The Myth of Kickstarter

As I write this, my first Kickstarter campaign for a table-top game is coming to an end. The question I’ve received the most is “What are you going to do if the campaign fails?”

To answer this question, I need to take a step back and reconsider why in the world we decided to try Kickstarter in the first place.

Why did I pick Kickstarter?

I love Kickstarter. In our current iteration of the sharing economy and the craze of start-ups, any platform that exists to give average people the means to fund an otherwise pie-in-the-sky funding goal is awesome! Talk about “sticking it to the man” because anyone can build anything if they get enough people to want it! The risk you take is minimal, you only lose your time and effort should a project fail (In the funding stage. I’m not getting into projects that have failed to deliver). It’s not like the days of old where you went out on a limb and spent your life savings trying to start a new venture. It’s even better than taking out a low-interest loan because you’ll be only beholden to your customers and not other stakeholders like banks or investors. It’s as if people can finally market directly to their audience without any other strings attached.

Here’s the thing: That’s how it used to be. It’s not even been 7 years since Kickstarter began and it’s already become an oligarchy. Do you remember the Pebble Smartwatch? Well, so does Pebble. Because instead of taking the money they earned from the original Pebble, creating a functional company, and doing a pre-order on their next iteration of the product; they launched another campaign for the second version. Why? Wouldn’t it be better to just sell it directly and cut out the middle-man? Well, why not? Aren’t the benefits of Kickstarting the same for a large company as they are for an individual? Who in the world wouldn’t rather just be accountable to their customer instead of accountable to other funding avenues. The worst part about this is, when a smaller company that has no other means to produce a product and needs to use Kickstarter to gather funds, this company gets lost in the shuffle of a thousand “already-known” creators.

I like to think of Kickstarter as a “Compressed American Dream” — if you put your mind to it and create a great product, you can make it in this world. But just like the American Dream, it’s a myth. Sure there are success stories of companies and individuals who have funded their products successfully from nothing. But the longer the platform exists and allows well-known publishers and companies to continue leveraging it, the harder it will become for independent creators to be seen.

Let’s look at the steps most people need to have a successful Kickstarter, you must :

  1. Advertise before and during the campaign.
  2. Have a novel idea, or ride on the coattails of an already popular brand. (I’m looking at you Cthulu)
  3. Have a finished product.
  4. Time it so that people aren’t doing other, more important things during your campaign.
  5. Have good press and/or reviews of your product.
  6. Solicit everyone you know.
  7. Get Lucky (Because you can’t bank on going viral).

The issue with this list is that most of it requires money. And why are you Kickstarting your project? Money. A creator should always expect to spend their own time and money, but how much is the object of the question here. We spent approximately $1000 in printing prototypes, travelling to conventions and meet-ups, and advertising for our game — not counting time and effort. It doesn’t seem to have been enough for our $17000 goal.

In the table-top game industry, if you’re unpublished and don’t have connections in the industry, no one wants to play your game.*** It’s not a function of dislike, but of time. Reviewers don’t have time to spend on first-time creators because there’s thousands of them. So how do you get them to look at your game? Money.

Now, you might say “Hey Danny, that’s pretty pessimistic and you seem a little salty about this process. Maybe crowdfunding isn’t for you.” If it’s not for people like me, who is it for? Cyanide and Happiness, a well-established brand that one of their rewards was two copies of their game kissed with lipstick for $133? Maybe we need another expansion of Carbs Aghast Humdingers to be published? Or maybe some regular potato salad?

The fact that there are joke projects that get funded because they go viral is proof enough to me that the system still can work for the right people. But all too often, there are legitimately good products that don’t get funded because they have to compete with established companies and brands that have funds.

I plead to the companies using Kickstarter essentially as a preorder, STAHP. And Kickstarter, maybe you should create a space for “indie” creators. This is the time to address this issue, because it’s only going to get worse.

So to answer my initial question, “What am I going to do if my campaign fails?”. Obviously, I’ll relaunch in a couple months.

*** Since writing this story, I’ve learned a lot about the networking of designers and developers of games. It’s a culture that’s pretty closed to the outside if you don’t know where to look. But once you find an in, other designers and developers are fantastic resources to play your game and to play theirs. As with many things, it’s hard to sift through the rabble and you can’t be a lone wolf. I can say that as of now (Summer 2016), places you *need* to go are conventions, forums, and social media groups for game makers. The claims I made when I wrote the article referred to dry email and outreach campaigns. Digital outreach is very ineffective for getting a hold of people. If you want to find reviewers, playtesters, and other designers you **need** to network.