Precinct Omega Podcast - News #39 - Crowdfunding



As usual, script follows:


NEWS


Immortal Kings have announced new fantasy releases for their new “Towers of Light” and “Forces of Night” ranges. If you’ve not heard of Immortal Kings before, I’m not that surprised. But they appeared a couple of years ago with some very nicely designed sci-fi mechs and robots. Their business model, however, is firmly rooted in 3D printing, with purchase options either for the STL of their designs or for a printed version. In the context of my recent discussion on this subject, it’s worth noting that a typical STL is retailed for £15, whilst the same model, printed, is clocking in at £58, which clearly shows where Immortal Kings sits when it comes to this argument.


There’s no word on scale, yet, but I’m guessing it will be on the larger side, starting from 35mm and maybe even up as tall as 54mm.


Warlord Games continues to make new releases for their Victory at Sea WW2 naval combat range, with new releases for the USSs Iowa, Hornet and Alaska. These are, as far as I can tell, resin kits, so it’s hard to know to what extent Warlord are reinforcing strength or weakness in sales for VaS. My suspicion is that they are committed to releasing a certain number of designs. Resin allows them to keep stock limited and casting costs down. But once they’ve gone through their planned release content, it’ll be interesting to see if they push for any expansion to this range.


But, speaking of Warlord, be advised that they are currently doing a 5 for 4 sale on blister packs of miniatures - that is, buy five and get the cheapest one free. Use the code 5FOR4-BLISTERS at checkout to take advantage while stocks last.


Raging Heroes, meanwhile, is doubling down on GW’s recent Sisters of Battle news, with further additions to their sci-fi fetish nun range. The Icariates Severors are… look, they’re flying sci-fi fetish nuns with swords and a stupid name, as opposed to the Icariates Ablazers who are flying sci-fi fetish nuns with flamethrowers and a stupid name. That’s basically how this goes.


Where I will, however, give Raging Heroes credit is that they are still casting minis in good old-fashioned resin and, to be fair to them, much as I’m a crusty grognard who prefers white metal, Raging Heroes really are making minis that take advantage of what resin can do. Despite - or, possibly, because of - their undeniably silliness, they are really quite spectacular.


Tabletop Art has released a small selection of new Fantasy Football minis - in the sense of ball sports played by fantasy creatures. There’s a Japanese-style ogre, a dodgy orc merchandise salesman, three tiny snotlings and what I can only assume is a rat-ogre, although it could be a were-rat.


I don’t know how big Bloodbowl or any of its various impersonators are, right now, but it’s always good to see new minis with their sense of humour firmly in place.


Battlefront has added Late War Hungarian, Romanian and Finnish vehicle and infantry options to their Flames of War range, helpfully reminding us that, despite the post-war narrative, the Second World War was never really as simple as Axis versus Allies and that there were a startling complexity of different national interests at play in the conflict. And I, for example, never knew that the Finnish forces used a swastika - usually a blue one - not only throughout the war but right up to the present day, with its use being quietly ended only last year.


So good luck to German wargamers wanting to field a historically-accurate Finnish army in Flames of War. I’ll say this for Battlefront: for better or for worse, they have really grasped every nettle the Second World War has to offer without flinching.


I’ve spoken before - albeit with some reluctance - about Manufaktura Miniatures, but I won’t be talking about them again. Their designs have always been right up to the edge of the extremely blurry line between acceptable and unacceptable subjects for tabletop miniatures design but, lately, they just decided to stroll right across that line into material that is straight-up nasty. I don’t want to kink-shame anyone and what you’re into is what you’re into, but from this point forward, Manufaktura is manufacturing for the BDSM memorabilia market, not for tabletop use. So… seeya.


A far sadder departure, though, from Red Box Games. In many way, Red Box has been America’s answer to Hasslefree or Heresy: a micro-enterprise built around a supremely talented miniatures designer and traditional medium sculptor - in the case of Red Box, this was Tre Manor. Although I had no direct contact with Tre over the years, I always heard excellent things about him and I’ve painted many of his minis which were always a pleasure - both beautiful in concept and really well cast. So I was very sad to hear that Tre is calling time on Red Box at least partly because his eye-sight has worsened with age to the point that he can no longer sculpt. Tre says that he won’t be putting Red Box up for sale, but he’s not indicated whether the moulds and masters for his many excellent minis will be passed on to another company to continue manufacture. Indications are, though, that they won’t. So please get yourself along to Red Box Games, check out their outstanding fantasy and historical miniatures and treat yourself to one or more to help feather Tre’s well-earned retirement.


And before I move on, here’s some Precinct Omega-relevant news, too:


Novus Design Studio has added a number of sci-fi adjacent 6mm buildings to their range, including a sports arena, airport terminal and smart-looking modern hotel. These are clearly FDM prints from the photographs, but it’s not clear whether they are then resin cast or simply printed to order, but I’m guessing they are cast as Nova has been selling cast resin pieces since before 3D printing was a thing. They’re based in Colorado and focus exclusively on terrain in various scales.


TTCombat has released a new selection of capital ships for their Dropfleet Commander spaceships range, which are as spectacular as you would expect from this highly-produced range of predominantly resin casts. However, they have also teased a truly immense space station gun platform. And with Horizon Wars: Infinite Dark now just one week from release, this is a good time to be buying spaceships.


And finally, North Star Military Figures concluded a successful crowdfunding campaign for their Stargrave plastic kits and have started teasing pics of specialist upgrades to those kits in, I’m guessing, white metal. Obviously, these kits are all highly suitable for Horizon Wars: Zero Dark but the reason I’ve left this piece of news until last is to ease us into this week’s discussion topic: crowdfunding.


DISCUSSION

Perhaps Bernard could start us off by providing a standard definition of crowdfunding?


<Crowdfunding is the practice of funding a project or venture by raising small amounts of money from a large number of people, typically via the Internet.>


Indeed.


When I scour the various news sources I go to for information every fortnight for this podcast, I am invariably inundated with news about new Kickstarters. And with very few exceptions, I resist hard the pressure to include them in that week’s news unless they have either had a spectacular success, spectacular failure or are somehow relevant to the news. But it’s not because I don’t like Kickstarter.


<Not just because you don’t like Kickstarter>


Hey, I have nothing against Kickstarter! Not since they gave in and let their employees unionise, anyway. Pro tip, kids: if your employer recognizes a union, damn well join it. The rights we enjoy in the workplace today are because unions of the past fought for them and if we give up on the union movement now, our rights will be gradually stripped away.


<This has been a party political broadcast on behalf of Socialist Wargamers for a Greener Economy>


Quite.


Anyway, the main reason I don’t tend to cover Kickstarter news is that I kind of don’t really consider it to be real news. The thing with Kickstarters is that they tend to last 7 to 30 days and then go into what amounts to radio silence for anything between six months and six years while they actually fulfil the rewards - assuming they actually manage to fulfil the rewards. The other risk, of course, is that they don’t meet their funding target at all and what looked like news turns out to be… the opposite of news. Olds, possibly.


But, in any case, the news only turns up once the Kickstarted project actually becomes a retail product. That often doesn’t even happen and, if it does, it’s very much a non-event because all of the really enthusiastic supporters backed the Kickstarter already.


The exceptions are when a Kickstarter actually does what a Kickstarter is supposed to do: kick-start something. In this case, you might use Kickstarter to get a miniatures range off the ground, but then use the profit from the campaign to then develop additional miniatures and other peripherals without returning to Kickstarter. Now that’s news.


But the reason I’m raising this now is that I’m contemplating running a crowdfunding campaign and one reason I’ve not pulled the trigger yet is because I’m not convinced that Kickstarter is the one-stop solution for crowdfunding that everyone seems to think it is.


Much like Amazon has tried its hardest to convince us that they are synonymous with online shopping; Kickstarter has tried to convince us that they are synonymous with crowdfunding. But let’s look back at Bernard’s definition:


<Crowdfunding is the practice of funding a project or venture by raising small amounts of money from a large number of people, typically via the Internet.>


What Kickstarter really does is two things:


First, it provides a way to find the large number of people you need for any crowdfunding venture.


Second, it acts as an escrow service: being a trusted third party who holds backers’ money until the project is fulfilled. And this is the big thing.


Crowdfunding really only works when it’s built on trust: the backer trusts that the project owner won’t just disappear with their money, whilst the project owner trusts that the backer will pay up the amount their promised at the appointed time.


Now, Kickstarter doesn’t technically fulfil either of these functions in truth, because a backer can change their pledge level at any time from the point that they pledge to the closing time of the project. So you could go from being a $100 backer to a $1 backer, or even a $0 backer, at the click of a mouse. And this can have a massive impact on project owners.


Projects that looked solid to fund have missed their target at the last minute from backers dropping out or reducing backer levels. And it’s possible for a project to unexpectedly fund when backers increase support at the last minute - although, it has to be said, I’ve never heard of this happening, because of FoMO: projects that have successfully funded in their first 48 hours are more likely to grow than shrink, and projects that haven’t successfully funded in their last 48 hours are unlikely to do so (and more likely to lose backers who don’t want to see the project “just scrape through”).


But it cuts both ways. Projects have successfully funded and then never manifested - because Kickstarter hands over the money at the end of the window, rather than when the project is complete.


For both parties, Kickstarter is a gamble. And, as with all gambling, you shouldn’t bet more than you can afford to lose.


Kickstarter, does have one major advantage to the project owner over other options: a near-total lack of formal accountability. It’s not a pre-order system, despite how people treat it. It’s an investment for which you are promised a return in the form of a “reward”, but with no obligation on the project owner to actually deliver on that reward. If a project funds in full but then founders on a change of circumstances, poor planning or chance, there is no recourse for the backers.


There is, at least theoretically, a recourse if the project owner just does a bunk with the cash, and makes no attempt to fulfil the project, they have obtained money on false pretenses - i.e. committed a fraud.


But what alternatives are available to entrepreneurs looking to get their project off the ground, besides Kickstarter?


The first one option is to seek conventional investment: that is, to seek a business loan of some form. The first difference between this and crowdfunding is that, rather than lots of people contributing small amounts, it’s a small number of people (often just one institution) contributing large amounts. The other difference is that this relationship is sealed in a legal understanding that the investors will get something pretty important back: i.e. their money, plus interest. Warlord Games got started this way and continues to service debt to its initial investors.


The next option is to raise the money through conducting other business. This is what we might think of as the “old school” approach of cutting your cloth to fit. It involves simply saving up capital from operating profit until you have enough in reserve to pay for the next thing. Most of the other businesses in this week’s news operate this way: new projects are funded through the proceeds of earlier projects.


The big advantage with this approach is that it leaves you financially beholden to no one.


The big downsides, though, are that it tends to take a long time and, even if it doesn’t, you are only ever making a guesstimate on how successful the new project is going to be.


The thing that crowdfunding has over traditional funding methods is that, by attracting a crowd, you earn a certain degree of certainty over the likely popularity and appeal of the project you are developing. If your project is something entirely new to your business, that kind of reassurance - especially to a micro-enterprise - is invaluable.


So let’s assume that crowdfunding is necessary. Either a business doesn’t have the capital to just pursue a project, or it needs to recoup its invested capital with a degree of urgency that business as usual just can’t provide.


What are the models of crowdfunding?


<Charity>


This is the simple “ask for money” approach. For example, if I ran a popular podcast -


<As opposed to this one>


Thank you, Bernard.


If I ran a popular weekly podcast with 2000 listeners per episode, and I wanted to replace my dying hardware with some spiffy modern set-up that would make sound quality vastly better and ensure the podcast continued for many years to come, it would be a fine approach to just… ask folks for money.


They could pay directly to your PayPal account and if every listener paid just $1, you’d have more than enough to pay for that fancy new rig. Or, if you wanted to use a third party to provide a shareable link for donations, you could use a site like GoFundMe.


To take a recent serious example, Ali Dogan Sayiner of Iliada Game Studio had to go into hospital for an operation. With no social care system in place in Turkey to pay that bill, it was going to cost him an eye-watering sum for life-saving surgery. GoFundMe can’t operate in Turkey, but Ali has a lot of friends and fans in the community, so he asked for help, setting up an option on his website in which a customer could simply add a “Help Ali” imaginary product to their basket for a variable sum from $1. Last I heard, about a third of Ali’s medical bills had been paid by the international wargames community. And that’s just bloody excellent.


By the way, you can still contribute to that campaign: go to iliadagamestudio.com and look for the link.


The other option is to ask for a “commitment to buy” from potential customers.


Jon Katze at Khurasan Miniatures has done this a few times. He has created a product that interested people can “buy” on his website. The trick is that you don’t add any existing products to the same purchase. That way, you can always cancel your order before it is fulfilled. But the money goes straight to Khurasan and the idea is that, if the target amount needed to put the new products into manufacture isn’t reached, everyone gets their money back. If it is, everyone gets their new toys. This requires a higher degree of trust on the part of the customer than a Kickstarter, because the customer is relying on Jon to return the money if he doesn’t raise enough. Rather than waiting to take the money until the end of the campaign, the backer puts the money up-front. But Jon has been in this industry for… well, it’s a long time. At least fifteen years and I’m sure it’s longer than that. He has a sound reputation for being a man of his word and that counts. So people have mostly backed his projects with enthusiasm.


The approach taken by Nick Eyre at North Star Military Figures is also a “commitment to buy” model, but slightly different. And, to be fair, Nick himself refuses to classify it as crowdfunding at all.


His “Nickstarters” have become famous because, in many ways, Nick could earn more money if he went to Kickstarter. But he doesn’t want to turn 10% of his proceeds over to a middleman. Also, Nick’s products are absolutely intended to go to general retail. In many ways, a Nickstarter is far closer to a pre-order scheme because Nick and North Star have already committed tens thousands of pounds into sculpting, moulding and casting - most recently in high-impact styrene, which is, in cost terms, the Rolls Royce of materials.


There is no way Nick is going to throw in that kind of money and not put the resulting products up for sale!


What the Nickstarter does differently is to offer pre-orders at a discount and often includes Nickstarter exclusive bonus content that won’t go to retail after the event. They still work on the basis that the customer commits up-front to buy a certain thing. The customer can still get a refund before the end of the campaign and, of course, they can always increase their backing if something new gets revealed that they’d like to add to their order.


But for all its Kickstarter-like trappings, it’s still fundamentally a pre-order campaign for a product that’s already been funded by traditional means.


The other option is the subscription model.


<Like Patreon?>


Exactly Bernard. In a subscription model, supporters commit to paying a certain quantity each month or each year and, in return, they get a steady feed of relevant content. This podcast, as well as Precinct Omega’s game design work, is funded by a Patreon campaign. I may have mentioned this before.


Subscription is a great model if you’re going to get a reliable output of new content in some form every month. Subscribers to the Precinct Omega Patreon, for example, know that they are getting four or five new podcasts every month, which they get to hear three days before everyone else. They also get new content for Precinct Omega games every month, depending on their level of support. And there is extra content, access to a Discord, competitions and lifetime achievement rewards to get, too.


But if a project is essentially a one-and-done, could a subscription also be a viable approach?


Arguably, yes. You could, in theory, set up a Patreon in which the object was, through gradual subscription, to build up to a given total sum that would initiate a release of some sort, at which point the Patreon could either pivot to a different release or simply end. It’s hard to know, though, whether this would be something people would be willing to support in this way in sufficient volume to make it viable and I don’t know of any examples where it has exactly been done like this.


Generally, creators on Patreon may well be building up to something like a novel or comic book release; but patrons - let’s call them subscribers so that we get away from the idea that this is something that could purely be done on Patreon - subscribers in this model generally get to preview content: art, early drafts of chapters, discussion on world-building and plot ideas… The subscription is less to fund the creation of a final item than it is to participate in the process of creation.


This is what draws a lot of subscribers to the Precinct Omega patreon, as seeing the process of the development of a new game is something they are very interested in. A subscription allows them not only to see the process first hand, but also to dip their toe into the waters themselves, commenting upon design concepts, adding insights from their own experience, suggesting changes and additions, and getting a sense of what the creation of a new game involves from the initial concept right through to the lavishly illustrated and highly-produced finished product that Precinct Omega Publishing aims to put into the market.


But if I wanted to produce something more physical - like a range of miniatures - would a subscription model be a viable platform?


Well, a lot of folks seem to think so.


We’ve talked before about the challenges of the emerging market for 3D designs and printing in tabletop miniatures. And one popular model to marketing digital miniatures designs is a subscription one: that is, you subscribe for access to a sort of “miniature of the month” package, which gives you one or more new designs for miniatures every month, depending on the amount you pay as a subscription.


A great example is seen in the Unit 9 Patreon from the team behind the Human Interface board game.


But this model is not without its challenges. Quite apart from the usual issues with digital designs - piracy, theft and unlicensed reproductions - you also face the question of how to give subscribers access to the campaign’s back catalogue. In other words, if I wanted to get hold of designs you published, say, four months ago, how would I do that? Another issue is the problem of proliferation: the more designs you publish, the more the pressure grows to keep producing new and original designs. And a third issue is understanding your market. Subscribers in this model will tend to come and go quickly - subscribing only long enough to get what they want, then leaving; returning only if you have something else worth subscribing for. This makes it hard to get the greatest benefit of a subscription model: a relationship with your subscribers.


Now, there are solutions to all of those problems and they are manifold, so I’ll not unpick them here.


Instead, let’s look at one more model for crowdfunding, which is slightly different to the one sold by Kickstarter: the open investment window.


For British listeners, this is best typified by a cliché of English life: the church roof thermometer. For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, historic British churches are forever having problems with their roofs. These are frequently made of slate over timber, sealed with lead. With many churches - especially rural ones - being isolated, with poor lighting and low foot traffic, they can be targeted by thieves stealing the lead to sell for cash. And apart from that, centuries-old timber and iron nails will always surrender eventually to the predation of time.


Replacing and repairing these roofs is expensive, and churches are poor, so it used to be very common for churches to set up dedicated campaigns to raise the money to repair their roof, with progress being illustrated with a giant wooden thermometer, the red line of which would creep up towards a funding target as money was committed by parishioners.


This is old-school crowdfunding at work, and the model can still be used today.


Kickstarter and most other crowdfunding sites, of course, put a strict time limit on how long potential backers have in which to commit to funding something and, if it doesn’t fund, it doesn’t happen. But in principle there’s no reason a project owner couldn’t just leave the window open on the basis that the project will be fulfilled when - and only when - the project goal is reached.


On the plus side, this has the potential value that any goal will be reached, in theory, eventually.


The big downside, of course, is that all the FOMO magic that pertains to a feverish Kickstarter or IndieGogo campaign is entirely dispersed when you have all the time in the world to decide whether or not to support something. These open ended campaigns work best for charitable action, because there is always the idea that if you don’t do something now it will be too late by the time you do act. That same sense of urgency can’t be applied to a commercial endeavour - and especially not one involving toy soldiers.


All of this brings us back to the classic Kickstarter model: a time-limited window of opportunity in which people can decide or not to commit financial support to a project in return for an unguaranteed, non-monetary gesture of appreciation that may or may not be actually worth the cost of the commitment.


PRECINCT OMEGA

All of that, of course, leads us to the fact that I am trying to develop a range of tabletop miniatures. I’ve mentioned this before and the project was supposed to have completed its initial development earlier this year. But life and other things have got in the way and we’re two minis into what should have been an initial four miniatures set.


Nevertheless, it’s still something I am keen to do for a number of reasons, but I am genuinely torn on the question of how to go about taking our designs and turning them into a reality: not, I hasten to add, the question of how to manufacture them. I’ve got that firmly nailed down already, thanks. No: it’s the question of how to cover the costs of that manufacturing.


In principle, I could probably - just - cover those costs out of my business’s proceeds, if I were prepared to forego some personal income. And, it should be said, I take a very minimal income out of my business.


Alternatively, I could suspend Precinct Omega business for a few months and take on a consulting job which, it must be said, pays a lot better - as the work of the Devil usually does. This would put enough capital back into the business to pay for the miniatures, but it would set back my games development process by at least three months, losing valuable momentum and contributing nothing to the general development of Precinct Omega as a business.


Or - to the crux of this week’s podcast - I could crowdfund it.


But I’m very torn on the decision.


The advantages with crowdfunding are that I get the money up-front, and I gain the marketing benefit of running a month-long campaign that I can widely distribute to people as a way to build awareness of the Precinct Omega brand.


The disadvantages are that I have to sacrifice a lot of time, money and effort towards preparing and managing the campaign. A thing that people expect from a Kickstarter are stretch goals and bonus content, quite apart from prices below retail cost. All of this would commit me to not simply fulfilling the main target of the campaign but to developing the additional content and delivering it within budget and timeframe, plus putting my reputation on the line.


If the campaign failed to meet its target, my reputation would be damaged. But - worse - if my campaign met its target but then I failed to deliver in some respect, my reputation would be ruined. And the worst outcome of all would be that I wildly exceed the target and all other Precinct Omega development work has to stop for six months while I work full-time on fulfilling a campaign and stretchgoals that were never intended to do more than put a set of minis into manufacturing, and establish a modest retail stock.


Balanced against just having the money up front and the marketing benefit of the crowdfunding campaign, this can seem like an awful lot against the idea. But those two factors alone are huge. If the campaign blasted through its funding goal, that could set Precinct Omega up, financially, for several years, even if it did set back game development. If might even provide enough capital to take on a temporary employee to manage the fulfilment of the Kickstarter


And the marketing side can’t be under-valued. Like it or not, the Kickstarter effect - the impact of FOMO - on people’s purchasing decisions is real.


Right now, there’s a campaign on Kickstarter for a new sci-fi miniatures wargame and… it’s awful! I’m not going to name names and your mileage may vary, of course. But the rules for this game aren’t just derivative - they’re utterly unimaginative and dull and do nothing to evoke a high-tech, science fiction combat game. They are sub-40k in quality with none of 40k’s redeeming narrative features. Nothing in the design is innovative or interesting. And the miniatures are… no better than OK in design terms. There are vastly superior options already on the market at an equivalent price. Yet this project smashed its funding goal in the first twenty-four hours and, the last time I looked, is 400% over its target.


This is as a result of a well-funded and aggressive marketing campaign on the part of the project owners and, for that, I tip my hat to them. But I can only stare in wonder at the backers committing money to a project that is obviously - obviously - going to sit un-opened in their pending pile for three years before they give up and eBay it for half the price they backed it at.


Maybe I should name names, at some point.


I’ll tell you what, when this game’s campaign is done, I will do an in-depth analysis of their content - miniatures, rules, peripherals - and review my initial assessment as honestly as I can. And I’ll come back to you guys and do a full episode on them.


But, right now, all I see is proof that some people will throw money at anything if it’s pretty enough.


And if that’s true, shouldn’t I take advantage of that? After all, Precinct Omega’s approach to its miniatures development is the same as its approach to game design: considered, deliberate and strategic, but with the ultimate objective of creating something innovative and valuable in our market. And if flashy rubbish can raise tens of thousands of dollars, why shouldn’t I do the same for something worthwhile?


Which brings me to my final reservation: doing it just because…


Just because it’s an easy way to make money. Just because it’s what everyone else is doing. Just because it’s become a model for micro-enterprises in the industry.


Doing things “just because” is what I fear the most.


We’ve still got a way to go on pre-production work for the project, though, so I don’t have to decide straightaway. If I’m honest, I will probably drink the Kickstarter Kool-Aid because, at the end of the day, I’m running a business that needs to make money, and Kickstarter looks like the fastest, easiest way to make that money at the lowest risk. There are reasons, after all, why it’s become the go-to platform for crowdfunding for microenterprises in this industry and I’d be a fool to ignore all of those reasons just for the sake of being afraid of being seen to jump on a bandwagon.


At the end of the day, if the bandwagon is going the way I want to go, why walk?


NEXT WEEK

Last week, we discussed Close Quarter Battle and two weeks before that, it was ranged combat. So in our next episode of the Design series, I’m going to continue our look at various aspects of miniatures wargame design and pick up a topic that we touched upon last week, but which I thought deserved a closer look: armour.