The Trouble With Kickstarter

In December of 2021, Kickstarter made an announcement that it was going to develop a new platform for crowdfunding, using blockchain technology. The announcement received a significant negative response, given the negative environmental impacts of current blockchain applications and the widespread use of blockchain tech, through both cryptocurrencies and non-fungible token (NFT) schemes, to commit fraud. It’s a fair response, though given how little the Kickstarter announcement said, perhaps not entirely warranted.

That all said, the end state of Kickstarter’s blockchain plans don’t particularly matter. Whether or not the new platform comes to fruition, whether or not it uses less energy-intensive proof-of-stake software, whether or not people leave the platform, these are in the long run irrelevant. What the announcement should have revealed to anyone who felt strongly enough to leave the platform over it is that the TTRPG hobby has let Kickstarter become infrastructure. Leaving Kickstarter sounds great in a tweet, but ultimately doing so is going to be tough for many of the creators who, without the company, would have never gotten off the ground.

Kickstarter accounts for a large enough percentage of TTRPG sales and revenue that if it were a game publisher it would be larger than every other publisher save Wizards of the Coast. And while many have put together software which can provide the same functionality as Kickstarter (making pledges, disbursing funds, hosting campaigns), they all, at least right now, fail to provide what Kickstarter actually provides campaigners. And given that what Kickstarter does provide, marketing, is driven by network effects, the path to an alternative is essentially all uphill.

I’m not intending to be entirely doom and gloom, the point here is not to be defeatist and say that there’s no reason to try building a Kickstarter alternative. Instead, I’m trying to point out that Kickstarter doesn’t just provide the backend for crowdfunding, they provide eyeballs. Any viable Kickstarter alternative must provide some marketing juice or they’ll be about as effective as a computer science sophomore’s PHP final project.

The Current State

There are two current platforms which may provide a viable future competitor to Kickstarter: Gamefound and Game On Tabletop. There are extant crowdfunding platforms, like Indiegogo, but the deficiencies in those marketplaces that helped them lose virtually the entire tabletop crowdfunding market to Kickstarter are still present and not particularly worth relitigating. On the complete other hand, while someone will inevitably ask about itchfunding, the fact is that has useless crowdfunding tools from a consumer perspective, even more useless than most of their browsing tools. As itchfunding is just a software tool that a creator can use to then market their game themselves (and nothing more), I don’t see it as a platform, per se. That difficulty does segue well into the challenges seen with the two platforms I’ve noted, though. Game On Tabletop is owned by Black Book Editions, a French game publisher. It’s heavily aimed at the European market, and the vast majority of campaigns are in French, including many translations of games you may already know (the site currently has campaigns for translations of Troika and Bubblegumshoe, for example). Game On Tabletop arguably serves the French market better than Kickstarter, but the relatively small number of campaigns in total (there are 5 live as of this writing) as well as the profile of the typical campaigner (almost every campaign is being run by a publisher or translation outfit, not by indies or individuals) means that it’s a relatively hard sell to Americans, and especially the indie design community. That said, Game On Tabletop is successful and some of its campaigns are seeing relatively high-dollar fulfillments (high euro, really), so we shouldn’t discount them entirely.

Gamefound is a newer platform and is directed towards the American tabletop market, shooting across the bow of Kickstarter’s successful tabletop section for board games, RPGs, miniatures, and accessories. Also giving Gamefound some momentum is their entree into the pledge manager market, trying to elbow their way into the campaign services space currently dominated by Backerkit. It looks like that’s their only real win in the RPG space, though…a browse through their listings shows a grand total of *zero* RPG campaigns. It took me a while to figure that out, though, because while Gamefound allows you to filter by *open* campaigns they do not let you filter by campaigns which are actually ongoing, as opposed to open to late backers through their pledge manager. This is a common thread between all of these projects, by the way; none of them have spent enough on competent UX design, resulting in bizarre choices for filtering and searching and an absence of frankly fundamental features like ordering search results by things like name or date. If my local Harley dealership can put up a website that lets you filter by date added, an actual online business concern has less than no excuse.

I feel like people working on crowdfunding infrastructure tend to forget that their most important users are backers. The campaigners are their customers, yes, and the ones who are paying them, but all that money comes from backers. And backers have the option to walk away. If I as a backer decided that I would stop using Kickstarter, that just means I can buy the game later, or if the project were to fail, I’d be better off because I wouldn’t have spent the money. The campaigners are the only ones at risk here, and for small projects that risk is the difference between having a business and not.

Looking To The Future

Whether Kickstarter continues on its current path or not is dependent on larger creators. When Free League campaigned the second edition of The One Ring on Kickstarter, there was an outcry from the indie RPG sphere as the highly visible campaign coincided with Zinequest, a Kickstarter event meant to highlight projects from small creators. The outcry did nothing to stop the campaign, which netted (after conversion) over $1.8M, actually more than every single Zinequest project that year combined. The protests from small creators were first ignored and then in some circles derided due to Zinequest’s 97.1% campaign success rate, a number that is both much higher than the typical RPG Kickstarter success rate by a fair margin and based on earlier Zinequests may end up higher than the project delivery rate.

The point of this example is that it will be the large users of Kickstarter, companies like Free League, Magpie, and Hit Point Press, who will end up determining if any pressure is put on Kickstarter in light of their blockchain announcement. If, say, Magpie walks away very publicly at the conclusion of their (largest in Kickstarter history) Avatar campaign, someone will feel the heat. Whatever happened on Twitter, though, is not heat. If anyone who has run a seven figure Kickstarter campaign is reading this, I’d strongly advise you to think about the sort of ethical stand you could make.

For the rest of us, though, there isn’t really much evidence that the RPG community is united on this. Twitter trends mean nothing in the business world, and given the dominance of D&D everyone in the indie RPG sphere, myself included, needs to understand they automatically are a minority when it comes to who’s actually pushing the hobby. With that in mind, the actions people take are theirs and theirs alone. If you, like me, are a frequent Kickstarter backer, I think it may be worthwhile to consider a cessation of spending there. That said, doing so will hurt creators in a manner inversely proportional to their size. It may be more worthwhile to change your calculus on which campaigns to back rather than stop outright. For a small designer you could help their game get made; for Magpie’s next big thing you’d only be throwing money at a project which would happen anyway. These sorts of choices matter more now, and as far as the hypothetical Magpie project is concerned you can still buy it after it’s been released. If you’re a creator and campaigner, the choice is a little more difficult. In the current world, Kickstarter provides a marketing shot in the arm that Gamefound, Game On Tabletop, and can’t match. If you don’t use Kickstarter it doesn’t mean your project won’t succeed, but it does mean you will need to spend more time and money to get the sort of exposure that your Kickstarter fee would otherwise buy you. And if you do decide to go with a ‘competing’ crowdfunding service, that lesser effectiveness is going to hurt your bottom line.

Whatever you choose to do when it comes to Kickstarter, it is worthwhile to support the alternatives. If you’re already an itch creator, it couldn’t hurt to try itchfunding, even if it won’t do much for you now. If you’re a game buyer of any stripe, take a look at sites like Gamefound. And no matter who you are, if you have a platform, be willing to sound off about them. That said, sound off in an honest manner, and if there’s something you really don’t like about the site, speak up. On my end, I truly believe that how Gamefound responds to my UX criticisms (if they respond at all) is going to be a portent for whether or not they survive in the market.

When all is said and done, either the Kickstarter blockchain plans will come to fruition or they won’t. That doesn’t change how everyone, backer and campaigner alike, should think about Kickstarter and the role they have in the market. Kickstarter’s monopoly helps accumulate power in the market with them and the customers they earn the most from (i.e. large campaigners), and this is true regardless of whether or not they end up following through with the most recent thing you’ve found distasteful. The success of Kickstarter and the success of smaller designers and publishers are both related to who you, the consumer, spend money with. And while I can honestly say that Kickstarter doesn’t really give a damn about one marginal customer (and they’ve recently implied the same about small creators as well), many of the small shops, especially those operating completely outside the incumbent marketplaces like Kickstarter and DriveThruRPG, do. The thing that Kickstarter and DriveThruRPG do so well is that they make shopping and publishing easier. Being an ethical consumer, in RPGs or in anything else, requires more work. It also means making your peace with the fact that it’s work many others are not going to do.

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