It's a narrative that is easy to latch onto. An indie developer has a big idea to use video games to change the world. He takes this idea to the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter where his infectious enthusiasm garners the support of thousands of backers. He raises $170,000. A few months later, he disappears. His backers can't reach him, there are no updates to the Kickstarter page and no word on the progress of his game. His backers get frustrated, angry. He's taken their money, they assume. He's taken their money and run off with it. The witch hunt begins.
It's a narrative that's easy to latch onto, but it's not entirely true. Alex Peake is the founder of Primer Labs, the independent studio behind Code Hero. He's the developer who came up with a big idea that he believes can change the way people learn to code. He's the developer who took the idea to Kickstarter and quickly exceeded his funding goal, raising $170,000 for the game. And he's the developer that backers have been chasing for months after he went silent in September, failing to keep them updated on the progress of Code Hero.
Peake has been accused of being a scammer and a thief. His critics believe he has run off with the money raised from the Kickstarter campaign. Polygon decided to delve further into the case of Primer Labs. What we found was a story of what happens when a big idea, lots of money and poor management coalesce and the debacle that ensues.
Silence and poor communication
Alex Peake sounds tired. He tells Polygon he's spent all night coding a new alpha version of his game, Code Hero. He hasn't had much sleep. But it's not just the coding that has kept him awake. Almost overnight, search engine results for his name and company changed from being about an ambitious new project from a promising indie developer to accusations of him running off with the money he raised for Code Hero.
"When people start hating you on the internet, you hear all kinds of things that people say and they have all different levels of emotionality and helpfulness," he tells Polygon. "At the end of the day I guess it's been a really intense learning experience."
His critics believe he has run off with the money raised from the Kickstarter campaign.
Until very recently, Peake's last update to his backers was in September. He remained silent for almost three months, prompting many of those who pledged money to his Kickstarter campaign to believe that he wasn't going to deliver his project. This frustration was exacerbated by the fact that Kickstarter is under no legal obligation to ensure that Kickstarter projects deliver what they promise. When Polygon interviewed Kickstarter this year, the company made it clear that it is only a platform — a middleman — between the projects and pledgers. In late September it introduced new guidelines that require project creators to talk about the risks and challenges of their projects in an attempt to protect backers but, ultimately, Kickstarter doesn't issue refunds, nor does it execute legal action against those who run projects on its platform. It can suspend and cancel campaigns that are yet to be completely funded, but once funding has been reached, that's it.
The average Kickstarter pledge is $71 with $25 being the most common. But certain backers on Code Hero pledged upwards of $1,000. If Code Hero was a scam, they weren't just losing loose change.
With the power of hindsight, Peake tells Polygon that he would have done many things differently, key among which is communicate with his backers.
"I foolishly thought that an update [of Code Hero] was always going to be around the corner."
"Since I'd never done a Kickstarter before I foolishly thought that an update [of Code Hero] was always going to be around the corner and the best way to answer everybody's questions was to release the update," he says. "The trouble was the update took longer than expected."
Peake says he didn't want to release anything or update his Kickstarter page until he had a build of the game he could show everyone. When his backers started asking questions, he held off communicating with them until the build was ready. The build was never ready. The questions piled up, the anger mounted, and Peake stayed quiet.
But it seems that communication is only one of the problems Code Hero's development encountered. It was Peake's self-confessed poor communication with backers that brought some of the game's issues to light, but many of Code Hero's problems developed long before Peake stopped communicating with his supporters.
Indie Open House
Alex Peake began developing Code Hero a little more than two years ago. The idea was incredibly ambitious — Peake wanted to create a game where players learned to make games by playing the game. Armed with a gun that fired code, the game was envisioned as a cross between Portal and Minecraft with coding lessons embedded into the gameplay. Players would be able to edit their game worlds using the code they learned. They would be able to build in-game objects, control movement, and learn enough to make their own games. This could change the way educators around the world taught programming.
A prototype of Code Hero was created and Peake enthusiastically talked the ears off anyone who would listen. Laptop in hand, he'd fire up his prototype and explain the goals of the game, how players would learn and how Code Hero could change the way people learn to code. He gave impassioned speeches about how empowering it is to know how to code and the possibilities that are open to people when they have the ability to program.
"The camaraderie I saw between most of the teams wasn't there with Primer Labs."
Speaking in a video interview with Design3 in October 2011, Peake walks the interviewer through a prototype of the game. "We just shipped our game, Code Hero, after working on this since January ," he says to the camera of his prototype. "It's pretty exciting because you work on a game day in, day out, for a long time and it takes a lot of dedication to finish it. What we've done with Code Hero is design a game to help other people finish their games too."
There was little doubt in anyone's mind that Peake was passionate about Code Hero, so much so that at GDC in March 2012, he convinced IGN's VP of Product and an organizer of the IGN Indie Open House, Todd Northcutt, that he would be a good addition to the company's nurturing program for indie developers.
The IGN Indie Open House is an initiative to support indie developers in the San Francisco region. After going through a selection process, a number of indie development teams would be offered a residency at IGN's headquarters where they would have access to office space, conference rooms and IGN's vast resources. As a residency program, IGN maintained no interests in the developers' projects and simply provided a supportive environment where like-minded developers could work together.
"I don't think Alex is a crook or a thief at all. I know that he was hiring people."
Having successfully Kickstarted Code Hero in February, Todd Northcutt believed Peake and Primer Labs would be a suitable addition to the Indie Open House.
"I met Alex at GDC 2012. He was so passionate, not just about the game itself, but about the possibilities of teaching through games," Northcutt told Polygon. "I met him not long after [Primer Labs'] Kickstarter was fully funded and he asked about IOH, thinking that it might be a good transition as they moved to secure their own space."
The Indie Open House was already populated with a number of indie developers who each brought something different to the space. There was a mix of indie veterans and newcomers, and Northcutt felt that having a team that had achieved enormous success on Kickstarter like Primer Labs would be valuable to the program.
A source who worked at IGN during Peake's tenure at the Indie Open House who asked to remain anonymous told Polygon that Peake mostly kept to himself and didn't mingle much with the other developers and people at IGN.
"He was working on Code Hero constantly," our source says. "Day, night, he was always working on this game. There's no doubt in my mind that the guy was 100 percent devoted to that project because everything I saw was that he was putting a lot of energy into that game at all times, so much that it seemed almost that he was sequestering himself from everything else."
Northcutt also says that Peake mostly kept to himself.
"The camaraderie I saw between most of the teams wasn't there with Primer Labs," he says. "Whether that was due to their later start date, the different nature of the game (education as the primary focus), personalities or literally physical space — they sat on the other side of the floor from all the rest of the IOH teams — I can't say.
"I can say that my own relationship with Primer Labs was different than with the other IOH teams. I'd often talk with the others about their progress, participate in playtests or even grab a beer over burritos, but it was rare that I had much interaction with Primer Labs. They were always heads down and focused on Code Hero."
As focused and passionate about Code Hero as Peake was, Primer Labs seemed to have a revolving door. A developer who was part of the Indie Open House noted that the Primer Labs crew was by far the biggest of any other team and there were constantly new faces.
A source who was working at IGN at the time tells Polygon: "There was definitely a large rotating cast of people with different levels of qualifications working on his game," and the size of the team along with how they were being managed by Peake disrupted the atmosphere of the Indie Open House.
"What it boils down to is he had a very large team in a space that wasn't intended to have a very large team, and when you have a very large team of people in a shared, professional business space, you have to manage those people and make sure they're all abiding by the rules. I don't think that was happening," the source says.
Despite the somewhat chaotic environment that was created by Primer Labs, our source says that money from the Kickstarter campaign was definitely being spent on Code Hero.
"I don't think Alex is a crook or a thief at all. I know that he was hiring people," the source says. "Again, large numbers of people were coming in: engineers, team managers and artists. He was hiring people, he was travelling to trade shows to show the game, he did PAX East, PAX Prime. He was definitely spending money on Code Hero."
Good Idea, Poor Management
Peake tells Polygon that he spent the Kickstarter funds paying his developers, travelling to industry events to show off Code Hero and buying equipment that would allow him to make his game. "Those are not unreasonable things to be getting for a game development project," he says.
In October of this year, eight months after Code Hero's Kickstarter campaign was successfully funded, he ran out of money.
"I definitely underestimated the cost of making it," he says. Peake says contrary to the accusations made against him, he spent all the money on the game and none on himself. He says he's been living with 10 other developers — many of whom are working on Code Hero — in a four bedroom house full of bunk beds. His accommodation is simple because he has poured everything into making Code Hero.
When he ran out of money, he did not inform his Kickstarter backers. He thought his team could work through it.
"October was when the money ran out, but it has not stopped the project," he says. "It just means we can't have as many paid programmers as we had before." He and five others are now volunteering their time to continue working on the game. But even now, the team doesn't have a clear roadmap to guide them to the game's completion.
Peake says that the specific production plan for Code Hero was not drawn up until after the Kickstarter campaign had been funded. He tells Polygon that he had believed that the original funding goal for the game — $100,000 — would be enough to fund the entire project as well as deliver all the Kickstarter rewards Primer Labs has promised, which includes things like t-shirts, mentorships, internships and copies of the game. Even with the game receiving almost double that amount in Kickstarter funding, the game is only now going into the next phase of alpha.
"I'm not a professional game producer," Peake says. "I estimated the number of programmers that we needed and the months that I thought it would take to do it."
The game was meant to have been completed by now, but Peake puts the delay down to technical issues that the team experienced in their attempt to create something so ambitious. One technical issue rolled into another which rolled into another, and before the team knew it their game was well behind schedule. And with no funding left from the Kickstarter campaign, any schedule that they did have has also gone off track. A more detailed alpha build of the game that was meant to be released late last week still hasn't been made available as of the time of writing.
"We haven't finished planning the next phase," Peake says. "I've published a preliminary roadmap of the milestones we want to reach, and that's one of the things we'll be addressing in the updates ahead."
Funding and the future
Primer Labs is now looking into alternative funding methods to help them complete the game. Alex Peake sees three funding options: The first is additional buyers who are continuing to back the game by purchasing pre-orders. This, Peake says, is how the team of developers is managing to pay rent at the moment. The second is individuals supporting the project for educational benefit and the third is support from educational institutions and investors.
While these seem to be Primer Labs' main funding options, Peake says that the studio is currently focused on getting a more fleshed-out alpha version of the game out there so that people can play it. The idea is that if Code Hero can find an audience and prove its efficacy, that's how Primer Labs will be able to win support and restore faith in its project.
"That's all we think about right now," he says.
Code Hero seems to be making its way back on track, with Peake assuring backers on the Primer Labs website that he is completely devoted to the project and determined to see it come to fruition. But even if the project is delivered, our source who knew Alex from his time at IGN believes that this debacle may have harmed people's impression of indie developers.
"I fear that what more people take away from this is indie developers on Kickstarter are crooks."
"It hurts everybody," the source says. "People don't take away from this that Alex Peake is a crook or Code Hero is a scam. I fear that what more people take away from this is indie developers on Kickstarter are crooks. Indie games on Kickstarter are scams."
It's been a tough few days for Alex Peake, and when Polygon ends our chat with him he still sounds tired. He's not entirely sure where the money to complete Code Hero will come from. It's unclear if he will win back the support of those who feel that he let them down. What is clear is he probably learned something from this.
"All I can say is even the comments and messages that are angry or negative or violent ... it's only because they care about the thing that we're trying to do," he says. "It's not necessarily because they hate the idea or because they want us to fail. And I appreciate every single person that wants this thing to exist as much as we do."