To say that Mighty No. 9 has been a bit of a slow-moving trainwreck might be an understatement. Some backers are happy with it, but a great number of players are feeling pretty frustrated right now. There’s plenty to be frustrated about: the bugs, the reports of backers getting codes for the wrong platforms or no codes at all, the revelation that the end credits are four hours long… Even an optimist would have to admit the game has its problems.
Still, let’s take a moment for some perspective. Keiji Inafune did not actually say that Mighty No. 9‘s troubled release was “better than nothing” — those were the words of his interpreter, Ben Judd — but in light of current discussions over this would-be Mega Man successor, it might be worth it to look back at some crowdfunded projects that, no matter what, Mighty No. 9‘s is definitely, actually better than.
We remember 2012 as the first ‘boom’ year for game projects on Kickstarter, with multi-million dollar projects like Double Fine Adventure (now Broken Age) and Project Eternity (now Pillars of Eternity) raising in $3.4 million and $4.1 million respectively. What we don’t remember quite as much are some of the more troubled projects from that year.
In April 2012, popular Youtube group Yogscast raised $567,000 to make “the game you’ve always wanted.” Despite being first-time developers, Yogscast and its likewise inexperienced development studio Winterkewl framed Yogventures as an ambitious open-world game with a physics engine, crafting system, and customizable characters. Oh, and the release date was set for December 2012, a mere eight months after the launch of its Kickstarter.
What happened? To the team’s credit, most of the $567k did end up going toward respectable things-you-do-to-design-a-videogame line items, like commissioning concept artists, 3D modelers, and animators. They hired professionals for all of this, with talent coming out of places like Dreamworks and Treyarch, and got as far as releasing an open beta in August 2013 — but by then the money was already running out. Team members returned to ordinary day jobs, Winterkewl founder Kris Vale invested a reported $25,000 of his own money to keep the project afloat, and by mid-2014, the studio unceremoniously shut down, with Yogscast announcing the game’s cancellation soon after.
Neal Stephenson looks like a warlock, but he’s best known as the author of science fiction novels like Snow Crash. However, being a cyberpunk wizard doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a game designer, and even among veteran game devs, CLANG was an ambitious idea: completely realistic sword combat with a custom controller that would reliably record subtle, precise movements. It raised $500,000 in the summer of 2012, but by September 2014, no game and no hardware had materialized — and Stephenson announced the project’s cancellation.
What happened? The team got as far as delivering a prototype for its custom controller, but according to the Kickstarter’s final update, it just wasn’t meeting anyone’s expectations:
The prototype was technically innovative, but it wasn’t very fun to play. This is for various reasons. Some of these were beyond our control. Others are my responsibility in that I probably focused too much on historical accuracy and not enough on making it sufficiently fun to attract additional investment.
After finding the team had invested a great deal of personal time and resources without much progress, Stephenson made the executive decision to pull the plug. “Some members, when all is said and done, absorbed significant financial losses. I am one of them; that has been my way of taking responsibility for this,” Stephenson wrote, adding that the team had gone through comment threads on its Kickstarter page and begun refunding money to backers requesting them.
5. Pictures for Sad Children
This one is a little more complicated and requires some sensitivity. In May 2012 (notice how a lot of these entries are from that ‘boom’ year), artist John Campbell raised $51,000 for a print edition of his webcomic, Pictures for Sad Children.
What happened? By September 2012, Campbell began posting a series of worrying status updates, first claiming he had faked his depression, then claiming he had faked faking his depression, that his comics were misinterpreted, and so on. Eventually, Campell managed to print and ship the majority of his 800 orders, but ran out of funds to ship the last 120-odd books.
Campbell then announced he would proceed to burn the remaining copies if people asked about them.
And listen, say what you will about the clinical way in which Stephenson cut off the CLANG Kickstarter, or Campbell’s own mental state (in fact, let’s not speculate about the mental state of strangers, actually), but “UNSENT KICKSTARTER REWARDS INCINERATED” tends to stick in the memory. He even posted a video purporting to show the deed.
Apparently not all the books were burned, however. In May of 2014, Max Temkin (best known as the lead designer behind Cards Against Humanity) stepped in to manage Campbell’s Kickstarter page. He announced he had retrieved 100 surviving books from Campbell and would ship them to remaining backers, free of charge. So that’s a happy ending for (most) backers, at least.
As for Campbell, he’s deleted his website and comics from the internet. His present activities are unknown.
4. Code Hero
Code Hero launched on Kickstarter in February 2012, with the goal of making a game that could teach coding, especially to kids. Everyone loves coding! You know what they say: give a man a fish, you’ll feed him for a day; teach a man to code, he’ll be employable at least until the inevitable tech bubble burst.
The game managed to raise a little over $170,000, nearly double its target. In addition to the game, with a release target of August 2012, there was supposed to be a massively multiplayer online version and a web series of some kind.
What happened? The August deadline came and went. By December, backers were growing restless over the lack of communication on Code Hero‘s Kickstarter page, threatening legal action and prompting inquiries from a number of news outlets. After pushing out a succession of unstable alpha builds and one beta release to backers, lead designer Alex Peake has apparently vanished into thin air and hasn’t commented on the project since 2013. The team’s project coordinator left in April 2014, after which the Kickstarter page has gone silent as well.
While the website briefly resurfaced and seemed to be updating in late 2015, at time of writing it appears to be down again. Apart from that? We’ve heard essentially nothing.
3. Peachy Printer
Launched in September 2013, Peachy Printer was supposed to be another straight-forward idea: a cheaply-produced, and thus cheap-to-purchase, 3D scanner and printer. A lot of people glommed onto the idea and the campaign ended up raising about $651,000 Canadian (a little shy of $500,000 US).
What happened? That most classic of business backstabs: embezzlement. According to Gawker, after setting up a corporate account to receive the Kickstarter money, co-founder David Boe transferred about $200,000 to his partner and company CEO Rylan Grayston, then kept the rest of it for himself. He promptly spent it on building a house.
Yeah, like, an honest-to-goodness, real-ass house.
Skip forward to this past May, and we find Grayston has taken to Kickstarter to inform backers of the situation, which is where it gets confusing. He announced he had ousted Boe from the company and made him sign a contract to repay the stolen funds, but had not gone to the authorities on the apparent advice of his lawyers, who were also not willing to sue Boe for him, what with the out-of-money thing. Grayston also posted a supposed confession from Boe, videotaped in advance and overlaid with cheesy music, to solidify his treacherous ex-partner’s guilt.
Even Grayston admitted all of this potentially looked like a scam. But despite backers’ doubts, Grayston seems to have carried on business as usual since that time, posting development progress videos and announcing that Canada’s Financial and Consumer Affairs Authority has stepped in to launch an official investigation. In the meantime, the fabled $100 Peachy Printer — originally scheduled to launch by August 2014 — has no known release date.
2. Asylum Playing Cards
This one isn’t the flashiest, but it does have probably the farthest-reaching consequences of anything on this list. Because unlike Code Hero, this one followed through on the whole lawsuit part.
Launched in September 2012, this Kickstarter by Altius Management seemed pretty straight-forward: pledge $9 or more, get a deck of gorgeously-illustrated original playing cards. Seems pretty hard to screw up, right?
What happened? The December 2012 delivery date came and went — but missed delivery schedules happen in Kickstarters, so that alone shouldn’t have caused an uproar. No, the problem is that Altius Management struggled to address the delays, and went completely silent in July of 2013, leaving backers without answers or, seemingly, any recourse to demand refunds.
In response, a number of backers in the state of Washington filed a complaint with their attorney general, alleging that Altius had violated of state consumer protection law. (Altius is based in Tennessee, but interstate law is… a much bigger subject than can be gone into for the purposes of a listicle.) The attorney general sided with the Kickstarter backers, ruling that failure to deliver crowdfunded goods constituted theft, and ordered Altius to pay each of the 31 Washington-based backers $668 in restitution — as well as $31,000 in civil penalties to the state, and a further $23,000 for legal costs.
As Polygon’s Charlie Hall noted in September 2015, this sets a one-of-a-kind precedent for Kickstarter and similar crowdfunding campaigns, and will no doubt inform future court cases!
1. This thing
Oh, Ouya. With your staggering $8.5 million Kickstarter funds, your extremely dubious marketing skills, and your weird-ass controllers. You were supposed to launch a microconsole revolution, but instead you’ll be forever known as the company that paired its advertisement for a game about terminal cancer with the tagline “GET SOME.”
Ouya’s placement on this list is a little debatable, since it did actually ship, after all. And it’s not like the delivered units decapitated anyone or anything. Despite some launch window fumbles, the company got its product out and seemed to be holding steady for a while. To this day, you can probably find people who were pretty happy with their units!
But Ouya also positioned itself as a new publishing platform for games, promising generous wads of cash to independent developers in exchange for short-term exclusivity (including the previously-aluded-to That Dragon, Cancer). When the company failed to keep itself afloat, it threatened to take a lot of other projects down with it.
What happened? It would be difficult for any new console to break into the videogame hardware market in this day and age, but the marketing team at Ouya seemed to possess exactly one talent, and that was shooting itself in the foot. As a low-powered microconsole running on a modified Android operating system, Ouya couldn’t exactly appeal to the “core gamurz” set looking for high-end graphics or online multiplayer — but that’s who they kept targeting with their “GET SOME” tagline and this surreal cartoon ad where a dude vomits up his own spine. On top of that, Ouya initially required that all games on its storefront have some free-to-play version, which meant lower sales, and in turn, fewer developers who were willing to bring their games to the platform.
Despite this, Ouya managed to attract a $10 million investment from Chinese firm Alibaba in 2014. That didn’t appear to have any bearing on Ouya’s unresolved debts, however: by mid-2015, Ouya had sold off its storefront technology and games library to Razer, and effectively dissolved as a company.
Meanwhile, remember that money Ouya promised all those indies to help fund development of their games? Poof. Gone. Initially, Razer gave no indication it would honor these pledges, since it wasn’t contractually obligated to do so. A few days of social media outrage later, Razer came forward with a statement saying it would pay out the funds promised to Ouya’s independent developers, but make no mistake: it didn’t have to do that. A more cynical company, less interested in public relations and displays of goodwill, could easily have left a lot of devs stranded, unable to finish their games.
One of those games, incidentally, was Read Only Memories, which was just announced for PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita yesterday. I was a consultant on it, actually! So I admit to having a small but nevertheless personal stake in the fact Razer chose to honor Ouya’s pledges, even if it didn’t have to. It’s nice that there was some good to come out of Ouya’s $9.8 million Kickstarter experiment, even if the hardware itself now sits around collecting dust.
Got some other spectacular failure Kickstarters you believe are worth a mention? Let us know in the comments below!