The Kickstarter Mode of Production

Which is a more degrading way of making a living?


I want to see what people think. I also want to provide some of my own thoughts.

Kickstarter presents developers with what appears to be a fair challenge: come up with a cool idea, demonstrate to others that your idea is cool and that you can complete it, and capital shall be allocated to you. We can imagine almost immediately some problems with this model- Kickstarter isn't a really 'free' market, certain products are banned or can be banned, Kickstarter does take a non-trivial amount of money from each successful campaign, it's limited to the United States presently, and, the biggest one: there's no effective legal recourse for people who donate to a campaign and then don't get what they paid for. Kickstarter very carefully avoids calling itself an investment company or framing campaigns as anything other than hobbyist donation solicitations with a possible future payoff equal to or less than the value of ones donation. Which means that nobody will ever be building steel mills or floating muni bonds over the service. Which is probably a good thing.

The most crippling disadvantage of the Kickstarter mode is that it actually gives people (who have money) the terrible things that they really seem to want. It's difficult to properly describe the phenomenon... a reprint of a book based on a webcomic about sticks got over one million dollars, Penny Arcade got fully one half of a million dollars to remove some, not all, ads from its front page, half the most-funded page in the games category has the word 'zombie' somewhere, and people forked over ten million dollars of money that was apparently 'earned' in some sense at some time to a dorky watch. I wish I could describe this stuff better than I could, but the wretchedness of the entire thing kind of chokes off any description of it. It really is the unfettered operation of the nerd mind over the freest yet conceived marketplace of ideas, and the results are stick webcomics, rape card games, and insulting statues.

The demands of the Kickstarter marketplace just replace the demands of the boardroom or the investor or venture capitalist, they don't eliminate them. Kickstarter requires a different kind of self-selling, and different form of prostitution and exerts a different kind of discipline. Even though no one is technically required to deliver the goods, in order to get the money to develop the goods in the first place, every developer using Kickstarter has to carefully manage their product and make it appear to be within acceptable bounds. You must be courteous and respectful when you deal with the people who fund you, of course, but you must also respect their ideas about design and theme and everything else. That means only projects that tickle the right fantasies or present themselves in the appropriate way get funded. If your game has a buzzword in it, like zombie, or if it has a graphical style including visible pixels or blocks, there is a minimum funding floor you will not be able to go beneath no matter how amateur you look or how weak your ideas are. Here's an actual screen grab from recently triple-over-funded zombie project "The Dead Linger" (tagline: "The Dead Linger is an FPS that embodies the gaming community's hunger for a true, open-world, zombie apocalypse survival sandbox.")

If you have an unconventional design or you don't care about zombies or cartoon pornography, you're going to have a rough time.

Kickstarter isn't that far from the ideal funding form. If it were project-agnostic (somehow) and just gave everyone capable of producing something interesting a modest stipend and money for development expenses it would be a more effecient replacement for state funding of the arts and not a grotesque fanservice festival. But nobody currently contributing to Kickstarter would put their money in that kind of pot. It's the control fantasy, more than any specific zombie-apocalypse or high-school-rape fantasy, that makes Kickstarter work the way it does, the idea that the individual can have his effect on the world by making sure the latest epic zombie boardgame gets the three hundred thousand dollars it needs to be printed and shipped.
Update 9 Sept 2012: never mind about that muni bond shit I mentioned earlier...