Kickstarter Takes the Reigns

Kickstarter responded to the fervor surrounding commercial Kickstarter projects (naming Veronica Mars and Zach Braff in particular) on their blog today. Here’s the money quote:

We’re a tool available to anyone (in the US and UK, currently) to fund and build a community around their creative project. Big or small, established or indie, serious or fun.

I think this is in line with what I wrote yesterday, which is basically that Kickstarter is flexible and it’s a medium of sorts. “Tool” is the word that they use specifically. I can dig it.

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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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Journey Across Failure: Don’t Be an Asshole

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These “Journey Across Kanto” guys want $50,000 to send three guys to Japan so they can pretend to be real life Pokemon trainers. I see a couple things wrong with their plans and pitch:

  • Nowhere in the pitch video or on the project page do they demonstrate their ability to produce a documentary. We get voiceover on top of some smoothly edited Pokemon footage (which they probably don’t have a license to use). It just makes me want to ask the Samuel L. Jackson question: “Who the fuck are these assholes?
  • No budget breakdown. $50,000 seems insane, but let’s see how it might breakdown. Let’s estimate $5000 for airfare (roughly $1500 x 3 + tax), maybe $2000 for equipment (a camera and mic), another $3000 for production afterward (this is a total guess…I have no idea what it would really cost), which would leave $40,000 for travel costs in Japan, which would be $267/person/day for 50 days in Japan. That seems like a reasonable per diem, to be honest. Japan is an expensive place. So their budget is okay, but it does show the one HUGE flaw in their plans:
  • They are asking for everything and the kitchen sink. I don’t see any investment on their part. I feel like a project like this could work if they were more conservative with their request. If, for example, they were to ask Kickstarter to provide airfare alone ($5000, as mentioned above) and to cover the rest of the costs themselves, I feel like they would come across as more realistic, more invested and therefore more credible and persuasive. Instead, they are asking for everything and (in my humble opinion) seem like giant assholes.

The lesson: Don’t be an asshole. Think hard about your funding goal and strive to see it from a random reader’s perspective. Asking for too large a goal will only make you seem like a jerk.

Storyville – I’ve got a Kickstarter running!

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I’ve been helping a University of New Orleans professor plan a Kickstarter to fund a new collaboration between the creative nonfiction writing program at UNO and WWNO public radio, the local NPR affiliate. We launched today! The name of the project is Storyville – Voices from the University of New Orleans. We’d really appreciate your support. Let me know what you think of our pitch!

Focus Grouping

Bill Simmons of Grantland and ESPN hates focus groups. He has a theory that they create a lowest common denominator of sorts that eliminates all originality from TV shows; there are too many voices in the kitchen which erases the unique vision a single, auteur-like presence can have over a piece of artwork.

Video games are clearly different, since they take so many different people to make, but I can’t help but be disappointed by the latest crappy addition to Torment: Tides of Numenara. Behold, the Castoff’s Labyrinth:

fathomsAre you as underwhelmed as I am? Not only does this look like it was airbrushed on by a stoned college student, it’s a hackneyed copy of Project Eternity‘s Endless Paths:

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Obsidian created the Endless Paths as a way to reward backers for Facebook likes and overall number of backers. Clearly this was an original idea–a true first–and one that was planned and executed extremely well. The art is pristine, and I clearly remember thinking “There’s a DUDE made in the rock?” and looking forward to seeing the next layer revealed.

The Castoff’s Labyrinth, on the other hand, is a complete piece of shit, one that was not planned and came in response to backers. Earlier today I commented on a Facebook post for the latest edition of the Labyrinth and mentioned this opinion but was quickly replied to by a fanboy who wrote the following:

Its not a ripoff – its a similar concept, yes, but one specifically requested by the backers.

This comment got four likes–Fanboys Unite! Kickstarter really can bring out the best in originality but it can also guide new projects into the same paths traveled by others. I’m very disappointed by inExile here. I’m confident that the game will be strong, but I’m now certain that Project Eternity will be better.

Torment: Tides of Numenara — you’ve been focus grouped.

Genuine Kickstarter Creativity

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After Andrew Nicholls’ first two Kickstarter projects failed, he was determined to create one that would get funded – the title of the project explains it all: “Project #1 Your portrait painted in a simple and naive style.”

The goal was 12 pounds, and he’s raised 220, which is 1833% of the original goal. Kicktraq suggests he is trending toward 10,000% of his goal. I won’t be supporting this project, but it is very much in the creative spirit of Kickstarter, and I think it’s fantastic. It’s not some new device that a commercial interest has invested a lot of time and money into; it’s a simple project that allows an artist to indulge in his passion and to connect with an appreciative audience. Bravo, Mr. Nicholls!

Which makes me wonder if there’s a way I could use as simple an approach on Kickstarter to fund the writing of a blog…

Kickstarter Competition: Beer Edition

It’s always interesting to see how different products compete with each other over Kickstarter. I wrote about the playing cards phenomenon at Caffeineforge, and I’m planning on looking more closely at the wristwatch madness that seems to have boomed in the past few months. I also noticed Sunski and Enclave Eyewear go at it a little when Enclave launched shortly after or near the end of the Sunski campaign with an equally impressive pitch for nice sunglasses that don’t break the bank.

In terms of competition, the playing cards aren’t really targeting the same group of consumers (since they focus on the content of the art rather than the playing cards themselves, although clearly there is a small group of card maniacs—the middle of the Venn diagram). The sunglasses do. The watches might be as well, and I’m curious to see how projects fail or succeed. I’m sure this will reveal some of the same things as the playing cards: projects with well thought out pitches, a reasonable reward structure, and a focus on the uniqueness of their deck/watch will succeed more than those that lack these.

But in the past two days, two very niche beer products have been released. Yesterday, I noticed the The TapIt Cap: The beer growler’s best friend and was pretty impressed with the idea and the pitch:

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Basically, it’s a universal cap that will fit the ubiquitous glass growler and help keep beer fresh by providing a layer of CO2 on top of super fresh beer. The pitch video is very professional although maybe a bit long. Based solely on my common sense, $80,000 seems like a lot to ask for, although they have clearly invested a lot in the project and probably need that amount to get the real deal created. The biggest downside of this project is that the video doesn’t feature the actual finished version of the product, which will eliminate the hose and put at tap on top of the cap rather than connected via a hose. I wonder if this isn’t a result of the Kickstarter prohibition of “product simulations” and “photorealistic product renderings.”

And just a few hours ago, another impressive beer project launched. The Perfect Beer Drinking Vessel and Private Keg! product “Drink Tanks” is a stainless steel beer growler that can be fitted with a tapping system very similar to the TapIt cap:

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I was excited to catch this project early as the first 200 growlers are only $35, not a bad deal at all; in comparison, I bought my brother a decent vacuum-sealed stainless steel growler for $50 two Christmases ago. You can opt to add the cap for $30, which is less than the $40 the TapIt cap is asking for their product. The pitch here is very professional, and although the video is a minute longer than the TapIt cap video, it doesn’t feel that way – fewer folks talking for long periods of time. Their goal is also $50,000 LESS than the TapIt cap—$30,000 feels reachable, and it’s clear that they’ve invested quite a bit of money in the project already. Several of the rewards are for multiple units, which seems to go against the Kickstarter guidelines that requires that rewards be one item or one SET (e.g. a set of blocks, a set of salt and pepper shakers), but I feel like Kickstarter added that requirement to provide a way to easily reject projects whose only purpose is to get rid of pre-existing inventory (i.e. not creating something new); if a project is reasonable about the number of items in a reward, they seem to be allowing it on a case by case basis. This is something I can get on board with.

My prediction: Drink Tanks gets funded but the TapIt cap does not. It’s really unfortunate that these projects launched so close together. TapIt cap has made 14% of it’s goal in one day, which bodes well, but I wonder if some backers will opt to pull their funding and pony up an additional $25 or $35 (depending on where in the first 200-400 customers they choose to fund) to get a growler along with their CO2 sealing cap. I think the biggest thing in Drink Tanks’ favor is their lower funding goal. $50,000 is a lot of money for projects that aren’t able to offer much in terms of boutique reward levels.