GenCon: Kickstarting the Con

A convention is always a landslide, a group of similarly interested people, companies and performers bouncing downhill in loose formation for however many days it takes for the goods to be sold, the lease to run out and the beer to run dry. Earlier today, someone tweeted:


GenCon’s in town. The whole of Central Indiana is now out of Mountain Dew.


Which, on the one hand, isexactly the sort of entitled snarkiness that a town that lives and dies on its convention center really can do without, but on the other is pretty accurate. Like all convention crowds the gamers have come to shop, talk, play, eat and party. There are 50,000 people here and they’re all, however much it may make the alpha males in town balk, here for the love of the game. Just not the game at the local stadium.

Which has got me thinking about Richard Feynman.

Feynman is a hero of mine despite the fact that I have no scientific qualifications other than a U in A-Level Geology and have seen every episode of the good versions of Star Trek. No, Feynman is a hero of mine because he was passionately interested in everything, from bongo drums to safecracking, from making a better french bean cutter to making the atom bomb. Richard Feynman spent his life picking the lock of the world and that’s one of the reasons why I try and spend mine doing the same.  The isle is full of wonders, as Caliban once said, and whilst I can’t look at all of them I can certainly be as appreciative as possible to the ones I do spend time with. This is why, when the Challenger disaster happened and Feynman was asked to be on the inquiry board, he initially turned it down. The story goes that he agreed when his wife pointed out he’d be the only one heading in the opposite direction to the rest of the group, asking the awkward questions and doing his best to make a nuisance of himself. Feynman did just that, and his findings were instrumental in finding the design fault in the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters.


Go in the opposite direction. Ask the awkward questions. Make a nuisance of yourself.


As journalistic mission statements go, that covers pretty much everything.


Which is why I found myself, in the exhibitor hall an hour early on a press pass, talking to the publishers about Kickstarter.  The pledge-based project site has been quietly gathering steam for a long time now, and if it hasn’t already broken as a story in the mainstream media it’s only a matter of time. The model is simple; a project is put on Kickstarter with an explanatory video and text and a funding goal. The project can be anything from ceramic pots for hanging gardens to a series of straight-to-dvd pulp science fiction films. You can pledge at any level from one dollar upwards and most levels have a reward attached to them. These range from a print copy if it’s a book to your name on a wall if it’s a location to a walk on role in a movie. The one proviso is that if the project doesn’t make it’s goal, you’re not charged, but you don’t get your reward.

The last six months alone have seen the reprint drive for the comic Order of the Stick, Penny Arcade‘s decision to use the site to fund going ad free, the Ouya games console and the launch of Deadlands Noir massively exceed their initial goals. The psychological maths is so simple that it’s impossible not to wonder why no one thought of this first; crowd based funding, where everyone pays a little and gets a lot in return. It even has the added advantage of a psychological kick for the backers. I picked up my copy of Farewell to Fear from David Hill earlier today and even though I knew I’d paid money for it, the simple fact of being handed a book by a publisher felt free. This is philanthropy with the mental aftertaste of anarchy and it’s every bit as addictive as that suggests.


It’s also extremely useful. The site is being used primarily to fund new projects, and when the project is administered correctly and the publicity behind it good enough, it far exceeds its goals. Each one of the projects I mention above broke through it’s funding target by comfortable to ridiculous degrees, further assisting their publisher. It’s this back end benefit however that’s starting to help established projects and game lines too. Each publisher I spoke to today sung the praises of the site and each one had their own stories about the learning experience the site offered. One funds the entirety of his print run through Kickstarter for each new book, simultaneously restarting an old game line and removing any overheads bar storage for the copies that ship to retailers. Another is using it to fund a series of comics that directly tie into one of their licensee’s game lines, enhancing the background of that line at the same time as continuing to establish themselves as a comics publishing studio. A third uses the site to stay in contact with the community that plays his games and a fourth has used it to lay out the next year’s worth of projects. Each one doesn’t use the site as a funding tool, they use it as a lens, a microscope that looks at their work, how it’s received and what they can do with it. It’s an unflinching, clinical lens too, after all, people will only part with their money if they believe the project is worth their patronage.

And it’s that word I find myself thinking a lot about; patronage. This is a completely new arts funding model wrapped in an incredibly old one. Each time a Kickstarter is funded, a group of patrons are literally giving them money to make art happen. The difference being that this time there’s no agenda beyond the one the artists set for themselves, and the patron’s assessment comes not from how well the artist has kept to their instructions but how attractive the artist’s proposal is. That’s a very harsh way of funding your work, and it puts the lie to the small, but vocal minority that view Kickstarter as a shortcut or a means of funding work that doesn’t ‘deserve’ to be funded.  This has been particularly notable in comic circles, with The Comics Journal covering both the pro and anti sides of the debate with varying degrees of calm and equal amounts of interest. Less than half all Kickstarters, at time of writing, get funded after all. But the simple fact the process is there, the simple fact that suddenly you have a door that’s open to everyone, even if not everyone will walk through it, is tremendously empowering.  Kickstarter isn’t a universal cure all and it’s not a level playing field, but it’s so much better to have it than to not.  After all, what better embodiment of the GenCon motto: ‘No game left behind?’



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