By: Chris Wray and Jeff Lingwall
Game night begins, and everybody stands around waiting for somebody to nominate a game. These days, most large groups have at least one Kickstarter enthusiast, and he or she always seems to speak first. You probably know the speech, which sounds something like this:
“I backed this game last year, and my copy just arrived. I really want to play it. It came with painted miniatures, plus it hit all of its stretch goals. My copy is a Kickstarter-exclusive!”
The enthusiasm is understandable. The backer has paid a small fortune for the game and waited a year for its arrival. Meanwhile, the designer/publisher has been sending weekly or monthly updates, causing the backer to develop somewhat of an emotional attachment to the game.
But not all of us are Kickstarter enthusiasts. In fact, among experienced gamers and game critics, most of us seem to be Kickstarter skeptics. We’re suspicious of the word “backer” — just call yourself a “buyer” — and we think the phrase “stretch goals” should be used primarily in yoga studios.
We’re not being curmudgeons: we’ve been around the block a time or two, and we know just how bad Kickstarter games can be. (Really bad.) Our time to play games is limited, so please pardon us if we’re not eager to play the game that you paid a fortune for — and waited a year for — without ever playing.
The fact that the game was on Kickstarter doesn’t mean it is a better game: if anything, it probably means it isn’t. Traditional publishers are highly selective, and they often spend years developing games, two gatekeeping functions that aren’t present with Kickstarters.
The BoardGameGeek (“BGG”) data supports us. In recent years, Kickstarter games have, on average, underperformed their traditionally-published counterparts in the BGG ratings. And as time passes, the underperformance gets worse. As we’ve previously explored, the ratings of most games decline over time. But that effect is particularly pronounced among Kickstarter games, which have ratings that decline even faster than those of traditionally-published games.
This is our empirical analysis of Kickstarter games—our attempt at partially explaining why they underperform their traditionally-published peers over time.
The History of Our Research
Nearly two years ago, we took an empirical look at the cult-of-the-new, asking if board games are getting better. We concluded, “Great games are like literature, and while every few years a book might need a new cover, what’s inside is timeless. The next time you go game shopping, check the thrift store as well as the convention floor, because in the end, a top game from 1994 or 2004 is still much higher rated than a below-average game from 2014.”
The article proved controversial, spawning one of the longest comment threads in the history of the Opinionated Gamers. We loved the debate, and it inspired us to dive even deeper into the BGG data.
Before long, we noticed a trend: Kickstarter games generally underperform their traditionally-published counterparts in the BGG ratings. We thought about writing an article on the subject, but we ultimately abandoned the project. Before we stopped writing, however, Chris sent the data to the Opinionated Gamers group, noting that the ratings difference in Kickstarter versus traditional games varied depending on the year.
The group raised several fascinating points, but three proved memorable:
- People are more likely to buy a game without having played it off Kickstarter than via retail.
- Kickstarter tends to be more of an emotional experience than just buying at retail. As Larry Levy noted, “The whole point of the Kickstarter process is to ‘grab’ the potential purchaser, via a video or some other presentation, and get them to pledge money for an unknown creation.” Plus, if the campaign is successful, backers are continuously updated about the status and production of the game, tying them even more closely to its creation.
- Kickstarting games tends to be a phenomenon for less experienced gamers. For one reason or another, many people who have been in this hobby for an extended period of time shy away from Kickstarter.
Despite the theme of this article, we’re not saying all Kickstarter games are bad…
Both of us have Kickstarter games we love. For example, we both love City of Iron and the new edition of Santorini. We’ve both “backed” many Kickstarter projects. And we both enthusiastically await releases from some publishers that use Kickstarter, everybody from Red Raven to Stonemaier. And it is not just us: some of the highest rated games on BGG are Kickstarter games.
But we’re skeptical of Kickstarter games generally. We wanted to capture the average experience with the average Kickstarter game, not the success stories (or even the failures).
We’re painting with a broad brush, and in keeping with that broad brush, we’ve made no attempt to break out games that were truly created because of Kickstarter and those where Kickstarter was merely used as a preorder vehicle. Some publishers — for example, Queen, Bezier, Indie Cards & Boards, Stonemaier, etc. — use or have used Kickstarter more as a pre-order system. They still send their games through an extensive development and playtesting period (or at least most of them do). While we didn’t crunch the numbers, we suspect many of those games would look more like traditionally-published games ratings wise. They’re still in the sample, but inclusion of those games is likely making Kickstarter games appear better than they actually are, based on our detailed review of the data.
In other words, when we say we’re not eager to play a Kickstarter game, we mean a generic one pulled of a shelf at random. We can be persuaded, be it by the publisher’s reputation, BGG averages, etc. to play a game from Kickstarter.
What causes the underperformance?
We feel the big reason Kickstarter games underperform their traditionally-published counterparts is clear: either (a) they are underdeveloped, or (b) they just weren’t that good of a game idea to begin with. Kickstarter meant game publishing was democratized, and much of the appeal of Kickstarter comes from the fact that anybody with a game idea can try to get a game published. The problem is that it may or may not be a good idea.
That would explain why they do worse. But why, then, do Kickstarter games perform progressively worse over time? In the most recent year available, Kickstarter and non-Kickstarter games have roughly equivalent ratings, and then they begin to diverge. We suspect it is due to an “endowment effect.”
What is the endowment effect? Well, it is a hypothesis in psychology, economics, and legal studies that that people ascribe more value to things merely because they own them. For example, if you gave somebody a painting and asked them the price they’d sell it for, the number would, for the average person, be higher than the number at which they’d buy the same painting. The endowment effect has been described as divestiture aversion, but the concept can also be thought of more broadly than that, since it has also been shown that people attach additional value regardless of whether divestiture is in question.
In the board game context this means people tend to attach more value to the games they own, or will soon own. The risk of an endowment effect in Kickstarter games seems particularly pronounced, because buying a Kickstarter often emotionally invests the “backer” deeply in the success of the unplayed game. This infatuation, as it were, extends into a honeymoon period as the game is delivered. But as with any relationship, the heart palpitations upon seeing the new game eventually fade, and for the game to have staying power there’s got to be more than just chrome.
In sum, if there is an endowment effect, we’d see the ratings fall over time as more and more non-backers played the game and as the backers’ honeymoon period with the game ends. So we crunched the numbers…
Gathering the Data
Last spring, we pulled the average BGG rating (the true average, not the Bayesian average) for all games (and no expansions) with 30 or more ratings published in the last five years (2012-2016). Why 30 ratings? We wanted to exclude small print runs from the analysis, plus 30 ratings is also the point at which a game gets its BGG ranking. And why that time period? Kickstarter started in 2009, and there just aren’t that many Kickstarter games before 2012. To find which games are Kickstarter titles, we pulled a list of games in BGG’s Kickstarter “family,” regardless of what was in it.
Then, we waited a year and did it again. (It turns out writing an article about Kickstarter requires almost as much patience as backing a game on Kickstarter.) This would let us compare how people rated Kickstarter and traditional games as time passed. The we started crunching the numbers. We calculated the average rating change between 2016 and 2017 for Kickstarter and traditional games, and we did this separately for games released in 2015, games released in 2014, and so on.
Is this method perfect? No, but practically speaking, it is the best data we have.
The Findings: Kickstarter Games Fall More in the BGG Ratings
We were surprised at the strong pattern that emerged from the results. In total, Kickstarter games and traditionally published games have roughly equivalent ratings when they’re released (and Kickstarter might even be ahead), but over time, Kickstarter games tend to fall faster, and in the long run they underperform traditionally-published games by 0.05 to 0.15 points. That may not seem like much, but given how small the standard deviation is for BGG ratings in our sample (roughly 0.77 in recent years from an average rating of 6.67), that’s actually a decent amount. Additionally, the size of the effect is hidden because (a) many BGG users tend not to go back and change their ratings, (b) Kickstarter games have much more self-selection bias than the more widely-available traditionally-published games, and (c) the Kickstarter sample is benefiting from us including everything in the BGG Kickstarter “family,” which actually includes a few games from traditional publishers that went through their normal screening/development process.
The graph below shows the results for games released in 2015. The x-axis (the horizontal axis, on the bottom) shows the change in the number of raters between 2016 and 2017. For instance, the outlying point on the Kickstarter side, with about 8,000 more BGG ratings, is the breakout hit Blood Rage (which we both like). The outlying point on the Traditional side is Codenames, with a jump of over 15,000 BGG ratings. The y-axis (the vertical axis, on the left side) shows the change in average ratings for the game between 2016 and 2017. For example, the average rating for Blood Rage in 2016 when we downloaded the data was 8.27, and in 2017 was 8.18. The average 2017 rating for that game was thus 0.09 less than the average 2016 rating.
Two patterns stand out. First, traditional games have an increase in the number of people rating them over time, and their ratings still declined, but less so than Kickstarters. Kickstarters, by contrast, didn’t have as much growth in the number of ratings, but their ratings change was actually worse than that of traditionally-published games.
Now, there were many Kickstarter games with lower ratings, and many Kickstarter games with higher ratings. The same for Traditional games. But on average, Kickstarter games declined in ratings by 0.13 points, and Traditional games declined in ratings by a much lower 0.09 points. (So, for example, for a popular game with 10,000 ratings, this rating difference could mean that for Traditional games about 900 people are lowering their rating a full point, while for Kickstarter games 1,300 are lowering their rating a full point.) Because Kickstarter game ratings declined by over 50% more than Traditional game ratings, we suspect there is a subtle but strong endowment effect for the Kickstarter games released in 2015.
Now, fascinatingly, this same effect occurs for games released in each prior year we have data, but by a smaller amount. In each year, the average rating decline for Kickstarter games exceeds that for Traditional games, but in each successive year the difference is smaller. The following graph shows the rating decline between 2017 and 2016, for games released in 2015 back through 2012. It’s as if in the year after a Kickstarter game is released there is a strong “cooling off” effect in which the rating adjusts down closer to its “true” unhyped rating, and in following years the game continues to cool off, but by smaller and smaller amounts.
There are several possible, related explanations. First, the original raters could be lowering their ratings over time as the game loses its shine. Because much of the Kickstarting experience is about shine or hype, the ratings drop by more than Traditional games. Many BGG users rate Kickstarter games without having played them, then the shine wears off really quickly when they do. Alternatively, later buyers — or, more likely, later players that don’t own the game — may be rating the game lower than the initial owners. It might be that later buyers didn’t experience that Kickstarter glow, or just that those who Kickstarted the game were those to whom the game appealed the most. We suspect each of these happen, but the data we have only allow us to explore at a high level.
It is also worth noting that because for Kickstarter games there is both (a) a sharper fall in ratings and (b) a smaller increase in the number of ratings, there are a couple of troubling possibilities. First, the original fans of Kickstarters are lowering their ratings at a much more rapid pace than the data suggests, or second, that the non-owners playing the game give the game drastically lower ratings than the Kickstarter owners. Without breaking out individual ratings, we don’t know, but these appear to be likely scenarios.
About Those Miniatures…
We suspect that much of the love for Kickstarter games comes from how “shiny” they are, meaning how novel and well produced they are, irrespective of gameplay. (We’ll admit that are a some beautifully produced Kickstarter games!) As a proxy for the “shiny” effect, we examined the rating changes for games that were Kickstarted with and without minis. Miniatures provide a significant amount of the hype surrounding many Kickstarter games, and the use of minis, as opposed to standees or other tokens, is generally unrelated to the quality of gameplay. The next figure shows the change in ratings for games released in 2014 and 2015. In general, ratings for games with minis drop by much more than ratings for games without minis, and ratings for Kickstarter games with minis drop the most of all. In fact, for 2015 games, the average ratings decline for Kickstarter games with minis (-0.162) is nearly twice the ratings decline for Traditional games without minis (-0.085).
While there might be many explanations for, and takeaways from, these data, the lesson we draw is that gamers are discerning. Over time, quality of gameplay will always trump chrome. While we appreciate a beautiful game as much as the next gamer, chrome sometimes acts like lipstick on a pig, and Kickstarter games are particularly prone to pork.
And, once again, we expect this effect would be even more pronounced if BGG users periodically updated their ratings, which of course doesn’t always happen.
Okay, that was a lot of math. So what are we saying? Our anecdotal experience often makes us groan when Kickstarter games are brought to the table, and the shinier the game, the louder the groan. While there are notable exceptions, and we applaud those exceptions, we feel that traditional publishing offers significant advantages over crowdfunding and is more likely to deliver high quality, lasting games. The statistics available, while limited, bear this out. The fact that the game was on Kickstarter doesn’t mean it is a better game: if anything, it probably means it isn’t. We’ll take our favorite publishers over a random project on Kickstarter any day. So please pardon us if we’re not eager to play the game that you paid a fortune for — and waited a year for — without ever playing.