A Tale of Two Kickstarters
Early this year, Rich Burlew refinanced the print collections of his hit gaming web comic Order of the Stick with a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign. Hoping to make roughly $60,000 to put just one of his books back in print, Burlew ended up raising $1,254,120, that is 2000% success, which allowed him to print major print runs of all his books
And today, Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins announced their Kickstarter campaign to raise $1,000,000 to allow their wildly successful gaming web comic, Penny Arcade, to go ad-free.
Now, comparing the two, it’s tempting to call Burlew’s Kickstarter a brilliant use of crowd funding to create independent art and Holkins and Krahulik’s Kickstarter a naked cash grab by the most popular gaming web comic on the net. And I’m pretty sure Holkins and Krahulik would agree with you.
In many ways, the Penny Arcade Kickstarter feels like a parody of a Kickstarting campaign, considering that it’s actually called “Penny Arcade Sells Out,” that the rewards are paltry and self-aggrandizing, and that the first and sixth rewards reference the Penny Arcade strip which called Gabe, Krahulik’s avatar, a monster for setting up a very similar Kickstarter.
The Order of the Stick campaign is a masterpiece of how to do crowd funding, with multiple rewards for under $100, all of which have some physical component, stickers, prints, collections and coloring books, patches, magnets. All priced low enough to be reasonable to most anyone, while offering some real proof of a reward.
Comparatively, Penny Arcade seems to be giving nothing away as a reward. There are only four reward levels under $100, only eleven levels below $1,000, and the only physical rewards in the whole thing are a certificate of appreciation, a commemorative t-shirt, a $1,000 shirt of the month club, and a print of… the strip making fun of the idea of a Penny Arcade Kickstarter.
Taken together, it kind of feels like a giant fuck you to Penny Arcade fans.
That said, there’s another way of looking at this that’s actually kind of admirable.
Scott McCloud said there are three ways for a web comic to make money: bits, bricks, and balls. That is, a web comic can charge for digital content, it can charge for tie-in objects, like book collections and t-shirts, or it can host advertising, and sell your (eye-)balls to other companies.
As the (actually charming) Kickstarter video explains, for the last decade, Penny Arcade funded a small company of fourteen employees, which ran the site, two gaming conventions, and a major charity, mainly through bricks (their extensive apparel and books section of their site) and balls (the banner ads on the top and right sides of their page). And here they are, explicitly trying to trade in their balls for bits.
But instead of selling the digital content that they’ve already delivered for free for the last fourteen years, they’ve set up a “pay what you’d like” donation system. Contrary to the title of their own campaign, instead of selling out, Penny Arcade is trying to rely on their audience and on their audience alone for support, and be beholden to no one else. They are trying to make money by making a web comic, and only by making a web comic.
Looked at like that, you can see that Burlew’s campaign is very brick oriented. It was created to finance the printing of physical books, and most of the rewards were material as well. In contrast, Penny Arcade’s campaign is all about bits, the rewards are digital or experiential, and half of them are obviously jokes. I don’t know what idiot paid $10,000 to have dinner with Jerry and Mike, but something something something, a fool and his money, yadda yadda yadda.
Should you donate to this campaign? If you don’t like Penny Arcade, then no, you’re not going to get much out of it and they don’t need your support. If you do like Penny Arcade, however, then that $15 pledge looks awfully reasonable. Remember, that’s a little more than a dollar a year for the last fourteen years of relatively free entertainment they’ve provided.
But I wouldn’t give them much more than that. $150 is a lot of money for a t-shirt, bro.