It's raining today. I'm in the home stretch of working at perhaps my second worst job (I worked at a nursing home when I was a teenager, which takes the cake by far). I always love the rain—gusting about and dreary. It reminds me of a vacation in Ireland from my childhood, where I first walked wide-eyed into a small, bright store. "Games Workshop." I didn't know what they all were for, lining the walls and display cases, but I left with a promo magazine and nearly spent the rest of the trip staring intently at one particular picture of rank-and-file Wood Elf spearmen defending a dark forest.
I worked all the next summer at my first job, earning $3.15 an hour on a neighbor's farm (I had to haggle to get that extra 15¢). I was there from 6am to 4pm, shoveling hills of manure to a location 3 feet away, running away from homicidal stampedes of dairy cows, and finding lucky cowbells in the tall weeds (long story). After the summer, I picked up the well-worn brochure again and called the number on the back.
That was my first fantasy gaming purchase. The next high point would come in 2005, when I accidentally chanced upon a dusty copy of HackMaster 4th Edition in a store. It perfectly captured everything I loved about AD&D (I had been indirectly led to 2nd Edition through Warhammer Fantasy Battle). I loved this unlikely hobby. I found there was nothing else like it, nothing which created a whole new world within my daily imaginings. And I loved working for that, and buying into that. Pen and paper gaming, whether wargaming or roleplaying, became the satisfyingly open-ended, undefined daydreaming that buouyed me in the work-a-day world that it so contrasted. As the tongue-in-cheek call to arms on the back cover of the HackMaster Player's Handbook read:
"For those of us that live in a world that forces us to conform, to abide by the rules day in and day out; for those of us that suffocate in our daily routine of breakfast cereal and ham sandwiches; for those of us that slave each day in our cubicle working for the Man; those who would be heroes if it weren't for the constraints of reality, we present:"
Websites, forums and online communities only entered into that picture later. I didn't even realize Games Workshop had a website in the beginning, and used to order completely from printed catalogs, referencing only small, grey photos to specify with the ever-patient sales rep exactly which Wood Elf spearmen poses I wanted. There was a sense of adventure in not knowing everything that was going on in the industry, or not knowing about everything that was due to release soon. The possibilities were endless, and the frontiers of that world mysterious. I was happily in a bubble, and eager for every new bit of news that was so hard-won at the time.
Crowd-funding has changed a lot about the indie publishing industry. Yet (and I hate to be the first one to suggest it, as it seems to be breathing such real, quantifiable life ($) into the scene), I suspect there is a bubble here that is close to popping. Indeed, game designers have taken to crowd-funding largely because there is no current technology for making traditional publishing-distribution chains viable for niche markets. Like Google Checkouts, Kickstarter (et al.) allows reliable direct sale opportunities for small publishers that have been largely shut out by conservative distributors. But what cost is there for this immediacy? Niche hobbies thrive on interest, but while everyone seems to be excited about stretch goals, interactive product development and tiered reward levels, I can't help but feel that some of the magic has been taken out of the process.
As consumers, we are getting a lot of direct information through participating in funding, whether in the form of special sneak peaks, previews of potential new products or simply some small part in sharing the product design. But more interaction, and more information, is not always a good thing. I can imagine a Kickstarter burnout in the future, where the excitement that crowd-funding pre-orders generate is overtaken by information overload. A burnout where our building interest in seeing a project as it developes dissapates a little more when we finally receive the product we have been over-expecting. Crowd-funding means you are paying ahead for a product that you will not have in your hands for many months. Even with great products, what is the evaporation rate of that excitement that must survive that long stretch?
There are other problems with crowd-funding as well. It seems to be accelerating the already miserable state of distribution, pushing local gaming stores further to the fringes, and increasingly moving communities online. One of our local Islamic scholars here in Toronto remarked about that final point just last weekend, while speaking before a (traditional) dinner fundraiser for his school. In reference to online education, he argued that it is ironic that online communities are supposedly all about connecting with each other, while in reality they leave us more practically disconnected than ever before.
I don't really have another answer, and simply saying "well, the glory days of roleplaying games are over" and letting the entropy of distribution set in seems passé. Kickstarter et al. seems to have breathed new monetary life into the OSR, but let's not forget that the OSR began well before industrious-types had figured out a way to capitalize it. It was carried then by traditional enthusiasm of tangible substance. While websites like Kickstarter have been proven to generate hype, at the end of the day, the enduring proofs in this hobby are quality products on the one hand, and an abiding sense of mystery on the other. Unfortunately, crowd-funding tends to be antithetical to both ends, as it creates a very low barrier for self-publishing, while also flushing out the entire discourse of what makes a satisfying roleplaying game product into terms of what is immediately gratifying. Even then, with the nature of project funding, the immediate gratification of spoilers, previews and shared development are only deceptively immediate, creating dangerous over-anticipation.