Patronage markets at Kobold Quarterly
Submitted by murph on 5 January 2009 - 1:08pm. dnd | economics
Along with getting back into playing D&D over the past year, I've started catching up on the world of 3rd party publishers. One really interesting publisher is Kobold Quarterly, which seems to have developed over the course of a year from a one-man gaming zine to a respected publication with big-name contributors like Ed Greenwood, Jeff Grubb, and Skip Williams.
The biggest thing KQ is doing, though, is their patronage-based Open Design adventures. KQ puts out the bare sketch of an idea, with a couple of big options left open. (The current project, Halls of the Mountain King, has 3E and 4E versions competing.) Patrons sign up via paypal; when one of the competing options hits a dollar target, it goes into development, and other options' patrons get the option to join the winner or else get a refund. The project then commissions writers, a cartographer, and artists, and the patrons are given access to private forums to discuss the project, guide its development via polls, or propose ideas to the writers and other patrons for inclusion into the project. At the end, the patrons each get copies of the project - and nobody else does. It's a limited run, private work, and it appears that the total commission is in the few thousand dollar range, though I haven't been able to find totals anywhere.
A few of these projects have been produced by now, and apparently have strong enough reputations (either through word of mouth or simply by association with the publicly available KQ content) that people are desperately trying to find ways to get back issues. The site's public forum is abuzz with grumbling about unavailable projects, questions about first-sale doctrine by patrons over their copies of old projects, etc. KQ's editor has expressed substantial frustration over the fact that some copies seem to have been leaked online, which he sees as some patrons breaking their social contract with the authors and artists, but particularly with the other patrons.
It seems like this problem should be surmountable, and it'll be interesting to see whether KQ's patronage market system matures into a two-tier public/private product market. My expectation is that holding things private forever would be impossible (do a search sometime for D&D books on Bittorrent...), but that some mechanism for rewarding patrons (investors, early adoptors) is certainly needed. Simplest, from a prestige standpoint, would be raw recognition within the project - similar to the Ypsi Symphony Orchestra or UMGASS's program listings of supporters (patrons). A game material bonus could also work - patrons get the product a year before it goes up for public distribution, or get some extra piece of product that's left out of the general release (though these solutions lend themselves to black marketeering just as the original product does). More complicatedly, the patrons could be treated as investors in more of a shareholder approach - in addition to general recognition, they can get paid a share of general market sales of the product proportional to their patronage level. (I expect this would most likely be in the form of credits usable towards future KQ products / patronages, rather than trying to move actual cash around.) Regardless of the system, though, it probably wouldn't be back-applicable, but would have to be instituted at Time N for all future products - considering KQ's view of the strong social contract of exclusivity around existing patronage products, they'd (rightfully) want to have the terms of patron vs. public access to the product laid out at the time that patrons join, rather than retconning it.