Kickstarter: Patronage or Pre-order?

There’s some heavy stuff going on regarding Kickstater’s recent change to prohibit bulk quantities, which you can read one take on by Fred Hicks and another take by Gareth-Michael Skarka.

That’s not the thing I want to talk about, although it’s dancing around a core issue with Kickstarter: is it a place for patronage or a place for pre-orders? Nota bene: I’m not forming an answer in this piece, just exploring some thoughts. I don’t know if there are clearcut answers.

Patronage projects are about “if you fund this, I’ll start working on it, and later (hopefully when I claim it’ll happen) you’ll get a thing.” Pre-order projects are “we’re pretty much done, we need money to make physical stuff, and you’ll get a thing.”

My own recent Master Plan Kickstarter was clearly a patronage project. Dungeon World & Race to Adventure were pre-order projects. But then it becomes really weird once you bring is stretch goals that haven’t been made yet, because you’re turning a pre-order project into one about patronage as well. And that middle space fascinates me, both as solution and as problem.

While talking with Eddy Webb recently, he pointed out that Kickstarters are events — they take place on the Internet rather than in a physical place, but they’re promoted and celebrated just as events are. Events are finite in time, which leads people to buy into them. I’ve said multiple times that I believe that we as individuals have a limited amount of Kickstarter mojo, and if we’re not careful we’ll expend that. I suppose that extends to a community level as well, as we’re starting to see people claim “Kickstarter fatigue.” That’s natural, when our community keeps creating event and event, that we’ll start feeling tired of them.

Which brings me back to patronage versus pre-order. Patronage projects live and die by support. Pre-order projects have time, energy, and in some cases money already invested in them, so there’s incentive to get those projects out there even if a pre-order can’t be met. Yet, these exist in the same space in the minds of the public, more or less, as events. Some events are “get stuff sooner” and some aren’t. So, that’s a criticism of using this model for pre-orders — that, and pre-order models already exist.

On the other hand, consumer confidence in individual Kickstarter projects extends to consumer confidence over all KS projects in general. The whole you don’t own your message thing — if someone’s burned on prior folks they’ve backed delivering a product that doesn’t live up to its promise or not delivering at all, that negative emotional resonance extends to your projects, even though they’re unrelated except that they’re on Kickstarter. Sure, it’s unfair, but this world isn’t about fairness. And it’s more likely that those patronage projects will under-deliver (on promise or product) than pre-order ones. So, there’s a criticism of using this model for patronage.

(Of course, pre-orders can also have this problem.)

Then when a project reaches funding and pushes for more, the event continues, perhaps with it a greater degree of exhaustion. This is true for pre-orders and for patronage models, so it’s a criticism of the stretch goal concept. And understand that people who buy into a patronage model may see it as a pre-order one, because of the areas in that environment where they primarily interact.

These criticisms aren’t meant to say “don’t do this style,” but to talk about biases people are growing in this new crowd-funding world. They are not in and of themselves bad ideas, certainly not! But they’ll impact us as we go forward, because these two very different things are being lumped together as the same sort of events, and those events are stretched out beyond their initial goal. I feel that we have a responsibility when we’re adding to the environment to think about these things and to not overdo it, to not poison the well for ourselves or others in the future.

Though, to put a very personal spin on it, I feel like I’m in the minority, and most people are taking advantage of the moment without thinking about the impact. And I say that as someone who has been involved with pre-order and patronage models with stretch goals (since nearly every KS has stretch goals if they hit far enough).

By the way: I’ll be talking about Kickstarter at Gen Con.

– Ryan


6 Responses to Kickstarter: Patronage or Pre-order?

  1. Gareth says:

    A very good point.

    I think that Kickstarter’s stated goal is “patronage”, rather than “pre-order.” The recent decision makes sense in that light, and falls into place with co-founder Yancey Strickler’s statements in May:


    To quote the article: “Kickstarter is for creative projects,” he said. “We prefer creative expression to maximization.” More generally, he said that “we don’t allow corporations to use Kickstarter”, and talked of the “danger” that funders will view a project as a commercial transaction — spending money on a thing — as opposed to a funding transaction. “People need to have the right expectations going in,” he said.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      Sure, totally. (Although, as has been stated ad nauseum, Kickstarter is not doing much of anything to enforce this view.)

      But it’s also gray. I think about my own thoughts on Kickstarter a game (opposed to Kickstarting my podcast): I actually want to do a lot of the work before feeling confident of Kickstarting it, months of work that would be funder if I took a purely patronage approach. This is for my own well-being and mental health; I want to have and project confidence in what I’m doing, and if it isn’t done enough, I know better than to do that.

      If I had Kickstarted Mythender when I thought it would be ready for it, it would be at least three years late. Or it wouldn’t be late, but a deficient product because I rushed to time. That experience colors my personal view, though. I don’t want to tell people how to act, just to think about what they’re doing.

      Which makes me think about all the space in between “patronage from the start” and “pre-order,” like “the game is done but it needs art & layout too” or “we’re ready for a public playtest and we’re confident about the game (and also it needs art & layout).”

      So, as Kickstarter starts to draw more lines in the sand (and maybe even enforces them on occasion), it’ll be super interesting where gray areas fall.

      – Ryan

  2. Eddy says:

    I’m also interested in how the space is fragmenting, like how Kickstarter appears to be more “mainstream” than, say, IndieGoGo. But again, I think it ties into that event idea: where you host your party means just as much as who you invite and when.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      Yeah, and the technology, policies, and access are different enough to where that’s something to seriously consider.

      I almost went IndieGoGo for Master Plan, and the main reason I went Kickstarter is to see how the actual process of using KS works (since I’m apparently going to be talking about it at all that soon).

      – Ryan

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      And it’ll be interesting if we start seeing more non-KS crowd-funding ventures because of increased Kickstarter rules & prohibitions.

      – Ryan

  3. Ryan Macklin says:

    Oh, and for the record on the bulk quantity thing: I am against it solely because it’s unspecific as hell. Daniel Solis’ Writers’ Dice project might or might not have been “bulk quantity” in Kickstarter’s eyes, for instance.

    [Edit] Kickstarter has clarified: http://www.kickstarter.com/blog/bulk-quantities

    – Ryan