So let’s open with this – Rogue Genius Games (RGG) has a Kickstarter running at the moment (until Oct 15th). That obviously colors my opinions, and I want my biases up front. And, to be clear, I hope you’ll click on that link and consider backing my KS campaign. This post serves triple duty, as content for my blog, as an ad for our current KS, and as a way to start a conversation about how the industry is evolving.
That said, there are a lot of people, including many in the game industry, who feel an established company, or a big company, “shouldn’t” fund projects with Kickstarter. What counts as established or big varies by person (and, honestly, sometimes by conversation, and in some cases without an accurate idea what the actual size of some of the companies involved is), and in many cases RGG is likely small or struggling enough we come in under the theoretical line for it being “fair” for us to use Kickstarter
Now to be clear, if someone doesn’t want to back a Kickstarter that’s an entirely reasonable position, regardless of their reasoning. It’s a company’s job to convince you to invest in a KS campaign, and no project is “owed” support by backers. A Kickstarter campaign being run professionally has to expect both doubt and even naysayers, and one that isn’t being run professionally is a much bigger risk to backers.
Even so I think it’s worth taking some time to explain, from my point of view as someone running a company that has used (and plans to continue to use) Kickstarter for bigger projects why I find it useful and believe it’s a legitimate and useful tool for business of any size. Of course as a producer of tabletop games, mostly RPGs, that’s going to be the focus of my thoughts.
- In the Modern Tabletop Era, Pre-Orders Are Largely Meaningless
The idea of selling a product that doesn’t exist yet is not new. From the early days of gaming, companies would take orders for books they hadn’t finished, known as pre-orders, and use that money and information to finish the book and determine how many to print.
When I was first getting into the game industry in the 1990s, many of the people I worked for were already decrying the death of the pre-order system. At least for many companies, it used to be that if you announced a product that would come out 6-9 months later, you could expect a decent percentage of your sales to be pre-orders. Fans would pre-order from game shops, game shops would pre-order from distributors, and distributors would pre-order form game companies. With that information, and historical context, you could make a reasoned estimate of how well a product would do, and set the size of your print run accordingly.
The size of a print run has a huge impact on the profitability of a game product (with the exception of Print on Demand, which has its pros and cons but is generally a discussion for another day). The more books you print, the less each book costs. Which is great—as long as you sell them all. It can be very difficult to know if you are better off printing 1,000 copies at a unit cost of $2.75 each, or printing 1,500 for a unit cost of $2.55 each. Obviously the difference in pure profit is notable, and having more to sell means more potential income. But it’s also $2,750 vs. $3,825 to pay for the whole print run. If you end up selling 999 copies, the lower per-unit cost doesn’t matter.
Working with many game companies in the modern era, the feedback I get is that not only are pre-orders much smaller and less reliable than they used to be, they are no longer particularly useful for predicting total popularity. Books tend to get roughly the same number of pre-orders regardless of how well they end up selling. I presume this means that only hardcore fans and stores are pre-ordering, and thus tend to do it regardless of a product’s general appeal, but it’s also possible that online sales have changed how the system reacts to demand. Regardless, the point is that knowing I pre-sold 40 copies of a book does nothing to tell me if it’ll sell 1,000 copies, 1,500 copies, or 3,000 copies.
A Kickstarter goes a long way to solving this problem. First, the number of Kickstarter backers a book gets almost always exceeds what it would have gotten in modern preorders, which helps replace the funding pre-orders used to give companies to do books. Also, it sets a floor for how many copies I need, helping narrow down print run sizes. Third, it seems to be a better tool for determining the overall success of a product. Both from my own experience and having spoken to numerous game companies and even retailers, books with more successful Kickstarters generally are also more successful in sales after the Kickstarter. That’s useful information to have.
- Failure Is Useful
It’s especially useful information for a game company when a Kickstarter fails to reach its funding goal. That’s frustrating, but it’s also crucial information. Game companies can be killed by a single massive failure in a book they printed. Numerous companies HAVE dies from a single big flop, though admittedly usually companies with other problems as well. But discovering a project can’t raise the minimum needed to finish it before you spend that money is a huge help. It allows game companies to take risks, which leads to innovation, because they have both a read on popularity and a source of income to do things that might cost more than their normal efforts. Discovering that something is a bad idea, or at least needs retooling, before spending all the development and print and shipping and warehousing costs for it is an enormous incentive to try riskier things. I believe that is both good for the industry overall, and for creative endeavors of specific companies and creators.
- It’s Good Advertising
There aren’t all that many great, affordable venues for reaching tens of thousands of potential customers in the tabletop industry anymore. At one time Dragon magazine had a circulation over 100,000 copies. While there are successful game magazines still running (Rite Publishing’s Pathways is amazingly steady and has affordable ad options – but again, I am biased as someone who works for Rite), none of them have anything like that reach. The closest I can think of with that kind of power is John Reyst’s d20pfsrd.com site, and numerous companies I know have made great use of it… to advertise Kickstarters.
I strongly suspect that one (admittedly of many) reasons pre-orders are down in the modern era is that there isn’t a “magazine of record” for RPGs and tabletop as a whole. Dragon was, at least for a good chunk of its existence, much more than a D&D magazine. I read reviews of and saw ads for many competing game systems in its pages, and nothing with that broad base appeal and vast reach seems to still exist.
A Kickstarter is an event, and it’s one that encourages word of mouth. Because of the structure of stretch goals, people already backing you have an incentive to tell their friends and get THEM to back you, so the end product is better. And it allows a game company to push advertising for a specific time period—the duration of the Kickstarter campaign, and know that those efforts pay off in terms of total product size and quality, and likely long-term sales.
- Speaking of Stretch Goals
If a Kickstarter goes crazy-popular, and the creator manages it properly (and yes, you can mishandle a Kickstarter as a creator, but that’s hardly a problem unique to the platform), you can discover demand for something is much higher than you thought. If you offer a campaign to fund a 32-page supplement on Halfling War Baking, and it turns out what the world really wants is a 160 page hardback full color book on the topic, it’s great to discover that while there’s time to value-size your project. Similarly done properly (again, which doesn’t always happen), a Kickstarter can also let you test the waters for supplements and related add-on products. A game company might well have no other way of getting this information, and thus customers might have no other change to indicate they want it. As a connection directly between creator and consumer, this is huge. Speaking of which:
- It Creates a Community
There are pros and cons to this one, on both sides, but having a venue where people who have put their money where their mouth is can speak directly to creators has a vast potential I think creators are still learning the right way to benefit from. For customers, being able to pledge $1 to be able to speak directly to the creator, in a venue where other customers can publicly see your opinion, has a strong potential for encouraging accountability. Or course it also creates a new potential for trolling, but you take the bad with the good in this case.
Creators can also ask question directly of the people already paying them, adjust a product based on popular feedback, explain their processes—it’s a weird combination of written seminars, ad space, and forums. At its worst, it can become a toxic pool, but so can most means of online communication. At its best it’s an open and creative forum of stakeholders in a developing project, and I think that benefit is both underappreciated and still developing.
Compared to entertainment option creators like movie studios and big novel publishing houses, even the largest tabletop RPG game creator is tiny. I think there is a strong benefit in having a new and interactive way for just folks who have proven their interest in a project get to interact with the creators of it to try to build bonds and (hopefully) earn trust and buy-in.
- Finally, From Folks Smarter Than Me
Monte Cook Games are great, smart folks, who do RPG Kickstaters well. Like, expert-level well. Since it’s a public post, I am going to link to a Facebook post of Shanna Germain, where she talks about and shows a post by Charles M. Ryan that speaks to “Why Kickstarter?” I think it’s well worth the read.
Speaking Of Online Funding Sites
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