Haunted by Kickstarter

Kickstarter games have changed.

According to Ignacy Trzewiczek of Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island fame, they have become that phenomenon which has, in business jargon, “disrupted” an industry:

I’ve talked with many publishers and KS creators in 2017. Without giving names and focusing rather on general trend rather than particular cases, there are more and more KS creators who no longer dream about getting their game to regular distribution. The format, the process we knew from previous years – do a successful KS, print games, and then hope to find the distributor to sign a deal.

The attitude here, in the wake of  the spiritual successor to the hit Robinson Crusoe, First Martians, not finding its audience as quickly or as readily as hoped, seems to be one of “fear.”

What hath Kickstarter wrought?

The Games You’ll Never Play

What indeed.

I’ve had my own 2017 ups and downs with Kickstarter. Several titles stand out in particular: Myth: Dark Frontier, Myth Journeyman, Too Many Bones Undertow,  7th Continent, and Gloomhaven.

Myth Dark Frontier is the best “tower defense” style game I’ve played, and I’ve been on the lookout for more entries in the genre, because I love that style video game so much. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to buy this.

The Myth titles have had a rather tortured path to release (particularly Journeyman),

Building a defensive structure in one of the possible endgame scenarios… I love the look of the board.

being stuck in a sort of limbo, pending a sale of the property to an undisclosed buyer. I did finally receive Dark Frontier, which I really love (despite a few card name errors).

The designers of Dark Frontier put their heart and soul into it, I feel, having played the game. It deserves better attention than it will ever get from reviewers and players.

But, playing the game is something you’ll likely not do unless you know a backer of the game willing to share or sell their copy. You see: the dream Trzewiczek identified turned out rather nightmarish for them:

We agree with you. We design cool games. We suck at the business part. The communication part. We see the changes in what a backer expects out of Kickstarter. […] As much as our games look like they come from a team of 20, they come from a team of 3.

And, as such, the team of three went on to seek a sale to a buyer who could manage the business end of things, so they could simply design games. And Dark Frontier was evidently not acquired as part of that deal, meaning it will enter a sort of Kickstarter graveyard.

But, it’s not alone in potentially following this path. Even though I remain dubious about this, a game as seemingly popular and well-received as 7th Continent has promised (threatened?) the following in its latest campaign:

[T]he cost of making such a game is so high that a retail version is almost unfeasible. However, we wanted to give you another opportunity to get your hands on it: your last chance… to get cursed.

I put in a dollar, and couldn’t quite afford my “last chance,” when the pledge manager (a sort of late purchase option) opened and closed. So it goes.

My take: With up to $249 in content that may never be seen on the primary market again, the 7th Continent campaign was a compelling, but pricey, offering.

I guess if you missed pledging, you’ll not get to experience the game. So, that makes one game that seems to support the Trzewiczek observation, and one game that seems to oppose it, by seeking actively to be acquired by the standard board game industry.

Too Many Bones is the result of another company, Chip Theory Games, trying to go it alone via Kickstarter. Same with Gloomhaven. But is this really the wave of the future? I hope not.

A Gamer’s Hope

Better Check your Game…

There are a few issues here: one is quality controlMyth Dark Frontier and the core Myth titles could, by the admission of the company, have stood to have some additional overhead in the form of a game company.

There are mistakes here that strike me as careless, in the proofreading department: like having a character level up into a class, and then putting an entirely different class name on the advanced level card. That was pretty glaring. Or not being able to decide if they’re fury or rage tokens for the same character. Just looking at the tokens and card while punching things out made me aware of that mistake.

Tom Vasel (although he is in the minority, in my informal survey) once criticized the art of Too Many Bones as less than professional quality.

Planned Obsolescence

Another concern is diminished access to games. 

Why should it be my last chance to get cursed? Yes, games go out of print, sell out, and are not reprinted in the mainstream gaming industry. But, this Kickstarter business feels more like planned obsolescence from the tech world than an organic expiration.

If you tell me that it’s my last chance, there’s some lizard-brain consumeristic panic that is triggered, making a pressured sales environment of a sort. Especially if reviewers are just raving about the game being so great, I feel like I might end up as that slow pony who didn’t back, and feel foolish.

I don’t know about everyone, but that’s not a frame of mind I want to be in when making an entertainment purchase. Nor do I want to tell everyone how great something is when they can actually never get it again. Like Myth Dark Frontier. I’ve hesitated to write a review here for it, because it would basically be a tribute to a game that you, Dear Reader, could likely never acquire. Why awaken an unfulfillable desire?

Plus, if your game has no afterlife with a reprint, another publisher, and so on, what sort of legacy is it going to have? It might simply be a flash in the pan instead of an evergreen title.

Delay of Game

The third area of concern for me is delay. Simply put, the game is not made when I back it. Some companies legitimately do not have the funds to print a game up front, ask for money after, and then deliver the game quicker, because it was already being produced prior to the Kickstarter.

Which means a wait. And, they might just forget Chinese New Year, during which factories shut down production. Or, they might just grossly underestimate how long it takes to produce the stretch goals, or how much it costs, or countless other business and timing aspects of their project.

The onus is really on the backer to determine whether the nearly inevitable delay, resulting in a typical wait time of a year or more, is worth it.

Will I still care after two years have passed, or will the retail world have caught up with the Kickstarter world and released something comparably interesting? It’s an open question.

Conclusion

As a backer, consumer, and gamer, I want access to games. I do not want the all-or-nothing pressure that sometimes accompanies Kickstarter, with its “but wait! There’s more!” promises of tons of content, expansions, and exclusivity. I may spend hundreds of dollars on a game and expansions over time, but offering it all up front is really intimidating, when I am not sure if I even like the game that much.

“Hate” makes some kind of sense as a game that is exclusive to Kickstarter, with a theme and content that is not for everyone. Other CMON games seem to pile on the exclusives, and make me wonder if I’m not missing 3/4 of a game if I get the non-KS edition…

That being said, I do love the room for innovation that is possible on Kickstarter. Some themes, mechanics, and games might not have been tried were it not for the crowdfunding platform. I can say with confidence that some of my favorite games have come from Kickstarter.

The Hype Train

All that to say, I do not think that Trzewiczek should be entirely afraid. I still play and enjoy Robinson Crusoe, and he has even noted that First Martians seems to be finding its footing after the hype train seemingly crashed.

The difference for retail vs. Kickstarter is that backers don’t necessarily find out the hype train has crashed against the realities of making a game until much later (just ask the Myth Journeyman backers, if you dare). Through traditional channels, a game is reviewed and makes it to retail pretty quickly thereafter, compared with Kickstarter.

With Kickstarter reviews/previews, there is just the intimation that this game is great, based on this prototype here, and I’m sure they’ll iron out the wrinkles. I think… Right, guys? Go back it!

That ambiguity, coupled with the other drawbacks outlined above, makes me believe that Kickstarters may triumph in the moment, but not endure the test of time unless their companies can find a way to make them readily available, after the crowdfunding campaign.

Is that possible? Absolutely. Are companies incentivized to make their games available after Kickstarter? Probably not, in most cases. And that is why I fear some great titles may head to an early grave, and not get the reception they deserve.

— Dave

Twitter: @ptboardgames

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