Archive for the ‘ Essays ’ Category

End-of-2013 Crowd-Funding Roundup

Back in the middle of the year, I posted a few essays about the current state of crowd-funding. It’s been a while, and I want to check in again with a few links and comments. Crowd-funding is still new and evolving quickly.


Maze of Games cardFirst, some optimistic news. Sometimes I can be cynical about Kickstarter campaigns for unprofessional projects that disappoint everyone in the end, so it’s good to remember the things that they can do that normal commercial ventures can’t.

The Maze of Games was a Kickstarter campaign by Lone Shark Games to create a cool-sounding “puzzle novel”. It completed its funding back in March, but has missed the November delivery date. Earlier this week, the team posted an update to say that the book definitely would not be available on time to deliver as a Christmas present. As an apology, they’re creating a holiday card with an extra puzzle on it. It’s being distributed online to all backers, and if you intended to give the book as a present, you can ask for a physical copy of this card to be sent to you. Lone Shark asked that people only request the hard copy of the card if they needed something to give to someone who would eventually get the book as a present.

Ok, so this is another example of a Kickstarter project missing its timeline, and a card saying “you’ll get this book in a couple months” isn’t as good as actually receiving the book. But I find it pretty impressive that the team could ask backers, on the honor system, to tell them whether they needed the extra collectable card in the mail. I’ll bet you that most people do answer that honestly. The creative team is trying to do something extra for their supporters, and those supporters won’t take unfair advantage of it. I like seeing the community that these campaigns are building.


Broken TelephoneOn a sadder note, I’ve been following Ryan Estrada’s Broken Telephone campaign lately. With less than a week to go, it may still reach its funding goal, but it’s not a sure thing at all. This never should have been a question. Estrada is trusted name in webcomics who has been around for years, and he has a clever idea: Eighteen interlocked stories will be delivered one at a time, “book of the month” style, in which the hero of one story is the villain of another. Estrada is pushing a pay what you want model with a minimum price of only $1, so there’s no reason not to give this one a chance.

A creative, inexpensive product from someone reliable? Why is this having so much trouble meeting its goal? Well, this is the first Kickstarter campaign I’ve seen that really embraces a pay-what-you-want approach. You can get the entire project for $1. $18 gets you a small add-on, and $48 gets a bunch of Estrada’s old comics thrown in. There’s no option for a physical book, because a project delivered in installments only makes sense when digital. So basically, the only motivation to pay more is in supporting the art.

If you do the math, it’s obvious that a lot of people are paying more than the minimum. It still may not be enough, though. This is the first project I’ve seen that really tests whether backer generosity alone is enough to get a new project funded. Pay-what-you-want models have so far been the domain of the Humble Bundle and similar systems, in which people sell already-created works at a discounted rate. Kickstarter is for people to create new things, and so there are costs that can’t be ignored.

I hope the Broken Telephone campaign succeeds. Whether it does or not, though, I wouldn’t encourage people to follow this model in the future.

[Update: The project ended up funding, and getting several-thousand-dollar-boost once it reached the goal. Estrada also pointed out that while this earned less than the similar project he Kickstarted last year, the average amount per backer was higher. He has cultivated an audience that he can rely on to support him in projects like this. I think he’s only netting a few thousand dollars for a year’s worth of work, so I’m not wildly optimistic, but at least my initial pessimism was overblown.]


SFAM panelFinally, you may recall that I was excited about Patreon a few months ago. I hoped that it would provide a way to give webcomics the regular income they needed to keep going for years, since Kickstarter’s model of funding specific projects doesn’t really apply to that. Well, we now have a webcomics artist I really like, Jon Rosenberg, trying the system out! He’s looking for readers to sponsor his continued work on Scenes From a Multiverse, and I really hope it succeeds. All it takes is $1 or $2 a month from is most committed readers.

I’m not sure whether Rosenberg’s campaign is the best test case or not. His bonuses for backers don’t add much value – I’d think that bonus strips and art would be a natural fit for webcomics. Also, his stated goals ($2000-$4000 per month) are pretty high, and he only promises a few comics per week even if those levels are hit. I understand where he’s coming from. Rosenberg has been making webcomics for well over a decade, and now has a decent freelance career to support his family with. His standards for succeeding with webcomics are higher than a lot of young eager artists who would be thrilled to get an extra $50-$100 per comic. I do think a top-tier webcomic deserves to bring in that sort of money, but I just worry about the first high-profile test setting the expectations to that right away.

Either way, though, it’s a reminder that crowd-funding is still changing fast. I hope that Rosenberg’s campaign succeeds, but whether it does or not, I would like to see other people following his lead.

[Update: Rosenberg met his first goal in a little over a week. And in that time, Zach Weinersmith also launched a Patreon site which exploded into the several-thousand-dollars-per-month range almost immediately. I’m thrilled about the potential this new system offers.]

Local Mom Discovers One Weird Trick to Ruin the Internet

We’re all so used to web ads that we just ignore them. “One weird trick” to lose weight, save on car insurance, or even keep your guns safe from Obama. For most of us, the only time we acknowledge them is for the jokes. It’s hard to believe that anyone could take them seriously.

But those ads do work on some people, obviously. Otherwise they wouldn’t keep spending money on them. It’s just one of the ways that the web seems to be dumbing down, along with the articles that are split across ten pages to increase pageviews. Pageviews that are, of course, used to serve up more ads about the secrets that local moms discovered.

It’s pretty scary to actually think about, though. Ads like this are basically scams, and they’re being served up by even many respectable sites. Instead of ignoring them, think about it for a minute: A huge percentage of internet content is funded by annoying gimmicks and outright lies. And chances are that you pride yourself on ignoring the more legitimate ads, as well. But that means you are doing nothing to fund the websites that you like. Other people are. Whether they’re gullible, suggestible, or just plain new to the internet, there are people out there who are bringing in the advertising revenue for your favorite sites. You’re not important to the sites, and those people are.

That’s the thought that occurs to me more and more these days when I click past ads and zero in on the articles. I’m not the site’s target audience, no matter how much I like their content. If they could replace me with an ad-clicking kid with no impulse control, they’d do it in a heartbeat. It’s only a happy accident that some sites are still producing material that I like, and I never have confidence that it will last. Why should it, when my high-falutin’, ad-ignoring ways are costing them money?

This isn’t a good situation. I like these websites. I want them to continue. And the sad truth is, I usually have no good way to support them, because I’m not about to start shelling out money for some expensive herbal placebo.

(Sure, there are sites like mine that don’t care about making a profit. But they aren’t the future of the internet. And there are high quality sites like Daring Fireball that can use fairly classy, curated ads which appeal to their fanbase. But there are still websites I like that depend on traditional ad money, and they have every right to stop doing things that I like.)

That’s why I tend to talk so much about crowd-funding, donations, and other alternate revenue streams for websites. I want to see people on the internet succeed, and I know I won’t ever take ads seriously. That means that, as much as I like free stuff, I know I’m going to have to pay sometimes to keep material that I like. The web has a lot of potential, but it’s obvious that advertising will stifle that potential, and most amateurs will not be able to get there on their own. As advertising gets more pervasive, and big companies find more and more ways to track our activities so that they can find the perfect ads for us, we need to look for alternatives. The future of all our hobbies depends on it.

The State of Worker Placement Games

My last couple game reviews both briefly talked about aspects of worker placement design. I want to talk about that in a little more depth.

It’s interesting that Village is considered original for being a “worker placement” game in which you put workers on the board (which don’t actually claim actions for you) who eventually die of old age. That description perfectly matches the 2004 game In the Shadow of the Emperor. “What?”, I can hear my audience shouting. (Well, all three of the people who remember that old game, at least.) “That wasn’t a worker placement game! Even its Board Game Geek page doesn’t list worker placement as one of its mechanics!” That’s right, it doesn’t. But that’s my point.

Emperor is a “card drafting” game, because players take turns choosing actions by taking the card that represents that action. Once the card is taken, no one else can use it for the round. It’s a confusing game, because the card designs are busy and people tend to put them back in a different order after each round, so players have to stare for a long time to figure out what is available. It would be a better game if actions were printed on a board, and people placed markers as they were claimed. In other words, the game would be cleaner, more understandable, and still have exactly the same gameplay if it used worker placement. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a worker placement game.

(I did consider making a board to play the game with worker placement, but after re-reading the rules I decided it wasn’t worth it. That would make the game feel like it was from 2006 instead of 2004, but it still wouldn’t hold up well by today’s standards.)

My point is that what we call “worker placement” is fundamentally the same as “action drafting”. Everyone seems to recognize that that’s a necessary part of the definition – I’ve never seen anyone call Carcassonne worker placement, even though you literally do place workers in it. And that’s fine. The community has a habit of naming game mechanics after the way they’re usually implemented thematically. For example, “train games” are about building connections on a map, with the goal of making or using specific routes. Jet Set is universally considered a train game, even though it’s about making routes for airways. But Mystery Express, which is set on a train, isn’t considered to be a train game at all.

I’m wondering if the term “worker placement” is getting in the way of discussing action drafting games. It worked great for the first several years that we were using it, as most games used pretty straightforward action drafting. The twists they added, such as taking back workers at different times or needing special types of workers for certain actions, still worked with the basic system of blocking off actions with your worker pieces. The first one I saw to really mix up the fundamentals of action selection was Dungeon Lords, in which players choose the general category for their workers before they learn what specific action slot they will get. Targi also uses that sort of indirect action selection, since some of your choices are at intersections of a grid, and after first choosing a specific row or column, you don’t know what other columns or rows your opponent will leave for you.

But Village is an example of an action-drafting game that would be awkward with a worker placement system. Players select their action by taking a colored cube from a certain area of the board, and the cube can be spent later as a resource. It’s important to the game that the cubes be randomly distributed every round. Simply grabbing them, without placing any worker tokens, is the natural way to do that. Bora Bora also pushes the limit of what traditional worker bits can handle, since its “workers” are dice that take on different values each turn.

Are we reaching a point where worker placement can’t handle the complexities of our action drafting games? I’m not sure. It’s been the most natural fit for years, so much so that it’s obvious when a game (like In the Shadow of the Emperor) predates it. I’m sure it will always have a place. But as our tastes keep growing more complicated, it looks like we may start to have more games like Village, which are undeniably action drafting but don’t necessarily use worker placement.

Storytelling in Games: Does Music Have To Be Poetry?

I want to follow up on my thoughts earlier this week about storytelling in games. I may have implied that all games need to have stories, or that the quality of the stories is definitely a factor in judging how good the game is. That’s not exactly true. It’s helpful to think of this in the same way we think of using words with music. Yes, some songs include wonderful poetry or tell stories, but that’s not a requirement. There are good songs with simple, inane lyrics, or even with no lyrics at all. While a person could argue that  songs should just be used to deliver poetry, they would need to use a very expansive definition of the word “poetry” and also ignore many qualities that music can offer.

This isn’t a perfect metaphor, but I think it’s instructive. Music can be focused on poetry, but it doesn’t have to be. And even when it is, we often look for different qualities in poetry that is sung than poetry that is written or spoken. Similarly, stories in games are going to be different than stories in books. When it’s a linear narrative, the point of the story is to give meaning and context to the player’s actions rather than to enjoy the story for its own sake. And when the player can influence the story, that changes everything. How do you discuss or review a story that became unique to you?

This isn’t an entirely new idea. Role-playing games and other shared storytelling experiences have been around for a while. And judging from them, the answer to “how do you discuss them?” may be “you don’t”. There are few things more annoying than a person trying to tell you all about their RPG campaign. On the other hand, the fact that people keep trying to do that is a testament to how powerful the story was to them. It just shows that stripping away the interactivity completely changes the value of the story, just as some effective song lyrics are weak when stripped of the music and written down.

My hope right now is to see games defined by stories that are worth coming back to. Do you know anyone who still plays Diablo instead of Diablo 2? Maybe they play Diablo 2 instead of Diablo 3, but that’s because they have quibbles with the copy protection or skill trees of the third one. Even with Diablo-esque games outside the series, such as Torchlight, the general consensus is that one new, better game can completely replace another. Old games are usually just replayed for nostalgia, or because they offered a unique gameplay element that hasn’t yet been made obsolete by the sequels.

On the other hand, people still read Lord of the Rings and The Great Gatsby. I do frequently argue that old works eventually get supplanted by new ones, but certainly not in the sudden way that games replace each other. I couldn’t imagine a new Terry Brooks series suddenly making Tolkien obsolete. Similarly, old songs become less popular as styles change, but their poetry and stories still stand on their own. Even the games that were revered for their stories ten to fifteen years ago (like Marathon and Planescape: Torment) are pretty much completely ignored today.

Maybe technological advances will always make video games fade faster than books or music. I like to think that this is at least partly because we’re still learning how to use the tools of the genre, though. I hope that someday, it will be common for people to play ten-year-old games because even if their mechanics and engine have been improved upon, the stories they tell are unique.

Thoughts about Neil Gaiman’s Wayward Manor, and General Storytelling in Games

By now, you’ve surely heard last week’s announcement that Neil Gaiman is working on a video game named Wayward Manor. As he puts it, “I’m a storyteller. What I tend to do is try and find the right medium to tell the right story.” That’s worth a lot of attention on its own, because historically, games have not been known for very good writing. Most gamers love the idea that there are things that make their medium right for stories, but there isn’t a lot of evidence yet to demonstrate that. I have to wonder how this new project is going to work out, myself: I love adventure games, and I love Gaiman’s sensibilities, so I expect to like this game. (Though admittedly, I had similar thoughts about Starship Titanic.) But, even though Gaiman has excelled in many different genres and mediums, I don’t know whether he appreciates the unique challenges of storytelling in a game.

Most stories in games have been static. When you reach a certain point, you see the same cut-scene that every other player does. Maybe there are slight variations, or a few different endings available, but none of that impacts on the gameplay or overall experience. If there’s no interaction, and they only meaningful way for the player to impact the events is to die and restart, then how is that really “part of the game” instead of a split up movie or novel? (And if your answer is that it wouldn’t be very good as a stand-alone movie, then is it really any good in the game either?)

The other problem is pacing. Traditional stories are meant to be read in a way controlled by the author. Games are meant to give the player a challenge that they may not be able to overcome for a while, if ever. I mean, I’ve never made it to the last cut-scene in Ms. PacMan. That’s not a big deal because I didn’t care about the story, but I sure would be upset if I couldn’t unlock the last third of American Gods. The specific genre that Gaiman is writing for is especially notorious for this, because each puzzle in an adventure game will stump some people for longer than others. If you are moving through the game quickly, but then you get stuck for three days on a puzzle right at an interesting part of the story, then it probably won’t seem as interesting once it resumes. The easy way to prevent this is to make sure that each puzzle happens in between concrete chapters of the story, but then we’re back to this being a serialization that feels separate from the game itself.

I’ll admit that I haven’t kept up with most recent games, so I can’t comment on the ways that they are trying to overcome this. I also haven’t been very active in the interactive fiction community, whose main focus is on the literary potential of games. But these are the three major approaches that I can come up with:

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On Authors and Delays

This video from Comic-Con has been making the rounds this week: Paul & Storm start singing “Write Like the Wind”, their song asking George R.R. Martin to hurry up with his next book, when Martin comes on stage and angrily attacks them. It’s obviously staged, but has still struck a chord with lots of people.

It’s time for me to speak up, because I think the conversation is getting one-sided. The common point of view now is Neil Gaiman’s statement that “George R R. Martin is not your bitch“. And, yes, that’s true as far as it goes. The (few) people who are personally attacking Martin are offensive and wrong. However, I think this statement is usually being used to set up a straw man. It’s perfectly possible to be frustrated with a series’ delays without acting entitled.

The question that Gaiman was replying to wasn’t really that strong at all. Someone asked whether or not it was realistic to feel that Martin was “letting him down”. My answer: Hell yes it’s ok to feel let down! The fundamental assumption of my blog is that people have a right to feel any arbitrary way they want about works of culture, and that emotional responses are good. No matter how disappointed I may be in a work, I don’t personally judge the creators for it. But I have every right to feel good or bad about my reaction to the work, and to make it known.

Series are tricky things. The individual installments affect each other, and a new one can change how we see the earlier bits. If you’ve never had an old story retroactively ruined (or saved) by a sequel, then you read very differently than I do. And a book that leaves plot threads dangling would normally be bad, unless you buy into the promise that they will be resolved later. If we aren’t enjoying the work in a vacuum, then those external factors can change it later. (I’m not touching on the balance between timeliness and quality here. Yes, sometimes it’s best in the long run to make fans wait while you make a story right. It’s a fine line to walk, and I’ve seen plenty of successes and failures both ways.)

Authors want us to buy into the promise of the ongoing story. As Gaiman says in his article, almost no one can afford to write an entire series ahead of time and only publish it after it’s complete. But the reason consumers are willing to buy the story before the final installment is complete is because they trust the author to work on it, and their experience will be an open and ongoing thing in the meantime. The claim that “if you enjoyed the work at the time, you have no right to complain now” is a fundamental betrayal of the way series are supposed to work. If authors really believe that, then the only rational response is for people to wait until the series is finished before risking any money on it. And if everyone waits, of course, it would destroy the industry.

We need to accept a middle ground between “authors should slave away for the fans” and “it’s selfish for readers to let delays impact their experience”. The new era of crowdfunding and social media is teaching us a lot about the contract between creators and their fans, and it should be relevant even to existing publishing systems. People support the creators that they like in order to see new works from them, and creators need to respect that trust. There’s no contract in place, of course, but the fans are taking it on good faith that the author will try. It turn, fans need to show good faith when unexpected events get in the way. Fortunately, transparent Kickstarters are helping to teach everyone about all the things that can delay projects. Good reasons typically earn forgiveness. Taking on side projects or saying “sorry, I had no idea what I was getting into when I took your money” typically does not.

In the end, fans have every right to make inferences like “the author will make it a priority to continue his best-selling series”, and every right to complain when delays are justifiably hurting their enjoyment of the books. George R.R. Martin is not our bitch, but we’re not his trust fund, either.

Kickstarter as a Brand

I didn’t plan to talk about Kickstarter so frequently on this blog, but I want to briefly bring up what I think is a little-talked-about huge issue for their future.

One of the big controversies of the past week was, of course, Above the Game, a Kickstarter-funded book that promised to help men pick up women. It turned out to a handbook for sexual assault, there was a huge outcry, Kickstarter let the campaign run to completion anyway, and then reversed course to apologize for their actions. (Update: The author has also apologized and offered to change the book. I don’t know the full details, but for the purposes of this article I’m refraining from commenting directly about him.)

I don’t have anything to add to the basic moral issues here. The book sounds disgusting, and Kickstarter’s apology was excellent, as it didn’t try to shift blame and involved concrete steps to demonstrate their sincerity. However, I was surprised at how much people were blaming Kickstarter for the situation, and their statements that this would taint every future Kickstarter project.

The question facing Kickstarter now is whether they are a hands-off service, or a curated brand. For example, I blog through WordPress, and (as far as I know) no company employee ever reviewed my writing for appropriateness. If something like Above the Game were written as a blog, people would be disgusted by it, but I don’t think many people would be calling on WordPress to shut it down. It just wouldn’t occur to them that WordPress, as a company, was responsible for the blog in any way. On the other hand, if that book were being published by a major company like Harper Collins, people would be very upset. Big publishing companies individually choose their titles to fit a brand, and their name is intended to be an indicator of quality.

So what is Kickstarter? Is it a general service like WordPress, or a controlled, curated brand like Harper Collins? Ok, I know it’s somewhere in the middle, but where in the middle does it fall? People who say they won’t trust Kickstarter any more obviously think of it as a brand that can be tarnished, and they’re mad that the company didn’t closely review the book before approving the project. On the other hand, Kickstarter seems to think of themselves as closer to the WordPress model: Their job is to put up the website and manage the money, but every time you back a project, you’re warned that Kickstarter has nothing to do with the creator’s success or failure. People have been sued for crowd-funding campaigns that made promises they couldn’t live up to, but Kickstarter has avoided responsibility even in those cases.

The tension now is that the company and its users have different visions of what Kickstarter is. And though Kickstarter takes legal shelter in their hands-off definition, they definitely profit from the belief that they are a curated brand. You only have to look at the way people react when they hear a project is up on Kickstarter: They’ll send money through that to people that they otherwise would never trust without more proof. Also, Kickstarter does impose restrictions on the types of projects allowed, and they’ll refuse to publish anything that isn’t “art” in some way.

So Kickstarter does make value judgments, imposes restrictions on their projects, and profits from the strength of their brand name. On the other hand, they say that they are just a middleman for the artistic creators, and have nothing to do with the qualities of the actual project. This contradiction cannot last, and it seems that things may be reaching a breaking point. I’m not sure how Kickstarter is going to handle this.