Roll For Insight: Is The Kickstarter Dream Dead?

July 5, 2019 by cassn

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Kickstarter symbolises a lot of what I love and hate about the contemporary gaming industry. Indie designers set out their ideas for hobbyists to enjoy in the hope that other people will find their concepts worthwhile. It provides accessibility, community feedback, and consumer choice. A communal, utopian crowdfunding Mecca (fused with late capitalist politics) which enables dreamers to build their dreams.

Roll For Insight: Is The Kickstarter Dream Dead?

On paper, Kickstarter sounds perfect. However, in recent years the cracks have started to show. Debates have sprung up as to whether larger companies are abusing the system. Projects which have been funded and then never come to pass have left a sour taste in the mouths of backers. And companies trying to build a model purely on print-to-order sales are finding they are walking a tightrope between boom and bust, reliant completely on savvy marketing and consumer spending habits. So, almost a decade after it’s launch, I want to look back and ask: has the Kickstarter Age lived up to the hype?

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I have always considered myself to be a board game addict. I can be distracted by a pretty component, subtly wooed with the promise of interesting engine-building mechanics, and easily lured into the back of a non-descript van at the possibility of a round of backgammon. That I exist merely as a vessel to consume as many gaming experiences as possible has become an inevitable part of my being that I have learned to accept. However, recently when tallying up my latest gaming purchases, I had to ask myself a new question: Am I also a Kickstarter addict?

A New Way To Create Games

Kickstarter launched back in 2009, and quickly became a global success story, with The New York Times calling the site “the people’s NEA”. As of May 2019, the crowdfunding company has collected over $4 billion in pledges from 16.3 million backers worldwide. Needless to say I am among them. Yet, while I religiously check Kickstarter for the latest cool, indie game to join my collection, my purchases don’t stretch to the dizzying heights of Reddit user Ranker2, who over the course of 2.5 years spent a substantial $16,000 on the crowdfunding website.

Ranker2, who since regrets most of his purchases, said his addiction was driven by a ‘fear of missing out’ (FOMO) on the Kickstarter exclusives, and being forced instead to pay the dreaded ‘eBay tax’ later on to get sought after extras. Indeed, Kickstarter exclusives and stretch goals have inadvertently created a tabletop gaming FOMO which has revolutionised how we purchase our gaming experiences. The concept of exclusive rewards, stretch-goals, add-ons, and the ability to go all-in on projects you love entices that greedy hoarder in all of us who fuels our hobby addictions. And, while some of our favourite tabletop designs make it to the retail market, increasingly the majority of games, miniatures, and hobby materials we want exist solely for purchase behind that bright green KS sigil.

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Indeed, for many of these games, that’s how it should be. Without Kickstarter, few of these designs would even get off the ground. Bruno Sautter, designer of component-heavy Kickstarter success 7th Continent noted his epic choose-your-own-adventure game could only have existed through Kickstarter because the cost of manufacture would “prohibit a distribution through ‘classic’ retail circuits.” The print-to-order manufacturing process enabled by Kickstarter campaigns has allowed ‘big box’ games - laden with components, miniatures, manuals, and all other manner of extras - to become much more accessible and financially viable for both the consumer and publisher (provided, of course, you’re willing to accept the shipping costs!).

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However, the size of the game doesn’t really matter. Any new designer or developer worth his dual-wielding dice is flocking to the crowdfunding site, which promises to handle the sale of projects for a minimal percentage, and on a promotional scale that few could achieve on their own. Pitching a new, indie concept for a solo card game in which you free magical animals and fight a dragon may sound cool, but to get it to sit in stores alongside Monopoly or Catan feels like an impossible feat for a new designer. Yet, with clever marketing and access to Kickstarter, games like Crystallo can change from idea to reality, and work their way into the hearts and homes of hundreds of backers searching for their next gaming fix.

A Changing Wind

It’s not simply indie start-ups getting in on the action and, alongside the little guys, the bigger, established companies are also selling their games. Some, such as Monolith, used Kickstarter as a pre-order method. Claustrophobia 1643 already had physical copies in existence before Monolith launched their campaign, assuring every backer got a copy and negating the very essence of the crowdfunding platform. Others continue to use the print-to-order system, despite having the financial freedom to go straight to retail.

CMON has come under criticism for their use of the Kickstarter crowdfunding model when they could afford to otherwise fund their publishing pursuits. Yet, while pedants could argue that bigger game companies are abusing a system originally created for start-up entrepreneurs, bigger name games on Kickstarter can be of benefit to all. Larger companies bring mainstream customers to the site, and indie developers often find they are being backed by those who originally visited the site for more well-known franchises.

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However, even with the bigger companies, success isn’t assured. Last year CMON posted a revenue loss of $4.1 million, despite releasing more games via Kickstarter than the previous year. As CMON fan Chris Renshaw points out, this is partially due to these games proving less popular on the market than their predecessors. While the company still boasted a substantial profit, it seems that Kickstarter is not without risks, and companies who choose to crowdsource their funding need to be able to swallow significant losses when they occur.

This fact has proven the greatest downfall for the Kickstarter golden goose, and the current hot word in every contemporary gaming discussion is sustainability. Crowdfunding may be able to provide an initial success but profit margins are often slim, and with tabletop designs battling for backers simultaneously, the Kickstarter market has become fiercely competitive and customer loyalty fleeting.

Moving On & Proving Yourself

In such a cutthroat industry, even a company who has successfully pushed a few games through the Kickstarter machine may find that one bad campaign sinks their business. Some publishers, like HUB Games, have chosen to avoid the site altogether, choosing instead the tried and tested methods of promotion and retail sales. Whether such traditional models can survive against the Kickstarter megalith will be revealed in due time but, certainly in the case of HUB Games, their innovative game design and attention to quality have proven incredibly popular with gamers without building on the crowdfunding bubble.

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And, at the end of the day, it’s the gamers that make the market. While Kickstarter exclusives may provoke that internal dragon that wants to create his hobby horde, and clicking that backer button gives us that sweet serotonin hit, gamers remain relatively discerning in what they choose to play, and not all concepts will make it to the finish line.

However, Kickstarter failures that never got off the ground do serve an important function - they show what Kickstarter really is. Because Kickstarter doesn’t sell games, it sells dreams. Behind every project, no matter how big or small, there is a designer, developer, artist, sculptor, publisher, or writer who is hoping that the blood, sweat, and tears they shed in the pursuit of their design was worth it. And for every backer that clicks that button, they know it was.

The gaming industry has always been full of dreamers. People with a glimmer of a concept, a spark of creativity, and not a lick of common sense who, against all odds and advice, throw themselves into developing something extraordinary for others to enjoy. Kickstarter perhaps wasn’t the world that was promised, but utopian, socialist idealisms rarely live up to their hype. However, more than a decade since it’s conception, Kickstarter remains a place where dreams can become a reality, and that’s enough for me.

What do you think? Has Kickstarter lived up to its promise?

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