Kickstarter Changes: Blessing or Damnation?


It seems like every day there is a new open hardware or software project popping up on Kickstarter, and here at “The Powerbase“, we try to cover the best of the bunch to get them the exposure they deserve. Many projects which otherwise may have never seen the light of day have gotten the funding they needed to turn into commercial products, and the community in general is better off for it.

So it’s no surprise that recent changes to the Kickstarter rules (which specifically target hardware projects) have some people worried: will these new rules kill off some otherwise very promising projects? Or will the changes accomplish their goal, and cut down on projects which aren’t actually prepared for funding yet?

Kickstarter Is Not a Store

The new rules were announced via a blog post titled “Kickstarter Is Not a Store“, and apply to new projects in the “Hardware and Product Design” category. The administration is worried that the influx of new and unique hardware items on the site will have  people thinking that Kickstarter is some kind of Amazon for cutting edge technology products, rather than a site trying to fund said products. At the end of the day, Kickstarter doesn’t want people to back a project, only to realize that there is really no guarantee at all that the product will ever be delivered.

From now on, any hardware project put up on Kickstarter must have a working prototype, just renderings or simulations of items are no longer allowed. Not only that, but the images used in your Kickstarter campaign must be of the existing prototype, and not of a theoretical finished device. These changes are intended to prevent project creators from over-promising; if Backers see a rough prototype and not a render of a finished project, they are more likely to understand how far along the project really is.

In addition, a campaign is not allowed to offer multiples of an item as an incentive to get people to back the project, unless the item itself only makes sense in multiples. As with the first change, this is designed to help people realize there is no promises made when you back a Kickstarter: there is no guarantee that you’ll get even one of the item, let alone multiples.

Finally, a new section entitled “Risks and Challenges” has been added to the Kickstarter submission process, where the creator is required to explain what kind of skills or knowledge they have which will enable them to complete the very complex task of putting a piece of hardware into production.

All Sales Final

Many who left comments on the blog post asked who exactly these new changes where designed to help, as Kickstarter is clearly a successful service as it stands.

The issue isn’t about Kickstarter’s success up to this point, but its success in the future. As more and more people outside of the tech-savvy crowd start to hear about the site and begin backing projects, Kickstarter runs the very real risk of drawing the ire of users who don’t understand the concept of the site. It won’t be long before Kickstarter is drowning in angry calls from “customers” who want to know when their products will be shipping.

The process has already started. NPR recently ran a piece asking if backers would get their money back if the OUYA failed to materialize: clearly misunderstanding the point of Kickstarter in the first place. Media coverage like this sets a dangerous precedent, as it only strengthens the belief that backing a project will either get you a finished product or your money back.

Asking for your money back after backing a project on Kickstarter is like asking a children’s hospital to give your donation money back because they didn’t save every child who walked through their door; you gave the money in the hope that it could help them accomplish their goals, but it was in no way shape or form a guarantee it would happen that way.

Hurting Creativity?

While Kickstarter is certainly faced with a difficult future, one has to wonder if these moves will really do them any good, or if they’ll hinder the creative environment we’ve been enjoying thus far.

The addition of the “Risks and Challenges” question is a very good move. In fact, it’s hard to believe this wasn’t a question that creators were required to answer from day one. If a person doesn’t have a viable plan for what they will do with their money when and if the campaign succeeds, that is absolutely a red flag and anyone putting their money into the project has a right to know.

Similarly, the requirement of having a functional prototype makes sense. If the creator is incapable of putting together a prototype for his or her idea, even a rough one, how can they be expected to follow through with the finished product? With the amount of rapid prototyping hardware currently on the market, it doesn’t cost much to put together a demonstration model that shows your idea is sound, which should absolutely be a requirement when asking for funding.

But things start to get a little murky beyond that point. It’s one thing to require a prototype of your hardware, but it’s quite another to ban the use of final product renderings or a list of intended features. Kickstarter essentially wants people to back the project as it exists currently, rather than getting their hopes up for a more polished version down the road. The very concept of a prototype is that it’s a rough demonstration version of what will eventually be a production unit, so to disallow showing how the creator intends the final version to look or operate makes it very difficult to get the idea across.

In a way, this rule reverses what Kickstarter is actually trying to do. Kickstarter wants people to understand that they aren’t running a store front, but then turns around and says creators are only able to submit projects which already have a workable version that is feature complete and looks enough like the finial build to not require renderings or mockup images.

It seems like a project which already has a device to that level of completion would be using Kickstarter in exactly the way they claim to be avoiding: as a way to sell preorders for a device that is already prepped for production, rather than fund ideas.

Tom Nardi

Tom is a Network Engineer with focus on GNU/Linux and open source software. He is a frequent submitter to "2600", and maintains a personal site of his projects and areas of research at: .

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