Which is to say, the rules set by Kickstarter, rather than an exclamation that Kickstarter is very splendid (not to say that it isn’t). I’ve sat down to write this blog a couple of times now, and I find myself struggling. It was just recently that I realised that the reason I’ve been having a hard time with it is that those rules are themselves worryingly nebulous. Now, I’m a Kickstarter Creator, and I expect to be for at least the next couple of years. I couldn’t bring out games anything like as rapidly as I currently do without Kickstarter to cover launch costs. As such, I’m not certain how I feel biting the hand that feeds me, that said, I have a vested interest in bringing up problems that I feel may be starting to undermine backer’s trust in the platform.
In talking about this issue I’m going to use examples, these are entirely anecdotal and I’ll avoid using specifics, but I feel they illustrate the points at hand. The central point, however, is that for every one of these examples there are just as many counter examples, for every suspension there is no action taken whatsoever for the exact same activity. I want to cover three specific rules to begin with though.
Kickstarter rules forbid a creator self-funding. On Kicktraq you can see not just a project’s daily total of funding, but you can also see its daily total of backers. Now, I’ve had unusual days of funding because friends of mine have drop a hundred pounds into my project when I was within a percent or two of funding before, there are funding totals that can sit a little outside of the norm. However, I’ve also watched projects that have picked up thousands from a single backer either for early funding or late. I know of at least one project that picked up not only over $1,500 on a 3.5k total from a single backer, but a backer who pledged exactly the correct amount to meet the funding total, a project that was then reported and had that pledge revoked and then re-instated before the end of the project after an appeal. In short, self-funding is rife in struggling Kickstarters, fire up Kicktraq and follow a few projects that have a hard time getting to their goals and you’ll be able to see it (you’ll also feel yourself more inclined to both praise and pledge to the ones that struggle honestly and manfully to hitting their goals cleanly with only hours to go). Kickstarter is also aware of this practice and seems to lack either the capacity or the will to stop it.
So, the question becomes, why should they do something about it, and why don’t they? Well, the reason they should is that if a Creator insists they need $5000 to create a game, and commit themselves to creating it with only $3000 of actual funds, that implies that they are going to commit to creating a game that they are in-fact incapable of making. Which creates a situation where they are far more likely to fail to fulfil, either honestly or otherwise. Why don’t Kickstarter do something? Well, that’s where things clearly get more speculative and potentially controversial.
Generally, there are two opinions here. The first, and its one that comes up as a response on groups and forums, is that Kickstarter are a rapaciously greedy and uncaring corporation and since they’ll be getting their percentage they just don’t care. Frankly, I don’t give this too much credence, not because I think that Kickstarter is some sort of charity or something but because I think that Kickstarter attaches a reasonable level of value to its corporate identity. The second opinion is that the barrier to entry and the legal restrictions and protections to a Kickstarter are too low and that the time frames involved are such that policing and stopping these things are beyond their capability. Taking the previous example of the $3.5k project with a $1.5k mystery backer, Kickstarter revoked the backing, the Creator appealed to say that they don’t know who pledged the $1.5k, what do Kickstarter do? Cancel the pledge, force the project to fail and then have to engage in a court case where they have to prove a connection to some sock puppet account to avoid being sued in a case costing far more than the project would ever cost? Companies get bought down by those sorts of knucklehead cases more often than not and I suspect that Kickstarter is now in a position where the cost in money and staff of actually covering this sort of thing is honestly beyond them.
Is this a major problem for honest projects? It’s hard to say, it’s a fair bet that this isn’t happening at the big boy end of things, I don’t think anyone is self-funding to tens or even hundreds of thousands, I also don’t think it’s a major issue for projects that get well over their funding level. However, I also don’t know how many small 2-5k projects that end up on 100% or so fail to fulfil due to getting themselves in to deep by self-funding. I do think it’s a non-zero number though, and I do think that there is a point where Kickstarter has a level of duty of care to their own Creators. Running a Kickstarter is a high-wire act, its an adrenaline rush, and first-time creators are apt to do things that are not necessarily in their best interests because of it. Creators that are self-backing might not thank Kickstarter for stopping them, but its possible that they should. If that non-zero number is high enough, this is a rot that could undermine Kickstarter at the end of smaller projects. It may also result in Creators who honestly wished to provide a project, and with a re-launch might have managed to, that lose their heads under pressure being driven permanently off the platform.
I don’t mean literally, but there is a Kickstarter rule that ‘A creator cannot launch a new project until their first one is fulfilled’. However, many larger creators have many projects running and fulfilling at once. Some people see this as favouritism towards those creators, since the larger they are and therefore the more projects they can have running the more they are seen to be flouting the rules, and the more money they are making for Kickstarter. But, it has also been pointed out that the rule does not state that ‘A creator cannot launch a new project until any project they have already launched is fulfilled’, it states only that a creator must fulfil their first project, which is to say, a creator needs to prove that they can launch and fulfill a project before they can launch multiple ones. Once they’ve proven they can walk they’re free to run full pelt off any cliff they might choose.
I can’t personally speak to either of these. Certainly, I know of larger creators who are clearly running new campaigns before being close to completing fulfilment on previous ones. Additionally, I know of creators who have gotten into financial trouble from trying to run too many projects at once, and I’ve heard tell of creators with projects suspended due to overlapping projects running into perceived or actual difficulties. What I will say is that if the intent of the rule is that ‘Creators must show that they can launch, fund and fulfil a project before they are trusted with multiple projects, as such, they must do so with at least one project in its totality before being allowed to launch more than one at a time.’ Why doesn’t it say that? The wording of the rule seems designed to create confusion. If that is not its intent, then why do so many companies seem able to ignore this rule?
Again, this is a serious issue, there are companies that launch and fund a game then totally fail to fulfil it. If they are permitted to launch another game, take more money of backers without offering anything in return, its pretty clear how this will undermine backer trust and hurt the platform as a whole. There is a point to which Kickstarter is helpless here, there is at least one famously predatory production company that waits until a creator has funded well, buys their campaign from them for more than they would make in profit, and takes the remaining money with no intent of fulfilling (although current signs are that they are finally accepting that Kickstarter has become too hot for them). However, there is also a point where they are obscuring their own intent leading to an undermining of backer trust. There are points where the intention of such rules is to shift blame, rather than to enforce. Rather than reacting to a company launching multiple projects with enforcement, it seems that the intent is to find a sort of protection against a company with multiple projects failing by saying that ‘we told them not to’, as though ‘I told you so’ is some sort of helpful protection against the mantle of responsibility.
Fairly recently (towards the first half of 2019) there were a set of new Kickstarter guidelines. They had a range of sensible suggestions largely (in my opinion) intended to assist smaller creators and backer trust. For example, shots of fancy renders were to be replaced by physical images, to avoid creators promising the moon when they couldn’t deliver, and ‘Funded in x hours’ banners were advised against. There has been a growing trend on Kickstarter for projects to name a goal that they couldn’t possibly fulfil with, in order that they should then fund quickly, be able to put up such a banner, leading to a level of massive overfunding that will then allow them to fulfil far better than mere honesty would allow. This has led to projects funding and then cancelling, or cancelling at 90%+ with a week or more to go on their project because success would cost them far more than they could possibly afford. I’ve written specifically about this practice before (see Kickstarter: Funding As Failure) so won’t go into it too much here, suffice to say that the manner in which this erodes backer confidence in both creators and platform should be obvious.
There was quite a stir when these guidelines were added to Kickstarter, discussions on how they were going to effect projects, particularly the large miniture projects much beloved of the tabletop community that would now have to invest significant amounts of money into at least 3-D printing models for non-rendered project photos. At a rough estimate, every single one of the guidelines was breached on live projects within three days of them being posted, and no action was taken. Possibly it was felt unkind to punish projects who were no doubt designing their pages for months over a set of guidelines put up 24 hours before they launched. At this point, I’m not aware of a project ever having gotten push back for breaching those guidelines, and ‘funded in’ banners are again entirely standard on Kickstarter. Sadly, funded and cancelled projects are reasonably standard also.
I have reached out to a few creators who have used those banners and the response has been fairly universal, ‘it doesn’t mean me’, by which they mean that the intention of the rule is to stop people naming foolishly low totals just to put up the banner while they named a sensible total which they managed to hit quickly due to having a well put together and presented campaign. They achieved something they are justifiably proud of and want to celebrate it. The guideline wasn’t intended for them, so they feel justified in ignoring it. I’ve heard that a few times and I sympathise enormously. Of course, as I’m typing this I’m confined to my home due to a virus that I don’t have, that there have been no reported cases of in a twenty mile radius of my home and that if I did contract all evidence based on my age and general health suggests would be little more than a nasty case of flu. I’m confined due to rules that, arguably, aren’t intended for me. But that’s not how rules work, they work by being applied to everyone. The banner guideline doesn’t apply directly to everyone, but those that it does apply to are only tempted to put up false totals in order to garner fake banners because they see the worth of those banners on projects that use them justifiably, and them using those banners with problematic campaigns is undermining the trust in those banners and ultimately the platform itself for everyone.
I’m not aware of this guideline being enforced, directly or indirectly by Kickstarter, though I could be wrong (and I’d love to hear of an example if anyone has one). Which is part of the issue, again, why have a guideline against something that some people are engaging in problematic practice in relation to and yet never enforce it? In relation to ‘funded in’ banners, it’s not even as though enforcement would involve the digging through hundreds of pages that the renders would involve, the breaching of this guideline is being done, by definition, in a very obvious and public manner. These guidelines seem to boil down to someone saying ‘Hey, this is an easy way to significantly up the amount of money you stand to make, but sometimes it ends a little badly, so hey, don’t do it please. Thanks.’ Arguably, saying nothing would be better.
There is one rule that seems to be widely respected on Kickstarter, and that is, no charities or lotteries. If you even have a sniff of implying such a thing and you preview your page to anyone other than your aunt and your dog you’ll quickly get an avalanche of advice against whatever it is that might be construed by some people as being even adjacent to the ‘devil’s tombola’ of a Kickstarter lottery. The interesting thing is, I’ve heard of a lot of people changing their mind about rewards and such due to this rule and its widely respected, but the level of actual enforcement I’ve seen is pretty low. I’ve seen projects that had some pretty clear lottery style rewards run without suspension. It seems fairly par for the course for the many CCG/TCG projects that pop up (and universally fail). I suspect that the reason for this is that the one piece of suspension that I’m fairly sure was directly related to this rule was of an early project by the current guru of all sensible Kickstarters, Jamey Stegmaier. I’m not sure, and it might be that Kickstarter was just much tighter about its enforcement when Jamey was launching projects (it was a few years back now) but I have a feeling that what happened when Kickstarter suspended Jamey for a perceived lottery style reward was the equivalent to them walking up and shanking the biggest dude in the prison yard, it sent a message far beyond the actual weight of the action, though I doubt they knew it at the time. It has also meant that the rule has become largely self-enforcing for the community, because the amazing work that Jamey has done assisting new creators and advising the community has had baked into it the definitive advice that you should avoid those sorts of breaches, and only a moron goes directly against a piece of 'take it to the bank' Stegmaier advice.
Now, I’m not suggesting that Kickstarter goes out there and pounds anyone that they suspect of being a future Jamey with every guideline they currently want followed, but I am suggesting that a short period of serious enforcement results in ongoing compliance due to the community being self-sustaining. Compare the attitude of the community towards lotteries and charities to that for later guidelines, ultimately, Kickstarter’s own attitude to its more recent guidelines seems to be storing up problems for itself.
The body that awards film certificates in America gives no explanation to film makers for their certificate and does not allow comparison of like films as an argument against a given certification. It’s a source of fairly serious controversy and possible corruption. Kickstarter’s policy for suspension seems to be pretty similar, it gives no public explanation for suspension and it seems often no private one either. Its punishments, like its ‘project we love’ boons, seem to often be handed out almost arbitrarily. This leads to a situation where giving clear advice on strong projects is extremely tough, some guidelines need to be followed, some can be flouted, the line seems to be drawn in shifting sands known only temporarily and often only to an inside crowd. While this privileged elite is generally made up of a group of people more willing to share their knowledge than almost any other group I’ve ever met, particularly as it is made up of what are ultimately rival business men, they are doing so largely based on rumour and conjecture.
The point, ultimately, of this blog is, that there is simply no reason for it. Excuses are made about the sprawling nature of Kickstarter’s projects and its intended loose artistic heart, but there is no reason and no benefit to a state of affairs where nobody is able to give a straight answer to the question of whether a given project will be suspended or not, will attract Kickstarter’s enforcement or not. Kickstarter has issues with staffing levels when compared to numbers of projects, particularly at the moment, but when projects are bought to their attention by the thousands of unpaid volunteers that make up the backing community that have clearly and seriously breached their guidelines they need to be transparent and serious in their enforcement of those guidelines. The guidelines could be clear and distinct, and they should be, it should be possible for a creator to independently be able to tell with at least some certainty whether or not their project would be suspended if bought to the attention of Kickstarter. At the moment, they absolutely cannot, and that fact is resulting in growing distrust, disillusionment and in some cases, abandonment of the platform, by the backers, the people that they need to keep running. At the moment, things are good and profits high, but we’ve all seen that it takes little for online platforms to slip and fall. In the past such falls have seemed mysterious, but usually they were small things building to critical masses. I hope that these issues won’t be that for Kickstarter.
Have you backed a project that was suspended, if so, what was the reason and the result? Have you reported a project you thought should be suspended or at least enforced in some way, and if so, what came of it? Do you think there should be more Kickstarter guidelines, or less?