Kickstopper: The Archaeology of Firetop Mountain

This article was previously published on Ferretbrain; due to the imminent closure of that site, I’m moving it over here so that it can remain available.

Last time, I talked about how Kickstarter seems to have been a particular boon to point and click adventures. Another genre of game that has thrived on there, as witnessed by To Be Or Not To Be, is the humble gamebook. I suspect it’s for similar reasons – firstly, you have an audience reared on the medium in question now old enough to put money down on a Kickstarter (conceivably a lot of money if you are looking at the higher tiers). Secondly, you have a product which is based on a sufficiently tried and tested model that you can set a budget with a bit more certainty than a game based on experimental or unfamiliar game mechanics or technology. Thirdly, the genre is niche enough that it’s extraordinarily beneficial to be able to demonstrate sufficient demand ahead of time.

Tabletop RPG products have also thrived on Kickstarter for similar reasons, and recently I covered Beyond the Pit for the Advanced Fighting Fantasy system. Based on this, you might suppose it’s only a matter of time before Kickstarter was used not just to produce gamebooks and Fighting Fantasy-related products, but to produce actual new Fighting Fantasy books. That… hasn’t happened yet. And the reason I know it hasn’t happened yet is because of You Are the Hero, an expansive history of the Fighting Fantasy franchise by Jonathan Green whose publication was funded through Kickstarter.

Usual Notes On Methodology

As always, different backers on a Kickstarter will often have very different experiences and I make no guarantee that my experience with this Kickstarter is representative of everyone else’s. In particular, I’m only able to review these things based on the tier I actually backed at and can’t review rewards I didn’t actually receive.

At the end of the review, I’ll be giving a judgement based on my personal rating system for Kickstarters. Higher means that I wish I’d bid at a higher reward level, a sign that I loved more or less everything I got from the campaign and regret not getting more stuff. Lower means that whilst I did get stuff that I liked out of the campaign, I would have probably been satisfied with one of the lower reward levels. Just Right means I feel that I backed at just the right level to get everything I wanted, whilst Just Wrong means that I wish I’d never backed the project in the first place.

The Campaign

Jonathan Green isn’t an unknown figure to the Fighting Fantasy fanbase by any stretch of the imagination. As well as being an established author in his own right, he’s also a gamebook veteran, being the author of several of the final mid-1990s entries in the original Puffin line as well as almost all of the new Fighting Fantasy books published since Wizard Books revived the series. (He’s also responsible for the Imperial Fists-themed Warhammer 40,000 gamebook I reviewed a while back.) Being a familiar face was doubtless helpful to the project – both in terms of convincing people to fund the project and in terms of getting access to Steve Jackson, Ian Livingstone, and the various editors, writers, artists, publishers, fans and other significant individuals he would interview in the process of producing the book.

The project grew out of a retrospective article that Green had written for SFX magazine on Fighting Fantasy; in the course of producing it, Green had realised that he’d only scratched the surface with his original article, and the full story of the series would benefit from a book-length treatment. The appetite for a certain level of Fighting Fantasy nostalgia had already been demonstrated by a different, failed Kickstarter – Turn to 400, an attempt to product a full-length documentary film on the history of the series. Although Turn to 400 brought in £15,000 worth of pledges, this fell short of the ambitious £40,000 target set for the budget, which left Turn to 400 in stasis and a bunch of backers with some £15,000 still in their pocket ready for the right Fighting Fantasy history project to come along.

I’m not saying that Green deliberately set the funding target for You Are the Hero on that basis – if you were going to do something like that you’d go for a slightly lower level to account for the backers you didn’t capture – but I’m sure the Turn to 400 Kickstarter helped prime the ground for You Are the Hero, which eventually wrapped up its campaign with over £21,000 of pledges.

What Level I Backed At

CYCLOPS – As Troll, but your name will appear in the acknowledgements section of the book, as a thank you for helping make this project happen.

For reference, Troll level was as follows:

TROLL – You will receive one limited edition copy of YOU ARE THE HERO. (You may order additional copies of the book at £25 per book. P&P will have to be paid separately on all books at a rate of £5 for the UK, £9 for Europe, and £16 for Rest of the World, per book.)

The Delivery Process

The estimated release date for You Are the Hero was December 2013, and the eventual release took place in early September 2014, so that’s a delay of some 8-9 months, which isn’t superb but at the same time isn’t unexceptional as far as Kickstarter projects go. I personally didn’t find the delay especially frustrating, since Green did a good job of keeping up a steady trickle of updates to keep everyone in the loop about delays – and, most importantly, providing credible-sounding updated deadlines, which is more reassuring than saying “Well, we’ll deliver the book at some point, but we have no idea when that will be”.

On top of that, Green went above and beyond in terms of providing extra value to the backers; whilst the £23,000 stretch goal which would have guaranteed that all copies of You Are the Hero put out through the Kickstarter campaign were hardcovers wasn’t reached, able budgeting meant that by the end of the process there was enough funds to provide this upgrade anyway, meaning that Kickstarter backers ended up with a sturdier and somewhat more handsome version of the book than those who waited to pick it up until after the campaign was done.

The offical release of the book took place at Fighting Fantasy Fest, the first convention dedicated solely to the franchise. A small but well-attended affair, it included a range of talks, guest appearances, an art gallery which included some fascinating pieces like original notes from the design process of classic gamebooks, and of course the launch of You Are the Hero itself. Backers were welcome to come to the convention and pick up their copies directly. Whilst I didn’t stay there for very long – it really was a lovely sunny day outside, and there were men wearing fedoras and t-shirts based on 4Chan memes unironically inside – it was a fun event to pop into for a dyed-in-the-wool fan like myself, plus it meant my copy of the book was saved from the stresses and strains of the postal system.

Apparently I made the right call; based on subsequent backer updates, it appears that some people (particularly overseas) had issues with their delivery of the book taking an irritatingly long time, and some were especially annoyed by the fact that they ended up getting their copies of the book after it was available for sale to the general public. Although Kickstarter is not just some pre-ordering service, and there’s often good reasons why Kickstarted products and conventionally pre-ordered products end up released to the general public before Backers and preorderers get their copies, I entirely understand why that might bug people. Particularly when the end product you get is no different from the product that ends up in shop shelves (which isn’t quite the case here), it feels utterly pointless to pre-order a book if it turns out you could have got it faster and cheaper just by buying it conventionally; on top of that, because Kickstarter backers provide the funds that make a product possible in the first place, there’s some justification to the idea that the project creators’ first loyalty should be to them instead of the broader audience.

Reviewing the Swag

So, how is the book itself? Tall, fat, and beautiful would be the three adjectives I’d primarily use for it. I suspect that, as with Beyond the Pit, a generous portion of the budget was reserved for paying the various Fighting Fantasy artists for the use of their artwork, because like any good coffee table book this volume is absolutely crammed with pictures. One of the things which really made Fighting Fantasy stand out from the crowd for me was the amazing artwork, which over time developed this really nice aesthetic for the series – proving that you can do dark fantasy which doesn’t resort into the drab, sad realism of a lot of grimdark material whilst at the same time being more varied and surreal (but no less ornate and baroque) than the house style used for Warhammer these days. It turns out I’m not alone in my appreciation of the artwork of the series, because the various artists profiled in the book get just as much attention as the gamebook authors (indeed, particularly noteworthy artists get more attention than some of the more minor writers), and the full-page presentations of some of the illustrations are especially nice. (On top of that, Green was even able to commission some brand-new artwork for the book, such as the gorgeous cover you see to the right there.)

As far as the actual text goes, it’s a history of Fighting Fantasy written by a friendly insider (who at points has to write about himself in the thrid person) and pitched more as a celebration of the franchise than a formal study, so if you’re after dry, academic rigour or a muck-raking investigation into the hidden scandals of the 80s gaming scene in the UK you are well and truly in the wrong place here. On the other hand, if you want a really exhaustive look at the franchise, it does a pretty good job: every book in the core series is profiled, as is just about every spin-off product released in conjunction with the series, and the book additionally offers a look at Jackson and Livingstone’s post-Fighting Fantasy activities and a look at current developments and potential future directions for the franchise.

Green has interviewed a sufficiently wide variety of sources that a broad picture of the franchise’s history is built up, and he has dug deeply enough that he is able to provide a range of facts that even hardcore fans will be unfamiliar with. I was particularly struck by the revelation of Puffin’s mid-1990s plan to revamp the series by reducing each book from 400 paragraphs to 300 paragraphs on the assumption that this would make it appeal to a younger audience – a plan which would have included revising all the existing books to take out 100 paragraphs of material. When you hear that they were contemplating acts of vandalism like that, you start feeling glad that Puffin’s custodianship of the series ended when it did.

The overview of the current state of the series is particularly interesting, because it’s clear that there’s lots of people interested in doing something with the IP but not much in the way of cohesive and unified effort drawing these plans together. For instance, multiple different companies are working on smartphone adaptations of classic Fighting Fantasy books, with a completely different set of developers handling Sorcery!, and whilst multiple people seem interested in putting together a Fighting Fantasy movie, Jackson and Livingstone seem to have been happy to let individual projects percolate on their own. The impression I got from these final chapters is that, now that they own the rights to the series, Jackson and Livingstone seem to be giving adaptation rights to folk who happen to catch their eye without necessarily developing a cohesive plan for the ongoing development and promotion of the franchise. Whilst this “let a thousand flowers bloom” approach might have the advantage of insulating Jackson and Livingstone from the consequences of any one project going tits-up, at the same time I do wonder whether this diffusion of effort results in inconsistency within the market.

I also can’t help but feel that there must be some way to make producing new Fighting Fantasy adventures a profitable concern – whether this takes the form of new hardcopies or eBook adaptations of the format – rather than relying on constant rehashes and rereleases of old material. The two Wizard Books reprint series seemed to fade away over time due to sales petering out, and whilst part of me suspects the rather drab cover art they were lumbered with might be a culprit there, I do wonder whether this might be a problem of the wrong business model being adopted rather than the books being intrinsically unmarketable to modern kids, with too much reliance on rehashing old books that are amply available through second hand sources and not enough in the way of new releases coming out.

As Livingstone himself notes in these pages, the French translations of the gamebooks by Gallimard sell so consistently well that they’ve never gone out of print, so there’s clearly an audience for this stuff out there that can support ongoing publication even if sales aren’t of the chart-smashing level they enjoyed in the 1980s. Whilst there’s doubtless a certain amount of money to be made in making the expansive back catalogue available (whether in hardcopy or adapted eBook format), I’m convinced there’s a place for more new adventures to add to the legacy and to appeal to new audiences – I simply can’t believe the market can’t sustain more than the occasional anniversary release by Jackson or Livingstone.

If only there were some sort of platform people could use to set up and promote financially risky propositions in order to simultaneously gauge public interest and raise funds to support the production process – some means to allow creators to reach out directly to their audience and ask them to help kickstart a project. Unfortunately, no such website exists, otherwise I would be loudly advocating using it to fund the release of new, original releases.

Name, DNA, and Fingerprints

Although having your name credited on a product is a common Kickstarter reward, I haven’t yet done a Kickstopper review of a product where I backed at a level that would deliver that reward. At last I have, so I can inaugurate this new section (name derived from this Jerkcity strip), where I get to note a) whether my name was included correctly and b) whether I’m embarrassed in retrospect to have my name associated with the project.

In this case, my name was correctly provided at the backing level I provided. Do I think it was worth the extra £5 to upgrate to Cyclops from Troll, given that this is literally the only benefit I got from that? Frankly, yes. Fighting Fantasy books were a big part of my childhood, and it feels good to be a named and credited contributor to this new addendum to the franchise even though I didn’t really make any effort that Troll-level backers didn’t. £5 is cheap enough that I think it’s a small price to pay to avoid the buyer’s remorse of backing at Troll-level and then later on thinking “Man, but I could have had my name on this.”

Higher, Lower, Just Right or Just Wrong?

Based on the above, I would say my level of backing here was Just Right.

Would Back Again?

This Kickstarter does appear to have been a learning experience for Green, with the combination of shipping issues and project delays in particular being a classic Kickstarter pitfall. Still, he has dealt with all of these problems with good grace and was able to deliver a product that was even better than originally budgeted for to the backers. I’d certainly give due consideration to any subsequent Kickstarter campaign he ran. Would I back another crowdfunding hullaballoo that included Green’s fresh and tasty management and moderation if the subject of the project were the making of some other Fighting Fantasy product? Probably, depending on what specific concept the project revolved around, but I admit I can’t for the moment think what else Kickstarter might contribute to the franchise.

One thought on “Kickstopper: The Archaeology of Firetop Mountain

  1. Pingback: The Reading Canary: Fighting Fantasy (Part 5) – Refereeing and Reflection

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