In January 2022, Kickstarter officially announced that February's traditional Zine Quest start date would instead move to August——stranding zine creators with next to no notice. Zine Month, a creator-organized Zine Quest alternative originally formed to support projects off-Kickstarter, stepped in to assume the mantle of all-purposes February zine funding event in its absence.
Zine Month saw mass participation from creators, funding 153 total projects on Kickstarter, itch.io, and other purpose built or hacked-together crowdfunding platforms. Collectively, they raised over $825,000.
In this blog post, I will analyze the successes and failures of Zine Month as a sales event, communal support platform, industry trend, and political statement. Thanks to tireless efforts from volunteers, we have extensive sales data from all Zine Month projects to evaluate and compare against statistics from past Zine Quests.* If nothing else, Zine Month gave us some of the most comprehensive and significant data on sales trends that RPGs have ever seen.
*Massive shoutout to Pandatheist for her Zine Quest 2 and Zine Quest 3 stats compilations.
The Zine Month That Was
Like Zine Quest before it, Zine Month is a diffuse entity. While Zine Quest boiled down to a loose set of official guidelines and Kickstarter search tag, Zine Month comprised a mailing list, website, Discord server, stats spreadsheet, hashtag, video seminar series, and more. No one of these things wholly defines Zine Month, and in this sense the event founders accomplished their stated goal of democratization.
To pin down what "ZiMo" truly was all about, let's investigate its constituent parts.
|Credit: Charles Ferguson-Avery|
In an approximation of Zine Quest's landing pages and search tag, Feral Indie Studio created a Zine Month website complete with a browsable project catalogue, individual project "about" pages, event guidelines, and creator resources. Feral Indie Studio manually added projects to the site upon creator request——with included projects ranging from single-page leaflets to full-length books. For all intents and purposes, the website was the ultimate arbiter of what was and was not a Zine Month participating project.
As for the website's accomplishments: it was definitely a handy aggregator for spin-off projects like the spreadsheet and possibly also media covering the event. But what about as a consumer-oriented promotional tool?
Charles Ferguson-Avery was kind enough to share an export of the website's analytics, which you can read for yourself here. For reference, the site's lifetime traffic (about 90 days as of export) is about on-par for a medium-sized RPG blog. However, the stats on the individual project landing pages indicate relatively little traffic translated to crowdfunding page views.
At the very least, the website was a link to point to and say "here, this is the February zine event thing."
The Discord Server
The heart and soul of Zine Month, the ZIMO Discord server burst to life on January 4th. It was immediately flooded with discussion about the event, zine making and publishing questions (always helpfully answered), and a general sense of excitement and mutual support. The early days of the Discord saw spirited debate about the philosophies and goals of the event, then things mellowed out as the month progressed and ZIMO organizers requested users direct feedback to their email rather than the Discord.
The creator-hosted Discord community workshop livestreams were among the shining moments of the entire event, providing invaluable, expert seminars and Q&A on crowdfunding related topics. Workshop subjects included press kits, zine art, layout accessibility, and much more. I even ran a workshop on preparing for your first, embattled crowdfunding launch day! These were incredibly cool and useful, and I hope will become a tradition for future Zine Months.
|Amanda Lee Franck on zine art|
On February 3rd, Kyle Tam started working on a Google Sheets page to catalogue ZIMO project funding progress. A few folks from the Zine Month Discord (Dora Dee Rogers, Martin Nerukar, and myself) soon hopped in to contribute data entry. Martin polished up the sheet's formatting and added invaluable automation for things like currency conversion, plus a suite of meta-analysis stats tracking overall funding and success rates. Kyle posted weekly summaries and analysis on Twitter. All of us performed the grueling yet meditative task of typing numbers into thousands of tiny squares.
We quickly caught up with the ZIMO website and slowly built the page out with an ever-growing project list, increasingly granular meta stats, graphs, and more. It was a lot of work for everyone involved, but I think worth it. I'm extremely proud about how it turned out. While the spreadsheet saw essentially 0 traffic during the event, I hope people will start pouring over it now. I cannot overemphasize how significant this data is.
The #ZiMo2022 hashtag fielded the event on the bloody grounds of Twitter, while nods to Zine Month adorned crowdfunding and direct game release pages alike. The amusingly named "zine moth" became the event's official badge and mascot, and made its way to many participating projects' sales pages. Most intangible of all but no less integral, Zine Month was the social and economic buy-in driving creators to fund RPG projects in February. That, and the ghost of Zine Quests past.
|Credit: Alex Coggon|
There are probably other icons, institutions, movements, and ephemera that compose and describe Zine Month, but these are the primary pillars. Several projects used Zine Month hashtags and other promotional associations but didn't make it to the website (and by extension, spreadsheet) like Orc Borg and LIMINAL_. Are they Zine Month projects? Is a hashtag a Zine Month? You, reader, must decide.
Comprehensive Statistical Analysis
We've made it through the historical background! To celebrate, let's indulge in a few punchy statistical headlines:
- Zine Month 2022 hosted 60% fewer projects than Zine Quest 3.
- Zine Month 2022 projects raised 16% more on average than Zine Quest 3 projects.
- Zine Month 2022 projects were 5 times more likely to fail than Zine Quest 3 projects (15% failure rate vs 3%).
- Kickstarter ZIMO projects raised nearly 12 times the average funds of itch.io ZIMO projects.
- 0 Kickstarter ZIMO projects failed to hit their goal.
Now that I have your heart racing and fingers itching for Twitter discourse, let's settle back into the calming embrace of context.
First, I'm going to walk you through an overview of what exactly happened during Zine Month. Then, I'll break down the most immediately useful statistical takeaways for people who make and publish games——all action, no philosophy. Finally, I'll try to figure out what this all means for future of the "scene" or "industry", or whatever we're calling it these days.
I highly encourage you to dig into the data yourself and verify my methods and conclusions. Here's that link again!
153 crowdfunding projects launched within (or at least around) February 2022, raising a collective $825,000 USD to date.
- Of those, 73 projects launched on Kickstarter, 60 launched on itch.io, and the remaining 20 spanned Indiegogo, creator-built websites, Game on Tabletop, Ko-Fi, and Gamefound.
- About half of the participating projects funded original RPG systems, while the rest comprised system-neutral material and licensed content for existing games.*
- Adventures raised more than double the average pledge total of any other content category, including systems, supplements, settings, and bestiaries.
- Of the projects made under license for existing systems, Mothership raised the most average funds with $23,500——more than 5 times greater than the system-neutral average.
*Continuing their popularity from previous Zine Quests, around 1 in 4 game systems were made for solo play.Though Zine Month projects raised 16% greater average funding than Zine Quest 3, the median Zine Month project raised 26% less than its 2021 counterpart. However, if we look at Zine Month Kickstarter projects in isolation for a more direct comparison with Zine Quest, the mean rises by a mighty 113% and median climbs 111%.
While Kickstarter suggested a crowdfunding campaign length of just 2 weeks for Zine Quest (a guideline that was broadly stuck-to), Zine Month projects averaged a whopping 29 days. 76% of Zine Month projects had already launched 1 week into February, compared to only 40% of Zine Quest 3 projects——which saw launches spread more evenly throughout the month.
Despite double the average funding duration of every other platform, itch lost out massively on nearly every metric. Itch took dead last in average dollars pledged, median pledged, and average backer count. Over 1/3 of itch projects failed to meet their initial funding goal. The only place where it shines is average funding percent, coming in at 2nd place behind Kickstarter; indicating a use-case for projects with modest goals.
This sounds bleak, but the numbers don't tell the whole story. There are plenty of mechanical, financial, personal, and other reasons to use itch over other platforms. There are also several mitigating factors at play in the statistics, including:
Itch projects were overwhelmingly digital-only, meaning significantly lower average pledge costs (including fewer instances of shipping factoring into the stats).
Itch projects included relatively more original systems than Kickstarter and other platforms, which funded at lower averages than both system-neutral and licensed content (though that could be a causal relationship).
A few itch projects are still funding at the time of this writing.
…all that said, itch creators should know that they're using a platform with little to no internal promotion, that isn't built for crowdfunding, and will require significantly greater efforts to achieve similar results to just about any other site. Cutting through all other factors, direct comparisons between projects where creators moved from Kickstarter to itch paint a stark picture. As a shorthand, expect to make around 85% less money going with itch for a given project instead of Kickstarter.
Kickstarter funding averages more than doubled from last year, despite losing official Kickstarter support and amidst controversy. People use Kickstarter.
Indiegogo, Game on Tabletop, and Gamefound
Kickstarter's main competitors saw a dabbling of creator experimentation this Zine Month. 7 projects ran on Indiegogo (the original crowdfunding platform), 5 on the Europe-focused Game on Tabletop, and just 1 on the newly launched tabletop-gaming-only startup Gamefound.
Surprisingly, of these only Game on Tabletop found breakout success——with double the average backer numbers of the other two platforms. With such small sample sizes we can't draw any definitive conclusions, but we start to get a feel for these relatively untested sites.
Taking a closer look at the individual projects:
- French creator Côme Martin managed to best their Zine Quest 3 zine after moving their newest project to French-owned Game on Tabletop.
- Somewhat skewing Game on Tabletop's stats is I Have the High Ground, the top funded project between all three platforms. Its creator, an established sci-fi author, brought their large existing audience (13k Twitter followers) to the platform.
- Meanwhile, the head of video for tabletop gaming site Dicebreaker ran an Indiegogo project that raised 1/8 the total funds of his first and only Kickstarter project from 2020.
- The lone Gamefound project failed to meet its goal.
Several creators opted to build their own homemade crowdfunding websites, sidestepping dependence upon existing store platforms. Among them were prominent creators with successful past Kickstarter projects, like Jeeyon Shim, Chris Bissette, and Amanda Lee Franck.
At first glance, aggregate stats seem to show custom websites knocking it out the park. They claim a decisive 2nd place among platforms in both average pledged and average backer counts. However, they also have the highest gulf between mean and median funds raised (by nearly 2x). Jeeyon Shim's project The Snow Queen funded a full-scale softcover book, and accounts for over 75% of the category's pledge total.
|The Snow Queen's website, created with Squarespace|
With such small sample sizes and extreme outliers it's difficult to interpret website projects' success. In some cases, the jump from Kickstarter to a custom website precipitated a drop in funding by over 90%. Others hewed closer to their creators' less successful Kickstarter projects.
On the flip side of the coin, projects from lesser known creators fell around or below average itchfunding backer rates. While established creators may struggle to translate existing audiences to new platforms, less established ones flatline without internal promotion. This holds true across all platforms.
Particularly with the publisher experience varying so significantly from site to site, it's tough to evaluate the practical pros and cons of this approach.
Much of the spreadsheet produced skewed, muddied, and charged information. Here I will try to piece out only the most immediately useful results. If you take nothing else from this article, remember these tidbits:
Q: When should you launch?
A: Any time in the first 3 weeks of a Zine Month-style event is fine.
The stats indicate that launching prior to Zine Month's start or in the final week of February results in significantly lower average funding than during the first 3 weeks, but otherwise it's about even. That might be obvious to most, but contrary to popular belief——judging by the massive project contingency that launched during week 1——you don't have to launch immediately to find success. Feel free to take that extra week or two to polish your campaign up, just be mindful of any specific promotional dates you want to hit like cross-promo with your best pal's project.
Q: How long should you run your campaign?
A: Longer isn't necessarily better.
Comparing campaign duration to average pledge level, we see spikes at 2 and 4 weeks and significantly lower performance otherwise. This pattern represents Kickstarter norms: most Kickstarter projects followed the typical 2-week funding period from Zine Quest, and most of the rest went for a 30 day funding period (typical of larger Kickstarters). Meanwhile, itch projects were more evenly distributed and generally went for longer funding periods, tanking the 1 week, 3 week and 5+ week funding duration averages.
We find a more useful data set by looking at Kickstarter stats in isolation. Here, we see slightly less extreme versions of the same trends. 2 and 4 week periods beat out other ranges by a wide margin (possibly due to KS veterans sticking with familiar funding periods).
Importantly, we see that doubling campaign length from 2 to 4 weeks raises average project funding by around 35%. That's a good chunk of extra cash, but it's far from double the reward for double the effort. Creators should weigh that figure against the additional 2 weeks of labor spent on marketing, backer communication, and general crowdfunding-induced stress.
Q: What do pre-launch project followers mean for my zine?
A: Double your follower number: that's your estimated backer count.
This is a very useful heuristic that I've been applying for a long time, that is now roughly confirmed by the Zine Month stats. Why is this useful to know? The formula can help you calculate things like budgets, stretch goals, and your own expectations before you fully commit to launch.
A big caveat here is the MASSIVE amount of variation between projects. Some projects have worse than a 1:1 ratio while others clock in at an outstanding 1:10. Where your project falls has a lot to do with your platform (Kickstarter converts better than any other), how much promo effort you put into pre-launch vs post-launch, and luck. The OSE supplement zine Gig Economy for example had enjoyed very little attention before launch with only 104 followers, but rocketed to 984 backers with the help of the OSE community. You never know what's going to happen, but that 2x ratio is the best guess we have.
Also note that we only have pre-launch follower data on about 40 projects, and even those aren't 100% accurate figures due to how project pre-launch pages work (though the majority were logged within a couple days of launch).
Q: How much should you charge for your zine?
A: Probably more than you think.
Looking only at Kickstarter numbers for direct comparison, more backers support projects with base digital price points between $7.50 and $9.99, and base physical price points between $20 and $24.99 than other ranges. Note that "base price points" here means those are the minimum prices within a given project to purchase a digital or physical version (respectively) of the zine.
These numbers should under no circumstances be treated as gospel——there are many correlative factors and outliers influencing the data. However, the trends do indicate a climb up until these points and a sharp descent after.
You should always ultimately price your stuff on a case-by-case basis. Factors like page count, printing method, production values, etc. all impact price. Even so, you probably shouldn't price your zines any higher than these ranges… but you also might not want to go much lower.
Q: Ok, but what should I make?
A: Whatever you want! But…
Content for existing systems like Mothership, Old-School Essentials and Mork Borg doubled the average funding of both original systems and system-neutral content. If you're interested in these games or already making something in a similar vein, it definitively pays to go licensed over neutral. Similarly, adventures blow every other category out of the water.
All that said, money is not the only reason (or even one of the better reasons) to make a zine. You should always pursue what interests and engages you over chasing trends. There simply isn't enough money in indie RPGs to make "selling out" worth it, and people like to support things that the creator is clearly passionate about.
Q: Should I wait until Zine Quest/Month to crowdfund my project?
A: Possibly, but it matters less than you think.
Here's the cold, hard truth: Zine Month 2022 drove negligible consumer traffic, featured vastly fewer projects, pivoted to less viable platforms, and still beat out Zine Quest 3 on average project funding. What that should tell you is NOT that Zine Month was a massive success, but that Zine Quest-style crowdfunding bonanza events are not all that effective at generating sales.
After pouring over these stats for countless hours, I have come to suspect that the oft-lauded "feeding frenzy" effect of people buying up zines during Zine Quest might be less of a thing than we thought. Take a project from a veteran creator with a moderate following and decent crowdfunding skills, they're probably going to do about as well launching during a Zine Month/Quest as not.
|Credit: Charles Ferguson-Avery|
However, there are a ton of other reasons why Zineborne events are good for creators. Here's just a few:
- You're going through the same thing as hundreds of other people at the same time. This is not only a morale boost, but gives you a plethora of examples to follow and knowledge to glean from. People are gonna be on Twitter and in discord servers asking questions and broadcasting advice about makin' zines. Hoovering up that information will make your project better and your life easier.
- Active projects mean cross-promotion opportunities. While I don't put much stock in vague hopes of heightened consumer activity, there is a ton of value in deliberate cross-promotion. One campaign update from a decent-sized project shouting out yours might mean hundreds or thousands of dollars.
- Moderate moral mediocrity matriculation. During QuestMonth, people feel an uncommon urge to help people make their zines. If a project appears on-course to fall below its funding goal, Twitter will sometimes rally to push it over the edge. It doesn't happen with every project——but if you combine a depressing funding trajectory with just the right dose of indie righteousness, you might be saved by angel influencers. Needless to say, this is a niche benefit.
- Did I mention the morale boost? If I had to define [February] in a single word, it would be "confidence." That month rolls around, people decide to make zines. "If I launch during Zine Quest, all my indie dreams will come true!" Lies. You could make a zine at any time, but you have the confidence to succeed in February. And maybe in August.
While my tone in the above sounds fairly conclusive, I want to emphasize that all of it could easily be wrong. If it turns out the indie RPG customer base rose by 300% between 2021 and 2022, most of what I just said becomes very inaccurate.
There are countless reasonable criticisms you could level at every derived stat and conclusion presented here. Taking the same data set, someone with a different perspective could paint a wildly different picture for you. This is me taking the stats at face value, analyzing them with very much untrained statistics skills and moderate crowdfunding experience. You should really check out the stats and draw your own conclusions.
Here beneath the relative safety of 3,500 dry and mostly innocuous words I will dare to speculate on what this all means, then. We are now departing the domain of fact and into the land of speculation and subjectivity. Keep your smelling salts handy.
|Credit: Charles Ferguson-Avery|
Why did average Kickstarter funding double since last year?
Kickstarter projects' extremely high performance during Zine Month surprised me. That's a massive amount of growth, and at first glance might lend some credence to the oft-speculated notion that huge numbers of competing projects during Zine Quest result in cannibalized profits. It stands to reason that a fixed number of consumers can only buy so many things. But I don't think that's what's happening here. Let's examine some possible alternative causes:
- RPGs are growing, Kickstarter is growing. According to this website, 42 of the top 100 RPG Kickstarter campaigns of all time funded in 2021——with the rest stretching back to 2013. Campaigns from indie titles like Old-School Essentials and Mothership are climbing into 6 and 7 figures. The audience for indie RPGs is there and growing, and the stats indicate that everyone funding on Kickstarter (from small campaigns to large) is reaping the benefits.
- People are getting better at crowdfunding. With 3 Zine Quests behind us and years to stew over statistics and post-mortems, people pretty much know how to run a zine Kickstarter. Creators construct better campaign pages, execute smarter and more efficient promotional drives, and create more polished zines than ever before. If you read that and lament loss of the rough-and-tumble zines of yore, I would posit that higher institutional knowledge lowers the barrier of entry for everyone——easing the slog through admin work even as it emphasizes commercialism.
- Less ambitious creators could be self-selecting out in favor of itch. If you have a project with a modest funding goal, you might favor the hypothetically more mellow itchfunding process over Kickstarter's hyperactive pace. If that happens, we might see projects with lower goals moving off Kickstarter and inflating KS averages. However, the fact that Kickstarter's median-to-mean funding ratio is nearly identical between ZQ3 and ZiMo indicates that this probably isn't a huge factor.
On motivations and material needs.
The indie RPG scene broadly frames the successful funding and creation of indie RPG zines/books as a moral good. Generally, I would agree: more art in the world is often good, more money in the pockets of artists is often good. But there's a massive gulf between material want and material need in RPGs.
The fact is that almost no one makes a living from RPGs, at least not exclusively. Most of the people who do either bask in the 5e ecosystem or are employees of large, established corporations. The number of full time indie RPG devs are probably in the low double digits.
There is almost certainly a larger number of people for whom RPGs represent a significant source of supplemental income. But RPGs are an extraordinarily inefficient side hustle. Judging by my own experiences selling RPGs, all but the most prolific and internet famous part-time devs probably make something around $1 per hour or less.
Then there are people who have little or no income for one reason or another and for whom RPGs are an invaluable, but nonetheless insufficient, financial lifeline. These are the people who would benefit most from expanded RPG markets and increased institutional knowledge.
Finally we have financially stable creators who make and sell RPGs as an extension of their participation in the hobby. They might sell RPGs to fund higher production values, to more widely distribute their creations, for personal validation, or any number of other reasons.
Exactly who falls into which group, and the relative proportionality of the groups in the scene at large, is both difficult to determine and somewhat critical to evaluating the moral imperative of "we should enable people to fund RPG stuff." If the publishing scene was made up of 99% hobbyists, we might view things with a different lens than if it was 99% the struggling and unemployed. My gut tells me that much RPG discourse at least assumes the plausible deniability that everyone and anyone might be relying on RPG income for survival.
I don't have any true conclusions here, but I think this largely goes unsaid and lies the heart of indie RPGs. It is at least part of the framework we need to understand moral and ethical issues in RPGs, like which platforms we choose to use, how we communicate online, and where to direct our support.
This subject deserves someone far more educated than I to explore it in depth, but I think it merits at least light coverage here.
What trends should we expect next year?
More than any Kickstarter controversy, design trend or social skirmish, the paper supply chain will shape future Zine Quests and Zine Months. I have seen the future of indie RPG printing, and it is not pretty.
|A 50% price jump in the last 10 months, and climbing.|
Mixam, the printer which has in no small part made recent indie RPG growth possible, seems to be on the rocks with unexpected order cancellations and cost increases. Similar things are happening across the entire print industry: as paper supply wanes and demand rises (due in part to large publishers pivoting away from Chinese manufacturing), prices and production schedules are expanding.
In a very real sense, this is going to price out a not-insignificant portion of people from printing zines——and make already complex logistical issues that much more daunting for new creators. This is serious on its own, but combined with crowdfunding platform uncertainty it threatens to end the indie publishing scene as we know it. The future of RPG zines looks more print-on-demand reliant, more frequently digital-only/print-at-home, and a lot less accessible to new, unestablished, and less privileged creators.
Combating this will take a whole lot more scene cohesion and organization than we've seen in the past. I'm not sure RPG Twitter can kick its discourse addiction long enough to take action, but I hope it will. The time to stop posting and start organizing is yesterday.
Awesome writeup, extremely insightful. Thank you!ReplyDelete
Thank you for your hard work!ReplyDelete
This is a fantastic and fascinating analysis. Lots to chew on as well. Thanks as always for your hard and generous work, Ian.ReplyDelete
That's the type of content I'm looking for on the Internet. Thanks a lot for writing this long, clear and methodical analysis.ReplyDelete
I therefore also discovered your previous article about your own annual income. Thanks for that too.
There's indeed "little money" in the indie TRPG world, but it's nice to see that there are still some big driving forces (Mork Borg, Mothership, etc.) that help bring some money into the pocket of the indies who create non-DnD supplements. Well, that still doesn't tell me why we' re so obsessed with creating things for so little result: no fame, no money, are we psychic masochists?
Fortunately, the little bubbles/communities are caring, at least we get some compliments and a little happiness knowing that other people enjoyed playing (or reading) our creations.