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Game Publishing, Kickstarter, and the Three-Act Structure of My Personal Movie

posted Oct 22, 2016, 1:32 AM by Douglas Sun

Whenever I complain about not having the money to finance a project, whether analog or digital, I am often advised, “Just do a Kickstarter.” Usually in a manner that implies that it’s the simplest and most obvious thing in the world, and I must be a stupid asshole for not hitting on it myself.

Of course, it’s not that simple. I found that out the hard way some years ago, when Bushi-go tried to Kickstarter Agiliste, our cyberpunk iOS/Android game. I recall that our target was $25,000. We got less than $100 in pledges, with the vast majority of that coming from my brother and a longtime friend (I passed the hat amongst my personal network, but only those two responded). Admittedly, this was before Kickstarter became a thing, and its membership and brand recognition were smaller then than now. But that failure remains one of the most profoundly humiliating things that has ever happened to me — and I am easily embarrassed, so that distinction means a lot — and it reverberates whenever I think of giving crowdfunding another try. 

In the intervening years, however, Kickstarter has integrated with the game industry for reasons that were way too logical to ever deny. As niche products, core hobby market games have always been an uncomfortable fit for a mass-market commercial model in which creators and publishers spend their time and money up front and count on a high volume of sales to eventually cover their costs and then some. The potential market is too small, thus increasing the up-front risk — especially in RPG publishing, which tends to be labor intensive (all those writers and layers of editing that no one except for WotC can really afford). Given that RPGs serve a small, but enthusiastic market, it make sense for publishers to use this modern-day patronage system — and make no mistake, crowdfunding is a demotic version of how wealthy aristocrats used to patronize the arts — to cover their up-front costs before publication.

It also allows board game designers to get their designs to market without having to court publishers and wait through their development and production process. For their part, publishers now scour successful Kickstarters for games behind which to throw their marketing muscle, in much the same way as how book publishers now look for undiscovered talent in self-published fiction instead of the manuscript slush pile.  The publisher gets some degree of certainty about how the market will react to a new product, while the indie designer gives up the burden of marketing his own work.For all kinds of products, it’s a system that panels out the risk in more manageable chunks.

So I guess it’s time to get past being butt-hurt over my earlier failure. I still have nightmarish premonitions that I will throw a Kickstarter and nobody will come. But maybe this is the end of Act II of my personal action movie and if I can overcome the inner obstacles that were set out in Act I, I can start climbing toward a happy ending in Act III.