Warning: long post in which I speculate about designing a crowdsourcing project.

So, +James Raggi's ambitious LotFP 19-crowdfunding-projects-at-once “grand campaign” has ended. Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, it failed.

I don’t mean it failed utterly, of course. I am happily awaiting The Seclusium of Orphone of the Three Visions by +Vincent Baker, which is looking to be awesome. A total of four adventures funded, which is a lot better than I expected, frankly. 

But still, we have a pretty clear definition of success here: 9 adventures, enough to make the top-level rewards economically reasonable. It didn’t even come close to that.

Bizarrely, most people I’ve seen either seem to be redefining success, so that this doesn’t count as a failure at all, or blaming some combination of the authors and their fans for not being gung-ho enough. This includes the man himself, who apparently expected the big name authors to bring magic insta-cash to their projects, thus propping up everything else.

To me, this all ignores the most important lesson of the past ten years or so of game design: System Matters. Those of us who play and write RPGs know that human behavior is very malleable, and the same people will do very different things given a different set of incentives. That was, in my opinion, the flaw with this campaign: the game design was bad. Blaming the authors and the backers instead of the campaign design is as silly as blaming Shadowrun players for rolling too many dice.

Crowdfunding campaigns have some pretty clear best principles: Minimize apparent risk by being transparent and making people confident about what exactly they’ll be getting. Offer attractive rewards at a variety of levels, so everyone can find a level they like. Avoid a “retail” feeling by making people part of the process, and by offering fun and quirky rewards (but also don't mistake "cute" for value). Aim low but with a lot of stretch goals in the wings, so you don’t lose momentum. The grand campaign not only followed none of the best practices, but managed to invent some clever new ways to fail as well.

The grand campaign did a terrible job with transparency and managing risk. First, and most easily avoided, the vast majority of the adventures had very little information available. At best we got a back cover blurb, and often not a very good one. There were no samples of art, no interviews with the designers, no sneak peaks of content. Sometimes there would be some of these things in the “updates” (though not consistently at all), but no one reads the updates, especially when there are 19 campaigns to look through.

More fatally, it was actually impossible to know what you’d be getting at most of the reward levels. You could feel confident below $30 or so, but every reward tier above that was very risky, and very opaque, since they depended on the success of 18 other campaigns. Even people who assumed that a lot of campaigns would fund couldn’t feel good about it, because they didn’t know which campaigns would fund. I haven’t run the numbers, but I got the strong impression that these campaigns were much more skewed toward the low reward levels than most, which is the last thing you want for a crowdfunding campaign. (I definitely pledged a lot less than I'd be theoretically willing to.)

This was exacerbated by the fact that Indiegogo doesn’t allow you to change your contribution level, meaning that people who pledged at the highest levels have to expect that they might just be screwed without even the possibility to bail. Yeah, James Raggi has attempted to ameliorate this in a couple ways, but post-facto kludges don’t fix a broken design.

This leads into the next problem, which is that the pledge levels were pretty awful. The $10, $20, and $30 levels were pretty standard (though I felt the $30 level was a bit unremarkable). But the higher levels were at best theoretically economical, if a lot of things funded, and otherwise nothing beyond more expensive ways to get the lower level pledges. There was nothing creative, exciting, quirky, or collaborative about it, it was a strictly retail interaction with a bad payoff.

Almost more bizarre than the risk is the high chance that even the people who nonetheless wanted to fund at the higher levels might not even be allowed to pay the money and get the stuff. The campaign shut down that option for adventures that had met their goal, meaning that people who wanted to be guaranteed to get the funded adventures had to either pay for each separately (and skip the “discount”) or else take a gamble that they wouldn’t get any of them at all. Shutting down a project that just passed its goal goes against everything that previous crowdfunding projects have taught us, which is that that’s precisely when your momentum is the highest.

And that momentum thing is also pretty key. I doubt I’m the only person who gets more and more excited about a project the more stretch goals it hits. I don’t care at all about a project that isn’t funded yet, because there’s no guarantee I’m even getting the thing at all. But a project where I’m already guaranteed four cool things, and we’re pushing for a fifth? That’s pretty likely to get me excited, to get me talking to people and upping my pledge. Splitting the momentum into 19 different places, each of which required a lot of money to get over the hump, was thus pretty fatal. There was a brief sense of momentum the last couple days, as people made their final decisions and a couple things started to fund. If that had been present the whole campaign, who knows how much better it might have done.

Not to mention the sheer inefficiency of the design. $41,915.00 was raised, which is almost exactly enough to fund 7 adventures. But because a lot of that money was in failed projects, or overflow on the successful ones, only 4 actually got funded.

So... those are just some of the reasons I think the summer grand campaign was poorly designed, based on what I know of human behavior and crowdfunding best practices. Criticism is cheap, though. How might I have done it better?

Well, I don’t think there’s an easy answer, there. It’s a tricky design problem, and would require a good deal of thinking and planning. But here’s a first pass:

I’d do it on Kickstarter, first of all. Better brand recognition, more likelihood of people stumbling on it by accident, and most importantly, it lets you change your pledge level. Yeah, I know Raggi is in Finland, but there are ways to deal with that.

Next, it has to be one project. The momentum factor is just too huge to ignore, and it's hard to get separate campaigns to mesh well. The way I’d do it is to set the goal at $6k, and get a celebrity (may I suggest Oderus Urungus?) to do the first adventure. If it hits $6k, Oderus Urungus releases an adventure. Next, all the backers who care vote on the next author as a “stretch goal”. When it hits $12k, their adventure funds. And so on.

The reward structure would need to be very flexible. We want people to be able to choose any number of any of the adventures that fund. We also want interesting incentives for larger pledges even if only a couple adventures fund. So (pending approval from kickstarter, I don’t know how they feel about this sort of thing), here’s how I’d do that: You don’t pledge on specific awards, but on some sort of “credits” that you can spend at the end of the campaign. 1 credit = a pdf, 2 = print, etc. Credits get “cheaper” as you go up in pledge level, so you get the discount effect. But also, you make other cool things available. Anna Kreider draws you a thing: 6 credits. Oderus Urungus signs a guitar pick: 5 credits. A monster designed by Raggi: 7 credits. Maybe even just the option to “tip” your favorite author with leftover credits. (And, since we’re on Kickstarter, backers can always lower their pledge later. Additionally, Kickstarter also nicely handles the logistics, since there’s that great backer survey at the end.)

This way, Mr. Moneybags can pledge $500 the first day, knowing that he might get a hardbound copy of 19 adventures if they all fund and a great piece of character art. But if not, he’ll get a sweet hat worn by Vincent Baker instead. Everyone who wants to make sure their favorite author gets to make an adventure funds at some level, so they get a vote. Everyone’s pledges go in a nice fat-looking pot, so there’s a sense of momentum and excitement. As more adventures fund, there’s plenty of incentive for people to up their pledges, without the weird dynamics of losing the certainty of getting their favorites or having to commit to a huge number right away.

I’d also make the page much prettier. You need a video, with every potential author excitedly pitching their idea (who doesn’t want to see Oderus Urungus pitching an adventure idea?). You need a sample page from every adventure (or at least as many adventures as have authors willing to do that). You need art samples. You need good-natured rivalry between authors. Anything other than the lifeless retail feel of a page taken up 80% by logistics and corp-speak.

I don’t know if that would actually work. It might do just as badly, or worse, than the current campaign. There are still some design flaws, and places that could use improvement. To some extent, you never know what will happen until it happens. But the takeaway is: designing a crowdsourcing campaign, especially a complicated one like this, requires some serious design work.
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