Kickstarter… Considered Harmful?

Justin Halliday, over on google+, posted a link to an opinion piece by Ross Winn asking “Is Kickstarter bad for RPGs?

First, I’m going to answer “No”.  I think Kickstarter is great for RPGs.

Looking over the stated reasons why, let me respond to key elements of each.

My first point is that retail distribution and sales have been problematic for many companies. There are many reasons for this. Retail is an expensive and capital intensive business. Quality employees are expensive to hire and maintain. The OGL phenomenon has lead to a wild proliferation of products. The major publishers have set tighter guidelines. Distribution has shaved margins past the point of profitability. However retail has always been the soul of our hobby.
I have spoken before about how I first started to play in Lincoln Nebraska at Merlin and Mary Hayes original Hobbytown. In the last twenty years I’ve been buying at Emerald City in Seminole Florida. For decades the retail store has been the center of our communities . It was where we bought our games, where we learned about new games, and where we discussed the finer points of the hobby. Without the stores and their commitment to us we would have been adrift without any support.
Kickstarter removes the retail component and redirects that profit to the publisher. On the surface this is a boon for many publishers in the short term, but each dollar of profit removed from the retail channel intensifies the crisis that exists in the retail space today. Quality retailers deserve our support and removing these products creates a death spiral of shrinking margins and closing stores.

To summarize:

Retail operations are expensive and difficult.  For decades — for practical purposes, ‘since before the Internet’ — the FLGS was our only real support as customers.  Kickstarter threatens their existence.

I can’t argue that is unfactual.  Indeed, it is consistent with my own experience from long ago, and I imagine the impact to retailers exists.

However!  I cannot say it is wrong.  As with any industry, technology shifts necessitate changes to business models.  The music and video industries are (struggling to find a way to) deal with the loss of the distribution channels formerly known as ‘brick and mortar’ stores.  This is something that happens, and weirdly enough… increases profit for the producers.

Do I want to support retail stores?  Or more or less directly support Fred Hicks, or Chris Tregenza, or Ben Gerber, or Robin Laws, or Jamie Chambers, or Dave Howell (twice!), or Joshuha Owen and Charles Jaimet, or Sage LaTorra, or Steve Russell, or Andy Kitkowski, or Devin Night, or Nathanael Cole, or Eloy Lasantaall of whom I interact with, at at least some level?  If I have to pick, it’s not that hard.

Admittedly, I’ve only had a beer with one of those (thanks Charles!), but I’ve never had a FLGS buy me a beer at all, so it’s still in favor of actual people.

As for learning about new games… for me that has been almost entirely when fellow gamers bring something new to the table (often learned about online) or ‘online gamers’ bring my attention to it and I research it online.

There was a time when the FLGS was my primary source of information about New Stuff, but they were incredibly limited compared to have I have online today.  Today I find I am the one telling them about new stuff and asking if they can bring it in for me… and that includes relatively major small press stuff.

Similarly, my primary source of good conversation for… well, almost 20 years now, has been online.  Originally USENET in, then various IRC channels, some web forums (which I still don’t like, despite having one of my own over at my Echelon site), most lately on google+ (that massive time sucker).  Never in the FLGS have I had the opportunity to get into detailed examination and discussion of any games.

Second, Kickstarter promotes bad business models. When I say this many people are going to be angry. I’m sorry, just hear me out. Being a game publisher is hard, you have to wear many hats, you need to write, you need to edit, you need to sell, you need a diverse skill set, and you have to raise capital. This unique blend of components creates a level of excellence. Marginal games with limited appeal don’t get made, and in my mind they probably shouldn’t.

This I have to disagree with for a couple of reasons.

First, ‘marginal games with limited appeal’ are where actually interesting stuff is found.  If the market constrains itself to mainstream games with broad appeal you’re looking at an diminishingly small set of possibilities.

Marginal games with limited appeal may not be commercially successful, but it’s the weird stuff that eventually leads to greatness, and that does deserve to exist.  Even if there’s only ever a print run of two hundred that fades into legend.

Come to that, even with the gatekeepers the “level of excellence” is not always very high.  I have seen people give away material better than I could see from ‘established publishers’ whose primary advantage was having capital, since the contents of the many hats was evidently not very high grade.

Not to name names; if you’ve known me long enough you know who I mean.

Finally Kickstarter is bad for the hobby because it excludes new players. This is related to the retail question and the Indie game publisher question because it affects our industry not just today but also tomorrow. Our greatest evangelists have always been the game store professionals and independent publishers that go out into the community and bring new customers into the fold. RPGs are sadly dying as computer games and social media give all of the utility of the table top experience without leaving your home. While I am not a luddite and understand that the wider world is not going back, working from inside the hobby to destroy these paradigms is not replacing them.

I’m curious about how the author feels Kickstarter excludes new players. It doesn’t prevent word of mouth and learning from existing players.  It doesn’t prevent learning about games online (and in fact, often accelerates the dissemination of information online).  It does potentially limit knowledge of the product in retail locations before it hits the streets… but in a more conventional distribution mechanism the product might or might not be known to the retail customer before release anyway.

If anything, I think Kickstarter projects encourage word of mouth advertising, especially when set up so backers gain more by spreading the word — the Reaper Miniatures kickstarter did this remarkably well, Fate Core isn’t chasing this as nearly as hard as they could, The Reliquary and several others have.

(Admission: I am evidently a carrier; when I find Cool Stuff on Kickstarter I spread the word, whether I back it or not.  And I sometimes point out projects I find worrisome, but that doesn’t happen so much any more.)

I have rarely seen ‘game store professionals’ go out and bring in new customers.  The closest I have seen to that is at local cons where they are either sponsors or vendors… and you’re probably not going to a local con unless you are already familiar with the local stores.  Independent publishers, on the other hand, are well served indeed by Kickstarter.

All in all, I really can’t bring myself to agree with the initial assumption and assertion that the FLGS is the critical part here.  There was a time when the FLGS was a critical delivery mechanism, and an important part of the information path regarding games, I won’t argue that it wasn’t these things… but I contend that the FLGS is now a potentially convenient delivery mechanism (if they have the product in stock) and no longer an important part of the information path regarding games.

I find it difficult to agree with his recommendations, also.

One, set a goal and stop. Capital is hard to come by these days and Kickstarter offers a fantastic way to raise money from like-minded individuals and gauge the market. So if you need ten thousand dollars to print your product, acquire art, or advertise by all means use this tool. You should also stop funding when you reach your goals and use that capital to support the retail and distribution network.

I disagree on both parts, though the first is a risk to be managed.  If you find that your market is larger than you expected you might find yourself in trouble (good luck, Fred!  I don’t think you expected Fate Core to go this big…), but there are worse problems than discovering you have more potential win than expected.

As for “use that capital to support the retail and distribution network”, this appears to assume that they are critical to publisher and customer success… which I am not convinced is true.

Two, make your products valuable to the retailer. If you offer collectible patches, special editions, and promotional t-shirts turn those products into SKUs and sell them through the retail and distribution channel as well. You can do a special color or designation for early adopters, but you don’t have to cut those channels out of the process.

This is inconsistent.  “Don’t offer stuff just to backers, but offer stuff just to backers”.

Explain why the retailers — who do not risk anything unless they are backers — deserve the same rewards as people who back, and I might agree.  “Because they are retailers!” is not a sufficient answer.

Three, change your idea when you fail. If your Kickstarter fails to reach your goal solicit and use criticism that can improve your game and make it saleable. If it fails again than it wasn’t meant to be.

Ah, finally something I can agree with!  If it doesn’t work, find something else to try.

Of course, this is how you should go about dealing with failure.

I really can’t agree with the thesis.  Kickstarter does have some issues regarding RPG projects, but “doesn’t support retailers” [which they often do] is not one of them.


  1. Nik

    Yeah, this seems like the argument goes “Kickstarters level the playing field and allow smaller or more niche products a different mode of promotion and distribution, which is bad because only larger developers and brick-and-mortar retailers deserve success”.

    And since you already mentioned the Reaper Bones Kickstarter, it might be worthwhile to point out that Reaper specifically had at least one tier *specifically for retailer benefit*, with a larger number of minis total, in the form of multiple duplicate sets, intended for resale.

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