Eurogamer's Wesley Yin-Poole posted an outstanding story earlier today, about one man's disappointment with a gaming company.
Bryan Henderson is the 21-year-old chap who won 22 Cans' much publicized Curiosity mobile game challenge, which the company's founder Peter Molyneux promised would feature a "life-changing" prize. Henderson was told he would be named "God of Gods" within 22 Cans' strategy game Godus' multiplayer world. This grand title would come with a royalty check from the game's revenues, starting from the beginning of his reign.
In the 20 months since then, Henderson has received nothing. Godus' multiplayer component has not even been completed. Molyneux released an excruciating video yesterday (below) explaining why the game, which raised $750,000 on Kickstarter, has failed to meet the targets its backers were promised.
22 Cans' forums and Kickstarter page shows hundreds of messages from fans demanding refunds. Why? Because they paid for something and it hasn't been delivered. Because Molyneux has clearly handed off the project to a reduced internal team, while he looks at something new.
The whole episode is a timely reminder that Kickstarters, transparency, social media and cuddly consumer-friendly initiatives exact a high price, especially if you get them wrong. Molyneux's reputation has drifted from 1990s design genius to slightly batty Fable-era over-promiser to someone who has seriously let down his fans.
Embedded within the story of the stoic prize-winner Brian Henderson is a horrible anecdote about the relationship between game-makers and game consumers that is never going to go away.
While taking a trip to see the 22 Cans team, as part of his prize, Henderson visited the 22 Cans offices. He met with Molyneux, he played some of Godus, and then the team took him and a friend to the local pub.
"They [the 22 Cans team] were talking amongst themselves and didn't pay attention to me," recalled Henderson. "For some reason they had their backs to me and my friend for the start of the evening. Then more people came and that's when we started having a conversation with someone. That was a bit strange. You're here because of me, and they weren't really paying attention. Maybe they were caught up in some interesting conversation."
In the end, Henderson and his pal drank Jagers with an intern called Tony. Molyneux did not come to the pub.
I do not believe that 22 Cans is especially remarkable in its disgraceful treatment of Henderson and of its fans. From shoddy DLC rob-fests to crappy online multiplayer implementation to empty corporate statements about errors to throwing crybaby shit-fits about negative publicity, there has emerged a class of game-makers who believe they can get away with making all the right noises about consumer care, while behaving very badly indeed.
Now that the story is out, Molyneux is mortified by the whole thing. "I totally and absolutely and categorically apologize," he said. "That isn't good enough and I'll take it on my own shoulders that I should have made sure he was communicated with. We will from today onwards do that."
He added that 22 Cans merely forgot about Henderson (even though he emailed them multiple times) and they will try to do right by him.
But the damage has been done, and not merely to Molyneux.
Henderson and his pal drank Jagers with an intern called Tony
Crowd-funding, social media contests and fan-marketing all depend on trust between the creator and the funder.
The internet has given us this immensely valuable tool to create lines of communication between the people who make things and the people who love those things. It has the power to disintegrate overly cautious, quarterly-results obsessed middle-agents, who add almost nothing to the process.
So when that trust is broken, the damage reverberates and hurts other campaigns, many of which are incredibly diligent in their efforts to make sure backers are happy at all times.
Molyneux has placed some of the blame on the winner-takes-all dynamic of Kickstarters. He recently said that "there's this overwhelming urge to over-promise because it's such a harsh rule: if you're one penny short of your target then you don't get it. And of course in this instance, the behavior is incredibly destructive, which is ‘Christ, we've only got 10 days to go and we've got to make £100,000, for fuck's sake, lets just say anything'."
Small companies and indies are often bestowed with a halo, by consumers and by the media, sometimes because they are genuinely good people trying to do their best, and sometimes merely because they are not corporate entities glowing with toxic disregard for consumer interests.
But when indies and small developers behave like corporations, selling out to the highest bidder, ignoring angry consumers, releasing bland statements that say nothing of consequence, they erode the ideals of consumer-backed game development and they endanger future crowdfunding campaigns.