July 3, 2012

Critical Collision Course: Kickstarter, Reviews, and Retorts of Course

So I wasn’t planning on writing, but then I read THIS post, which led me to THIS article from Pete, which led me to THIS and THIS from Matt Thrower. It also related to THIS posdcast that I recently listened to, as well as THIS recent post from Drake and some of my own unwritten reactions from THIS conversation about “fun” (incidentally in reaction to THIS other post). Phew… Needless to say, my reply mushroomed into its own labyrinth with enough twists and turns that I felt it justified its existence as a blog post instead.

This is a bit rambling, but here we go!

On Kickstarter

Looking past Pete’s rather blunt language, his post nevertheless raises a very good point and imparts genuine concerns; namely it’s a worry about the projected conclusion of an unchecked Cult of New (or the Cult of the Got-To-Have-Em-All). The power of the hype machine and CotN’s buying bonanzas is that it can dilute the market with mediocrity, which is not a trait you want for sustaining long-term vitality. There is a chance the bubble is going to burst and the base is going to get disillusioned. This has happened many times before in the gaming hobbies.

I’m wondering what the picture and opinion of kickstarter games will be in a year or so when there are lots projects we can look back to and get a bigger picture for what the lasting success rate of kickstarter games is. Are these largely derivative designs as they are being labeled? Do they have any lasting replay value? All good questions!

But I like to be balanced in my thinking. So despite the criticisms against kickstarter, it is worth recognizing that it can provide an amazing platform for new designers/publishers to get a foot in the market and learn some valuable lessons. And it can provide an established publisher with the means of producing “riskier” titles without going belly up if the game flops. Although this is largely analogous to P500 type pre-order programs, kickstarter has the advantage of greater market visibility as a pre-order tool; and that’s hard to pass up from a business standpoint.

A little inspiration from Phirax, although not that funny:

Scene 1

Backer >>> Kickstarter can let anyone make and publish game with just a little hard work and thought!
Cynic >>> Not all of these games are going to live up to their expectations.
Backer >>> Not all games, Kickstarter or otherwise, are going to live up to everyone’s expectations!
Cynic >>> What are our expectations?
Backer >>> I haven’t thought enough about that.

Scene 2

Backer >>> Kickstarter reduces the “risk” to publishers, allowing them to publish riskier titles.
Cynic >>>That just means the design isn’t strong enough for the publisher to use the traditional channel.
Backer >>> It is difficult to gauge/predict what games are going to sell well using the traditional channel.
Cynic >>> Why not use a pre-order system (P500, etc.) then?
Backer >>> Why not just use Kickstarter, as it has better market visibility.

Scene 3

Undecided Backer >>> Kickstarter puts the backers at risk! The game could suck!
Cynic >>> Don’t pledge money if you can’t afford to lose it on the risk that the game is bad.
Undecided Backer >>> But I want the game sooner/cheaper!
Cynic >>> The availability can vary considerably and it can actually be cheaper to buy it later
Undecided Backer >>> But what about the promo’s!
Cynic >>> All the stretch rewards are a sham to get you to pay more money. What does it say about the integrity of the game’s design/mechanic that all these bonuses and chrome can just be piled on?
Undecided Backer >>> More is always better!
Cynic >>> Sometimes less is more.

Scene 4

Cynic >>> Kickstarter can be exploited by established publishers to make more money!
Backer >>> So what? That just means the publisher has more money to grow their business. Besides, publishers would be crazy not to take advantage of the financial benefits!
Cynic >>> But that doesn’t seem right. By putting their finances at risk on a new game, publishers are underscoring that they feel the game is good and can sell itself.
Backer >>> Plenty of traditionally published games are under-developed and don’t sell well either. Only time will tell.
Cynic >>> Yes it will.

I can’t help but feel that every pro- and every con- in the Kickstarter debate has a logical counter-argument (illustrated above). The debate is surprisingly balanced; probably because kickstater is in reality just another “tool.” And tools as objects on their own don’t have any ethical underpinning; it all comes down to how the tool is used, what the situation is, who benefits, and who pays. It hinges on what the buyers/designers/publishers each value in the exhange.

What I hope to see evolve in kickstarter is some sort organic vetting mechanism that provides greater transparency for buyers and clearer ethical operating grounds for publishers. The trend to provide PnP files + rules to backers is great, but frankly, I think there needs to be more upfront work even before a kickstarter campaign launches. Providing the rules before-hand is a no brainer, and with the inherent risks in Kickstarter (and lack of establish precedent for legal recourse) I can’t believe anyone would back a game for which they couldn’t see the rules.

As a backer (and I should say I haven’t backed any projects), I’d also like to see some rough financial breakdown of the game project costs (you are asking me to invest right?) and I’d like to see some record of the play testing, blind testing, and development process the game went through. Greater transparency in these arenas benefits everyone. It clearly helps buyers recognize if a game has not been developed well or if costs are way out of line (in either direction). And in the long-run it can benefit publishers by requiring that they do their due diligence and have a solid game before going after the money.

Ultimately, it is every designers/publishers choice to put a project on Kickstarter, and it is every gamer’s choice whether to back that project. So on some level; I suppose we should all just mind our own damn business. But the worry is when the fallout from one sphere of activity cascades into another, sinking the whole ship so to speak. Then it is everyone’s business.

On Reviews + Criticism

Since being in the Voice of Experience contest, I’ve begun reading (or at least skimming) through game reviews a lot more. And I have to agree wholeheartedly with Pete that not enough reviews are getting into “why” you should play a game; they focus almost entirely on the “if/buy” question instead. Despite’s Pete’s various rallies against more critical dialogue, I get the sense that he is acknowledging that more thorough criticism can play a role in raising the awareness of the buyer. The conundrum is how to break out of the pattern of self-fulfilling reviews, where only positive feedback is at work, spiraling the SHINEYPRECIOUS ivory tower higher and higher.

Reviews that get deeper into describing the experience of playing a game, the dynamics at work, the kinds of decisions, the factors you need to consider, etc. all help paint a much better picture for “why” you might want to play a particular game, going beyond the “if” question. Such reviews help the potential buyer assess their own preferences and understand whether the game in question is going to be a good fit for your gaming circles. It is introspective, critiquing the game and challenging the reader. And to reference another conversation, critical reviews transcends the ambiguous criterion of “fun,” by defining the basis for the critic’s perspective of “fun” and showing how the game does or doesn’t meet that expectation.

In my own interactions with the pubic (in other realms), I find people have more capacity for sophistication then they are given credit for. And I can’t imagine that BGG users, used to digesting dozen-plus page rule books and text-walls like this one, wouldn’t be interested in more critical reviews that challenge them a little. We play games presumably because we enjoy challenges afterall. Really, I think there is a bit of a chicken and egg phenomenon at work; namely that people aren’t clamoring for more critical reviews because there aren’t many critical reviews to point to or that are particularly visible. If you don’t know it exists, you don’t know to ask for it.

So the PR machine can swing both ways. I see no reason why raising the bar for, and awareness of, critical reviews can’t be used as a mechanism that directly benefits the “masses”; at the very least helping people better understand their own preferences and pointing them and their wallets towards games that will be a better match, whether it’s a 15 year old game or an upcoming kickstarter launch.

Lest I be accused of all talk and no walk, I recently wrote a review that I believe reaches into critical waters: Hunters for Conflict, Gatherers for Depth: A Balanced Game of a Balanced Way of Life

On Turning the Cult of the New into the Cult of the Slow

Perhaps this has always been an undercurrent in the hobby, but I feel like I’ve seen more awareness and attention focused on slowing down the pace of consumption recently. Martins’ NoNewGamesMonth, people pledging to play all their games 10 times (or 100 times!) before buying new games, etc. are examples of these sentiments in action. But more generally, I’ve seen a lot of threads where people sit back and look at their collection, realizing they have played less than half of their games they own.

The latest On Board Games podcast tackled this subject through their discussion of the “Jones Theory” about ideal collection sizes. The theory is often miss portrayed, but in way it is just saying “own the games you play.” If you always choose to play game A over game B, then sell/trade game B. If you haven’t played a game in years and you are not keeping it as some “collector’s item;” get a rid of it. The theory plays into the purchasing equation too: If you aren’t going to be able to play some new game in the foreseeable future and/or you have a huge backlog of un-played games, perhaps you should think twice about the purchase.

The Cult of the New seems to have an unsatiable purchasing power, and this is largely wrapped up into the hype machine that surrounds the hotness as well as kickstarter campaigns. The argument that “I need to buy/back it now because It could go out-of-print and be harder to find and/or more expensive in the future” seems all too prevalent. Is this mainly a sentiment expressed by newer games? I’m not sure. The On Board Games’ podcast discussed the, hilariously named, “Dewey Game Collection Lifecycle,” which postulates that gamer-people progress through a series of stages in the boardgaming pursuit:

(1) They start off with some “gateways” (another topic for debate) that hooks them.
(2) They realize there is this “huge amazing world of games” out there to explore.
(3) They proceed to empty their wallets for some period of time buying hordes of new games.
(4) They realize that they aren’t playing most of the games they own, let alone getting many plays out of the games they really enjoy. Eventually, they realize more consciously what their gaming preferences really are.
(5) They take actions to reduce the size of their collection (Jones Theory), limit new purchases (1-in, 1-out), and focus on playing the games they enjoy most.

This progression seems natural enough, and there certainly isn’t anything wrong with moving through it or stopping at any point along the way. But I wonder whether deeper criticism can help move people through this progression quicker? Would people want to move through it quicker? There is a lot of psychological research about the links between buying stuff and happiness. Perhaps gamers would be better off with fewer games? If so, would this shift even be good for the industry?

Despite all our bellyaching, at the end of the day the boardgame hobby does rely on an industry and it needs sustained growth and/or turnover in consumers to remain solvent. So I suppose the question before us is, how to direct this growth-need towards making better games, pushing innovation, and building a strong hobby?

A Side Note on Language

Pete disparages the use of certain terminology (interesting, immersive, etc.) in critical discourse. He asserts that these terms have been overused and misused to the point that they lack any real meaning or significance beyond evoking a sense of “power” within the critic and the audience. I agree with him to an extent; yes these words are ambiguous. But I think at least part of the critical movement HAS to be focused at an “infrastructure” level. One of these infrastructure tasks is to have the conversation about what we mean by these fancy terms; to develop a consistent language that enables better critique.

That’s all for now.

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