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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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.