The Many Harms of Kickstarter

The influence of Kickstarter on the board gaming hobby is immense, and it has been for years now. At any given time, the crowdfunding juggernaut is awash with gaming projects ranging from tiny card games to big bombastic miniatures-laden affairs, and everything in between. Whether it has helped or harmed our precious hobby is a matter of debate. There are certainly arguments that can be made for and against, but it’s no question that the gaming industry is forever changed by Kickstarter.

And that’s no surprise. After all, change is part of the Kickstarter package. It was born of a mission to help amateur creative and artistic projects find like-minded individuals willing to donate to a dream and turn it into a reality. The early days of Kickstarter were like a bazaar of insane and innovative expression served up to the masses for a modest investment. It was as inspiring and it was successful, and as we all know, success is a double-edged sword.

One of the first extremely successful Kick Starter board games

One of the first extremely successful Kick Starter board games

An Absolute Sense of Mission

Kickstarter is, and has always been, a for-profit organization. For each successfully funded project, 5% of the pledges end up in Kickstarter’s coffers. There’s nothing wrong with that intrinsically, but it does indicate an overriding motivation: get as many projects funded as possible. They do that through clever marketing, social media, promotions, and the website itself which does nothing but try to convince would-be backers to take the plunge.

They also have done it by abandoning their original intent. In the ancient times, Kickstarter required that projects be creative in nature and that they come from individuals that aren’t already successful. That’s a fairly slippery set of requirements, so to maintain that purity of intent, a cadre of community managers reviewed every proposed Kickstarter campaign to ensure that they aligned with the mission.

Over time, the slipperiness of Kickstarter’s project requirements opened the door for semi-professional and established organizations to peddle their wares on the site. In the board gaming world, this gave rise to CoolMiniOrNot’s Kickstarter dominance and Queen Games’ crowdfunding-first approach to developing and publishing new games. It’s the backbone of Stonemaier Games’ business model and the reason why Game Salute exists. In June 2014, Kickstarter opened the floodgates even wider by removing the community manager review requirement for project submissions. Short of raising funds for dangerous or illegal goods, anything is permitted on Kickstarter.

Why does this matter? With so many Goliaths walking through the crowdfunding playground, the ability for any Davids to surface among all that noise is next to impossible. Modern board game Kickstarters are clinics in graphic design and marketing intelligence featuring nearly complete products, amazing artwork, compelling stretch goals, and big promotional support. That leaves John Q. Designer, who just wants to raise a few thousand dollars to get his clever abstract game published, in the dust. He can’t even afford to design a campaign as flashy as his big shot competitors, let alone stand up to their glorious promises. After all, there are only so many crowdfunding dollars to go around, and showing a prototype on graph paper isn’t going to turn heads away from a box of miniatures from an industry professional.

The HUGELY successful Conan - Kick Starter campaign that raised 3.3 million dollars.

The HUGELY successful Conan – Kick Starter campaign that raised 3.3 million dollars.

Abused Patience Turns to Fury

This lack of oversight has led to some very questionable campaigns. I’m not talking about the high profile failures that make people wary of crowdfunding all together. I mean companies like Mantic Games, Flying Frog Productions, Cryptozoic Entertainment, and CoolMiniOrNot that almost single-handedly round out the top 10 most funded board games on Kickstarter:

The next 10 on the list are more are more of the same, and that’s not even counting gaming accessories by Reaper Miniatures and Dwarven Forge. In almost every case, the top funded games are from professional developers, well-known industry designers, and other publishers that have long outgrown the need to raise funds on a crowdfunding platform to get their products made. Even one of board gaming’s most celebrated designers, Stefan Feld, has had a game funded on Kickstarter. On what alternate reality Earth do we live on that a Feld game needs crowdfunding? Of course the truth is AquaSphere didn’t NEED to be funded in this manner. And yet it was.

Heroes Always Take a Risk

The reason these companies use Kickstarter instead of traditional means to fund their project is risk aversion. When we back games on Kickstarter, we as consumers take on the entire financial risk for the project. These days almost all these top flight Kickstarter games are in development long before the campaign begins, but at a basic level, Company A need not invest a single dollar in the development of a game. They can simply crowdfund the money, take on no debt whatsoever, and pass the risk of default onto their well-intentioned backers.

This methodology is of course great for John Q. Designer who doesn’t have the funds. But for CoolMiniOrNot, it’s a way to maximize their revenues by making sure their balance sheets are debt-free. That doesn’t sound so bad on the surface, but the precedents set by campaigns that had no business being on Kickstarter contribute to the greater dysfunction.

Dysfunction 1: Kickstarter backers have no legal recourse. We’ve seen many stories come out over the years of Kickstarter entrepreneurs not delivering on their promises, running out of money, or simply disappearing entirely. Sometimes those stories have happy endings, and it’s comforting to see the FTC taking an active interest, but the majority of these crowdfunding disasters never get resolved. It’s critical to understand that just because the backer level you selected promises a finished product, there are no guarantees.

Dysfunction 2: Innovation is born out of necessity. While the hellish Kickstarter experiences are admittedly edge cases, what is true 100% of the time is that a company that doesn’t take on any discernable risk has very little incentive to provide value. When a board game publisher’s financial fate is tied to the success of their products, they are motivated to act in good faith, to create great games, and to treat their customers with dignity. Anything short of quality means that a game could fail and all the invested dollars are lost. In the land that Kickstarter built, that motivation is missing. It doesn’t mean all companies that use Kickstarter won’t live up to the ideals of a good publisher; it just means they don’t HAVE to. They already have your money.

Beware of the Company You Keep

All of this and I didn’t even mention the frequency of Kickstarter games missing deadlines, compromising on quality, and taking noticeable shortcuts in the development and testing process. There’s no easy solution here. Our hobby is full of early adopters that crave the latest and greatest. These top flight Kickstarter campaigns are designed to be compelling and to prey on our fear of missing out. The only advice I can give, and it’s advice I myself should strive to follow, is to vote with your dollars and to try to curtail the instinct to consume. Kickstarter will never be the creative Shangri-La it once was, at least not for board games, but we can do our best to make sure that our hard-earned money goes to the campaigns that really deserve it. Do we need season 12 of Zombicide? I think you know my opinion, but it’s up to you and your pocketbook to decide.