Okay, that’s an attention-grabber of a post title, I will admit. After all, what I want to talk about might not exactly be a problem with Kickstarter exactly, but it’s definitely an issue. Bear with me.
So I was talking with a friend of mine who is a retailer of boardgames, and we were discussing the distribution side of the industry. If you did not know: the distribution side of the boardgame industry is remarkably fuckety. Basically every boardgame publisher is signing exclusive distribution deals, which in turn places retailers at the mercy of the distributors, and the distributors are not always brilliant. My retailer friend complained that he was at present completely unable to purchase Filosofia/Z-Man boardgames because the Canadian exclusive distributor was, in essence, not doing its damn job.
Anyway, this conversation eventually led its way to Kickstarter, and said friend dislikes Kickstarter even more than he does distributors because the entire sales paradigm, for him, gets screwed with. He has to constantly explain to people when he carries a formerly-Kickstarted product that, no, he doesn’t have the Kickstarter promo bonuses because those don’t come with the mass-market release. Each Kickstarter has its own, shall we say, eclectic release schedule. Reprints are never guaranteed and usually are not expected: Kickstarter products are one-shots. And this last element is especially problematic because good retailers depend on shelf stock to grow the business. After all, retailers – even those who smartly use the internet to promote their business wisely – need to compete with the Amazons and eBays of the world and the only way they can still do it is by having deep stock so that if you want X, they will most likely have X.
But the Kickstarter problem for boardgames goes beyond just retailers – it’s about boardgaming as a whole. Every new product depends on word of mouth. These are not products intended to create new gamers; they’re intended for an existing audience. Steve Jackson Games right now is Kickstarting a new super-deluxe edition of OGRE, their classic “one giant mega-tank versus an army” game – but how is this going to create new OGRE players? Shouldn’t the point of any new product launch be to both satisfy the target audience and expand the existing base? (I note that SJG has offered, as a benchmark goal that is still approximately $50,000 away, a “mini edition” of OGRE – AKA “the entry-level edition that new players might actually buy sight unseen.) Is anybody ever going to see super-deluxe OGRE on a shelf and think “let’s try that?”
Kickstarter is targeted-marketing that depends heavily on word of mouth. That’s fine for many things. But it worries me that it’s becoming a primary business model for game publishers, because I doubt that such a model is sustainable in the long run.