Farewell, Critical Role

I have been a fan of the folks at Critical Role for many years. I’ve watched them since their Geek & Sundry days, when they were just a plucky group of friends live-streaming their home game at a few crappy folding tables in some Geek & Sundry lunchroom or break room or whatever it was. I have been so happy for their success. I have laughed, and cried, at the stories they’ve told. As they have grown and expanded into a corporation with their own production company, a publishing arm, lots of merch, and their own game systems in development, I have had such joy to see them grow into a company that sustains so many talented and passionate employees.

In short, I have been an enthusiastic fan since almost the beginning.

One of the things I have really loved about watching their content is that no matter how they’ve grown, they still just seem like a group of friends sitting around a table having fun. Their joy at being a group of friends just playing a game with each other comes through, even as the production has become more polished. I have invited them into my living room to have dinner with my spousey and I almost every night for eight years. They have felt like my friends.

And I have been so happy to see my friends become so successful.

I’ve shown my support with my dollars over the years. I have been a faithful Twitch subscriber for many years. (The paying kind - I’m not just using an Amazon “free” Twitch subscription.) I have bought hundreds of dollars of their merch every Christmas for years, and often throughout the year. I backed their record-breaking Kickstarter for their Vox Machina cartoon. I know my financial contribution to their success is so insignificant it doesn’t register as a drop in the bucket compared to what their monthly outflow must be for the production company they now run. But a few thousand dollars over the years is not insignificant for me. It’s more than I’ve given any other creator I can think of.

The Wendy’s one-shot

Over the years, the folks at Critical Role have made a few missteps. There was their ill-fated Wendy’s sponsored one shot - Feast of Legends. I watched it before they took it down. The thing that struck me wasn’t just that the content was tasteless - it was that the cast members who participated looked so miserable. Sam kept making disparaging comments about it while he was running the game. They seemed to hate it while they were doing it. That made me feel bad for them, and also bad for the sponsor. Wendy’s may be a megacorp, but they sponsored that episode in good faith. It was disrespectful for everyone involved to be so disparaging. I was glad to see that they took the feedback from fans seriously, and removed the episode.

Amazon’s involvement with the Vox Machina cartoon

A thing that still doesn’t sit great with me is the fact that they partnered with Amazon to produce their cartoon after having such a successful Kickstarter campaign. I backed that campaign in good faith, along with 88,886 other backers, to the tune of $11,385,449. I was happy to see them raise so much money, especially after they spoke so passionately about how it was a dream of theirs to see this story come to life this way.

But then, seven months later, they announced that they were partnering with Amazon to produce it. Critical Role announced that partnering with Amazon enabled them to increase the production quality, and it also enabled them to add more episodes to the season, and then an entire second season! I was happy for them that they’d get to bring even more production quality to the production, and more episodes to tell their stories… but… Amazon. I was… unhappy about Amazon’s involvement. For a few reasons:

  1. I and the other Kickstarter backers wanted to help Critical Role tell this story. We loved the campaign enough to want to see it come to life in animated form. And now that Amazon was involved, our contributions felt less meaningful. If megacorp is able to fund the cartoon, then why did Critical Role need $11 million dollars from us fans?
  2. Those of us who backed the cartoon were looking forward to actually watching it. With Amazon involved, there was suddenly a gatekeeper involved. Critical Role initially assured backers that they would have free access to the first season - the season that WE had funded. But in January 2022, it was revealed that only Amazon Prime members would have acess to any episodes after the first two. So the cartoon that we had funded was suddenly… not available to us.
  3. Amazon is… Amazon. Even in 2019, I believed they treated their employees awfully, were responsible for the demise of brick and mortar bookstores, and were trying to take over the world. Since then, my belief about how truly bad they are for the world has only grown.

Ultimately, I looked past the Amazon thing - mainly because I myself am still an Amazon Prime subscriber, in spite of believing they’re awful for the world. I live in a small town without much local retail, so I rely on Amazon to get a lot of things that just aren’t available locally. I sometimes go months without placing an order, but inevitably I’ll want something that I just can’t get here and then turn to the Smiling God. I’m not going to be a hypocrite and hold a corporation to some ideal that I myself can’t live up to. So - fine. I wasn’t happy about Amazon being involved, but I accepted that it was a practical decision.

The growing merch hype

In the last few years, Critical Role has really stepped up its merch production. They now make so many clothes, toys, dice, books, and now games - I literally can’t keep up with it all. The pragmatic part of me understands that this is practical, too. I’m sure they need a lot of income to support all the folks who work at the company. But - it is becoming increasingly difficult to overlook that Critical Role is now a full-steam-ahead commercial enterprise.

I actually looked into sponsoring an episode last year, when I wrote my RPG playthrough tracking app, Shattered Ring, because I found it was really useful to keep track of the RPGs I played with my friends, and thought Critical Role’s audience might be a good audience for it. But holy heck, sponsoring that show had gone so far beyond the reach of an individual even then that I didn’t have a hope in heck of throwing my dollars at them. I don’t have enough of them to make it worthwhile, apparently.

I still didn’t mind, because I understand the costs they must now be incurring as a production company at their size, so fine. They need income to keep the lights on. I do not begrudge them or their employees that.

Until today.

Meta is my breaking point

Spousey and I sat down today to watch the most recent episode on Twitch. (Campaign 3, episode 79.) As we sat through the sponsors, my eyes practically fell out of my head when Matt announced that Meta was sponsoring the episode. Imagine a cartoon character with steam coming out of their ears and their eyes comically bugging out, and that was how I felt. I glanced down at the sponsor logos in the bottom right corner of the screen, and sure enough, it was META, Meta. As in Facebook, Meta. They were sponsoring Critical Role for some Oculus game, I think.

As Matt kept saying the word “Meta” over and over again, I realized this was it. This was the moment when I have to part ways with this media company that I’ve loved for so many years. I cannot in good conscience support a company that has a platform reaching millions of fans - who is letting Meta sponsor them. I just can’t do it.

There are - a lot of reasons I think Facebook is bad. I don’t care if they’ve tried to rebrand - Meta is and always will be Facebook. I left for good in 2019, and I will never go back. I wish I had left many years earlier.

I’m not going to list all the reasons I think Meta is awful. It would probably take thousands of words to enumerate the ways in which they actively make the world a worse place.

By taking money from Meta, and actively promoting the company’s products to their fans, Critical Role is proving with their actions that they are willing to support a company:

  • That is actively harming millions of people.
  • That has helped contribute to a genocide.
  • Whose platform played a pivotal role in an insurrection that came perilously close to toppling our government - and internal documents that have come out in investigations show said company was aware of it at the time
  • That makes all of its users complicit in the commoditization of their personal data, and the personal data of all their friends and family.

Not only is Critical Role proving with their actions that they are willing to support Meta in spite of these and many other issues - they are asking their fans to support Meta by buying its products.

This was a bridge too far for me. I have seen the increasing commercialization of Critical Role over the last few years as an inevitable march of progress that supported their growth. But I have still had faith in the humans at the core of the company to honor the responsibility that comes along with having such a powerful platform. I had faith that they generally wanted good for their fans, who had brought them such success through their devotion. But a company that takes money from Meta to promote its products cannot have the good of its audience in mind. It has officially betrayed its audience for cash.

So I am opting out of its audience.