier gets too low - it's like the Internet in general.  Many more people have a chance to speak, but they don't necessarily have something to say.

So, I like Kickstarter, and I think on balance it's great for independent (a fancy word for unpublished) game designers.  There's a downside, too, though, and there's a chance that if a bunch of crappy games all go to the well at the same time or over and over again, it'll dry up.  But so far, it's been better and grown faster than I thought possible, so what do I know?

I do worry that, as sometimes happens at, if most of the projects aren't of very high quality, it will become difficult to find the good ones among the sea of crap.  TGC actually created a very small barrier in a recent update - they require at least one copy of a game to be purchased before it can be published to the shop - and I think it has helped raise the bar a little bit.


  1. I also think that Grant sees the role of a barrier (having to pass scrutiny for a publisher, etc.) as a hard surface to polish your design against. Without a higher bar to get over, a designer may send a design out too early instead of taking the time and effort to make it as good as it can be.

    I'm glad that Kickstarter exists and I'm very intrigued by the board games that are getting their start on it. I wonder if I'll ever use it, and if I do what sort of a project it'll be for.

  2. Two comments:

    "There's a downside, too, though, and there's a chance that if a bunch of crappy games all go to the well at the same time or over and over again, it'll dry up." In which case, you're just back to the situation when the well was never there. What have you lost?

    "if most of the projects aren't of very high quality, it will become difficult to find the good ones among the sea of crap." Grant mentioned the iTunes app store as an example of this phenomenon, but I don't buy this argument either. The iTunes app store _very clearly_ is a "sea of crap", with 1000 fart applications for every useful application. Yet, finding quality apps is not difficult at all, thanks partly to Apple's own review features, but mostly due to the whole rest of the internet, which contains wonderful mechanisms for spreading the word about good products. Perhaps if you look at Kickstarter in isolation, you might get this "can't find the roses in the desert" problem, but Kickstarter doesn't exist in isolation.

  3. I think what I'd like is a site that does a teeny bit of filtering for games funding - you submit your rules and maybe a prototype, it gets reviewed, and if it passes muster, then it goes up for funding. Seems like that might still allow the freedom to get funded, but might allow there to be at least some filter to weed out horrible things.

    Looks like this site is doing something like that, but only as an add on to existing Kickstarter projects, and I've only seen it in one place: Springboard

  4. I have seen plenty of games get way more money than they should based almost entirely on the fact that they have an artist who makes their product look great, but dont show any game play. I keep thinking that if I ever do anything on KS, I will find an artist to work with first because you are more likely to reach and in many cases exceed your needs with decent art.

  5. Eric - I totally agree - some of these things get funded without providing much of a sense at all of how good the game is.