There's a part of every Kickstarter page where giant, leaping whales cavort among their merry waves of moolah.
This is the place where the $10,000 backer level lives, for those with the wealth and the commitment to drop that sort of cash. If you're an average American, $10,000 is about three months worth of post-tax household income, but if you're a Kickstarter whale, it's a top-level treat tied to the project or producer you really care about.
By the time most of us have scrolled through the $50 product-and-poster levels, the $500 limited edition statuettes, the $2,000 in-game avatar, we're wondering what else could possibly tickle the wallets of wealthy fanboys and fangirls. The answer is often a Big Day Out with the producers; an exclusive party or a dinner. For rich backers, the real treats are not so much tchotchkes, as memorable experiences.
So who are the Kickstarter whales, and why do they do it?
Many top-level Kickstarter backers are wary of publicizing their purchases, while the companies banking their passion-lolly are equally shy about such high-level dealings. At the point when you throw $10,000 at someone, they usually reciprocate with lashings of personal respect and privacy.
But a few folks we spoke to were happy to talk about their largesse.
Kevin Clark from Fairfax, VA has spent over $100,000 on various Kickstarter projects, including games. Backing Kickstarters, he said, is just his hobby. He said that his parents had left him with a comfortable income, which he enjoys using to help bring new projects to life.
He backed Republique (above), an iOS adventure from Camouflaj. His prize was a visit to the team's HQ, to talk about the game, and see its development in action.
"The people attract me," he said. "I like the game idea but what pushes me to the higher level is if I am really interested in the people making the game. One of the great things about the higher level backer options, is that they open up an opportunity to see these guys at work and to meet them. It was really good fun to see Republique."
Among the whales we spoke to, this is the most common reason given; the sponsor admires the creator and would like to meet-and-greet, while helping bring something new and fascinating into the world. "When I first got into this, it was projects and people that I really admired, " said Steven Dengler, who has backed multiple Kickstarters at a high level. Dengler is an entrepreneur, best known for founding currency conversion site XE.com.
"You're helping people out that you like or projects you admire, or some combination of the two, and it's exciting," he added. "I've been fortunate enough to do rather well, and I want to support some of the things I really enjoy."
Dengler sometimes backs creative endeavors as a full investor, but has also helped Kickstart games like Wasteland 2 (above), Double Fine Adventure and Project Eternity. As a top-level backer for the Veronica Mars movie, he landed a speaking role.
He said that, after a lifetime of collecting "geek artifacts" he has lost interest in adding to his haul of possessions. The thrill is in getting close to works he admires, and, ever so briefly, laying hands on the projects he cares about. He has visited various studios, seen himself inserted into games, and picked up production credits. But he said this tourism is starting to wear thin, and he's mostly just happy to see good things get made.
"I think the primary satisfaction I derive is just being a part of the project," he said. "The satisfaction of knowing you played a role in bringing something to life that people really want to see. I can say I helped in a substantial way and something got made. It's not purely done for the rewards. A large part of it, for me, is just the knowledge that something got made that wouldn't have got made otherwise."
Jen Lee qualifies as a Kickstarter whale, having backed Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure at the $10,000 level. For that she received a visit to the studio, to participate in the game's development.
Lee said she works a regular job, and saw the contribution as an opportunity to take a dream vacation. She has been a fan of Tex Murphy games since the 1990s, and is well known on forums dedicated to that series of FMV comedy adventures.
"I have a normal job, I'm not really rich," she said. "But Tex Murphy is something that is important to me. I have made a lot of friends through the games, and become part of the community online, even during the time when there were no Tex Murphy games.
"I was happy to hear about the Kickstarter and wanted to support it fully, and also to be as much a part of the project as I could be. The visit to their offices was an ideal way to do that and I enjoyed my time with the team and on the set. It was worth it."
For some, backing a Kickstarter at the top level is a kind of thank-you. George Pantazis from Melbourne, Australia is a successful software developer. He said that his experiences playing one particular space-trading game back in the 1980s inspired him to pursue a career in code. Now, three decades on, he was able to back Elite: Dangerous at the top level.
"In a way, I wanted to repay my debt, for the sheer enjoyment Elite gave me for many years as a teenager. I would have to say the main reason I am in IT today was because of the impact Elite had on me at the time. So it's a big thank-you."
Pantazis will get to meet Elite creator David Braben in Cambridge, England, when the game is complete. He is also having a star system in the game named after him. "I wanted to meet David who at a very young age was able to program magic. But I'm just glad that Elite: Dangerous is now a reality after many years of rumors. Like-minded people who have also been affected by what I believe was a paradigm shift in games demonstrated that we wanted this game to happen and Kickstarter provided the platform for our collective voices."
The whales serve a useful purpose for crowd-funders; dropping significant revenues for relatively little return. But they serve another function, as a focal point for the genuine gratitude many creators feel for the thousands of people who back them, even at low levels, like $5.
Dengler said that, when visiting studios, he is often overwhelmed by the many people who come to thank him. "At first I was confused because I was thinking, 'You raised millions of dollars. I put in, whatever, $10,000. That's a tiny percent of the project.'
"What I realized over time is they were using me as a stand in, as a proxy to thank their fans. It's pretty wonderful because you realize you're part of a group of people that have put up their own money. For them, that $10 had more value than the $10,000 I put in. You're all a community, you've all come together, you're making something happen, and that's satisfaction. But then there's the additional element of the creators coming back with genuine, sincere thanks and saying, 'thank you'."
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