Is Kickstarter a double edge sword?

A couple of weeks ago, as a consequence of the g+ exodus, I got into a conversation with another indie game developer.

The gist of the conversation was that this person was just starting out with their very first game, not quite at the play test stage. It was immediately obvious that they envisioned making tens of thousands of dollars and giving up their day job.

I know that it is possible to create a successful game but I do not know anyone who has successfully made a living at it. It seems to be generally accepted that indie produced ‘paid for’ games generally sell around 100-200 copies each.

There are always exceptions but that is the generally accepted figure. So if you are making $10 a copy then you stand to take $1000-$2000 from your game. As a game designer then that has big implications. If a full page piece of art can cost $500 then two such pieces could wipe out everything you will ever earn. In effect if you work for the artist not the artist working for you.

I told the person I was talking to that one thing I wish I had done was start the social media accounts for Devil’s Staircase last October when I first had the idea rather than three weeks ago when I suddenly wanted public play testers. I could have trickle fed nuggets from the games development over the year and build a bit of a following. When I then wanted playtesters I would have had anywhere from a few tens to possibly a couple of thousand people to reach out to.

It is my intention to crowd fund Devil’s Staircase and it would have been equally useful to have an audience to put the word out to when that starts next year.

So I have been looking at crowd funding and I had rejected Kickstarter in preference to indiegogo. The amount of money I have invested in Devil’s staircase is so small that it would have looked petty to kickstart for just $500. It also seems really important in the long run to have a successful kickstarters behind you as your track record. It is possible that the door is closing on the kickstarter method of games funding for the indie developer. I suspect that in 3 years time rpgs funded that way will come from a small cohort of companies with a track record of funding and delivering games.

The deciding factor for me to go for indiegogo, over kickstarter, was the funding model. With KS you have to reach your target to get any funding at all. If you miss it by a single cent then you get nothing. This encourages people to add ever more enticing stretch goals to try and make that initial target.

Indiegogo has a different option and that is variable funding. With variable funding if you get what is pledges regardless of the amount and your target.

The two options suit different people. If you absolutely have to have $1000 to actually create even one of your products, say a card based game and you have to have the cards, then getting $800 means you cannot fulfil your pledges. This is bad. On the other hand if you are fulfilling via drivethru and the game is PDF and POD then the same $800 will still buy in freelance writers and art.

I have already paid for the writing so I can guarantee that the game content is there, I have licenced an entire gallery of images for my game and turning those images in usable game art is a matter of applying exactly the same photoshop filters to every image to give them a consistent look and feel. So I have my art. Given that I have the rules, the book text and the art it doesn’t really matter if I get $1, $10 or $1000, I know that I can give my backers their game.

When you do crowd fund you do not get all the money pledged. The platform takes a straight 5% and the payment card transaction charges up to 3%. It is also taxable income so that could be another 20% or more.

John Wick Presents raised $1.3Million for 7th Sea 2nd Edition. If you did that as an individual in the UK you would have to pay just over half a million dollars in income tax immediately!

I am sure you have seen the news that John Wick Presents has just laid off all their staff and is winding down its production rate?

I suspect part of the problem is that if you have been paid today for the work you need to do for the next three years or longer then you are going to have to manage that cash fund every carefully. You cannot go back and ask for more if any unsuspected snags suddenly come up.

The other problem with the kickstart and stretch goal model is that if everyone who has funded you has already bought your game and all the future books as well, where are your future sales going to come from? You have basically emptied the barrel before you start.

With indiegogo it seems like a lower pressure environment. The platform still puts you under a little bit of pressure to make your targets big and raise more money but they are on commission so the more you raise the more they earn. That pressure is far greater on KS where you have to succeed for KS to make any money.

I have a little bit of a personal challenge and that is to earn about $250,000 from games. That is the price of a small farm or small holding where I can live and have a few more (ten or so) horses. Nothing is really dependent on the success or failure of that goal, it would simply be nice to think that a) I ‘bought the farm’ but in a good way and b) I could point at something and say that is what RPGs bought me. As long as I live until I am 180 years old, I am right on track.

I am very much into low stress and just for fun game creation. Kickstarter is most definitely not the tool of choice for that style of game design!

I have been blogging about Rolemaster for the past few years. When I am not blogging I run the Rolemaster Fanzine and create adventure seeds and generic game supplements under the heading of PPM Games. You can check them out on RPGnow. My pet project is my d6 game 3Deep, now in its second edition.

11 thoughts on “Is Kickstarter a double edge sword?”

  1. Regarding stretch goals I think it’s a good idea to come up with a big list of ideas. Then whittle this down, quite possibly by a lot. Not necessarily discard the others (although some may not make sense, so some discarding could happen) , but put them into another list, one pf potential expansions that may, or may not, be done through future crowdfunding.

    1. The potential problem with stretch goals is that the can extend too far into the future.

      Say that I got the funding and have promised the core game, two or three major supplements and ten adventure modules.
      I know I can put the finished book together, finalise the art and do the page layout in a month or so. I then start work in the second book and then the third. By the time I start on the adventures it could be 6 months from the end of the KS. Even putting out one adventure per month from then on means 14 months. That has assumed that during over a year I was not so ill with man flu that I didn’t feel particularly creative enough to write game material or that I didn’t fall of a horse, that has been known, or I didn’t take a holiday.

      If any of those things did happen then 14 months could turn into 15 months or 16 months. So did I budget spending my KS funds over the 14 months or do I build in a contingency for a longer production period.

      Another problem is that adventure modules are less attractive than rules supplements. Collectors like to have it all but many GMs only want the rules so they can tell their own stories.

      Rules or setting supplements are much more work intensive than adventures. Creating an adventure from first word to laying out the last piece of art can easily be accomplished in a month and probably under 50 pages. A rules supplement is going to be nearer 250 pages and take far longer at every stage.

      Almost nothing will make your project take less time and less resources but there is a myriad of things that can make it take more time and more resources.

      It is that indefinite future duration that can cause so many problems.

      1. Yes, for your project I would probably not add more than a handful of comparatively easy stretch goals. I might think of more, but they would be best for other projects and later releases. It is far better to deliver a small amount of stuff totally on time than lots of stuff late (or, as is the case with Far West, possibly never).

        Core game plus two or three supplements plus ten adventures I agree would be too much. Instead, I might have some short stories, possibly a custom designed deck of cards and not a whole lot more. Perhaps a single Wild West-themed town/location.

        Other stuff – such as, for example, settings books, genre twists (weird west, zombie apocalypse west), Fantasy Grounds support, more adventures etc. – I would consider to be suitable for later.

  2. There are only a handful people in the RPG industry who are able to live solely from what they make by writing tabletop roleplaying games. For most game designers it’s something they do after their real work because it’s something they love.
    If you have not a single successful RPG under your belt, making tens of thousands of dollars is highly unlikely. Going into a Kickstarter or Indiegogo campaign with these expectations is a recipe for disaster. Peter, I hope you recommended that person to rethink their plans.

    1. I explained the realities as I saw them.

      I agree, this is all just a hobby, almost a game in its own right. If I worked out my rate of pay for the time I spend it would be less than $5/day.

      One never knows, post Brexit, the Pound may crash so far that $5 may buy me a farm after all.

  3. I think the best way to approach KS, especially for an “indie” publisher, is to do what Kevin Crawford, of Sine Nomine, and Russ Morrissey, of EN World both do: have a finished product that only needs funding for artwork and professional layout. In EN World’s latest KS, for the Judge Dredd game, they only needed money to fund actual production costs as even the art and layout were already done. In fact, they sent out the PDF rewards within hours of the KS completion.

    It seems to me a lot of new game developers are trying to fund their entire living expenses while they work on a nascent idea of a game. And with the prominence – some might say dominance – of DTRPG/RPGnow, I personally think creators should test the waters there before leaping straight into the crowdfunding deep end.

    1. Kevin Crawford published a detailed guide to running a kickstarter and I think a lot of people use it as a ks bible. I am certainly following it.

      My project will be exactly as you describe. The rewards will going out in hours of the end of the campaign.

      The money I am after is just recouping costs. Half my expenses have been paying a writer and the other half for software but I am not really worried about that expense as I will still have that and will use it again and again. I invested in Adobe Creative Suite 4 and it is worth every penny.

      My game is in play test right now so the wording will definitely change to some extent but the basic game is complete right down to the art.

      The featured image at the top of this post is from my quickstart play test document.

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