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 planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

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