The Doom That Came to Kickstarter

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The Doom That Came to Atlantic City
The Doom That Came to Atlantic City prototype which I played last year. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

Chuck Lawton’s post about how Kickstarter is broken really made me stop to think about the way I, as a blogger, approach Kickstarter projects. When I reviewed The Doom That Came to Atlantic City last year, I treated it the way I approached most Kickstarter board games. That is, I judged it mostly on the gameplay and the artwork that I’d seen, not on any examination of the project’s business plan. I’d communicated mostly with Keith Baker (the game designer) and Lee Moyer (the artist), but hadn’t had any direct interactions with Erik Chevalier, the project owner (and the one who was ultimately responsible for the Kickstarter project).

I sat down and played a prototype, with the understanding that the artwork was representative but not necessarily final. The miniatures we used while playing were from other games, not final versions. Nothing was production quality, but that was expected. At the time, it seemed like a fair enough way to evaluate a board game—I was glad that with board games you can get a good feel for how a game actually will function, despite the quality of the homemade prototypes. (This is unlike most video games or manufactured products or, for that matter, movies and books.)

However, I generally didn’t take into account the project creator’s ability to get the promised goods manufactured and shipped with the amount of money they were charging. I’d say that’s because it’s the backer’s responsibility, but that’s not entirely true. It’s mostly because it just hadn’t occurred to me. Many of the projects I back (and write about) are from people I’ve never heard of before. That’s the nature of Kickstarter—it’s for people who have a cool idea but don’t already have a method of producing it. It’s what allows indie designers to succeed without relying on the gatekeepers of traditional publishers.

But, of course, traditional publishers have a few things going for them, not least of which is knowledge about printing and delivering a game: how much it costs, how long it takes, the format for graphics files, the fees for international shipping. For everyone who’s publishing a game for the very first time, none of this is a given. In many cases, you don’t even know how much you don’t know.

So far in the projects for which I’ve received final products, there have been fairly few that I’ve been unhappy with. Sure, there are delays, but I’ve backed enough projects that I just automatically assume they’re going to be delivered late. Some are extremely late—maybe they’ll show up one day, or maybe we’ll get an update like Erik Chevalier’s where they finally admit that it’s just not going to happen. The number of projects that I’ve written off as losses is a pretty small percentage.

I’ll continue to back projects as my time and budget allow. Yes, there are some projects that have been significantly delayed. My longest waits so far completed funding in May and June of 2011, with no signs of deliverables yet. Why do I continue to pay for the privilege of waiting for a product that may not live up to its expectations? Well, it’s because I still like the concept of people trying new things, of bringing ideas into reality, of making mistakes and learning from them. I like to support the dream—however ridiculous it may seem—that you can get a foothold in an industry in which you have nearly no experience. If we only supported projects that we knew would succeed, that would be a sad state of affairs.

But the news this week—along with this other board game project that is allegedly a fraud—has made me stop and think about how I should cover Kickstarter projects. The truth is, sometimes it’s hard to know whether a project creator has the business skills to match their creative idea. Sometimes stretch goals do make sense—and sometimes they’re just adding on more expense that hasn’t been accounted for. If I have to do due diligence before I can write about what seems like a fun board game or a clever documentary project, then I can guarantee that I won’t have the time to cover Kickstarter projects in the future. (Aside from the fact that, short of doing some serious snooping, I’d probably still have to rely on the project creator’s word for it.)

I can’t pretend that I have no responsibility at all in the matter. I currently have a few other Kickstarter projects that I’ve been preparing to review, and I’ll probably be adding another section about the business end of things if I have relevant information. But, like I said, for a lot of projects, that’s going to be a big unknown—it’s up to you to decide whether to treat that uncertainty as an opportunity or a warning flag.

One final note about The Doom That Came to Atlantic City: As Chuck mentioned already, game designer Keith Baker’s response is posted here on his blog. He and artist Lee Moyer are working on reformatting the game to make it available to backers as a print and play—not what they were envisioning from the start, but they’re doing what they can to provide something that backers can still play. Perhaps someday the Doom will come to Atlantic City, but for the immediate future this will have to do.

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