Hundred-thousand dollar Kickstarter cancelled amid threats and anger

Do we have to get used to the occasional failure?

A major Kickstarter campaign has fallen apart amid disputes between its founders, leading to accusations of fraud from its backers and renewing concerns over how the site deals with projects which fail to deliver what they promised.

Erik Chevalier, as part of a start-up board game company called The Forking Path, raised $122,874 to create The Doom That Came To Atlantic City, a inventive twist on Monopoly which sees players taking the role of Lovecraftian gods and destroying Atlantic City (the setting of the American version of Monopoly) in an effort to instigate hell on Earth.

The total raised was three-and-a-half times what the group had asked for, and let them promise increasingly intricate (and expensive) stretch goals, from new pieces in the game and rules additions to free stickers and artwork. In June last year they finished fundraising, and settled down to get the work done. The delivery of the game was estimated as November that year, and, although communication was fairly regular, that delivery date was missed. As late as June this year, the Chevalier confirmed that "the project is moving along" with a release this autumn. Then, this Wednesday, he announced the sudden cancellation of the whole thing:

After much deliberation I've had to make this decision. I've informed Keith and Lee and neither at all happy with this situation. Every possible mistake was made, some due to my inexperience in board game publishing, others due to ego conflicts, legal issues and technical complications. No matter the cause though these could all have been avoided by someone more experienced and I apparently was not that person.

The comments below the post contain a lot of angry people – which is unsurprising, given that amongst the backers are seven people who pledged at least $500, three who pledged $1000, and one backer who offered $2,500, in return for the designers hosting an afternoon of gaming and taking them out "to dinner at a fancy restaurant in Portland". Backers are trying to get the press involved, filing fraud complaints with the Oregon government, and demanding refunds – which Chevalier has promised to give, although the question of where the money to do so will come from remains unclear.

The designers of the game themselves have also weighed in. Keith Baker writes:

Lee and I don’t know exactly how the money was spent, why the backers were misled, what challenges were faced or what drove the decisions that led to the cancellation of the game. Not only did we not make any money from the game, we have actually lost money; as soon as we learned the true state of affairs, we engaged a lawyer to compel The Forking Path to come forward to the backers and to honor its pledge to issue refunds.

At this time, it's unclear how Forking Path is going to go ahead. Chevalier has issued a second statement, reiterating his intention to provide refunds, and Baker is preparing to provide a "print and play" version of the game – but someone is going to lose a lot of money whatever happens. Even if Forking Path hadn't spent a penny, 10 per cent of the funds received go straight to Kickstarter and Amazon; either the backers are out-of-pocket, or the company is.

This type of failure is going to get more and more common as Kickstarter grows, if only because the sheer numbers game means that there'll be more chances for catastrophe. In addition, there's an indeterminate amount of "zombie projects" at any one time – ones which aren't ever going to deliver what they've said, but haven't actually come clean to their backers about that. Given delays in delivery of up to a year are relatively common on the site, there could be a whole lot of people slowly realising that they aren't getting what they were promised.

It puts the company itself in an awkward place. Its success is built on customers' perception of it as a sort of Etsy-with-preorders, where you are buying concrete goods, just a little in advance. And the terms and services of the site back that up, with requirements for refunds in the event of non-delivery. But funding creative projects is an inherently risky thing. What can go wrong probably will, and if a creator hasn't budgeted for that, they're going to get burned.

That doesn't make it any nicer when something you feel you've "bought" never turns up; but it may be a fact we all have to get used to if Kickstarter is sticking around.

The Doom That Came to Atlantic City. Photograph: Kickstarter

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Forget sniffer dogs. To stop drug abuse in prison, fight the real enemy – boredom

Since I left prison in 2011, the system has had £900m sucked out of it. No wonder officers are struggling to control drug use.

It’s rare to go a day in prison without someone offering you drugs. When I was sentenced to 16 months in 2011, I was shocked by the sheer variety on offer. It wasn’t just cannabis, heroin, and prescription pills. If you wanted something special, you could get that too: ecstasy for an in-cell rave, cocaine for the boxing, and, in one case, LSD for someone who presumably wanted to turn the waking nightmare of incarceration up to eleven.

Those were sober times, compared to how things are today. New synthetic drugs – powerful, undetectable, and cheap – have since flooded the market. As the Ministry of Justice itself admitted in its recent White Paper, they’ve lost control: “The motivation and ability of prisoners and organised crime groups to use and traffic illegal drugs has outstripped our ability to prevent this trade.”

The upshot is that, rather than emerging from prison with a useful new trade or skill, inmates are simply picking up new drug habits. According to a report released on 8 December by drug policy experts Volteface, on average 8 per cent of people who did not have a previous drug problem come out of prison with one. In some of the worst institutions, the figure is as high as 16 per cent.

Why are people with no history of drug abuse being driven to it in prison?

There’s the jailbreak factor, of course. All prisoners dream of escape, and drugs are the easiest way out. But, according the report, the most common reason given by inmates is simply boredom.

Life when I was inside was relatively benign. On most days, for instance, there were enough members of staff on duty to let inmates out of their cells to shower, use a telephone, post a letter, or clean their clothes. Sometimes an emergency would mean that there might not be enough hands on deck to escort people off the wing to education, worship, drug therapy, healthcare, family visits, work, or other purposeful activities; but those occasions were mercifully rare.

Since then, the system has had £900m sucked out of it, and the number of operational staff has been reduced by 7,000. All such a skeleton crew can do is rush from one situation to the next. An assault or a suicide in one part of the prison (which have increased by 64 per cent and 75 per cent respectively since 2012) often results in the rest being locked down. The 2,100 new officers the MoJ has promised to recruit don’t come anywhere close to making up the shortfall. Purposeful activity – the cornerstone of effective rehabilitation – has suffered. Inmates are being forced to make their own fun.

Enter ‘synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists’, or SCRAs, often more simply referred to by brand names such as ‘Spice’ or ‘Black Mamba’. Over 200 of them are available on the international market and they are, today, the most popular drugs in British prisons. A third of inmates admitted to having used ‘Spice’ within the last month, according to a recent survey conducted by User Voice, and the true figure is probably even higher.

As one serving prisoner recently told me: "It's the perfect drug. You can smoke it right under the governor's nose and they won't be able to tell. Not even the dogs can sniff it out."

The combination of extreme boredom and experimental drugs has given birth to scenes both brutal and bizarre. Mobile phone footage recently emerged from Forest Bank prison showing naked, muzzled prisoners – apparently under the influence of such drugs – being made to take part in human dog fights. At the same establishment, another naked prisoner introduces himself to the camera as an ‘Islamic Turkey Vulture’ before squatting over another inmate and excreting ‘golden eggs’, believed to be packets of drugs, into his mouth. It sounds more like a scene from Salò than the prison culture I recall.

The solution to this diabolical situation might seem obvious: but not to Justice Secretary Liz Truss. Her answers are more prison time (up to ten years) for visitors caught smuggling ‘spice’, and new technology to detect the use of these drugs, which will inevitably fail to keep up with the constantly changing experimental drugs market. Earlier this week, she even suggested that drug-delivery drones could be deterred using barking dogs.

Trying to solve prison problems with more prison seems the very definition of madness. Indeed, according to the Howard League for Penal Reform, over the last six years, inmates have received over a million days of extra punishment for breaking prison rules – which includes drug use – with no obvious positive effects.

Extra security measures – the training of ‘spice dogs’, for example – are also doomed to fail. After all, it’s not like prison drug dealers are hard to sniff out. They have the best trainers, the newest tracksuits, their cells are Aladdin’s Caves of contraband - and yet they rarely seem to get caught. Why? The image of a prison officer at HMP Wayland politely informing our wing dealer that his cell was scheduled for a search later that day comes to mind. Unless the huge demand for drugs in prison is dealt with, more security will only result in more corruption.

It might be a bitter pill for a Tory minister to swallow but it’s time to pay attention to prisoners’ needs. If the prodigious quantities of dangerous experimental drugs they are consuming are anything to go by, it’s stimulation they really crave. As diverting as extra drug tests, cell searches, and the sight of prison dogs trying to woof drones out of the sky might momentarily be, it’s not going to be enough.

That’s not to say that prisons should become funfairs, or the dreaded holiday camps of tabloid fantasy, but at the very last they should be safe, stable environments that give inmates the opportunity to improve their lives. Achieving that will require a degree of bravery, imagination, and compassion possibly beyond the reach of this government. But, for now, we live in hope. The prisoners, in dope.