Yesterday the nice man from DHL brought me a package. It contained a copy of Monte Cook’s new book Numenera, a role-playing game that I have been looking forward to for quite some time. I’ve had the PDF for awhile but there’s nothing quite like holding a physical book to make something real, as I know from my own experiments with producing a print version of Stealer of Flesh.
I don’t want to do a review of Numenera right here, right now. Free time has been in short supply this year and I’ve just skimmed through it. It’s a good looking book laid out in a style that should be familiar to anyone who has read Arcana Evolved or Ptolus or any other Malhavoc products, which is to say its a clean, clear layout with lots of interesting art. At first glance the rules look simple and interesting. I’ll give it a more thorough read now that I have the hardback and I may get round to reviewing it at some point. Today I want to talk about something else.
The thing about Numenara is that I had a direct part in its creation. I don’t mean I wrote anything for it, or did any art or even playtested it. I didn’t do any of those things. All I did was help fund it and I did this by way of Kickstarter. And I have to say it gives me a little kick when I look at page 410 and see my name listed among the backers.
This was a project I really wanted to see. It is a far future fantasy, influenced by Gene Wolfe’s Shadow of the Torturer books and the SF comics of the French artist Jean Giraud (Moebius). Although Mr Cook does not mention it in his notes I would guess there is some influence from Jack Vance’s Dying Earth as well either directly or smuggled in via Wolfe. In any case, it’s in a genre I love and for which there are very few roleplaying games available. I really wanted to see what Monte was going to do with it so I ponied up my sixty dollars and, lo and behold, a year and a bit later I am holding the hardback in my hands and I am very well pleased with it.
I am hardly what you would call a wild Kickstarter funder. So far I have backed two and a half Kickstarters. This was one of them, Matt Forbeck’s madly ambitious Twelve for Twelve project was another and Sasquatch Game Studio’s Primeval Thule. I say I backed half of one because I missed the deadline for Primeval Thule’s efforts on Kickstarter and got in through the backdoor on their Slacker Backer Pledge drive.
I backed Matt’s Kickstarter because I wanted to see the books and I knew he could deliver them. I also thought that anyone demented enough to attempt to write 12 novels in a year deserved my backing. I backed Numenera for the reasons I gave above and I backed Primeval Thule because, well, it’s sword and sorcery, another genre I don’t think get’s enough love from the gaming industry.
People wanted to do cool things that I liked. All they required from me was a relatively small sum of money and they would give me them. It seemed like a fair trade to me so I coughed up. And therein lies the magic of Kickstarter and, in some ways, the era in which we live.
Making games and getting them in front of people is not an easy thing. It used to be that most game companies failed and running one, for most people, was a very expensive hobby. It cost them not just in terms of time and effort. It cost what for most people would be a huge life-savings size sum of money. Many people can write a game and produce the rules in their own spare time, but even then getting art and editing and layout and printing all cost money. Back in the day, you could throw in money for warehousing as well although that’s less problematical in these days of ebooks and PDFs.
All of this money, often tens of thousands of dollars, had to come from somewhere, and believe it or not, banks are not all that keen on lending money to small game companies. This means that producing a game was often a labour of love, funded by the people who were putting it out. For most people the sort of sums involved, while not gigantic in terms of what most businesses cost to startup, were still an enormous personal commitment, a second mortgage on the house sort of commitment. Now, rational sensible business people can say that its exactly the sort of thing that should keep people from going into the game business, but there are always people who will think with their hearts rather than their heads.
Kickstarter not only provides a way of raising cash, it provides an interesting test market for the idea of a game, or any other product. You can see whether your idea has legs. If you’ve done your calculations correctly and you set your pledge levels right, you can see if there’s a market there for what you want to sell. If you can raise the money, it’s all systems go. If you can’t, you can take the warning and quit while you’re ahead. Nothing has been risked except the time and money you put into your proposal. I am sure that can still amount to a fair amount but I doubt that it compares to setting up a company and have it crash and burn. You are sending your idea out into the real world and letting your potential customers kick the tires. And if you can get the cash raised you’ve gone a long way towards creating a committed audience.
Of course, it helps if your customers believe you can deliver, for sending money to a Kickstarter product is not like walking into your friendly local game store and slapping your cash on the counter. It’s possible that you might contribute your cash and never see any more of it. It hasn’t happened to me but I’ve heard of people pledging cash to Kickstarters that never delivered. It’s a risk.
In the case of the projects I backed, it’s a risk I was prepared to take. I believed the people asking for my cash could deliver and they have a track record of being able to do so. I have seen examples of their previous work and loved it. It also has to be said that in the case of one of the people asking for my dollars (hello, Matt!) they were a personal friend. All of this helps.
We’ve moved into a new era for the gaming industry (and I would guess for small publishing in general.) You can raise capital without going to conventional sources. You can test market your ideas through websites that already exist at very low costs. You can mobilise fans and backers via social media. And you can distribute over the Interwebs themselves, moving to print on-demand, if you want hardcopies.
I am sure none of this comes as a surprise to many of you who have been backing Kickstarters for a while but there was something about holding that hardback copy of Numenera in my hand that made it all so much more real for me.
A special mention here to Paul Bryant of Gameslore for tracking me down and resending my copy of Numenera from the UK when it was returned undelivered from my previous address. Thank you, Paul!