While I'm personally fine with the six projects I have backed in the last year or so (I am in no rush to get product and generally like the idea of “paying it forward” to blogging comrades who have been shelling out free content for years), a growing trend in the model is starting to worry me. As a journalist who spent a good chunk of the last decade covering workplace issues--and the strange, byzantine world of finance that colors it--the red flags are just a flapping a wee bit too much for me to be entirely comfortable.
Increasingly, it's hard not to get the feeling that the original microloan-to-support-artists orientation of Kickstarter and Indiegogo is being supplanted by the proliferation of a new model of large-scale projects—many now generating millions of dollars--where essentially backers' donations are viewed either as pre-purchasing products or floating no-equity investments in larger commercial products. Kickstarter has been crowing recently about how it's raised over a quarter of a billion dollars ($275 million) since 2009--that's how big a pot we are talking about.
(By the way, the JOBS bill here in the U.S. will allow crowdfunders to start dabbling in equity next year, though Kickstarter has already stated it will not do so. This will certainly change the field, though whether is better or worse is still to be seen.)
That a number of the more enthusiastic in our hobby are taking a “buyer beware”, “your investment is risky and can disappear” tack of argument just compounds those concerns—it was the same rhetoric you would hear investment analysts using before the sub-prime market went supernova.
To date there have not been any trainwrecks of that magnitude in our hobby (others may take exception to that) but I see a number of problematic things in that expectation shift:
No Refunds. While currently Kickstarter has a stated policy that backers must show “due diligence” in producing the products/services promised, it has no refund policy itself. Remember that it takes a 5 percent cut off of each drive—and it's partner Amazon takes a further cut of 3-5 percent to process the transaction. Further it admits it has no real enforcement mechanism to ensure that projects match their backing.
Accountability/Transparency. Though woefully uneven, investment activity in this country is forced to jump through the hoops of the SEC. Not only are you not getting a piece of the financial ownership with your “investment” you are not getting reports and oversight privileges that accompany investing in most financial instruments. Again outside of the goodwill of the particular project there is no real requirement to let you the backer know exactly what the pace of development is.
Product Timeliness and Quality. When backers morph into consumers their expectations become different. Though clearly some backers have some sour bad faith or sulky expectations, it's not an irrational bar-raising given the clear shift in expectations from the projects themselves. In a traditional pre-purchase often at the least traded the floating of what is essentially a zero-interest loan and the chance to “vote with their feet” after poor reviews for a discount. Strangely many projects still give backers the products at the same—or even higher—price point of someone who buys it when it goes live.
I know well that we in the DIY rpg hobby have a wide diversity of views about commercialization and crowdfunding, so I'm curious if others are seeing it this way too. I'm not interested in taking potshots—or tearing down someone's success--but in exploring the ways that we can salvage the good pieces of the original model and figuring out at least a rough consensus of what constitutes “ethical crowdfunding” (or whether that's even possible).
How do we realign expectations? How do we protect “consumers” and most of all how do we keep the gold rush atmosphere for swamping out the vital aspect of imaging the shit out of our fantasy games?
I will likely continue to back projects coming out of our milieu, but you better believe that the larger the boom goes without a larger community rethinking the more I will be doing so extremely selectively. How about you?