Negativity exists – The tricky relationship of Kickstarter Creator and Backer
Let me just open by saying, I believe in people. I think that on the whole they are smart and generous, kind and decent. Personally, I’m a pretty optimistic character, I think that to try to make a career in tabletop games and launch on Kickstarter specifically you probably have to be. That might sounds like an introduction that’s leading up to a but, and it sort of is, though not entirely. I also believe that it is when a person can do nothing for you or to you their following actions show you what sort of person they truly are. The majority of interactions one has over the internet are with people that you can neither help or hurt, and so people feel licensed to act however they actually want to. With that in mind, over the thousands of interactions that I’ve had with hundreds and hundreds of backers and players of games I’ve worked on I’d say that the number of honestly bad interactions I’ve had I can count on one hand. Which is probably part of why I believe in people.
All that said, there are bad interactions, pure and unbridled negativity can happen and it can be hard to handle when it does. I want to write in this blog about some of the reasonable rules of behaviour around various issues for both backers and creators and try to suggest some methods for dealing with negativity.
One thing that triggers both sides at various points is speed of response time. The issues here are not hard to understand, on the end of creators we have stories of designers being contacted over multiple channels at all times of day and night with complaints about lack of response, and on the end of backers we have creators who go totally AWOL from reasonable questions for months at a time. So here are a few conduct considerations for both sides:
For creators, be available during the 24 hours after Kickstarter launch as close to constantly as is possible. We all have to sleep and I would strongly suggest walking away from the computer for the first hour or so after launch, but for at least hours 2-12, have the comments board open for 15-minute checks. This can be tough for a few reasons, one is that some creators like to launch during a convention they’re at, this isn’t the best idea in the world, its far better to launch a couple of days before the convention and be running during it than launch then go to the con. Remember, the people who check you out because they have seen you at the con will be going right to your page, they don’t need it to be on the newest search range and so don’t really care that you’ve just launched. The other tricky issue is the much-vaunted Tuesday, or general weekday, launches for people with real day jobs. There are two answers to this, either take a day off or launch on a weekend, do not expect people to take the excuse that you had to go to work. People expect to have their questions answered during the first 24 hours in minutes rather than hours, and at that point, they’re right to have that expectation. During launch day you will have by a distance the most people viewing your page, responding quickly will reassure them and people who have already backed that you are capable and active.
Never miss an update deadline. Updates come when they come, creators don’t need to set them on a schedule, so if you say that there will be an update on a certain day, put one out on that day. Even if it just says ‘sorry, the content isn’t complete yet, update will be up in x days’.
A month is a long time on Kickstarter. Kickstarters are an odd thing, the first month is hourly then daily constant action and feedback, and then you hit production and things slow down to weeks before there’s interest, and then delivery, where its months. Then usually back to days with fulfilment. Unfortunately, it’s also during production and delivery that funded projects that fail go south. As such there will be nervous backers who want to know that you’re still around, when you have very little interesting to say to them. This is a good time to schedule updates and be clear and honest with every piece of information you have at any given time, even when it’s nothing. Actually, especially when its nothing. Backers are more receptive to a creator who says something like ‘We’re in the hands of a reliable international logistics company who have a delivery of date x, but I’m not in direct contact with them, so I don’t know how to get more specific information’ than a creator who says nothing.
For backers, be aware of time zones. The internet, Kickstarter included, is an international entity. As such it is always a good idea to leave at least 12 hours before you expect your message to a creator to even be seen. Even if not international, some people work day jobs, some people’s (figurative) day jobs are night shifts. Its true, they might not be checking the channel you sent your message over, but until at least 12 hours are gone, assume that they are, they’re just currently unconscious.
Moderate response time to question complexity. There are some questions that it is reasonable to expect the other person to respond to as soon as they read it, a designer should be able to answer gameplay questions about their creation on the spot. There are other questions that will take a bit of research, or a third-party query and still other questions that may need serious consideration and introspection from a creator. If you ask such a question, moderate your expectations of response time accordingly. As an example, without mentioning any names, I had a question during a campaign from a backer for access to all the original files for the game in order that they could translate it into their own language. To put it into context, that’s a total stranger asking for un-restricted access to something that cost several thousand pounds, access that would make support of my copyright extremely difficult, in return for a translation of unknown quality that I would be almost certainly incapable of making real use of. I gave it serious consideration for the next day or so, in the middle of a Kickstarter campaign I agonised for 24 hours over whether to do this or not, and then I received a fairly abusive message for the ignorant manner in which I had not already responded, which happily made up my mind. If you ask a serious, complex question, accept that a response might not be immediate, and if you’re asking someone to potentially work with you, make sure you come across as easy to work with.
It’s tough putting out a creative idea to the world. It’s like shoving your baby into a beauty contest, but one where not all the judges have agreed to be positive and good natured. One where at least some of the crowd are holding rotten tomatoes and you’re pretty sure a few are holding bricks. As such some creators adopt the point of view that attacks is the best form of defence. It isn’t.
The first manner in which you see this is creators who are unwilling to actually show their creation to people. I can’t tell you how many Kickstarter pages I’ve seen unwilling to show their rules or even components, because if they do people might steal them. I’ve said this again, along with a whole bunch of other bloggers, no one is going to steal it. And even if they did, you’ll never fund unless you show what you’re selling, so it’s a risk you need to take either way. Not showing your product is not keeping it safe, it’s cutting off your nose to spite your face.
There is a thread on Boardgame Geek that most aspiring creators should check out called ‘Worst Kickstarter Ever?’. A lot of projects that refuse to show their game to protect it turn up there, but every creator who threatens to sue their backers turns up there. This really shouldn’t need saying, but never threaten legal action against your backers for something they said in a comment. There may be reasons to threaten such action, though they would be few and far between and would more likely have to do with financial issues. They would never be due to a perceived slander, libel or just plain insult, but incredibly such threats do occur. I strongly suspect that the sort of person who would make such a threat isn’t reading blogs to improve their customer relationships, but just in case, don’t do this. There is nothing a backer can say that will damage you more than threatening to sue them would.
Be confident in your research, but understanding of its limits. We launched our first Kickstarter on a Saturday, and were confidently told that we would fail by various commentators, because this meant we evidently hadn’t done our research. We had done our research, I didn’t (and still don’t) believe in the supremacy of certain days for launching Kickstarters, and clearly, we did back. Now, there were various other pieces of advice that related to areas that I had missed out in my research, advice that I took on board and adapted to. I responded to the comments that noted things that I’d missed, and ignored the ones that were telling me about things that I already knew about.
There is a BGG user who pops up on the ‘Worst Kickstarter Ever?’ thread who offers unsolicited advice to Kickstarters that have clearly done zero research. He has been threatened with legal action for daring to do so on more than one occasion. Remember, someone pointing out that you’ve utterly failed in your responsibility of due diligence is neither insulting nor libellous. When someone mentions something you’ve never considered, look it up before telling them that they’re wrong.
Rights and responsibilities
Creators do have responsibilities, and backers do have rights, but not everything is one or the other just because you want them to be. I’ve heard not only backers, but just general fans, talk about the responsibilities of a creator. While putting out free content for a popular system I’ve been lectured about my responsibilities towards the offering of such content. So here is my opinion on the rights and responsibilities of creators and backers:
Creators have the responsibility to supply a product of the same or better quality of physical content as shown in campaign pictures or videos. Not significantly better, or of the nature that you would like them to supply. If a creator suggested a product would be upgraded during their campaign without giving specifics, and has upgraded that component, they do not have a responsibility to have made that upgrade to your personal specifications. They have fulfilled their promise, if the game as presented in images and videos would be unacceptable to you as a backer, do not back that project.
Creators have a responsibility to put out a product to the best of their capability, tested to certain specifications. If you personally do not like the balance or mechanics of a game, so long as they do not break down entirely, that is a matter of personal taste, not a matter of breached responsibility. You can thoroughly hate the content of a game or an element of it despite it being produced to a high level of design and testing.
Creators have a responsibility to provide what was paid for, in as timely a fashion as is physically possible. If that is done, everything else is not a matter of rights and responsibility, but a matter of hopes and desires.
It is possible that a creator will have copies of their game in hand at a point where they have the chance to sell them live, at a con most usually, before they have completed fulfilment to their backers. They might have planned to complete fulfilment before that con and so were planning to sell games at that con, they might even have been relying financially on selling games at that con. It is an article of faith to most Kickstarter creators and backers that they should not do so.
If a creator has Kickstarter funds, those funds do not belong to them until fulfilment is complete. If a creator has copies of their games, those games do not belong to them until fulfilment is complete. Kickstarter is nothing but a relationship of trust between creator and backer. A backer trusts the creator to fulfil their game as quickly as possible, once the creator chooses not to do so they have breached that trust, and it cannot be repaired. There is no level of sales, no size of con, sufficient to be worth breaching that trust, in terms either directly financial or in spirit.
Fans and very much not fans
Gabe Barrett of Boardgame Design Lab has a favourite phrase, that the job of a creator is to create raving fans. That’s a nice idea, in my experience, every game has some raving fans, every game is someone’s favourite, however terrible it might be. I’d say that something like 10% of people are going to be hardcore fans of whatever you do, the more people you get to take notice of you, the more of those raving fans you’ll have. Make a game that’s possible to love, and someone will love it. On the other hand, make a game that’s impossible to hate, and someone will still hate it, but you can at least make them wrong. You can make it so that anyone who doesn’t like your game is expressing an opinion. That’s their right, and you can’t do anything about it, but at least it’s not a fact. The haters will remain, and learning to deal with them is a tough part of public creation.
Step one is, identifying the trolls. This is often harder to do than you might think. Outright insulting for the sake of it trolls are actually pretty rare, far more regular are the people who ask questions when their purpose is to have an argument rather than obtain enlightenment, and the questions can often be quite reasonable. There are a few rules to work on here, firstly, assume that everyone is a reasonable person asking a question because they actually want it answered for a good reason, assume their viewpoint is valid and try to address it. Generally, even very negative queries will be resolved within a few back and forth messages if they are genuine, there is nothing wrong with a negative enquiry that ends in increased clarity and the acceptance that not everything is for everyone and the two parties going their separate ways. If there is no resolution after three or four messages take a look at the communication. If the other party asks questions and then ignores their direct responses and instead responds to errors or problems that are off topic or irrelevant the odds are fairly good that they’re here for a fight rather than an answer. At that point its really best to ‘walk away’ from the discussion, which can take a few different forms.
Not feeding the trolls can be tough. In a public forum, if you’ve answered reasonable queries to a reasonable degree, just stop responding. Its tough when the other person has responded to you and left things open for a retaliation, but this is not them winning the argument (no matter how right you are, they will never, ever acknowledge this, you are banging your head into a wall, you’re not going to tunnel through and even if you do, the wall isn’t going to congratulate you for it) this is you avoiding the situation where you’re arguing with an idiot and other people being unable to tell which is which. If messages are private, or if the same person continues to post separate comments that you’ve not responded to within something like your own comment section, this can be a lot tougher, un-answered comments look bad and other backers don’t necessarily know that the person is unreasonable. In this situation, remain civil, and apply the polite shut-down response, acknowledge them, but do not respond to the actual argument itself. It can be tough, but it’s the only reasonable reaction.
Remember, there’s nothing wrong with positivity. Jamey Stegmaier has a public persona of fairly relentless positivity. I say public persona because I don’t know him personally, though I understand that he’s a damn pleasant person to know in person. I’ve come across people who insist that this is some sort of false face, the thing is, I don’t care. Either Jamey is genuinely a really nice person, or he’s making the effort to appear as a really nice person. What exactly is the problem with either of those situations? Fake nice is a lot better than genuinely vicious, I’d far rather get a happy birthday card from someone who doesn’t mean it than a death threat from someone who does. Sometimes people force your hand, sometimes you can’t muster the energy to walk away, and sometimes its bad for your personal mental health not to vent at someone