This Kickstarter Project Isn’t For You

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Penny Arcade launched their second Kickstarter project yesterday (third if you count Paint the Line), this time for their Downloadable Content podcast, which was a huge fan favorite. Judging from the pitch video, PA seems to have thought that DLC would become obsolete once they launched PATV in 2010, but this has not been the case. Fans clamor about it at conventions, and I myself even felt compelled to write two separate emails to Gabe and Tycho, once in 2008 and again in 2010. I backed before I could even watch the video—I knew what this was from the title alone, and I knew it was something I wanted. This was a project for me.

As of writing, they’ve raised close to $60,000. But there has been an intense backlash from a number of different sides.

As with Zach Braff’s new movie, “Wish I Was Here,” and as with a lot of projects started by folks who are famous (and perceived to have deep, deep pockets), some wonder why they even need Kickstarter. PA has a ton of cash lying around, right? Just use that, you fuckers! That’s one part of the backlash.

But others have focused their fury on the goal of the project, which was only $10. Take, for example, this backer who pledged $1 just to have the privilege of yelling at the team in the comments section:

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I love that he’s threatening to withdraw that single dollar. That just kills me. Not that dollar?! How will they make the podcast without that one lousy dollar that you’re going waste on a Three Musketeers bar later today?

I was a little surprised by how low the goal was, but to be honest, I didn’t care. I was too excited at the prospect of enjoying new podcasts on jogs and drives to think about it all that much. They do mention how the money is going to be used (equipment, salary for editor, etc), and I’ve been following these guys for over five years now and have watched them run hugely successful gaming conventions on different sides of the country (and soon on a different continent), start a goddamn television station, revolutionize the critical coverage of video games, and raise millions of dollars for sick children: I know that PA has the ability to execute a project like this.

But then I started to see Robert Khoo’s tweets in response to the backlash, which is when I had to jump into the conversation.

I’m sure my opinion on this issue is already pretty apparent, but I want to take a moment not only to explain why the haters are wrong but also to examine why they are reacting the way they are, and why that’s a really, really good thing for Kickstarter in the long run.

The first thing to note (and this is important) is that Kickstarter has only two guidelines. Here are quotes from the website:

Everything on Kickstarter must be a project. A project is something with a clear end, like making an album, a film, or a new game. A project will eventually be completed, and something will be produced as a result.

Every project on Kickstarter must fit into one of our categories. Our categories are Art, Comics, Dance, Design, Fashion, Film, Food, Games, Music, Photography, Publishing, Technology, and Theater.

There are, of course, a few other restrictions (notably, things that you can’t make projects for, rewards you can’t offer, and certain limitations on types and quantities of rewards), but these are the two main commandments that form the core identity of what Kickstarter projects are and how the site functions.

One commonly used term for a type of project that is not allowed is a “fund my life” project. This prevents projects that would, for example, let people raise money for tuition or bills. This is a little tricky since it often gets interpreted to mean that you can’t use Kickstarter funds to cover the salary of project creators or to make a profit. (This is going to come up again later.)

In my opinion, the first Penny Arcade project walked a fine line between a Kickstarter project and a “fund my life” project. They wanted to raise money to make the Penny Arcade website ad-free for a year. They had a number of stretch goals that added certain more project-y things to the project (one of these is the Strip Search television show), but the bulk of the project already existed (the web comic and the website itself); they just needed the money to run it without ads.

But as with the podcast, I didn’t really care. I didn’t back it as quickly or as fervently as I did the podcast—it took me a day or two to come around and pick a lower level reward tier, although I did briefly dream of having Jerry read one of my manuscripts (one of the higher levels)—but I did eventually support it.

The podcast was a stretch goal of the first project that was not reached, but it became clear as they moved forward that it made more sense for DLC to be a Kickstarter project on its own. And it is a more tangible project, in my opinion. It doesn’t really exist. (It used to, but there are plenty of projects that aim to revive something, whether it be a genre or an actual item.) It will be completed, and something will be produced as a result. So you might expect that this project would be received more favorably than their first, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

I think I’ve already laid out a pretty good case for why DLC is a project. That’s not a big deal. I think I’ve also made a pretty good case for why the goal doesn’t matter: Goals are important in Kickstarter projects because they are inextricably linked with a creator’s credibility and ability to complete the project. A project with a low goal doesn’t have as high stakes as a project with a much higher goal; no one is going to lose all that much money.

Penny Arcade has the credibility and the talent to pull this off, and most importantly, they know they have the audience and the demand for it. It doesn’t matter what they set the goal to be because they know they want to do it and they know they’ll be able to pull it off no matter how high the funding level goes.

And here’s the killer point: It makes economic sense for them to do it this way. Rather than trying to estimate and guess what their audience wants and build something that may or may not fit that demand, they can use Kickstarter to get a sense of how big and badass to make the podcast and not waste money making it bigger (or smaller) than it needs to be. (Making it too small would lose them money that they could have earned.)

If this were a no name group wanting to start a podcast (or some assholes who wanted $50,000 to go to Japan), I’d expect them to spend more time telling us how they’ll use the money, but it’s PA, so I don’t. The goal is moot.

And now we get to the really fun part of this post. Why are people reacting this way? What is it about Kickstarter that makes people become so violently opinionated? Why have I spent an afternoon writing over 2300 words about this phenomenon when I should be revising the stories in my MFA thesis?

Here’s the answer: Everyone wants ownership, and Kickstarter projects provide it.

People don’t just want an adventure game. They want to follow its creation and influence decisions. They want to be able to hold on to that insider feeling they get as they become part of the process because it makes them feel good. Having control feels good. Knowing that your decisions matter feels good. Affecting important things for the better (as you see it) feels good.

And this extends beyond individual projects to the entirety of the Kickstarter site. Once you’ve created your individual conception of what “Kickstarter” should be (and often this happens the minute you back your first project), you want to be able to affect things. That sense of control is addicting and powerful and is the whole reason why the site is viable in the first place. This is why you see so many people getting outraged when they see a project that doesn’t fit into their personal definition of what Kickstarter should be.

And I know that Kickstarter employees think about this kind of thing, too.

Back in March I attended the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference in Boston. Kickstarter moderated a panel entitled “How to Build a Successful Kickstarter Campaign for Your Publishing Project,” and they held a happy hour later that evening. I’m basically obsessed with Kickstarter and had a great time talking with them. I had a lot of questions, but the two I was most interested in were 1) Why is the front page designed the way it is? (i.e. Why is there no easy way to see an unaggregated list of Kickstarter projects?) and 2) What do you think about the large million dollar projects?

It was a really interesting moment to talk with the company: Torment: Tides of Numenara had just started and set a new record for the fastest million (which would be broken a few days later by the Veronica Mars movie). Basically, big game projects had matured and big movie projects were about to get started.

The first question they didn’t really answer directly, although it became clear that they see Kickstarter as “curated” whereas something like Indiegogo is not. There is an aesthetic to Kickstarter projects that they would like to promote, although they did seem interested when I mentioned presentation was the one thing I would change about the site. (I’d like to see a fuller representation of projects.) As for the large projects, they said that they often prefer the smaller, more creative projects. Projects with very small funding periods, like a few days or a week as opposed to a month. I think this includes projects with very small goals as well. They are open to all sorts of projects. In both cases, their answers to my questions showed that Kickstarter employees are thinking deeply about what the company is and how it should work: There is a malleable, changing sense of ownership of Kickstarter even at the highest levels.

This creativity shows in the types of projects on Kickstarter if you look hard enough. When I got into an argument about Penny Arcade yesterday on Twitter, I used Andrew Nicholls’ projects to show how small projects could work:

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He’s turning 50 this year and to celebrate he wants to paint 50 paintings. It took him a while to find the right business model (he’s got a couple unsuccessful projects), but the one that finally worked had a goal of only 12GBP (the cost of a single portrait and shipping). This is perfect for him: It lets him respond to demand for portraits. In order to get closer to 50 total paintings, he started another project for paintings of pets. The goal was 44GBP. He could have afforded the goal himself, but he didn’t have the audience. Kickstarter helped him find it.

A slightly different example is Max Temkin’s Werewolf Kickstarter project:

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His goal was only $200, and he raised over $40,000. He only offered a single reward—the game itself for $10. Clearly he could have afforded the $200 “goal” without Kickstarter, but Kickstarter is a powerful platform for connecting audiences who appreciate creative creators with the creators themselves. Temkin clearly had some sort of audience (or more savvy to connect with them than Nicholls did), and this was a way to make the sale. True, Penny Arcade is working on a much larger and more commercial scale than Temkin and his very simple, elegant project, but in the end it amounts to the same thing: They both wanted to make something, to make it the best they could, and to get their product into the hands of the most people possible.

There is no single archetypal Kickstarter project, and this is a good thing. Haters need to realize that either 1) this project isn’t for them or 2) they have an unreasonable sense of ownership of Kickstarter.

Zach Braff has a new interview in which he discusses this first point. He basically tells the haters to fuck off: If you didn’t like Garden State, then his project probably isn’t for you. You don’t own it (or Kickstarter), and you don’t get to decide. But if you liked it and Scrubs and his other work, you might have a lot of fun going along on the ride and enjoying a limited sense of ownership of the project. The project itself (updates posts, etc.) is valuable content for the right audience. I know this is certainly true for the Double Fine Adventure and I’m hoping it will be for the Penny Arcade podcast.

The second point is one of the reasons Kickstarter has been so successful: They’ve found an amazing mix of creation, commercialism, and presentation. People are going to get involved in this Kickstarter thing and want to be part of it. In short, they care. They care how people are using the site, whether they are profiting from it, what kinds of things are getting created, how their investments are being used, etc. This is great for the website.

My personal opinion of Kickstarter has changed over time. Initially I was very hesitant to see money used to pay for salaries and I thought that every project should be a labor of love, but I’ve started to think this is unreasonable. Now, I look mostly for reasonability. Is it a reasonable project? Is the goal reasonable? Will they be able to complete it in a reasonable manner? Are the rewards priced reasonably? Is there a reasonable value in it for the backers? This is my own sense of Kickstarter, but I recognize that it may shift.

I’ve read in places that people think Kickstarter will last until the next thing comes along, but I’m not sure I believe it. I think what Kickstarter is will evolve and projects will continue to creatively work within (and to stretch) the two main guidelines (and additional restrictions), but I think it’s around for a while. Independent creators have known about the site for a while. Game studios discovered it last year. Movie studios are discovering it as we speak. What will be next?

So for those of you hating on the Penny Arcade project, just note that this Kickstarter project isn’t for you. I was really happy to see the following comment, from a backer who has a very flexible sense of ownership:

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6 thoughts on “This Kickstarter Project Isn’t For You

  1. I have too many things to say about this post to fit into a comment. I could probably write two or three full posts on it. But the overall point is that I think people (myself included) kind of want some things to be against the terms of service, or at least for people to have a little more moral standing to appropriately use a platform. I think the Werewolf game is a perfect example. Could he have made that game without the $200 goal? As you’ve said, yes – and that’s exactly why the project didn’t belong on Kickstarter in the first place. The purpose of Kickstarter is to give people the money they need to get a project off the ground. That’s why there’s a funding goal in the first place – you’re saying “this is how much money I need to make this happen”. But Kickstarter doesn’t explicitly hold you to that idea, which is why some people (like, I think, yourself?) point out that it’s not REALLY against the terms of service, so it’s fine.
    So can you bend those arguably unwritten rules to get preorders for your product when you already have the resources to make it happen? Sure, but I will never support it, and will always think you’re a piece of shit for doing it. Being an asshole isn’t illegal, true, but it’s still being an asshole.
    Maybe there needs to be a preorder type site – though it probably already exists – but I don’t see that as an excuse to use Kickstarter as one in the mean time, for the same reason I don’t think you should start a charity to fund a $200 medical bill that you already paid with no problem. Sure, those people gave their money freely, technically for the cause, but that’s just not what a charity is for.

    Oh, and this: “Everyone wants ownership, and Kickstarter projects provide it.”

    Is a complete farce. But I’ll get to that on my own blog. 😉

    • Clearly we disagree, and that’s fine, as I’ve mentioned I think KS is supposed to be flexible, and I think KS employees are still experimenting with the site. Check out this project, for example, which is being run by a KS employee: http://kck.st/11Wdf3R

      I think Werewolf and the artist and Penny Arcade all DO need KS, they just don’t need it for the *goal* that they’ve set. $10, 12GBP, $200, these are all do-able in terms of sheer cost, but it gets really difficult (probably impossible) to set a line for what is feasible and what’s not. Say Temkin had set his goal at $20,000. Would that have made it more acceptable? Really he just wanted to promote a cause (simplified Werewolf) no matter whether it was small or large. Or if PA had been more up front and set a goal of $35,000, would that have made it better?

      I think that KS recognizes that it’s impossible to set a specific definition of “need” for a project, so instead they focus on defining what the projects themselves should be and then regulate the content on the site by aggregating it into a display that picks out projects that are of a certain type – through staff picks and popular items, they can focus on projects that are likely to succeed and projects that meet their aesthetic.

      Your expectations also have difficulty accounting for projects that are surprisingly popular. (I wonder what Temkin thought he would make.) And if you really think about it, most projects that end up getting funded are “taking preorders” in the long run. It reminds me of the Marauders project which I wrote about: https://kickwhat.wordpress.com/2012/09/28/free-board-game/ I feel like you and Winchester would probably fall on the other side of the fence with this one, and even I’m a little iffy about it, but I think it is a pretty creative use of KS.

    • Oh, also, I hope that you didn’t think I meant literal ownership. I realize that’s not what KS is for. I do think it provides a *sense* of ownership, being involved. That’s how I meant it.

    • Every time virtually anybody (except the author of the lengthy article above) uses the phrase that mentions “the purpose of Kickstarter”, I just cringe. Look, the purpose (or purposes) for which Kickstarter exists is explained in great detail in the “What is Kickstarter?” section of their website, and it has nothing to do with the ridiculous and puritanical restrictions on project acceptability that many seem to think it does, either in spirit or in letter. It is a service that is meant to provide a new way to connect content creators/project proponents and the audiences or customers who want them to make the things they want to make. Penny Arcade has, I think, explained to DEATH that they are trying to experiment using this platform to see if they can find a way to have that direct support relationship with their readership, instead of relying upon advertisers for money to make the things that their fans want them to make.

      Daniel, thanks for trying to explain what is going in (what I thought) was a pretty rational and fair way. It is just astonishing that people seem to think that they are in tune with the TRUE, MORAL purposes to which Kickstarter can be put, when they are really talking about what THEY think Kickstarter SHOULD BE, instead of talking about what IT IN FACT IS. And what it is is pretty broad, and encompasses the broad notion of changing how fans and content creators link together to bring content to life. If you don’t like what Penny Arcade is doing, the only sensible response is that it’s not for you – taking some imaginary moral highground just seems silly, indulgent, uninformed, and unimaginative.

      I mean hey, if these people are so against the legitimate uses of Kickstarter, maybe they should Kickstart their own rival platform/service? If this isn’t their thing, there’s nobody stopping them from making exactly what they want somewhere else…and if so many people are with them on this, it should be a rousing success!

      • Ha, thanks for the nice note. And that’s a brilliant idea – Kickstarting a new Kickstarter!

  2. Pingback: Massive Updates + Japanese Kickstarter? | Kick WHAT?

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