Sunday, 6 January 2013

Tunnels & Trolls kickstarter achieves goal + own thoughts

One of the nice things about not mentioning Kickstarters in this blog is that when I'm looking through news-feeds and blog rolls is that I can literally ignore two-thirds of the messages and just concentrate on discussion about games past and current, new releases and so on.

No Kickstarters, no Indiegogos - it's a great little filter.  Try it sometime - or maybe you already do.

However, I cannot avoid acknowledging most new developments in the universe of Tunnels &Trolls...

It's edifying to see the quieter, but vibrant,  T&T communities see its heroes ride back into the limelight and action with 8th Edition Kickstarter attaining well over it's goal of $26,000 (USD, that's £16,000 in GBP) -with a month to go before the deadline.  By the time you read this, that goal may yet be a small percentage of the final figure pledged.  Congratulations are due to Flying Buffalo and everyone involved for putting together packages that their pledgers really want.

I want to see the T&T brand and communities thrive, but I just still have mixed feelings for Kickstarters which ask for multiple thousands of dollars in the be-all and end-all of projects.  My beef is with Kickstarter culture in general, not with T&T ? Flying Buffalo. 
I think a lot of my hesitation about Kickstarters is that we just haven't access to them in the UK -at least not as long as the American and Canadians have.  Since I'm a big fan of print-on-demand books and low cost PDFs, and am try to sell a few things myself, whilst taking the odd commission for art and royalties for co-operative products, my concept of revenue, costs and profit is at odds with the figures I see proposed by Kickstarters.  In my other life I work in the voluntary sector (in mental health support) and I have an arts degree. Friends and colleagues have occasionally bidded and filled in huge application forms with tiny amounts of funding.  I am no stranger to the notion of raising money for a noble cause, so in a way I'd probably approve of crowd-funding projects if they were purely employed to enrich communities with art, climbing frames, gardens and baby units for example.  (It has been pointed out to me whoever that Kickstarters are usually business based, and so the communal charity examples don't really apply here)

No one can deny Kickstarters are a great way of spreading news of a company or possible product, but are Kickstarters really appropriate in the capital hungry market place when there are often other means?  Is this really as good for the customers/players/pledgers/fans as it first appears?

As per usual, assuming that only a couple of folks are party to my status updates (because I'm a bit naive leke that), I was muttering generalisations on Facebook about how this seemed like a lot of money for a translate-and-reprint of the French edition (on Lulu) with some maps, coins and postcards and promises of online community support... You get the idea - a bit dismissive and very generalised.

To her credit, Liz Danforth herself (T&T editor, artist and celebrity in denial) came on and defended the T&T Kickstarter:

Liz Danforth:
We expect it to be a lot more than a tweak of the French edition (though we thought that would be the case when we first imagined doing this). Ken is doing a top to bottom rewrite. The fact that we got funded means we'll be doing more content for stretch goals. A LOT more content. 

Truth is, this enables us to DO this project. Some businesses can do their works and sell them, and that's great. Steve and I, in particular, work daily to make our bills -- that's what being a freelancer means. FBInc can't afford to pay us ahead of time, and we can't afford to do it on a maybe it'll pay off later. Kickstarter is, genuinely, the community coming together and voting with dollars to make something pretty special happen that simply could not happen otherwise, or at best years from now and much less nicely.

The changing world of the direct connection between makers and consumers means the makers all get told "Find a different business model." We are.

It's certainly a business model that a lot of RPG publishers are adopting.  In the case of Flying Buffalo Inc, here's a company that has had better times (perhaps in the RPG heyday of the 70s and 80s), but are loans and overdrafts not an option anymore? I totally understand the need to maintain career level wages, and as the KS description points out printing and production processes are cheaper now (although what was meant by that was that a higher quality product can now be created, which is fair enough).  I've never been involved in venture capital, or finding "silent partners" in companies, but I'm guessing that crowdfunding is much more why accessible of raising revenue in advance in the absence of a bank loan or credit in these Recession skin-to-rib-thin times.
Right at this moment, small publishers compete with established brands for funding.  This sounds like a good thing - this is what the internet does best.   But in some ways for the small publishers will be losing out to famous projects - perhaps it might be worse than in an open marketplace.  In this case, currently, Flying Buffalo is similar to a small indie publisher - it's just the brand is well known - I certainly doubt they have fallback security that larger companies like Paizo and WotC/Hasbro have.  I'm pretty sure that Paizo's Kickstarters are mainly about franchise publicity under the guise of community involvement.  I'm not convinced that Paizo need crowd-funding to push ahead with anything that they perceive as sustainable, but maybe they're just saying - "hey, join the party". 

The cynical voice and entrepreneur in me, also doesn't believe that when a Kickstarter fails that the publisher will drop the project idea entirely.  If you believe in something enough to put your head above that parapet to rally backers, can you really walk away from the idea when the deadline arrives and you're only half pledged?   This project will end, but I believe the product will return, a lot sooner than later.  Remember that a failed Kickstarter is a marketing opportunity as the creative individual laments the destruction of a possible roleplaying utopia.  Who will save beautiful Krypton, now?

With RPG rulebooks, how do I know that what I paying for will be any less special than another, possiblycheaper, publication in a few months time?  Pledgers are probably fairly wise to this, and as if often pointed out to me, many perks are often truly exclusive.  In a world of collector's markets, hand-crafting, Ebay, Etsy, limited print runs, celebrity signings at conventions - those unique touches added as perks (coins, postcards, credit mentions) are very much the norm in fan/hobby markets.  Naturally we often want to see a product get released and "out there" - and we accept that the might be part of movement to establish a product in a larger marketplace - much in the way that when you buy the first edition of an RPG rulebook that it is to be expected that a revised playtested version with better illustrations may be out next year. (Glances, briefly at his own copies of Starships and Spacemen and Stars Without Number - both totally superseding by revised publications, perhaps due to popularity)  Exclusivity and limited edition collectability seem to be a big part of Kickstarter/Indiego projects. 

This aside, sometimes projects can be presented in a way that implies that this is the last chance for the creation of a special product.  If no-one is interested the company claims that it will move on, but it will be a terrible shame etc.  If you don't pledge now, will the thought of unborn universes torture you forever more? If you walk away, are you wishing doom upon your idols?  By not being involved, did you just kill the best-RPG-idea ever? 

I don't think so. 

If it's a publication - it'll be back, even if it just reappears as a text-only Kindle book, yours for dollar in two Julys time.  Of course, if the kickstarter has pledgers receiving hand knitted dice bags as well as holographic DM's screens, then you probably are taking part in a once-in-a-lifetime offer.  Pledge that $250 before Tuesday.  No, really...

It's really good to read, in Danforth's reply, that Tunnels & Trolls pledgers are paying for a full rewrite of the rules - but hopefully not too different in terms of game mechanics (...must resist mentioning ... DnD4e ...).  However, there's this chicken and egg part.  If something isn't "ready to roll" it's hard to guarantee the quality, cost and delivery date.  This leads me to the assumption that in many KSs a text draft is already finished in part. By using cheap stock art and employing older illustrations (if they have the rights) revenue can be generated with that text in POD or small print runs - or with specially signed limited editions.  Naturally, this is just a different business model with a fairly limited return, but it's what smaller RPG product publishers might already be doing. 

Many of the projects I am interested in buying are documents with a handful of illustrations -which can be sold with no production costs as PDF ebooks, but yes, we roleplayers sometimes prefer the hardbacks and boxes... Maybe it's the smell. ;)   I just think that in some Kickstarters the target cash numbers are too high - they're factoring in profits in advance, but for T&T, the love for the brand is through the roof anyhow - their target figure here is totally academic - that's love you're looking at, love infused with nostalgia and gamer pride.  The T&T communities are hungry for "official" products (not just reprints of the old) - very recently the gap as only been partly filled by a handful of indie solo games and the odd "with approval" titles.  Acquiring any English language edition in bound-printed form is almost a spectator sport.  In this way, this is truly an enthusiastic "reboot" of the main/classic brand.

Scanning some of the Erik's posts over at Tenkar's Tavern blog it has become apparent that pledgers do not appear to have the same rights as customers. It's perfectly possible for writers, artists and publishers to become ill or distracted and therefore not deliver or provide returns - if the money gets spent, there's nothing to repay the pledgers with.  So a sensible business would need credit buffer to start with. If a reliable trustworthy business, who is likely to deliver on time and in full, has credit, then why do they need a kickstarter to raise funds with? Pledgers are not patrons or shareholders -and from what I can tell- even have consumer protection. If companies want to establish an advanced estimate of profit then why not canvas the online communities and run a system of pre-orders?  Incidentally, Erik also goes to great length explaining the differences between pre-ordering and Kickstarters.

There's a "chancer" logic to Kickstarters which doesn't seem right. I know artists and authors aren't paid by the hour, but without transparency of knowing what everyone will be paid, it's hard for other people in the industry to sympathise or relate to multiple ten thousand dollar figure goals.  In the same way that anyone involved in a start-up company might expect to be paid below an industry average.   Annual-based wages are sometimes factored into popular computer game Kickstarters, again with reference to wages of other workers in the industry.  To run things at low costs does not mean that some creator-publishers are any less professional, in fact, less risk can mean that we're still around for a customers at a later date (that's if the other day job or responsibilities doesn't encroach too much).   I'm not sure what the answer is there.  Somehow this is all bound up with hobby-based lifestyle choices and full-time business ventures. Again with large goal figures, as a pledger I'd be tempted to ask for more business plans.  Also, with those expenses, are we really to believe that you don't already own a desk and chair, and that one product is supposed to pay your office rent for a year? 

Again, I have to say I pretty much adore many of Flying Buffalo's products, and I like reading and re-reading several T&T rule editions, but my personal and seemingly secular viewpoint is that I wouldn't support a Kickstarter as a way of buying a new edition.

On top of all this, all lines of communication online are now saturated with the equivalent of panicked begging letters - it's like a new version of spamming.

I am not the first person to wonder "How many small businesses go bust from sudden over expansion or a massive order?"  This is big money and fast turnarounds - maybe only established publishers and experienced managers can cope with these mechanisms.  Think about it. In the end, Kickstarters favour the companies which need them the least. 

Other than my misgivings about Kickstarters as a process, I'm genuinely happy for everyone involved in this T&T venture because it shows that so many people want T&T to have the status that it deserves, and I certainly wouldn't want freelancers and employees, like Messrs Loomis, St.Andre, Danforth et al, to drift too far from the Trollish forge.  These are all nice approachable guys - often surprised at their following online.  Certainly they don't bombard there customers with adverts of modular interlocking campaigns or bi-weekly subscriptions for images of CGC art.  But maybe this is the turning point when we get to see these nostalgic-hippy-gamers taste the blood of success.  ;) I doubt it - after all "personal integrity" does sell as well.

Just last night, Liz Danforth wrote an inspiring piece on how Kickstarters can be part of a personal journey to reconnect with similar minded people and create things that are new and positive.  

From my own RPG-player-reader-fan perspective, I can relate to this. I know that quite a few of us, more mature tabletop-gamer-fans, suddenly found ourselves, after a time in the adult wilderness, discovering online communities who shared an interest in older (old-school) games.  As dads, managers, been-there-done-it, senior-ish folk, we found that we had "returned", "arrived" or "come home" to role-playing games.  This isn't just about nostalgia, it's about mutual support, respectful validation and personal growth.  Liz's view on crowd-funding is much like this, i.e. life can be turned around by connecting with a community and travelling forward together with a single vision.  Perhaps, not everything touched by significant quantities of money is necessarily a type of capitalistic trick?  I find this positivity refreshing, and maybe I'm often looking at all of this purely in terms the actual product and the financial exchange, when the act of taking part in a passionate micro-democracy can feel deeply empowering.  

Argh.  But I like being cynical!

I'd be intrigued, however, to see how the industry works five years down the line - I just don't want to see everything else washed aside because we're all pitching, bidding, pledging and backing and with no-one having a simple "buy-now" option.  ;)

-Billiam B.
 January 2013

(and ... thanks for reading this far!)


  1. I appreciate your perspective, Billiam, and had to laugh out loud at being described as a "nostalgic-hippy-gamer."

    You flirt with recognizing the complexities of what is being discussed... "after all "personal integrity" does sell as well." ... but I believe the difficulty here (in my perspective) is you seem to feel it is black and white. Either I am a manipulative SoB schlepping buckets of Integrity-brand whitewash OR I am some aging hippie (I'm actually a little too young to have been one) on the verge of self-effacement ascension to sainthood. I think life is always far more complicated -- both life and business.

    Thank you for this post, above all else. It's an interesting view with much to think about. After all, I wouldn't have written my own post were it not for our discussion on Facebook. :)

    1. Oops, I often seem to resort to polemics for effect. Compared to some, I think we probably all come over as a bit "hippy-ish" *grin* - I sort of mean ... unjaded, open to ideas, not evil and commission driven, something like that.

      When I bought my copy of T&T 5 around the same time as buying the more expensive D&D Basic set - it was pretty clear back then that "the complete roleplaying game" (written on the side of the orange UK box) was coming from a much more altruistic place than TSR's offering, whereby a few weeks play would lead me to need the Expert D&D set. Even then I think I was projecting opinions about the differences between FBInc and TSR. The latter weren't bad guys, but they definitely had a greater impact in making me a games junky hoarder ;) Compact T&T always came on holiday with me, like a reassuring teddy with normal dice (no wait, that doesn't sound right). D&D and AD&D always felt incomplete and unportable, indecipherable insatiably hungry ...

      Integrity! - The real thing helps the reputation of the company, and it's pretty clear that you guys were like a sort of creative family. You're the real deal. T&T 5 is positively educational with it's historical weapons glossary and references to mythology and fiction. I think I meant it in positive way, but I'm a little twisted, i.e. in the reversal of expectation, that trustworthiness and being "generally nice to people" can help sales - I mean if I trust someone I'll buy from them... - not necessarily that they are doing it in a Machiavellian way either. Language works against me! You guys are cool. :) I hope this all works out well. I really do.

      And congratulations again. :)

      (Eep, Liz Danforth and Russ Nicholson are two of my fave fantasy line artists of all time - in the space of several months I managed to irritate Russ with trojan spam from a hijacked email account and now I've insinuated that Liz D is either a hippy or Gordon Gecko... oh, boy, it's gonna be a long year ...)