The New Gatekeeper: You
06 Jul, 2012 - Jason Panella
Saying Kickstarter has taken off over the past few years is an understatement. The crowd-funding platform has raised over $230 million for projects in the past four years, with some of the more popular campaigns drawing in thousands of supporters.
The most popular project categories seem like a given — it’s easy to get lost in all of the new “fund my indie film/band/short story collection!” type projects that spring up each week. Kickstarter has really given a boost to some other creative areas, though, including hobby board gaming. (By “hobby board game,” I mean tabletop games that include German-style strategy games, more complex adventure games, designer games, creative card and party games, and so on. Think: Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride, Dominion, or Arkham Horror for some popular examples.)
If you’re not familiar with how Kickstarter works, it’s pretty simple. People can submit their creative endeavors to Kickstarter; these projects range from documentary films to iPad cooking apps to pieces of installation art. The creators set a monetary goal and deadline to reach that goal. If the public pledges enough money by the deadline to meet the creators’ goal, then the project creators get the money. It’s an all-or-nothing approach; if the proposal doesn’t receive enough funding by the deadline, then the creators don’t get anything (and project backers don’t lose anything either). By helping projects get off of the ground, the public is actively involved in the creation process.
While designing and self-publishing games isn’t a new concept, Kickstarter seems to have given a lot of aspiring game designers a real way to get their games to people’s tables. One of the first success stories was Alien Frontiers (designed by Tory Niemann), which collected almost three times its $5,000 goal in the summer of 2010. What really helped was that Alien Frontiers was a genuinely good game. It got great reviews, collected some year-end gaming awards, and — once it was re-published after its initial Kickstarter-produced run — actually seems to sell pretty well.
Alien Frontiers’s success seemed to open the floodgates — new projects spring up constantly, many of them reaching their funding goal within days. It helps that a lot of these projects give potential backers a really good idea of the game, either through substantial videos, proofs of the game’s rules, or even through limited playtesting. Being involved in the development of the game like this — and not just purchasing it — can be a powerful thing, especially if comments from backers ultimately help mold the final product.
Some of the best-funded projects are also not only giving backers the game, but giving the highest-funding folks exclusive promo items or other perks. This is working well enough that some game publishers are using Kickstarter almost exclusively to fund their games, basically using the platform as a pre-order system to gauge interest in an already developed game.
Some gamers take issue with companies doing this. As W. Eric Martin said in a post at Boardgamegeek, “[Some backers] resent the feeling that publishers see them as money spigots because the publishers don’t have enough confidence in their games to fund them properly, i.e., to put their own money at risk to fund a game’s publication.” This, however, isn’t the only problem some have with the Kickstarter board game boom.
Many gamers are curious — even anxious — to see what happens after the Kickstarter honeymoon is over. The bubble hasn’t broken yet, since there hasn’t been a notable game project that turned out to be a scam, or collapsed in on itself once it had been funded (though there are some potential candidates).
Critics have also brought up a number of other issues with the “Kickstarter model.” For instance, they say game companies have traditionally acted as quality gatekeepers to weed out shoddy games. While the public serves a comparable role on Kickstarter, there is no real assurance that the game has been extensively playtested. People are paying for hype, as I’ve heard some naysayers put it. Flashy videos and cool art can draw in a lot of money, but the result could just be a pretty game that is a slog to play.
With all of this in mind, I guess you could lump me in with the casually optimistic. My few experiences with Kickstarter-funded games have been positive, including the one game I actually backed financially. I think I understand where some of the concern comes from over the quality of the games coming out of Kickstarter, but the fact is that similar questions have been raised about professional board game companies, large or small. Some effort is being made to provide quality assurance for Kickstarter games; the folks at Game Salute are helping fledgling game designers playtest their games and iron out some of the wrinkles.
It’s also worth noting that while it seems like every new board game project (dud or not) succeeds, that isn’t the case — according this this recent infographic, less than half of all game-related projects actually get funded. While these stats might give pause to a potential designer about to try Kickstarter, maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe the more projects fail on Kickstarter, the more careful campaign creators will be about their projects. After all, there is a gatekeeper at Kickstarter — the public.
What’s next for board gaming and Kickstarter? With how popular crowdfunding games has become, I’m concerned that the hobby will soon see a point of Kickstarter oversaturation (or, if you ask some folks, we’ve already reached that point). Regardless of when this happens, cutting out the middleman and crowdfunding games has caught on. Kickstarter has become a big deal in the hobby gaming world, and I don’t think that’s going to change any time soon.