On the subject of Kickstarters…
So, here we are. Second post of the blog, and I might as well make a deep, personal confession. I mean, why not? That’s what people are here for, isn’t it? Cyberstalking strangers on the electronic ether, you might as well have something juicy to talk about in hushed whispers the next day, right?
Here it is: I’m a Kickstarter addict.
I love Kickstarters. I browse them obsessively, listening to the breathless promises of the designers as they try to justify squeezing out just a little more money to reach the next stretch goal. And almost as good are the tearful apologies when they delay the shipment another month because they hadn’t anticipated actually having to fulfill these absolutely unreasonable additions brought on by gloriously overfunding their projects to the point that they may not be able to actually get the products to their supporters without bankrupting themselves. They get caught up in the night’s sins and revels, only to wake up blearily in the harsh light of day, their underwear on backwards and the hard edges of the park bench digging into their ribs as they struggle to figure out where they are and how they managed to get there in the first place.
It’s a beautiful thing. It really is.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve funded close to twenty Kickstarter projects. Overall, that’s close to $2,000 that I’ve put out, and in the process, I’ve only gotten delivery of five and a half of these. (The half is something that I’m actually okay with, being that I already got the half of the pledge that I was looking forward to; the other half is stuff I added on to my initial pledge and knew that I would be getting later on anyway. More on this when it comes up as a blog post later.)
So, yeah. I’ve put out a sizable stack of money, and only about a third of that money has come back to me in the form of physical products. (It helps that the two most expensive products delivered.) And numbers-wise, I’ve gotten about a third of the things I went after. And yet, I’m considering another $700 within the next month. The only reasonable explanation is addiction.
A good portion of this weird disconnect lies with the fact that, of all the projects I’ve put funding in for, only one of these Kickstarters is not an RPG book.
In a lot of ways, Kickstarter may end up being the one thing that saves tabletop RPG’s from dying an ugly death. And they’re busily hammering nails into the coffin as they do it.
See, here’s the thing:
The Gaming Industry, as a money making entity, is awful. There are clear outliers, like Wizards of the Coast and Paizo, who manage to far outstrip industry standards and run profits in the multi-million dollar range, but they are the exceptions rather than the rule. For everyone else, it’s a labor of love that’s supported by a rabid fanbase and little else. Gaming books are word-intensive, art-intensive, and fucking well heavy, making them expensive to create, lay out, and ship. The profits on most of them are relatively thin, even if it’s a mainstay of the industry as a whole. (One only needs look as far as Chaosium to have this driven home.)
Kickstarter helps turn this around. Instead of over-producing a line of books that’s going to get remaindered when the game line sinks, they can offer up a premium edition, judge what sort of interest there is in a given product, and pay for the cost of actually getting the book to market. And once they’ve managed to ship the Premium Kickstarter Edition, all they have to do is print out smaller lots of the Normal Edition, now that the cost of writing, art and lay out has been taken care of. And with any amount of luck, the guys that funded the Kickstarter will have talked up the book to the point that all of their friends want to lay their hands on their own copies.
There’s a catch in this whole process, though. The model that I’ve just talked about requires that the game company do one very simple thing; namely, they have to actually print up the books to sell once the Kickstarter Edition has been dealt with. If that doesn’t happen…
And this is where I start pointing fingers.
The most egregious abuser of Kickstarter is White Wolf. Or more accurately, the company that’s publishing the books based on the properties that used to belong to White Wolf, which goes by the name of Onyx Path.
There’s a long, complicated history to The Death of White Wolf As We Know It, which I figure I shall go into more depth about when I get around to talking about the Onyx Path Kickstarters. For the time being, know this: In a lot of ways, Kickstarter is the only way that they can continue to publish White Wolf products. Which would be fine, if they actually ‘published’ the damned books.
And this is where I’m drawing a line in the sand, as far as the company is concerned. See, what Onyx Path does (in addition to their many other sins) is rely on Print On Demand (POD, as it is known) books for anyone who doesn’t go in on their Kickstarter projects. This is a truly awful business practice for a number of reasons.
1.) POD books suck. There’s no nice way to put it. Drive Thru RPG pretty much holds a monopoly on the market, and their quality is shit. (And there goes my dreams of having Drive Thru sponsor me. Alas.) I have POD books from fifteen years ago that are of equivalent quality (sticky ink, mediocre binding, poor grey scale, non-bleed lay out), when this was new and exciting technology. I have the feeling that books done through Lulu are higher quality, but given that none of the books I tend to buy are through Lulu, there’s no way for me to easily compare.
2.) POD books are always at full price, unless they’re used or similarly aftermarket. Yeah, I’m sure that I could troll Drive Thru for sales, but in all honesty, it’s not worth my time. I maintain a library, and it’s not worth my while to buy every single book at MSRP. If the book I want isn’t at the price I want it when it comes up, there’s a good chance that I’m going to opt out for a different book instead. Yeah, it might be nice to pick up that new supplement, but if I can get two new main books for the same price, I’ll go with those. At best, I’m likely to go through eBay or local used book stores on the off-chance that I find that particular book.
3.) POD books kill gaming shops.
I’m going to let that one sit alone for a moment, just for the sake of emphasis.
Because POD books are direct between the printer and the consumer, there’s no route through distributors like Alliance. And without being stocked by Alliance, most gaming shops won’t stock it. (There was a brief tempest back in the early days of Magic, where Wizards tried to circumvent the distributors. The gaming shops fought back, since the lack of Magic sales through the distributor would threaten the existence of the distributor, which would then blow back upon them.) And if the gaming shops won’t stock it, it’s lost from casual gaming.
And I’ll cop to it; there aren’t a lot of gaming shops where I live right now. It happens. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t important to the ecology of gaming in general. Yeah, sure… we’re in the Internet Age, and I personally do a lot of my purchasing through websites. I’m also possessed of a credit card, an independent income, and I no longer rely on the gaming shops for my social life. I am not a young gamer, just starting out in the hobby, who has gotten in through card games or board games and is looking for something a little … deeper.
Gaming shops cater to new gamers. They stock dice and minis and a scattering of the latest RPG’s to browse. They have the old neckbeard behind the counter who can offer up lengthy opinions about why this game is the best thing since air and that game doesn’t deserve shelf space. They have racks and sales and incentives, and when it’s all said and done with, the gaming shop allows you to consider your purchase before you commit.
Maybe this is the closeted grognard within me speaking, but without gaming shops in the environment, there’s every chance that the bright-eyed middle school student with summer job earnings will end up tossing their money at whatever new video game is immediately handy.
And yeah… POD killing game shops is the extreme end of the spectrum. It’s really only a problem if the entire industry went in that direction, but at the same time, it means that no casual gamer has access to books that only show up in POD format.
The long and short of it is that, insofar as White Wolf is concerned, Kickstarter is the only real way that they can manage to put out new products. But it also means that their days of expanding their audience is gone, since only the illuminated know to purchase their products. It’s sort of the Freemasonry of Gaming, as that goes.