(based on very rusty GCSE Latin, “The Money of the People is the Voice of God”)
Monopoly is a rubbish game. It often makes me sad that a lot of people think that’s what Board Gaming is.
Lots of other games aren’t rubbish, but they’re not for me. Rising Sun, a recent CMON Kickstarter, is a Diplomacy-style game of shifting alliances and careful negotiation for 3-5. Not playable with 2 (or 1), not cooperative, it was never going to be something for us.
That’s a shame – the Samurai + fantastical elements theme really caught my attention, and I monitored this one for a while, in the hope that they would announce some kind of variant / option that would bring it into scope. But they didn’t and I moved on.
(I will rely instead on a brief obsession with Legend of the Five Rings this summer autumn, poring over gorgeous artwork and lamenting the fact that I will never be able to afford to visit rural Japan, before that too gets abandoned like every other competitive LCG because I can’t get to down to the FLGS reliably enough to play regularly…) [/tangent]
Increasingly though, it seems like my approach to the campaign – watching hopefully, then resigning and moving on – is an unusual thing to do. More-and-more, the approach is to request, demand, or simply berate until a designer changes their mind to suit your tastes – or until you run out of energy and give up.
That process – which at best could be considered constructive feedback and collaboration, and at worst descends into entitled sulking and name-calling, is what I want to look at today. How does the creative process for a game on Kickstarter differ from any other game?
The thing about making a game through Kickstarter (or any other form of crowd-funding), is that you’re not just presenting people with a finished product, you’re asking them to invest in a concept.
Now for a good Kickstarter, that concept will be very well thought-out, extensively play-tested and soforth: having good gameplay videos, or a review copy in the hands of a well-known games-blogger are both major elements in ensuring the success of a Kickstarter. Still, the fact remains that you haven’t actually made it yet, and that gives people the impression that things are still up for grabs.
It’s also worth saying that (officially) people on Kickstarter aren’t just buying a game, they are investing in your idea – and that will give a lot of them the sense that they now have a right to tell you how to make your game.
Going back through the Rising Sun threads [On Board Game Geek – I lack the sanity to wade through 34k+ KS comments], I was actually surprised at how few there were clamouring for a co-op version, but there were still plenty of threads demanding 2-player options, less “racist” language and iconography (some in the game itself, but mostly in the marketing) more properly-dressed female figures, more mostly-undressed female figures and so on.
Obviously, looking at it from the outside, with a little bit of cold detachment, you can see how ridiculous it is for one person to cancel their $100 pledge as a protest at the way a $4.5 million project is being run – my personal favourite thread was this one.
I think there’s certainly a lot more chatter these days about any not-yet-released game, and how the fans think the designers should make it better, than there used to be. Still, it feels like Kickstarting a game gives people a sense that they have more of a right to tell you how to make your game to suit them.
Done right, the interaction between designer and backer can be a good channel for market research, and have some sensible benefits. For example the Aeon’s End: War Eternal campaign offered an add-on pack with dice to use as life-counters, and it seems to have largely been down to Kickstarter comments that these will now be spin-down dice (adjacent numbers next to each other). However, when you start to believe that $100 gives you the right to tell a company that their entire business model is wrong, it may be time to stop and think for a moment.
Investment or Pre-order?
Notionally, Kickstarter is still about investing in an idea – Creators pitch that idea to backers, and offer them bonuses for investing now and making that project happen, rather than waiting for retail.
In reality, the scope of what a project is, is a lot broader than that. At one end of the scale, Cool Mini Or Not are one of the biggest Kickstarter producers, and a lot of people have commented on the fact that a CMON Kickstarter can feel a lot more like a simple pre-order than like a proper project to back an otherwise infeasible project. You expect delays, but it would be a major shock if a CMON Kickstarter failed to deliver altogether.
If I pre-order a game from the FLGS, I don’t expect to be able to influence how that game comes packaged, or how it plays and, if that’s the case, I shouldn’t have any more expectation that I can do so when pre-ordering online.
But, however much it might look, or feel like that, a Kickstarter project is still (officially) not just a pre-order, even when it’s a $4 million project with a projected delivery time-frame of only 3 months (looking at you Gloomhaven). In that context, people are always going to ask for additional things they want.
Behind the Scenes?
Most big Kickstarter projects these days will have a fairly complex marketing strategy, designed to ensure a strong start, retain interest over the course of the campaign, and hopefully generate a last-minute surge. This will lead to a broad sprinkling of updates and stretch goals, with information being held back and released at strategic moments.
One issue with this limited flow of information, is that it makes it very difficult to say with certainty what was prepared before the campaign began, and what was only added late in the day, as a response to ongoing feedback – was stretch goal #10 really a response to what people were clamouring for? Or just a happy opportunity for the creator to add a bit of spin, when announcing something that they had had planned all along.
Zombicide: Green Horde had a mammoth campaign, which finished recently in dramatic fashion, breaking the $5 million barrier with 2 minutes left!! Unlike previous editions of Zombicide, Green Horde features hedges and barricades – some hedges printed on the terrain boards, and a handful more represented by cardboard tokens that can be added as a scenario requires. The offer of a hedge-and-barrier pack to make these 3D was clearly planned all along. When people then clamoured for the opportunity to buy more hedges (without extra barriers), so that they could replace all the hedges, (not just the token ones) with 3D models, I’m prepared to believe that CMON genuinely did re-think their plans, and offer more of the same components in a slightly different arrangement.
By contrast, from very early on, there were lots of people who wanted a crossover pack to use their Green Horde figures in Massive Darkness – sure enough it was unveiled in the final week of the campaign, prompting a little surge in pledges. That doesn’t mean for a moment that I think CMON didn’t have it planned all along, just a lot of experience in how to manage people’s interest in a KS campaign.
The point where I start to suspect that they may actually be making things up as they go along is when they announce new figures and don’t have sculpts ready for them – the 3D renders of the Ultimate Survivors in the Green Horde campaign hint at that for me, and ”Reptisaurians” (Lizard-men) from Massive Darkness came as concept art only – now they really look like something put together at the last moment.
“Your chance to get involved!”
One area where it does seem easier to prove that the community are influencing the final product is when campaigns contain backer competitions: to take another recent example, the Aeon’s End: War Eternal campaign featured Board Game Geek competitions to name one card, and to write the flavour text for another. Now, obviously these are fairly minor (and crucially non-mechanical) tweaks to the game, but they do serve to foster a greater sense of involvement among backers.
Inviting comment is a double-edged sword though: for one thing, a lot of people were fairly disappointed with the outcome of some of these contests, especially as the creators seemed to simply pick their favourite from amongst the various suggestions, rather than allowing a public vote, or even basing their decision on the number of Likes and positive comments. At this point the cynic starts to wonder: was that a real member of the public who posted the winning suggestion? Or a fake account from the creators to ensure that they didn’t have to change anything as a result of their own competition (just to clarify, I don’t think that’s what happened here).
Ultimately, the more Creators try to engage backers in the project, the more they open themselves up to criticism when they don’t change their game to suit the whims of the public. For every clever little fix the backers suggest, they can expect a whole handful of crackpot suggestions to re-design the game to do something completely different, to replace the components with Obsidian, or translate it into Klingon (not the same game – if they were replacing the components with Obsidian, then you would translate into Cardassian. Obviously.)
I think it’s also worth remembering that in all of these types of forums, it tends to be a vocal minority who do most of the commenting – this can lead to situations, where a dozen or so people clamour for something, and generate the impression of an irresistible tide of feeling, when 95% of people are happy with things as they are, and are just keeping quiet about it. Green Horde had over 100,000 comments by the time the campaign was over, but it wouldn’t surprise me for a moment to learn that at least half of those comments came from a dozen or so people. This is certainly my sense of what happened with Aeon’s End: the graphic design on the first edition was fine, but the people who liked it didn’t feel the need to post endless threads on BGG and the like demanding it be kept the same (why would you?) in this context, those who pressed for change would have sounded like an overwhelming majority.
I think that listening to backers has the potential to be a great resource for Game Designers and Creators. However, mob rule is only going to get you an incoherent or perennially delayed game, and there must come a point where they know their own mind, and know when to stick with their decisions.
Like most backers, whilst I recognise that KS projects are not there to suit my every whim, I generally wish that communication was more frequent, and clearer. Even there though, Creators have better things to do than report on design and development events in minute detail, and sometimes a silence is just a silence.
That’s about all I wanted to touch on today, and it brings me to the end of this little mini-series on Kickstarter. I’m sure it’s an area I’ll touch on again, probably around the autumn, by which time (hopefully) I’ll actually have my hands on some of the various games I’ve backed.