Posted on July 23, 2012, Phil Hornshaw Why I’m Not Okay with the Penny Arcade Kickstarter
Web comic site Penny Arcade started a Kickstarter campaign last week, the goal of which is to raise several hundred thousand dollars to remove ads from the web comic’s site. The creators of Penny Arcade, Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik, say that once the site isn’t dependent on ad money, they’ll be freed up from that side of their business — and that will leave them free for more creative endeavors.
Kickstarter as a service was formed as a way of making such creative endeavors possible. Its spirit is one of helping artists — not necessarily starving, but certainly without the financial means of investing in their big ideas — to realize projects that they otherwise couldn’t. In gaming, Kickstarter has been used to fund lots of innovative indie titles, projects with big names attached to them (like Double Fine Adventure) that can’t get funded through the usual corporate machine, and reboots of series beloved by creators and fans alike.
But with Penny Arcade’s Kickstarter, something is different. Something feels…off. And that’s not to say that I have anything against either Penny Arcade or the general idea of Kickstarter. I’m very positive on the latter and respect as well as criticize the former. But this is a situation that seems at odds with the spirit of Kickstarter, and perhaps even goes against Kickstarter’s own guidelines for what the service is meant to fund. The first of the service’s guidelines outlines that it is meant to support projects with a definable creation:
A project has a clear goal, like making an album, a book, or a work of art. A project will eventually be completed, and something will be produced by it. A project is not open-ended. Starting a business, for example, does not qualify as a project.
Kickstarter declined to be interviewed about its guidelines or its approval process, through which Penny Arcade’s project was required to pass. Unfortunately, that means I’m left to my interpretation of what Kickstarter is, as we were unable to have anyone at Kickstarter tell us why they thought Penny Arcade’s proposal met the service’s guidelines.
My trouble with Penny Arcade’s use of Kickstarter for this “project” stems from one of need. Penny Arcade is a successful, ad-funded business with its own line of merchandise and two successful annual conventions. That it spends a lot of time vetting ads for its site is part of that business model, and part of the way Holkins and Krahulik choose to run it. And an ad-free site in and of itself is not a bad product. From Penny Arcade’s perspective, using Kickstarter provides the ability to see what kind of demand there is for that product by asking people to pay for it (and, as was fully expected, the project has already surpassed its original $250,000 funding goal). All of that is fine.
But Penny Arcade doesn’t need money from Kickstarter, or to crowdsource new projects. It simply would prefer to remove ads from its site for one year, at the cost of a huge amount of money. But it’s choosing to gather that money not through usual business channels, but through Kickstarter — and in a way, it’s taking advantage of the Kickstarter culture and drawing away users who would potentially give funds to more needy projects.
Other businesses hoping to kick ads from their sites would offer paid subscriptions or ask for donations with that goal in mind. They would sell their users a product, or ask for their fans’ charity in supporting them. Most other businesses would have solved the issue in a completely business-like way: They would have hired someone to handle the ads if it was taking up so much potential creative time.
Penny Arcade has these options, but by choosing Kickstarter, they’ve found a way to have cake and eat it. A Kickstarter campaign means Penny Arcade can take money without having to actually sell anything (like subscriptions), and therefore doesn’t have to provide anything other than an ad-free site. It also doesn’t have to take donations and thereby deal with the prickly psychology of asking for money while also selling merchandise. This way, Penny Arcade gets to ask users if they want to give their money and gauge the popularity of the idea, and also gets a high-profile way to ask for money without having to actually provide much in return.