Mar 19 2012 4:00pm

Kickstarting Order of the Stick

Order of the Stick

1,254,120 gold pieces is approximately the value of the hoard of a great wyrm blue dragon. The bed of gold and jewels and magic artifacts upon which the hateful serpent slumbers. If you and your party of adventurers — let’s say, for sake of argument, a human fighter, a human thief, an elf wizard, a halfling ranger, a human bard and a dwarven cleric — traveled out to the desert, puzzled through its command of illusions and hallucinations, braved the beast’s frightful presence, dodged it’s lightning breath, battled it tooth and claw...and tail slap and wing buffet and crushing scale and spell — remember, it casts as a 17th level sorcerer, plus access to several cleric domains — and then finally triumphant, claimed the vast Smaug-like treasure trove for themselves, that is how much you’d get from the Dungeon Master. The halfling, being a sneaky little sociopath, probably took the Arkenstone for himself. You know how that goes. $1,254,120 is also how much money Rich Burlew of Order of the Stick raised when he started a Kickstarter to fund a reprint of his graphic novels.

You probably know what all the words in that last sentence mean, but just in case, let me give you the cheat sheet. Order of the Stick is a roleplaying game parody comic that has been running since 2003, the first strip being about the change from Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Edition to the updated “3.5” Edition. Like most strips of that stripe that run for long enough, it has ceased to be a straight forward satire and has become a story focused around the meta-narrative that originally supported the spoof. The difference between Order of the Stick and a lot of similar comics that move on to deal with plot and characters is that Order of the Stick is still really funny, and still really good. It didn’t end up tangled up in the contrived drama of a soap opera. When the hardcopy collections of the web comic went out of print, they sort of fell into a deep, dark hole. One that required a bunch of upfront capital investment to get out of...which is where Kickstarter comes in. Kickstarter is a pledge based fundraiser site; folks pledge money, creators offer bribes, and if the pledges meet the goal, bang, you are in business.

Order of the Stick is a stick-figure comic (you know, like XKCD) that has consistently hit the right notes to appeal to the gamer zeitgeist. He goes from the shallow shoreline of making fun of the bard’s singing to the deeper waters of goofy monsters of earlier editions — the Lawful Good flying jellyfish Flumphs being a particular target of good-natured ribbing. Maybe that is the key; that it works on so many levels. Or maybe it is just Long Tail economics and the “1000 True Fans.” The Long Tail is the part of the distribution curve where things get interesting; not the big blockbuster must-have stuff that everyone sees, but the smaller projects, the ones with limited stock and distribution and a tiny consumer base. “1000 True Fans” is Kevin Kelly’s theory that with a loyal enough group of fans willing to spend an average of one day’s wages apiece, you can make a modest living off the Tail. In an interview with Singularity Hub, Burlew attributes his success to building a loyal fan base by providing free content for years. That, and the fact that he kept “tending” to the Kickstarter project, answering emails and updating with new rewards as goals were met. and you can see it in the graph he drew; as lofty goals were reached, he just put another pie in the sky prize up, almost daring people to go after it.

Cory Doctorow cautions, over at Boing Boing, that this isn’t some sort of herald of the end of business models as we know it. The success of self-publishing superstars like Rich Burlew is more equivalent to winning the lottery or becoming a rockstar. A fair enough point, but the difference, I would argue, is that this isn’t random chance, or studio-driven. If this is gambling, it is poker, not the lotto. There are elements of luck and marketing at play, but there is also something else. There is the — pardon me if I get a little sappy — the interplay between a creator and his audience at work. The play, as a crazy Danish guy once said, is the thing. The Order of the Stick made a million dollars, and that is pretty cool. Rich Burlew had more than his 1000 true fans, and when the time came to cash in his chips, they came through.

Mordicai Knode has totally tried to use MSPaint to draw a picture of himself in the Order of the Stick style. If you like Twitter-things, his eldrich gibberings can be found here.

1. Batonga
After reading and seeing the kickstarter articles for OOTS. I went and read the comic I have spent the last month, between projects,lunches, waiting in lines to read the series to date. It is amazing, such good content. I missed supporting the kickstarter fund, but I will be buying some of past books now, as I keep up with where it goes. Thank you Rich Burlew
Mordicai Knode
2. mordicai
Batonga; it is weird how sometimes you can make money doing word of mouth advertising, huh?

& I should have mentioned that I find the board game unplayable. I'd steer clear.
Ian Johnson
3. IanPJohnson
Ten of those dollars were my dollars! HUZZAH!
Mordicai Knode
5. mordicai
It is nice to see the geek community rally around one of their own, yeah? Good job Ian!
John Skotnik
6. ShooneSprings
I'm hopeful that other webcomics will try this out. I'd love to see Pete Abrams (creator of Sluggy Freelance) do something like this.
7. Ford MF
It kind of blows my mind the properties that are able to attract that kind of funding? Like, Order of the Stick? THEY were able to rally $1.25 million? Like, the guy clearly has more than 1000 true fans (unless every one of his true fans contributed over a thousand dollars each).
Mordicai Knode
8. mordicai
6. ShooneSprings

I think there is a worry of market fatigue, but yeah, I agree! I read a lot of webcomics & I like to support them by buying merchandise; makes great gifts, too.

7. Ford MF

A million bucks is pretty nice scratch, but also, we're talking about a decade of work, too, right? Not that he hasn't made money in other places, presumably, but he's had time to make those 1000 into hundreds of thousands.
j p
9. sps49
I found the comic around Christmas 2006, a bit before strip 400. How? Somebody posted on a Temple of Elemental Evil modding forum discussion thread.

Word of mouth works for good stuff, although it can take a while to reach a critical mass. Which was reached before I ever heard of the strip.

And I contributed 0.0124 percent of the total. The little one-off extras were calling out to me, and the coloring book is earmarked for a 10 year old. Well, one is :)
Mordicai Knode
10. mordicai
9. sps49

Yeah, the best thing about word of mouth is that it is hard to buy it with currencies other than quality. I started reading OotS thinking it would be good for a chuckle & then I'd forget about it, but I still go "oh goodie!" whenever it pops up in my Google Reader.
11. JohnnyMac
Ford MF @7 "...the guy clearly has more than 1000 true fans..."

According to the final count on the Kickstarter site, Mr. Burlew has
14,952 true fans. Of which, I am proud to say, I am one (a hat tip to fellow backer IanPJohnson @3).

"I participated!"
Mordicai Knode
12. mordicai
11. JohnnyMac

It is crazy to think that averages out to like, a hundred bucks a head. Or means out, or whatever-- I was never good at arithmatic, but I get that some contributors were bigger than others, but still! Dang. Though-- I mean, I've dropped a hundred bucks on art, or on a bunch of books (or rarely a single book). I mean-- that sort of is the brilliance. I CAN totally rationalize it. I get it!
13. Mndrew
I first heard of OotS a few years back whenTOR author Steve Brust mentioned in one of his rare blog posts that he was unable to continue working until that days strip was published. I've been addicted ever-since.
Mordicai Knode
15. mordicai
13. Mndrew

I've only read Agyar by him, but now that I know he has such excellent taste, maybe I'll have to dip my toes in a little deeper.
Sol Foster
16. colomon
IMO OotS is the most fun graphic story being told today. Rich's Kickstarter success is incredibly well-deserved, and comparing it to a lottery is just daft.
17. JohnnyMac
Mordicai @12, if I recall correctly, the average donation was about $82. The pledges ranged from $10 up to one $5,000 pledge (!).

A big part of the fascination in watching this happen over the month of the pledge drive was simply how incredibly successful it was. Mr. Burlew's original goal was a bit over $57K. His aim was to reprint one book, the one that was the longest out of print of his collections. He said in an interview that he figured one of two things would happen: one, he would make the goal, reprint his book and people would stop bugging him about it. Or, two, he would not make the goal and then, when people bugged him about the out of print book, he would have a good excuse for not reprinting it.

Well, his original goal was met within 48 hours. just kept going! $100,000! $200,000! Look out! Here comes the half a million mark! Even after I hit my own rather modest limit, I kept coming back to the Kickstarter site to see the total pledged keep rocketing upward and get the latest updates on goals and rewards.

I had no idea when it started that it would end up with over (Dr. Evil voice on) ONE MILLION DOLLARS! (Dr. Evil voice off).
18. Stevethe
I will definitely be starting to read this. On the subject of webcomics, you should all check out Cura Te Ipsum: Be warned, one of the recent arcs was NSFW.
Mordicai Knode
19. mordicai
Or Oglaf, if you are into NSFW fantasy jokes...but that is so NSFW I won't even link to it...

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