For Jeeyon Shim, making games wasn’t a hobby, but a necessity. After she was laid off from her outdoor education job due to the pandemic, the self-taught designer started doing full-time game design in 2020. She quickly amassed a loyal following for her work in narrative-driven “keepsake” games, an experimental offshoot of role-playing games that involve deeply personal, player-created artifacts.
In 2022, Shim is once again venturing into new territory. She decided to crowdfund her latest game, The Snow Queen, on a Squarespace website that she built herself — totally circumventing Kickstarter, which many see as the obvious choice for creative projects. The Snow Queen was fully funded in 90 minutes. It ended up raising over $30,000 (384 percent of its original $8,000 goal). “I wanted to see where I was with my own audience,” she says. “How many people could I attract to a project on that project’s merits, and on my merits?”
“I started in this niche of game design as a direct part of my last job,” Shim says of her previous career as a program designer / coordinator at a company that taught outdoor skills via live-action roleplay. During this time she also dabbled in games and established herself with small experimental projects. Shim’s first crowdfund was for Wait For Me, a journaling game with designer Kevin Kulp. They initially asked for $500 — a rookie lowball that Shim says she’ll never do again (Wait For Me ultimately received over $22,000).
When Shim began a long-term collaborative partnership with artist / designer Shing Yin Khor, she knew she’d found her footing. Starting with Field Guide to Memory, the pair defined keepsake games as both a genre and a useful shorthand for their work. (“Shing and I aren’t the first people to make this game form,” she clarifies; they simply gave it a name.) Coining the term was, in the long run, a smart way to promote Shim’s more experimental art, but it still means doing a little more work to reach newer, broader audiences. “I can’t really lean on existing industry terms for the sake of copywriting or marketing,” she explains. “And one of the things that I’ve learned about tabletop is that often those industry terms don’t have consistent definitions.”
When it comes to getting an audience psyched about a new thing, Shim’s background in working with children is a huge asset. “People say as kids get older, they can sit through more verbalization, and that’s true, but no one really wants to,” she laughs, pointing out that you still need an enthusiastic, warm approach with adults. ”In some ways, crowdfunding and building crowdfunding is almost like facilitation or experience design… you have to define your terms as you go.”
With The Snow Queen, Shim stuck to a similar path of self-definition. She’d originally planned to use Kickstarter, but in December 2021, the crowdfunding giant announced that it would be adopting blockchain technology for much of its operations. Shim, who lives in the Bay Area, turned to her friends in tech to discuss her concerns about the environment and the prevalence of financial scams and fraud in Web3. She learned that the most eco-friendly forms of blockchain are still far more detrimental to the environment than existing infrastructure, and became concerned about security breaches that could affect herself and her backers. “Even if Kickstarter was saying… that you don’t have to opt into the blockchain side of things, how do I know operationally how much of my business they are putting on the blockchain or not? I can basically only take them at their word,” she says.
So Shim turned to Squarespace, which she recommends for folks who are interested in an independent excavation into their audience. “It gives you every analytic you need, and you can basically plug and play,” she says.
“Kickstarter is becoming, if not a storefront, increasingly a platform where success is proportionately contingent on the audience that you’ve already established,” she says. “An independent website made sense for this one project because it was an information-seeking project. I wanted to anchor my intuition and see how on track it was… and get a feel for what it would be to divest completely of a platform.”
An independent campaign page also gave her room to dive into her thought process. ”On existing crowdfunding platform pages, it’s hard to talk about that kind of thing at length, because those markets are really oversaturated, you want to be as brief in your copy as possible. On an independent page, you can do weird shit if you want to, and it’s fine.”
Broadly speaking, what Shim is doing isn’t new, but it’s unusual in an age when “Kickstart” is a synonym for “crowdfund.” Shim invokes the influence of comics legend and crowdfunding pioneer Spike Trotman, who runs Iron Circus Comics. “She did independent crowdfunding through web rings on people’s blogs in the ancient dark age of the internet, before there was any kind of centralized social media platform at all,” says Shim. “People would have pages on their Geocities or Angelfire blogs that were just links to other creators that they liked or things they liked.” That evolved into curated RSS feeds and Google Reader, which could be used to create your own data infrastructure of artists and creators that you wanted to support.
Today, Trotman has a successful publishing business and continues to make physical products that generate “long tail” income (Shim is particularly into the practical nature of Iron Circus’ wire-coil-bound Poorcraft cookbook, which lays flat when you open it). Shim hopes to explore long tail income for herself with the same thoughtful approach to products. The Snow Queen, which was originally planned to coincide with Kickstarter’s Zine Quest event, will have a zine that the player can draw on or cut out pages from. In the future, she’s got her eye trained on non-games distribution chains, to have her books in comic stores and even art stores.
Shim’s faithful constants are her instincts, her hard-won audience, and her Patreon. The Patreon income covers rent, but she still has to manage significant healthcare costs, pet care, and living expenses. Despite The Snow Queen’s success, she knows that right now she can’t go completely independent with all her projects, including her next game, The Longest Rest. She’s also got a whirlwind of ideas for the Snow Queen page, which she’s converting back into a personal site. Eventually, she wants to integrate Twine-based games into the website or offer exclusives to her Patreon subscribers via Squarespace’s private page feature.
“Once I get the hang of it… I would like to start incorporating more interactive experiences like that into the crowdfunding itself… like you’re playing a little bit of make-believe, as you decide to buy this thing or not,” she says. “I just think that’s fun. It has no business advantage whatsoever. It’s just something I want to do.”