On Kickstarter

Kickstarter, in case you don’t know, is a crowdfunding site that lets someone ask for money for their “art” project. They can offer various tangible and intangible rewards for different donation levels, and no one’s credit card is charged unless enough pledges are received to meet a set goal by a set deadline. I probably don’t need to explain that, though; Kickstarter has been a huge source of news and controversy lately.

I started this blog in 2011, and I linked to Kickstarter a few times in that first year. Then last year, I almost wrote an essay about how much my opinion of Kickstarter had changed, but I held back. Now I wish I had posted that, because by now my opinion has changed yet again. So I’m going to put this up as a time capsule, which I can look back on a year or two later with a mix of derision and amazement. I’m sure that in the near future, half the things I thought were worth pointing out here will seem self-evident, and the other half will be horribly wrong.


A couple of years ago, it was just starting to become obvious what Kickstarter could do for people with a small, dedicated fanbase. Beyond that, though, I really bought into the idea that Kickstarter drives were significant on their own. Even though most of the “art” projects are commercial ventures to publish music, games, movies, or something similar, these were grassroots internet movements that would never get commercial traction! Each campaign was still pretty unique, and there was an implication that we should want them all succeed.

My early links reflected this. I pointed to a couple board game Kickstarters, with an explanation that was basically “I wouldn’t buy these, but I want to make sure everyone still hears about them before it’s too late”, and a webcomic’s crowdfunding campaign with the attitude “I just discovered this and there’s not much there to judge it on, but I should recommend it now because the campaign is almost over!”


I became a lot more cynical after those early days, partly because of board game Kickstarters. Board games are tricky to design, and a huge percentage of traditionally published are disappointing. And since this is already a niche hobby, it’s not like the games getting turned down from Rio Grande and Z-Man were just too artsy and non-commercial. They were getting turned down because they were bad, and Kickstarter gave people the chance to sell a game with a cool high concept and no other vetting. Additionally, physical production is more difficult than most people think, and there were some high-profile failures in which people couldn’t deliver on their promises.

All of that can be generalized beyond board games, though: In most cases, people are backing the campaign because they want the eventual product. Sure, there are some projects where people say “the world would just be a better place if it had a statue dedicated to Harvey Pekar or Robocop”, but if you’re treating someone’s new commercial album as a charity, then that seems to be missing the point. Once you decide that a significant part of the funding is done as a preorder, then you need to think of it in commercial terms. Why was no publishing company willing to put their name and money behind this? They would have actually seen it ahead of time and known what they were getting into, so their support is in some ways a very informed endorsement. Why are you willing to buy the product without an endorsement like that?

Even at my most cynical, I definitely found reasons to support certain Kickstarter campaigns. If I was already familiar with someone’s work, and knew that I liked it regardless of its commercial appeal, it was a great opportunity. But for all those interesting-sounding campaigns that I knew nothing else about, I saw no reason to pay attention. They were just high-risk preorders with an especially long waiting time.

Then things got worse, and board games led the way there as well. Kickstarter became popular with a lot of established companies as well as independent dreamers. In short, cashflow is a huge deal to accountants, but most consumers don’t appreciate the value of the $50 that they just pledged on an impulse. Kickstarter let the companies get funding up front, without any traditional stakeholders around to ask pesky questions about whether their investment would pay off. It’s not that I hate this idea on principle; There’s no ideological purity test to art, and if people are willing to give you money, it’s fair game. The problem is that I personally wouldn’t want to buy the game until it was released and I could hear whether it was actually good. Since many games only ever manage a single print run, it became likely that a good game would never become available to anyone but the KickStarter backers.

That’s the point I was at by the middle of 2012: Kickstarter threatened to change the playing field so that the only way to get good products was taking a chance with pre-orders. And that was a step in the wrong direction.


I’ve mellowed out since last year. I still ask the same basic questions: If you want me to back your project, I should have confidence that you can deliver something I’ll like. If there’s not a good reason to be sidestepping traditional funding sources, that will make me more cautious. However, I no longer think of this entirely in terms of venture capital.

The “normal” way to fund a publishing venture is to find people who are confident enough in your work that they’ll risk money, with the goal of making more money. This doesn’t always correspond to “people will like it”, and definitely doesn’t mean that I will like it, but there is some correlation there. Professionals with real money on the line tend to make smart decisions. Last year, I would have said that individual backers were a bad replacement for this. Their investment was money in return for eventual satisfaction, a trade that they can normally make without having to give up their money six months early. I didn’t see the upside for the consumer.

Successful Kickstarters are starting to answer my concerns, by bringing the backers in to the project. The frequent updates they send out, much more personal than the ones that would have been sent to commercial investors, are an extra reward that trickles in throughout those months. Bonus pictures and inside information can add value, and act as interest on the investment. Many projects even offer forums for their backers, creating a real community for people to enjoy. I have to admit that this is a great argument for crowdfunding as a new way forward, rather than a simple replacement of old systems.

Ironically, that doesn’t have a lot of interest for me. Some of the information provided is fun (especially Ryan North’s hilarious updates for To Be Or Not To Be), but I don’t have time for discussion boards and Double Fine’s half-hour videos. The books and music I already want to read take up my time, without each new product needing to entertain me for fifty hours before it comes out. However, even if this isn’t a huge draw for me, it’s really reassuring to see this evolution. We are figuring out how to make crowdfunding projects reward their target audience in ways that couldn’t have happened before. I don’t know what I’ll think in 2014, but this makes me optimistic.

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