Tavis Allison Talks About Kickstarter

edited April 2013 in Game Design Help
Kickstarter is a game, like many things in life. How do you manage a successful Kickstarter project? And by "successful" I mean making people happy, yourself and backers both.

Tavis Allison will now talk about Kickstarter in this thread. I think he has a specific thing he wants to talk about, so I will leave it to him. Tavis has experience with several kickstarter projects now, including both the kind that went very well and the kind he has had to rescue, against all odds, from what seemed like certain doom. He is eminently qualified to teach y'all a thing or two about the game that is crowdfunding games.

His current project is in the midst of funding, so expect some collateral pimpage. Please remember that food, family, and rent are more important than kickstarter rewards, and pledge responsibly.


  • Oh man I also tried to start this thread. It is the "Risks and Challenges" one. Maybe they can be merged somehow.
  • edited April 2013
    Thanks for the intro! This thread was inspired by silby saying that my current KS, Domains at War, "has the most thoughtful, humble, and useful "Risks and Challenges" section I've seen so far." For more background, go read that; it's an attempt to distill wisdom coming from "one part having sat down with Luke Crane wearing his Games Community Manager hat; one part experience with writing informed consent for research documents in my day job; and one part humbling and useful prior experiences with Kickstarter spurring me to approach a new one thoughtfully."

    The analogy of crowdfunding as a game is a good one. Specifically, it's a RPG, not chess or a eurogame. (When I'm feeling all 21st century, I think of it as Freemarket, or Papers and Paychecks when taking it too seriously would drive me nuts.) What I mean by that is:

    1) Your character matters. It's not like Monopoly where the strategy is the same whether you've got the thimble or the racecar. Let's get the pimpage out of the way by establishing our example characters. Adventures on Dungeon Planet is a fantastic game/supplement by Johnstone that you can buy now and get a PDF with illustrations and layout right away. Domains at War is a fantastic game/supplement by Alex Macris that you can Kickstart now and play using the text-only download while we use the KS funds to do illustration and layout. Both of these are good approaches, depending on your character's goals.

    Doing a Kickstarter is like playing a game like Traveller or Runequest where your character starts out in debt. You have a relationship map with obligations connecting you to some large number of backers, and the bang is "what did you promise them and now how will you deliver it?" At some point in the ensuing scenario, the appeal of a game where you start in a tavern with a blank slate is likely to become evident.

    When contemplating publishing a game it often seems like money is the hurdle, but really it's finishing it that counts. Having the text written (the part that's easiest to do without a financial investment) before going any further is a good safeguard against problems with completion, which become really dire once you've taken people's money. Developing a game during the KS campaign, like we did with Adventurer Conqueror King, is a great way to make sure you're meeting the needs of your audience, because KS backers become a very invested community and giving them input into the development is a mutually beneficial way to meet some of your obligations. But there are other ways to do that without taking on the same obligations, as Dungeon World and its progeny like Adventures on Dungeon Planet demonstrate.

    Because a KS involves this complex relationship map, one of the essential character traits is a willingness to communicate openly and as equals. Creators who are private people, or who want their writing to speak for itself, are going to be better served by a traditional publishing arrangement. There are plenty of other reasons to choose that over crowdfunding, which I'll leave for follow-up comments so I can get to the other way it's not like chess. The point here is that a key section of an informed consent document (the post-Nuremburg thing you have people sign before becoming a subject in a research study) is Alternatives to Participation, and that applies to creators too; it's important to make an informed choice to do KS as opposed to the alternatives.

    2) The rules are all house-rules, subject to change during the course of play. Domains at War was the first Kickstarter I did that required a Risks and Challenges section, which still seems a little half-baked; the minimal formatting tools you can use for the sales pitch part aren't provided, meaning that talking about this stuff in much detail is going to be a stark wall of text. In writing that I was reminded that when we launched Dwimmermount and the ACKS Player's Companion, the terms of service provided no guidance about refunds, and when we launched the original ACKS KS you weren't even required to give an estimated delivery date. The platform is certainly still evolving, with growing pains like the recent advice about taxes.

    I think the rules you can count on are:
    1) you've formed a contract with backers; the KS pitch is a promise to them that has to be lived up to
    2) the rules governing this contract are more about the gift economy than the law; it's the relationship that matters.
  • I think that despite our different methods, we really have the same goal, which is to build a relationship with a community and a customer base.

    The D@W "Risks and Challenges" is almost the opposite of advertising, in that it actively works to stop people from buying the game. And that's because neither of us want customers who don't actually want the product -- they are a hassle to deal with, they're a constant source of bad publicity for multiple reasons, and they're unlikely to become repeat customers. Since none of us are going to get rich off of one book (not even if that one book is Dungeon World)* it's actually really good business to target only the people who are going to enjoy your work/products/output and to build a relationship with them so that you can continue to sell them your work over a long period of time.

    Interestingly enough, I first learned about reputations, honesty, and trust from working in construction. It could be because it was all private clients, but every aspect of business I could see on a daily basis was all about relationships. You got work based on who your knew and the quality of your work, how timely your delivery of the work was, and how well you communicated with the people who payed you for it. Publishing to small audiences in this day and age isn't much different, really, in principle at least.

    *(And also Monte Cook's kickstarter included multiple books).
  • The D@W "Risks and Challenges" is almost the opposite of advertising, in that it actively works to stop people from buying the game.
    After a disheartening (though not dissatisfying) experience with another kickstarter, that section actually makes me more likely to back.
  • I particularly admired the notes on redundant personnel -- I think that's one of the huge risks that people don't internalize. It's a major difference between an indie project and a big company project. Highlighting both the problem and what you've done about it makes me happier about pledging (haven't yet, will get around to it at some point).
  • Johnstone, I was interested to hear Luke say that Kickstarter sees itself as participating in a process of community education. I think that includes creators and backers learning from their mistakes, which may lead to deciding not to use Kickstarter if it isn't right for them. As you say, this is a good thing. Joe Kushner has a post where he talks about what he looks for in Kickstarters which is, for me, a list of things I want to provide to people like him who won't be happy Kickstarter users, including retail availability (slowly improving for Autarch) and a free PDF with the print copy (something we've always offered through Bits & Mortar etc., although we could probably do a better job of letting people know about it).

    timonkey, it's good to hear that attention to things that could go wrong improves your confidence in a project. Could you talk more about "disheartening"? I think that this might touch on one of the things that's implicit in the social contract between backers and creators, but don't want to jump to conclusions.

    Bryant, established companies have a better ability to provide for redundancy ang generally weather crisis, but have to answer the question "why do you need Kickstarter if you're already established?" For some backers, helping an indie become established is part of the appeal. I think this is another thing that should be addressed by every project. Big companies should explain why they're choosing crowdfunding over the "you start in a tavern" freedom, and indies should make it clear that having more responsibility on fewer shoulders creates greater risk as well as greater "helping the little guy make it big" reward.
  • timonkey, it's good to hear that attention to things that could go wrong improves your confidence in a project. Could you talk more about "disheartening"? I think that this might touch on one of the things that's implicit in the social contract between backers and creators, but don't want to jump to conclusions.
    There are two aspects. The first is fairly inherent to kickstarter: the end product is not looking like what I was expecting. Some of this may be me dreaming it to be exactly what I wanted it to be. Some of it is definitely having different aesthetic tastes than others. I'm totally cool with this, because I signed on for the risk of that by being a backer.

    The other is delivery date. There was an estimated delivery date which is getting towards a year ago and I still don't have my stuff.
  • edited April 2013
    I do not want to jump ahead of Tavis's statements, but I have seen his "character" encounter a particularly unfortunate trap in the world of Kickstarter (this trap exists in the real world too, of course).

    In general: do not give strangers your money. If you do give them your money, make sure you have a way to get it back. Kickstarter's methods of recovering funds appear flimsy, so if you are a donor, be careful.

    IN particular: If you are a Kickstarter creator-person, as Tavis says, you begin the "game" legally in debt to your backers. If your project cannot be completed without the aid of a sub-contractor, it is CRITICAL that you retain the power to meet your legal obligations even if this person flakes out.

    I am not your lawyer because you have not paid me any money, plus I do not want you as a client because you're asking Tavis, of all people, for wisdom. However, in terms of general advice which doesn't create any legal relationship between us: Some ways to protect yourself from flaky sub-contractors include but aren't limited to:

    (a) holding the sub-contractor's money in escrow until his or her contribution has been completed, and that if this person fails to meet certain benchmarks the money reverts to you so you can, if necessary, repay irate backers. Without knowing the details of your project or the relationship with the sub-contractor, this is often a very convenient approach. The money is still there, y'all can both see it, and if crazy shit happens you can pay off your debt.

    b) having the sub-contractor indemnify you for any losses or debts attributable to his or her failure to materially perform - this approach kind of sucks since if the guy is gonna flake out in the first place, he is less likely to pay you back.

    (c) arranging for the sub-contractor to assume all debts associated with the project, basically by stepping into your shoes in the Kickstarter contract. This is like being indemnified, in the sense that ultimately the sub-contractor is going to pay up, but in the indemnification scenario you're the man in the middle and here you are completely written out, with the creditors now having a legal relationshwith directly with the sub-contractor. The trouble is that this amounts to a very serious change to the agreement the creditors entered into, and your ability to do this will vary by state law.

    But in general your very best way to protect yourself is to draft a really robust contract that spells out exactly what you are going to do, exactly what this person is going to do, and furthermore spells out the consequences if this fails to happen.

    Moral: in Kickstarter, as in Dungeons & Dragons, always ask yourself: "What is the worst that can happen?"
  • Are kickstarters (terminology?) legally obligated to either fulfill rewards or refund money? I thought they weren't.
  • Technically, no. When submitting a kickstarter the site does make you click a box saying that you are responsible for reward fulfillment (this does not add legal responsibility though) and they added the risks section precisely so backers understand that campaigns have bumps in the road, etc.

    That said, the social contract involved in a kickstarter, the expectations of the parties involved are very clearly laid out. But yeah, the legal issues above don't really apply.
  • edited April 2013
    Moral: in Kickstarter, as in Dungeons & Dragons, always ask yourself: "What is the worst that can happen?"
    Ooh, ooh, I know this one: Rocks fall, everyone dies!

    Except the DM Kickstarter, who still gets to eat all the snacks.
  • Are kickstarters (terminology?) legally obligated to either fulfill rewards or refund money? I thought they weren't.
    So let me see if the iPad knows how to format this chunk of text:

    Is a creator legally obligated to fulfill the promises of their project
    Yes. Kickstarter's Terms of Use require creators to fulfill all rewards of their project or refund any backer whose reward they do not or cannot fulfill. (This is what creators see before they launch.) We crafted these terms to create a legal requirement for creators to follow through on their projects, and to give backers a recourse if they don't. We hope that backers will consider using this provision only in cases where they feel that a creator has not made a good faith effort to complete the project and fulfill.

    From http://www.kickstarter.com/help/faq/kickstarter basics

    Even if that disclaimer isn't enough, if you take someone else's money on the premise that you're gonna do something, if you are sincere about that, you have very probably incurred some legal responsibility to follow through. If you are insincere about your promise, you have very probably defrauded someone (which carries a whole separate set of problems - including possible federal criminal charges).
  • That hasn't been tested in court yet, though, has it?
  • edited April 2013
    Huh, so that's changed. The box I had to check when submitting my kickstarter had no mention of legal ramifications, reputation. I'm all for adding weight and responsibility to the decision of launching a kickstarter though.

    Looks like the testing has already begun: Why this jilted kickstarter backer decided to sue and why he was right
    Another article about it: When Kickstarter Investors Want Their Money Back

    So there is precedent now for future legal action.
  • Heh, any legal cases for how AAA companies sell games that are essentially in beta stage (or even alpha). Or do they get away with it while the small indies the ones to face legal ramifications?
  • I'll be doing an Ask Me Anything on Reddit's r/rpg community this Saturday, May 4th at 3 pm Eastern Daylight Time and expect to field some questions about Kickstarter there; I'll post the link a little before it starts and hope to see some of y'all there!
  • The AMA is live at this link!
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