In 1993 Richard Garfield hit it big. He had the ingenious – and parasitical – idea of taking the collectible sports card model and applying it to a game. Magic: The Gathering was the genesis of something culturally significant. It has spawned millions of dollars for Wizards of the Coast, as well as thousands of imitators hoping to scrape off a piece of their own.
According to Wikipedia, Wizards produced over 20 billion cards between 2008 and 2016 alone. Magic’s influence is everywhere and the vast majority of people reading this have played it. Numerous concepts and systems evolved from the game’s breadth and sophistication. Most every modern board game can trace a portion of its lineage back to this original collectible card game. It’s even common to see a budding prototype design consisting of sleeved Magic cards serving as the physical backing of the printed paper mock-ups. Our tabletop gaming hobby is built upon the back of Garfield’s creative work.
I’m unsure how he feels about his impact on the wider culture of gaming. I assume he’d be jubilant. I would be.
Yet, I am reasonably confident he wouldn’t be proud of his concept leaping from foil pack to digital loot box, like a virus hopping between species.
Loot boxes and prize crates are video game items purchased or rewarded that in turn offer randomized in-game swag; things such as powerful new weapons or shiny new skins. The history of these items is a bit gray, with the earliest examples occurring in Asia with the 2004 Japanese MMORPG MapleStory, and later popping up in the 2007 Chinese game ZT Online.
One of the first instances of these items in the West was offered in the soccer game FIFA 09. In this video game you could use digital currency to purchase randomized card packs. These cards featured players that were then used to build a team and compete with others. In this twisted game of footy, Ronaldo is the Black Lotus coming off your bench.
This loot box family possesses a similar gene pool to that of CCGs. They offer the hope of what might be, and players are manipulated into chasing these fantasies like a casino-bound chain-smoker strapped to an oxygen tank.
There is an immense amount of pressure to spend in this hyper-reality. If players want to compete in online games with those that have the best gear, they will need to toss their coin into the void. Often times the actual odds, much like at the casino, are obfuscated from the user.
Gambling stimulates the brain in a similar way to drugs or alcohol. We all know it can lead to addiction. It can beget compulsion towards chasing losses which results in accumulating debt. It damages relationships.
This unhealthy affair with wagering is ever present in my own family. I have a relative who was a bookie, he and his own children tethered to the television during family parties and flipping between golf, baseball, hockey, whatever was available. I recall at a young age feeling as if I was in a foreign land as the life of the room was smothered by their cryptic conversations concerning moneylines and spreads.
One member of that group eventually got into trouble. As gamblers do, he lost himself trying to recover and claw his way back to even. He lied and swindled, not just to loan sharks but to his own family. It led to tragedy and a fracture that’s never going to heal. I still feel uncomfortable talking to him and I’m not among the people he’s wronged.
We all recognize gambling is a serious activity and should not be engaged in excess, much like those other substances that can lead to addiction. Similarly, most of us have a great disdain for video game loot boxes and would rather they go away quietly like dabbing or the macarena. Yet, despite this common indignation for emotional and monetary manipulation, few are willing to take a bat to crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Gamefound.
The board game crowdfunding scene is now propped up by speculation and gambling. It wasn’t always this way. The intentions of both platform and publisher began pure, with titles like Alien Frontiers finding a previously unimaginable life way back in 2010.
There was a transition that can be pinpointed to 2012. This is when publisher CMON Games launched the very first Zombicide. Everything changed.
By its very structure Kickstarter shifted the burden of risk from publisher to backer. In a traditional publishing model, the company producing the game would put up the money for the print run, with their revenue delayed until product filtered through the retail chain. With crowdfunding, you lock in a portion of those sales up front, mitigating financial loss on behalf of the publisher.
It’s certainly not this black and white as the competitive nature of the platform requires a multitude of up-front expenses before campaign launch, such as artwork and marketing. You are expected to produce expensive prototypes, pay YouTube personalities for previews of the game, hell, it even costs a few hundred dollars to run one of those contests on Board Game Geek. The large and successful campaigns will often sink many thousands of dollars into a project before they hit that launch button.
But even so, it’s difficult to argue that the bulk of risk hasn’t been shifted to the consumer. It’s the nature of the system and it’s one of the primary benefits.
In Kickstarter’s fledgling state, this was less of a problem. Goodwill and aspiration were a primary motivator. Backers felt like they were helping publishers fund a dream, as many of them were newcomers or small brands still trying to establish themselves.
But then, Zombicide.
This was the start of the miniatures-heavy exclusive-pushing crowdfunding campaign. It altered the culture of the hobby significantly. It produced the board game loot box.
Now, we receive substantial rewards for our risk. You can kick in $100 for the next Zombicide, and if you find the game doesn’t suit your tastes, you can sell it second-hand for perhaps twice its value. Nearly every single CMON campaign works this way. You missed Marvel United and want to pick up the Return of the Sinister Six expansion? No worries, Ebay has you covered. You will only be out $130.
Speculation is now rampant. It’s propping up many of the largest campaigns. You toss your money to the dealer, and you hope for the jackpot.
Much like those loot boxes, there is an element of manipulation and predatory practice here that is undeniable. It’s buoyed by the “fear of missing out”, as these games pop up on Kickstarter or Gamefound and your allotted time to purchase them is brief at best.
Just like the magic of popping open a digital prize crate, our imaginations run wild. What if this promised game is everything we’ve ever hoped for from the hobby? Since all we have to go on are visuals and promises, our hearts and dreams often fill in the rest. The promise of what could be is tantalizing and undeniable.
And you must decide at this very moment as there are few second chances. Yes, most everything is available on the secondary market, but the financial impact will be extraordinary. It’s easy to just back the game and decide later whether you really want it.
This is why the incentives are so rotten. Everyone here is acting in their best financial interests and everyone is being rewarded. The publishers are receiving their money up front, and backers in many cases are receiving huge payouts from the flop in the form of a pretty nifty game like Ankh or Nemesis, or something you can throw up on Ebay and sack a profit.
Sure, sometimes it goes south. Sometimes you get a Doom That Came to Atlantic City or a Street Masters: Aftershock. It’s gambling, there is risk.
It will not stop. Because the financial incentives exist for both parties, the only pressure that can be exerted on the system is by those from the outside. Or those wanting to break free from their addiction.
But how are you going to convince someone they have a problem when they wear their “superbacker” tag like a badge of honor.
In all honesty, this article is born out of frustration, not condemnation. I’m as guilty as anyone. I back these games and I write about them. They are a significant part of the hobby and to ignore them is folly.
While I may have grown more discerning and certainly more cynical, it hasn’t stopped me. This piece isn’t me preaching, it’s me commiserating and hoping to foster some thought.
And for all its issues, I must admit that crowdfunding has influenced the industry in positive ways. Several years ago, I interviewed Suzanne Sheldon of Restoration Games and The Dice Tower on my podcast Ding & Dent. Suzanne is a crowdfunding expert and I value her opinion and thoughts greatly. One of the points she made in that interview was how much presentation and art has improved in the hobby as a result of crowdfunding. As campaigns have relied on visuals to sell games, they’ve had to elevate their presence, and this has had the side effect of increasing the quality and consistency found in the entire industry. It’s a smart observation and absolutely true.
Additionally, there are many publishers who avoid the blatant manipulation and predatory practices that have become endemic. This criticism of the platform and how it’s been utilized in our space is not universal.
Despite this segment of good and the group of talented people just trying to do their best, the platform itself is under a dark cloud which has been manufactured by the biggest perpetrators of illness. Crowdfunding has turned many of us into collectors and speculators, even those of us wanting to actually play the games.
The predatory practices have even given rise to new markets, creating a niche for outfits like The Game Steward to fulfill as they sell exclusive content post-delivery. We have dozens of YouTube channels dedicated to analyzing whether you should or should not back crowdfunding campaigns, with analysis entirely centered around the financial value of the offering. This is what a significant portion of hobby discourse has become.
It all feels so discouraging, so tragic.
And it’s getting worse. In recent years, that elevation of presentation has bled into the physical production. Everything is bigger and labeled “deluxe”. Everything has miniatures, whether they need them or not. Games, while smothered in glorious bits and vibrant art, often feel less like pieces of art.
Besides attracting more eyeballs at the time of purchase, all of this functions as post-fulfillment advertising for the next campaign. We see this with people showing off their gluttonous stack of recently arrived product on social media. Or at a game meetup with a sprawling monstrosity taking up a whole section of the club and attracting views of those walking by like an Instagram post accruing likes.
One thing we often don’t think about is where do all of these games go? Sure, Blood Rage and Kingdom Death: Monster are still being played and loved, but what about the countless others that had the look, but never quite delivered on that promise. Or maybe they were worth a few hours of time but were quickly shoved to the back of the shelf for that next big game. What about the hands that didn’t result in big payouts, the ones that busted?
They’re sitting on someone’s shelf. Yours and mine. They take up space and our lives while offering nothing. If a game is not getting played, then what is it doing?
Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote, “the mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for.”
If we extend this premise to all these big damn games – the product of our gambling – what are they living for? What of the detritus of our crowdfunding loot boxes?