I’m a huge fan of Kickstarter. I’ve been following it almost since its beginning. The first project I backed was Diaspora back in 2010. The first project I wrote about was Christopher Salmon’s animated short film based on a Neil Gaiman short story called The Price. I’ve even ran my own Kickstarter project to get my wife’s illustrated novel, The Circus and the Cyclone, self-published. As a platform for enabling people to get creative projects funded without traditional investment, Kickstarter is amazing. But the platform is broken, and we’re all to blame.
The Doom That Came To Atlantic City is a project by Erik Chevalier. It’s a board game that at first glance looks like a mashup of H. P. Lovecraft and Monopoly. His Kickstarter ended on June 6, 2012, after raising $122,874 on a goal of $35,000. His project page featured pictures of a polished-looking prototype board and featured game design and art by Lee Moyer, Keith Baker and Paul Komoda. Plenty of stretch goals helped encourage more backers at higher levels, and photos of pewter miniatures and great art gave an impression that this game was all but ready to go to manufacturing. All it needed was a few backers’ help to make the dream come true.
That’s the narrative of most Kickstarter projects, right? A creative person has a great idea and needs your help to see it come to life. In fact, that is the whole reason for Kickstarter’s creation in the first place! And what do you get in exchange for backing a project? One of the many rewards these projects offer, and the rewards must be related to the project itself. Making a film? Back and get a download of that film when it’s done. Or maybe a prop from the set! Or get to meet the cast and crew. Or become an extra in the production! That’s pretty much how it works.
Except when it doesn’t.
Project owners have a responsibility to understand what they’re getting into. They need to do the research on what it will cost to produce and deliver their project’s rewards at all of the backer levels. They need to budget for delays, material cost increases and unexpected shipping costs. If they’re not manufacturing and shipping themselves, they need to reach out to manufacturers and get estimates and lead times, and communicate that to their potential backers before the project launches. They need to be cautious with stretch goals, understand how they truly impact the costs, delay delivery and how they are effectively scope creep. And if they’re fortunate to get their project fully funded, they need to continue to communicate how things are going, where the money is being spent and if they expect to deliver their rewards on time. It’s part of the trust that is supposed to exist between the project owner and their backers.
But backers need to understand their role as well. Kickstarter is not a pre-order platform. It’s not like seeing a pre-release DVD on Amazon and reserving a copy. Backers should only back a project that they feel is a worthwhile endeavor, if only to see the project creator realize their dreams. You might not ever receive your reward, and you need to be OK with that. It’s an investment in the project creator’s idea. Rewards are icing on the cake, and there is no guarantee you will actually receive your reward.
But Kickstarter has gotten all backwards recently. To this day, I still don’t understand why the Pebble Smartwatch, Ouya or the Veronica Mars Movie Project, the top three projects with the most funds raised, had to be funded through Kickstarter. They’re all commercial ventures using Kickstarter as a primarily a marketing platform that allows pre-orders. And with their ability to get secondary funding, their visibility changes the discussion about what Kickstarter as a platform is, and how safe it is for backers.
Which brings me back to The Doom That Came to Atlantic City. A year after raising nearly $125,000, Chevalier posted an update to his project page saying the game is cancelled, the money is gone, and there are no rewards to send out to people. He says to publish the game he quit his job, relocated to Portland and founded a game company. But there came a time that he had to make a decision saying, “the money was approaching a point of no return. We had to print at that point or never. Unfortunately that wasn’t in the cards for a variety of reasons.” No one is happy about it, and a lot of backers are filing fraud charges against Mr. Chevalier. In a subsequent update to his Kickstarter page, he says he is working with the Oregon Department of Justice to be proactive, open and transparent.
But in reality, this project should never have been funded in the first place. Chevalier never listed who was manufacturing the game, how long it would take to produce or what the risks were. He never explained where the money was going in his pitch video or his description, so the news here that he was relocating and starting a company, presumably using those same raised funds, probably comes as a surprise. He also launched without quotes from manufacturing companies, as he outlined in an update, explaining that the pewter pieces couldn’t be made. He lastly had a crazy amount of stretch goals and reward tiers that required their own extra manufacturing: stickers, t-shirts, art prints, canvas prints and permutations of all of these based on how much extra money they raised.
But backers kept forking it over, ignorant of the faults in this campaign. We’ve all been lulled into complacency about pre-ordering via Kickstarter. We cease to scrutinize, cease to ask questions of the project owner and fail to recognize that there is no guarantee with Kickstarter. From their own FAQ, Kickstarter states that they “do not guarantee projects or investigate a creator’s ability to complete their project. On Kickstarter, backers (you!) ultimately decide the validity and worthiness of a project by whether they decide to fund it.”
Kickstarter has been taking steps recently to help coach backers to be accountable. They now require estimated delivery dates and a rundown of risks on each project. So if in a project’s FAQ you read, “I’ve already received quotes based on my prototype and manufacturers are ready to take my order as soon as I can give them a final quantity. I’ve spoken with USPS about how to best ship my project in the quantities I’m expecting, and feel I have budgeted for both the amount of money and time required to deliver your rewards successfully,” maybe you’re OK. But if it sounds like the owner doesn’t know what they’re doing, no matter how cool the project, don’t back if getting the reward is that important to you.
Maybe that means there are less successful Kickstarter projects out there. Maybe we’ll get less crazy stretch goals. Maybe there will be fewer $100,000+ projects too. But maybe creators will get smart about how to run a campaign, and hopefully backers will begin to scrutinize better and be a little more cautious with their money. Because without the trust between project owners and backers, having this platform is pretty meaningless.