Buyer Beware; The Increasing Incredulity of Crowdfunding Campaigns

Why yes, that title was rather clever if I do say so myself. Anyway, crowdfunding is my target. Take aim and… fire!

I’ve made no secret in the past that I have gone off crowdfunding in a big way.

And well, look at this! In the space of a couple weeks, three big profile crowdfunded titles have been hitting the headlines! Some people in my position might think Christmas had come early! Oh I do love easy targets. The games in question are Project CARS, developed by Slightly Mad Studios and who picked up a publishing deal with Bandai-Namco not too long ago, and Areal – a project currently in the funding stages with an outfit called West Games pulling the strings. Both demonstrate two sides of the argument of why crowdfunding is fraught with danger for the unwary purchaser, and why this cannot realistically become a viable source of revenue unless the law once again catches up to protect people from increasingly poisonous, immoral business dealings.

But let’s start with the first game; Areal. An example of at the very least incompetence, and at the worst, downright out to scam people for whatever they could get.

Areal was a game sold to us originally as a “spiritual successor” to S.T.A.L.K.E.R. – the rough and rugged but surprisingly deep and interesting open-world FPS from some years ago. Considering there remains, as is the case with many of these older flawed but incredibly likeable games, a sizeable fanbase on which to pitch to the vague mention of following on from that much-loved title was always going to be both a blessing and, indeed, a curse. Sadly, as people got in close, claims and counter-claims arose which began to sour the project from the very start.

First, there was the source material being shown; promotional stuff, conceptual art, base models. None of which were original in the slightest – either having been lifted or ‘borrowed’ from S.T.A.L.K.E.R., or simply reusing assets bundled with free at the point of use games engines, and this was picked up on very quickly by eagle-eyed fans of the original games. They were puzzled – as were we all – by the notion that anyone on KickStarter would be using such obviously reclaimed material in order to sell their product. Then came claims that developers from the original S.T.A.L.K.E.R. (why yes, I am copy-pasting that!) were working on the project – claims that were strenuously argued over by other developers who could prove they worked on the project. Eventually, this discourse was settled – presumably because yes, at least one was involved, in some manner of speaking, but it was enough to put many of us on edge, and slow the crowdfunding drive to a crawl. Though obviously, some did throw money its way because I guess optimism can’t be cut out of some people. I slightly envy that, but also feel bad for them.

Most recently, came more suspicious donations; we’ve seen this before on KickStarter when dodgy games get mysteriously rich backers willing to put up sizeable portions of the funds being requested. Again, this begs the question that if the project is obviously capable of attracting those funds from wherever they may be coming from, then why are they on KickStarter again? $50,000 isn’t enough to make a whole game, we know this, and we must be aware that KickStarter in these cases is a testing ground in order to attract more heavy investment, but when they are clearly happy to come in and lay down that money anyway, it does somewhat negate the need for the KickStarter in the first place!

And yesterday, more woes as a mysterious (and poorly-written) letter was shared around stating that Vladamir Putin, the President of Russia, had interest in the project as his “daughter” was a keen fan of the original games. Now, quite aside the fact one would assume that Mr. Putin has enough on his plate right now both economically and politically to really be declaring interest in the project – although being a Ukrainian project, perhaps not a terrible stretch to try and build bridges somewhere – there’s the fact that in the face of widespread international condemnation and arguments over the recent MH17 incident, any ties with Russia would be avoided at all costs, because it’s a can of worms and people across Europe and the US are uneasy at what the future holds with Russia. I cannot possibly comment on the politics of it because, frankly, there are those who do it better than myself and get paid for it too. But you don’t have to be an expert in the field to find the concept of the Russian President writing a letter filled with spelling mistakes (in Russian, of course) to a Ukrainian-led games development studio oddly suspicious in its timing, almost far too convenient and at the worst possible moment to boot. Whether it is a fake designed to attract attention, or a genuine note meant to lend support at the most inopportune time, it’s a stark warning that the project isn’t being terribly well handled. If the former is true and it’s a fake – then the whole project is a horrific scam. If the latter is true and it’s a genuine note, one might reasonably have assumed that they might have waited – especially with new mysterious donation increases getting it above the KickStarter goal – to drop this on us, knowing that right now it could lend a sour note to their work.

What can we learn from this? That a project that is founded on a confusion of misinformation at best, and lies at the worst end of the spectrum, doesn’t inspire confidence in the masses. Whilst there will be those who will believe in its claims of trying to do something genuinely magnificent, most of us would admit quite freely that the Areal project cannot possibly last in its current form; and if we never hear from it again, well, for some of us its no real loss. If the end product is good, then we can always buy it then. But why put your money at risk?

(Edit 22/07/2014 @ 19:32 – The Areal kickstarter has been suspended over allegations of fraudulent activity.)
(Edit 23/07/2014 @11:46 – West Games has created an independent crowdfunding drive on Areal’s official website. I’d link there but I feel that would just be hypocritical of me…)

The second is Project CARS. An example of some of the community losing control over a community-driven project, to the point where you have to stop and marvel at the insanity on offer.

Project CARS – Community Assisted Racing Simulator, don’t you know – is, as you might have guessed by this point, a racing sim that was crowdfunded by Slightly Mad Studios on their own funding drive a couple years back. It raised a considerable $5 million – much of this was raised as they aimed to port the originally PC-only project to the Wii U, then later the PS3 and XBox 360. The latter two fell by the wayside as new consoles came into focus, but it was considered somewhat a moot issue as both consoles had plenty of perfectly great racing sims anyway. But the Wii U was a huge boon not only to the Wii U, but to the project attracting fervent Nintendo fanatics into buying into the prospect of an actual, honest-to-heavens-above racing sim on a Nintendo console. It’s been a long time since that happened, and it seemed the best way to get it was simply to buy into the project.

For some time, it appeared that the game was coming along quite nicely – with frequent commentary to Nintendo fansites and major gaming media that the Wii U version was coming along really well. It even praised the Wii U, it’s ease of use, it’s gamepad and went as far as saying that they would prove above all else that the Wii U was not the technical or graphical slouch that had been originally reported. But throughout this, requests for videos only saw us see “simulated” versions of a Wii U racer, running on a PC. Later and more recent requests for footage were met with stony silence.

This came at a time when Bandai-Namco agreed a publishing deal with Slightly Mad Studios of physical copies of the game; there would have been no actual major issue with this either, but shortly after the ink had met the paper on this deal – and was barely dry – came the announcement that the Wii U version was being delayed. No reasons have yet officially been given, save they wanted more time to “make it the superior version”. The PC version/s will follow PS4 and XBox One releases – although we assume by no more than a week or two.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Wii U sales aren’t impressive so perhaps this is a sensible move. You’d think, but let’s take a look at the poll running on their own website shall we? Let’s see where the demand from supporters and fans currently lies.

22072014poll

Well, that’s interesting. 28.55% of people voted to want a Wii U version; the combined might of both the PS4 and XBox One versions is 24.41%. So why has the Wii U version been delayed when there is an obvious and some might even say vocal audience for it? Well, I can only hazard guesses but I’d say it was likely put on the back burner some months ago in order to push the PS4 and XBox One versions. Which seems like an incredibly silly move, when you see how small the XBox One audience actually is.

But why is it that small? Well, that’s the brilliance that makes this whole situation tangible in its ineptitude; it’s being released in November. Around the same time Project CARS hits these consoles – a crowdfunded indie game striving for perfection – we will also see a new Forza on the XBox One, and DriveClub on the PlayStation 4. Huge, big-budget extravaganzas being made to push these new consoles some might say to breaking point already in order to prove a point. Forza is an established brand though; XBox owners will no doubt find more safety within its confines, whereas PS4 owners – many of whom will get DriveClub for free by subbing to the PS-Plus service – might be able to afford to splash out on another racer, although some might claim that is a bit of a stretch.

What competition is there on the Wii U for this genre? None. Nada. Zip. Zero. Bugger all. The square root of Jack. And that’s what is infuriating fans; not least that their cries of anguish are falling on increasingly deaf ears, and challenges to product actual evidence of the Wii U versions existence are being deleted almost as fast as they are being made. It seems that Slightly Mad Studios aren’t simply pushing forward with an incredibly poor marketing decision, but are actively complicit in trying to cover up the genuine anger and frustration of a Wii U delay! So, you think your money gives you a say in what happens? This is a perfect example of once the money is out of your hands – well, congratulations. You now have little to zero control over it, even when all evidence points to decisions being made in poor judgement at least, before you get to trying to “delete” any criticism of that decision to boot…

The final example is what happens when it does go horribly wrong, to the point of the whole thing being abandoned. And that brings us to Yogventures, which was being developed under licence from Yogscast by Winterkewl.

Now, I must admit, I’m not terribly versed in the whole Yogs thing. Fortunately my nieces and nephews seem to have missed this particular boat (probably for the best I’d wager – financially speaking, because Uncle Kami is still expected to spoil them rotten!). But that’s okay because we don’t need to look at the source material in this instance, more the disaster that happened along the way.

Reports are funds were squandered needlessly; a payment of $35,000 was given to an artist for two weeks of no work; the reason, it transpired, was that he left to go to LucasArts, who have a policy of not sharing their creative talent under any circumstance. Without documentation or receipts being kept to challenge for a refund of this money, taken in some might say poor faith, it was quickly and quietly written off. The claims that “no-one profited” from the disastrous meltdown of this project are perhaps not true in this instance.

The original KickStarter raised  $567,000; by the time it became clear that the project was beyond repair, Yogscast managed to get back $150,000 of that money. And that’s being put into another project that people didn’t sign up for; the original one is being left, sadly, to go bankrupt. No-one who donated money to this KickStarter is likely to see a penny of their spend back, and they will be left waiting for a “free game” (which isn’t actually free seeing as they already paid for A GAME!) that is probably not what they wanted to end up with.

It’s hard to be too angry at Winterkewl though; they obviously had good intentions, but perhaps not the smarts in terms of business savvy to actually make the most efficient use of those funds. Paying someone who was already poised to take up another more lucrative job without keeping solid records, or having an arrangement if they got the job that money would have to be paid back because they were no longer involved in the project, smacks a little of naivety. And it’s clear people enjoyed working on this project, even if it was a little disorganised and disjointed. That’s all great; I personally want to hear of developers enjoying themselves on the job. Happy developers usually lead to a more solid game; more commitment, more emotional attachment, more drive. All might have been true if this project ever got to a crunch stage, but sadly, it did not.

What can we learn from this? That even if the name is known and even if the studio means well, development of a video game is hard work, and there are no guarantees. Least of all for backers, who will no doubt be left out of pocket in this instance.

It’s surprising that we’ve had three such great examples of the perils and pitfalls of crowdfunding; I could have continued with other points like Broken Age: Part One being a bit disappointing considering what they raised, but that is a tangental issue I feel. The overall quality of the end product is always an unknown and a risk no-one should be blind to. But I digress on that.

Crowdfunding is, effectively, a ‘pre-pre-order’ that in the majority of cases you cannot cancel. Your money is taken, and you are expected to wait until they are done, and trust that they are doing the right thing for you, the purchaser. You will see no financial returns, you may or may not see actual development or behind the scenes footage, you might get a credit but even then, it’s more likely to be your username rather than your actual name. It’s a huge risk and a lot of this relies on trust; trust in those leading the projects to be open, honest and sensible enough to handle the business end of things.

And it could go wrong anywhere along the way; from the off like Areal, weeks/months from release like Project CARS or it could simply fall apart like Yogventures. Crowdfunding video games is laden with complications; comics, music, board games – most of these things have known variables, and by that I mean relatively fixed costs that can be predicted ahead of time. Video games aren’t that predictable. Bugs can happen at the most inopportune times, rendering months of work useless. Source code can be lost or stolen – this happens far more than you’d think possible, in a sort of depressing way. People can fall sick, people can – as morbid as it is to say it – die, leaving a gaping hole that is hard to fill. Make no mistake that whilst more and more flock to crowdfund their own video game projects – both of known and unknown qualities – we are the ones who are at risk here. We’re the ones putting money down, with no guarantees we’ll see a game – or see it on schedule, and if the game is a success, then you must also accept that the persons who made the game will be the ones profiting from it. And you may see nothing back in the end – not a sequel, or anything, they could easily decide they made their millions, thanks for the help goodbye and good luck to you.

As some projects become almost comical, bizarre or frustrating in what they choose to do, we’re the ones who are playing with fire. As more people are being burned, led astray or increasingly getting irate at those they once felt trust towards, the risks of crowdfunding are more evident. As they get more evident, people will find more ways of attracting your attention – both rightly and wrongly. This is no longer about getting a game that you can’t see in advance if you’ll actually like; it’s about investing in thin air and hoping, against all hope, that your money is being spent wisely and maybe there’s a chance you’ll get a game at the end of it, possibly.

Never has the tag ‘buyer beware’ felt so apt as it is right now in the industry. Whilst its true that development costs increasing was strangling traditional investment, one can argue that is the risk involved in that practice. Investment is about wanting to see a return, after all. Now, we are the ones funding it and we are in some cases making rich people that much richer, and it feels in some cases all we get in return is contemptuous remarks and treatment about how we should simmer down and be patient. We probably would be… if they didn’t already have our money!

Be wary of crowdfunding. Buy into them knowing you won’t see that money back. I’m not saying don’t do it at all; that’s between you and your bank manager, really. But I can’t help these studios. I see many projects I would have pitched a few quid to in the past, but now I am too wary of the risks involved. I want to buy a product; I want to buy a known, tangible product that is coming and we can see, that we can get information about that doesn’t amount to stony silence or genuine contempt. I’ve been burned too many times now to genuinely feel any more than animosity to the concept.

If in any doubt, keep your cash in the bank. As for those already going wrong or falling apart? Let those serve as warning beacons. The lessons are there for us to learn from, the mistakes being made for others to avoid. Let’s hope we all learn, and sooner rather than later…

You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

Leave a Reply

Powered by WordPress