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Big Orange Slide

Friday, October 24th, 2014

Playing for keeps

July 18, 2012 by Curtis Westman

Illustration by Kate Laudrum

If you’re at all active in the video gaming community, you’ve heard of Penny Arcade, and chances are you have an opinion. If I collected one hundred avid video gamers in a small room, quieted the crowd and then merely uttered the words “Penny Arcade,” there’s a decent chance an all-out brawl would erupt in very short order.

Like many other web-based content creators, Penny Arcade has, for the past several years, relied upon advertising revenue to exist. Sure, they merchandise and run a video game convention, but the day-to-day operations are paid by banner ads. In fact, PA’s audience is so large and so demographically narrow that advertisers relish the opportunity to get a shot at talking to them. They’ve been able to pick and choose which companies they accept ads with the way large-scale media companies can, going to far as to hire dedicated marketing staff members that work directly for them. And they want to change this.

Last week they launched a Kickstarter campaign to remove all the ads from their front page – a humble goal of $250,000 funded directly by their fans. As expected, reaction was mixed. Within a few hours, “Penny Arcade” was trending Worldwide on Twitter.

Other websites have tried different viable strategies for removing advertisements from their content – notable webforum SomethingAwful.com offers a $10 paid ad-free layout that their users can opt into to remove the banners from the top and bottom of the pages. Other sites feature year-round donation links.

Penny Arcade’s premise is twofold: first, that banner ads are so intrusive that they disrupt the browsing experience for their fans and second, that having to rely on advertisers limits the quality of the work and the methods by which the content is delivered. Personally, I find both of these ideas troubling for a number of reasons.

As stated above, Penny Arcade built their reputation and their fanbase with an ad-promoted layout. There’s no precedent that says that they’ll lose readers if they continue to do so. There’s no precedent that says that they’ll fail to attract new readers if they continue to do so. In fact, if you want to look at unscientific and spurious correlations, they’d demonstrate the opposite — that the more ads Penny Arcade runs, the more fans they have. When they ran zero ads, they were on the verge of bankruptcy. With one to two ads per page, they’re veritable Internet superstars. That’s a growth of about a billion percent. Maybe they should consider running thirty ads on each page – heck, they might win a Nobel Prize.

The idea that advertisers limit content is also questionable. Advertisers are reactionary when it comes to content. They don’t dictate their terms and expect creators to live by them, especially when they’re scrambling to work with a website like Penny Arcade in the first place. The advertisers are really not even part of the equation here. PA gets paid on a cost-per-click or cost-per-view basis. If they choose to limit the number of banner ads we see by creating an RSS feed for their comic, that’s not the advertisers’ fault. If PA is losing ad revenue because their fans are using browser extensions to hide their paid advertisements, that’s not the advertisers’ fault.

Finally – and this one is the biggest one for me – they’ve chosen entirely the wrong venue to make this statement. Kickstarter has several rules about what can and cannot be funded under their model. The very first rule is that it must be a project. There’s no project here. This is the funding of their day-to-day operations. If these two webcomic creators are allowed to bend the rules simply because of the clout they hold in the online community and the cash they’ll bring in for Kickstarter, that cheapens the funding model and puts real creators who rely on their ideas instead of their fanbase at a disadvantage.

Kickstarter is an incredible tool for new and inspiring creative projects to flourish, like the wildly successful Toronto production of Waiting for Godot that ran for a remarkable 54 hours last year. It’s an incredible tool for old and inspiring creative projects to find new funding model in the face of production companies that no longer want to give them a chance, like the recently successful kickstart of a new video game by veteran director, actor and writer Chris Jones.

It’s not a tool for already successful businesses to change a single facet of their business model. If it ever becomes that, it will have truly begun to lose its credibility.

1 Comment on "Playing for keeps"

  • Corey Dilley
    July 22, 2012 @ 5:14 pm

    Penny Arcade’s going from an ad supported to some weird form of subscription, which I’m not against, but I think it’s dumb. What are they going to do in a year when they’re out of their Kickstarter money? Hold another Kickstarter campaign? Start serving ads again? Good luck keeping those users that joined when ads weren’t present!

    I agree with you, Curtis. Keeping the ads and continue on with your current model is probably the best way to go. If they want to try something else, they could give each individual user the choice to pay for a site without advertisements. Either way, they’ve raised $350k already, so it’ll be interesting to see how they execute the new model.

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