As ‘Zine Month’ Wraps Up, Game Designers Ponder A Future With (Or Without) Kickstarter

As ‘Zine Month’ Wraps Up, Game Designers Ponder A Future With (Or Without) Kickstarter

Kickstarter has been used as a crowdfunding platform for tabletop role-playing games almost since its inception. In 2012, only three years after Kickstarter first launched, Jamie Chambers successfully ran a crowdfunding campaign in support of a new edition of the classic science fiction RPG, Metamorphosis.

In 2019, Kickstarter initiated Zine Quest, where it pledged to highlight tabletop roleplaying zines that fell within a certain set of parameters meant to emphasise games emulating old-school RPG zines of the ‘70s and ‘80s. What this served to do was basically signal to all the larger tabletop publishers — not just giants like Wizards of the Coast, but mid-size publishers like Paizo, Evil Hat, Free League, and Magpie Games — that this event was geared toward smaller-scaled, more personal projects.

And then… it worked. And not only did it work, it took off in a massive, almost unbelievable way. According to the data collected by a TTRPG illustrator known as Zeshio, 92% of the 105 Zine Quest projects were funded in 2019. This is a massive number, as Kickstarter reports only 40% of the projects hosted on its site are successfully funded.

Then, in 2020, Zine Quest was officially made into an annual month-long event. This time there were 276 projects, 90% of which funded. In 2021, 384 projects were put on Kickstarter, with 97.1% successfully funded.

These numbers aren’t just impressive, they’re staggering. The sheer amount of money and projects on the site demonstrate that the independent TTRPG scene is a thriving, well-funded, and extremely well-connected ecosystem. There is, very likely, no other group that can mobilize its consumers to spread $US1.73 ($2) million across nearly 400 projects in a single month. But then — like so many other community-billed events that rely on a giant corporation making moral and/or intelligent decisions — Kickstarter fucked it up. In doing so, it sparked a longer, deeper conversation about what happens when a DIY, punk-esque scene relies on a singular company for its support structure.

The first mistake happened when Kickstarter announced that Zine Quest wouldn’t happen in February in 2022, but in August, to coincide with tabletop game convention GenCon. That in itself isn’t a big deal, but the announcement came via tweet in January of 2022, long after many creators had already planned out their Kickstarter pages, campaigns, launches, stretch goals, and budgets. Changing plans for many people and presses was not only risky, but could interfere with their entire calendar of production and, in some cases, creators’ livelihoods.

io9 reached out to Kickstarter for a comment, and the company reiterated the above points and added that August is “a month that historically has been one our strongest for pledges to games projects. We also hope to garner even more visibility for Zine Quest projects to fans and creators at GenCon that month. We know from experience and our own data that when large projects launch on Kickstarter, more backers come to the platform and back even more projects. With these changes, we hope to make 2022 Zine Quest’s biggest year yet.”

The second, bigger fuckup happened when Kickstarter announced it would be moving to blockchain-based transactions. There’s no real reason why Kickstarter needed to be on the blockchain, but perhaps the investors wanted it? Maybe they needed more buzz? Whatever the reasoning, the fallout of the decision came by way of a massive backlash from a group of independent TTRPG creators, many of whom heavily relied on Kickstarter as the backbone of their business. While this decision wasn’t put into effect immediately, and was in fact walked back fairly quickly, the announcement caused some big names to divest from the platform. Notably, the indie studio darling Possum Creek Games was incredibly vocal about this decision, and quickly switched to IndieGoGo.

These two announcements from Kickstarter meant that creators were starting to more deeply investigate the nuts and bolts of the financial ecosystem of independent TTRPG creators, who (for the most part) have relied on Kickstarter to get their games funded and marketed. Enter: Zine Month.

Feral Indie Studio decided that there were more reasons than just shifting schedules and crypto to divest from Kickstarter. In January, the two members of the studio officially launched Zine Month, a community-focused initiative to support and educate folks in the independent TTRPG community who wanted to learn how to produce crowdfunded games on different platforms. As Feral Indie explained to Gizmodo via email, “originally Zine Month largely got started out of the knowledge that we as TTRPG creators depended on a February launch for financial reasons.” The collective later developed three goals for the community which grew on the ZiMo Discord: education, de-monopolization, and democratization, ultimately hoping to create a more equitable and sustainable community off Kickstarter.

It became more and more clear that as Zine Month commenced, not everyone in the TTRPG community wanted, or even had the option, to get off Kickstarter.

W. F. Smith, who ran a Kickstarter campaign during Zine Month to support Barkeep on the Borderlands, said to Gizmodo that currently Kickstarter is the only platform that allows first-time creators the reach and marketing needed to run an ambitious project: “In the final accounting, over 60% of my backers are a direct result of Kickstarter, despite near constant marketing efforts on my own.”

But for some people, the effect of Kickstarter’s marketing power has been minimal. Amanda Franck, who participated in both Zine Quest 2021 and Zine Month 2022, told Gizmodo that she did just as well on Kickstarter in 2021 as she did on NERVES.store — a small marketplace run by TTRPG writer John Battle. Her book, Crush Depth Apparition, was successfully funded and is now in preorder. She also mentioned that this move was done with the larger community in mind. “The more we can build a community that’s not dependent on the big internet hubs, the easier it will be to survive.”

Some authors and creators have never had the opportunity to use Kickstarter. Global TTRPG developers are often very limited in their digital options because sites often refuse to deal with money conversion and tax laws within smaller countries. With a larger, community shift away from Kickstarter, people began to seek out other options and opened up to crowdfunding on alternative platforms, which meant that some marginalised creators were able to join in on a more global scale in order to get their work out to the community on their terms and under their control.

Kyle Tinga is one such creator. A writer and designer based out of the Philippines, she told Gizmodo that “if I wanted to be able to create a campaign on [Kickstarter, IndieGoGo, GameFound, or Game On Tabletop] I’d have to find a publishing partner, and I am neither established enough nor creating a game large enough to justify that.” Tinga turned, like many designers, to itch.io, the independent games site, to crowdfund her game MORIAH. Max Lander, who was originally going to crowdfund on Kickstarter before the schedule shift and blockchain announcement, also decided to host his Zine Month project, Himbos of Myth and Mettle, on itch.io.

“I knew I wanted to do [a physical edition],” he told Gizmodo in an email, “and itch’s support for that is still so limited. But I want all my work to be connected… so starting on itch.io made sense… The fact that itch.io is the only widely used platform, games or otherwise, that has always stuck up for NSFW content means I am more than willing to put up with its weird hiccups. In my other life I am a smut maker, and the removal of sexualized content on platforms is always an act of homophobia.”

ICO Partners reports that tabletop games had their best year yet on Kickstarter in 2021; the hobby brought in over $US250 ($347) million via the crowdfunding site. Although the updated total data is still coming in, a group of creators have estimated that Zine Month has brought in about $US800,000 ($1,110,560) across all platforms in February. This is a huge number, but less than half of what was reported in 2021.

It’s clear from the data collected over the month that Kickstarter games tend to be more monetarily successful than games funded on any other platform. Likewise, Kickstarter still hosts the most game funding campaigns during the month. Despite the backlash, Kickstarter maintains a monopoly within the industry, even with many creators successfully divesting from the platform.

However, the work of divesting the large TTRPG ecosystem from Kickstarter must be collective or there will always be those who will automatically achieve more monetary success because of their association with the platform. Lander agreed, saying, “The current model of chasing exploding KS success and platform dependence will always favour the same people, so I see Zine Month, and the community’s support of it, as a major part of the move towards a more equitable indie TTRPG space.” This year, Kickstarter’s supremacy is being challenged, not by individuals, but by an expanding, inclusive collective of creators.

While Zine Month proves that Kickstarter isn’t the end-all be-all for raising funds, it’s clear that the promotion on the host site is not nearly as impactful as Kickstarter’s own algorithm and base of subscribers. Indie TTRPG authors will always be fighting for recognition in a space that can often feel incredibly insular because many people’s marketing methods rely on word-of-mouth. Press kits for indie games are just starting to become popular, largely thanks to the work of Tony Vasinda of Plus One Exp.

As Feral Indie Studio explained, “Many individuals offered their time, skills, and experience in creating workshops, demos, and interviews with a variety of creators… This was integral to the decentralization as it allowed people from all over to come together, without the looming structure of a corporation, and help one another. Voices that had previously been shut out now had equal footing.”

It’s difficult to define the independent TTRPG scene as a community, and I’ve tried to avoid doing so here–the community groups that exist are insular, clustered into Discords and on Slacks, largely coalesced around a few creators who have decided to establish forums (R.I.P G+ is the last place that really cemented itself in the scene as the go-to community forum) for backchannel talk. Instead, creators and consumers create a self-reflective ecosystem, where every creator is a consumer, and many consumers are creators. Finding new ways to break out of insular communities is difficult, and Kickstarter is an easy way to push your project through multiple vectors of communication.

Zine Month has had a good showing this year, which Feral Indie emphasised was due to the group effort of the community. And while there’s still room to improve, it believes that that in 2023 it might have the chops to more fully de-monopolize and democratize the process by becoming a powerful new space that works toward a collective scene rather than a selective one. Another ZiMo creator, Edaureen Muhamad Nor, agreed via an email, stating that those participating in Zine Month put in a considerate effort to uplift others. “We know there’s strength in numbers and diversity, and it’s easier not to be beholden to one large platform when everyone’s doing the work of supporting and promoting one another.”