Penny Arcade’s Ad-free Kickstarter

I have my 2c on this, just scribbling it down here.

First off, I do write and work part-time for this organization that makes its living posting news and articles on the internet and getting money from ads. I also haven’t gotten paid in a while, partly because I know they’re just not making money this way, but also my contribution is pretty small that the intangible benefits of writing for them keeps me happy enough. And even if they paid me we’re looking at no more than $40/month.

Penny Arcade used to be a simple web comic. It expanded to sell merch and then it did other content production stuff like their Report and PATV stuff, plus the two large cons. It also sold ads. So I kind of know how it goes, especially if they keep 14 people on full-time.

The breaking news today is that they’re trying to get a year’s worth of funding so they will not have to rely on advertising on parts of their operation in order to pay the bills. What readers get is more open participation of the PA team as they won’t have to deal with advertisers as much, they won’t see as much ads on their site, and maybe some other intangible benefits.

As they have pointed out in their own spiel on the matter, a lot of it is motivated by their desire to stay away from the marketing money, and its influences. I can say for sure that is a real thing and I appreciate that notion as someone who just had to talk to a bunch of people who want to pitch products and services so I can write about them.

The rest is just posturing. I can see the act, when stripped all emotional appeals and boiled down to a list of positives and negatives, as one that simply asks for its readership money to provide a service, versus asking the reader to read ads and get the money from the advertisers.

I believe the way PA is headed, getting money as a form of donation makes sense. But it’s clearly because they can make money from ads that they are spurning them in order to detach themselves from the downsides of having to rely on ad money. That is the rub–how does that translate to tangible benefit for the readership? I don’t think it is a simple question with simple answers.

For one, entire agencies and systems were set up to disguise this relationship–the one between press and advertisers–as neutral. As something we can ignore. Would we have faith in our newspapers and news sites and news programs if they would provide a significantly better service if they didn’t have to do any advertising? The reality is that the gap is not as big as we posit it to be. Or else everyone would only watch NPR. A collective $250k to a -million dollars among all of PA’s readership, maybe, maybe not. I don’t know if that’s a lot of money given their relatively large readership. Does NPR do a significantly better job of reporting the news than, say, NYT? Or CNN? Maybe, maybe not.

And I think news is the most troublesome category. Game review and game culture web comic artists are way down the list from there.

Then there’s the matter of Kickstarter. It’s not cool to beg for money on Kickstarter even if everyone does this. And essentially taking a donation on KS is not allowed, it’s in their guideline. Of course you can also just turn it around and say that they’re not exactly taking a donation but setting up a project where they can get off of ad money. The term is 1 year at a time and the tangible benefits are the things listed on their KS page. Some of these benefits are lame, but others are pretty cool as far as pledge goals go. $2000 for a 5-year all PAX pass is almost worth it. Dedicated comic strip or drawing are par for the course. Lunch dates with these guys are like, the opposite of enjo kosai or whatever. I mean, really? It’s what AX auctioneers would call “bragging rights” and is not of notable value in the raw. Unless they take you to some hardcore awesome Seattle place for foods.

I guess the rub is ultimately: how hard are they selling themselves out? I think it’s one of those weird cases where while it is way beneficial to have a free, ad-supported service, that in order to go back to the patronage model they need to sell way harder than they are now. Does Tycho and Gabe et al., realizes this? Because their readership and most people certainly do not.

Further reading:

Tycho on patronage (scroll down, or see what I’ve written)

PA on Kickstarter

PA Report on Kickstarter

PS. More details about the Kickstarter side of the issue can be found at Kotaku. Basically KS has already given Robert their blessing before the project went public, so yeah. We know Kickstarter doesn’t strictly play by their own guidelines anyway.