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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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.