Monday, September 30

To KickStart, Or Not To KickStart ...

... that is the question:
Whether 'tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The loss of all your Fortune,
Or to take Coin from a Sea of strangers?

There's not much to report on the Codename:Vacuum front this week, I'm in the middle of overhauling the locations and exploration as discussed last week, and now my laptop has died so I'm not even making much progress on that. I'll be going along to the next Newcastle Playtest session on Tuesday, but with no game of my own - just helping test other designers' games.

So seeing as I've nothing worthwhile to say about my achievements this week, I thought I would address a question I regularly get asked by other gamers, when they hear I'm designing games: "So, (when) are you going to KickStart it?"

Before I delve into my thoughts on KickStarter and how it applies to Codename: Vacuum, here's a little background on my experiences with KickStarter. I've only KickStarted one project, and it wasn't even a board game. It was a trade paperback of a comic that had previous been released as single issues. I liked the art on the KS page, the comic had won awards and I would get a trade paperback and a T-shirt for £25, which is a reasonable price. It arrived a couple of months later than originally envisaged (though the communication explaining why was alright) and in the end I was slightly disappointed, the art is nice, but the whole thing seemed a bit short and the story didn't wow me.

Why haven't I KickStarted any games you ask? I don't actually buy that many games, and the games I do buy tend to be ones I've tried beforehand and really liked - things that I think will get lots of play at Games Night or with other friends. I don't collect games for the sake of it, I buy them to play. With The Daughter in the house now, I have less disposable income so, if anything, I'm more picky about which games I buy. Games on KickStarter have rarely been previously released, so you are usually buying a game you haven't tried and which there is limited information about - as a result the risk of getting something that doesn't meet your expectations is much higher than when you've already played the published game.

I can definitely see the appeal of KickStarting a game from a publisher's point of view:

  • Your KickStarter listing is a great way to raise awareness among people who buy board games from KickStarter
  • You get free advertising via things like the BGG crowdfunding round-up
  • You get information about how popular the game concept is from the number of pledges you get
  • KickStarter effectively manage your pre-order system for you
  • You have to raise less (or even no!) money to fund the publishing of your game

And it's probably that last point that is my biggest hurdle with KickStarter. KickStarter has really lowered the bar to publishing games. Previously, you would have either had to get a publisher to pick up your game (very hard) and then suffer the changes that result from their development of your game or you would have had to stump up a lot of your own cash and take a punt.

There are far more designers and games out there than there are games getting published by the major publishers, so getting one of them to pick up your game is difficult, and even if you manage it, you cede editorial control of your baby to them. Which will usually improve it, but is often a hard cross to bear, especially when you think the game is perfect as it is.

The other option requires you to have a dirty wad of cash, to convince your family to part with said dirty wad and then to part with that and potentially lose it all. That takes some guts, and even if your game is great, you can fail (and lose your cash) if you're not good at the marketing side of things, regardless of the qualities of your game. I know, I've been there.

With KickStarter, those hurdles evaporate. You don't need to get in to the big publishers, you don't need to cede control and you don't need to stump up your life savings: you get a bunch of people on the internet to fund it for you. Yay! Cash flow problem fixed!

My concern is that those hurdles are necessary. It was best summed up by Scott Firestone IV (@firestone) on twitter at the beginning of this month:

If you're publishing your own games, it's very difficult to achieve the critical distance needed to objectively decide how good it is. If you're risking your own money then decisions about what to publish are brought into sharp relief: "Is this going to lose me £15,000?" I rarely buy games without trying them, and KickStarted self-published games make me even less likely to because of my concerns about game development and quality. I've not got much experience of KickStarted games, so I'm probably tarring them all unfairly, but it's something I'm worried about, and it puts me off backing any of them.

So if I'm unlikely to back other peoples' KickStarted games, it's a bit rich to consider posting one myself. Especially since the more games you back the more likely you are to get reciprocal backing from those games' publishers. On top of those concerns, I'm not sure that Vacuum would be a good fit for KickStarter. I can't see sensible pledge levels, with a game with so many different cards (and hence so much art required) the entry level would need to be quite high - putting people off.

Of course, I'm not saying never, but certainly at the moment it seems unlikely.

I'd be interested to hear about your experiences with KickStarter, am I being unfair? Have you been delighted with the games you've KickStarted? Or disappointed? Let me know in the comments below.

Update (07/10/2013):

While no one has replied below, I've had a few discussions on BGG and offline on the subject of this post. The conversations have crystallised my thoughts a bit, so I thought I'd explain myself a bit more here. I think a couple of the things that have influenced my fear of KickStarter projects are:

  • The occasional horror story, like those collected here, and
  • Receiving 'finished' submissions while running Reiver Games.

Let me just expand on that last point a bit. While running Reiver Games I was mostly publishing other peoples' designs. So I received a lot of submissions of games that the designers themselves considered ready to publish (I received over 150 I think). Some of them were great. Some of them were just not my sort of thing. But quite a lot of them were poor, or in some cases rubbish.

Having seen a lot of these supposedly finished games, I'm more wary of self-published games with little objective information available. I'm probably more wary than the majority of gamers, and certainly more wary than the majority of KickStarter backers. Perhaps that's where my KickStarter reticence springs from.

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