When Good Kickstarters Go Bad

Why hello there. My name is Joe Kelly, and I write a silly blog called DavidGaames. But for every bit that it is silly, it is also somewhat serious. It’s about video games, with a focus on Kickstarter projects – mostly bad ones. You could consider it a “what not to do” guide for creating a video game Kickstarter. Having a focus on Kickstarter himself, David found my blog and generously offered me a guest post on his (far more established and professional) blog. So while I’ll be a little more professional here, my own blog is not for the faint of heart. With that said, here’s an idea of what to expect from it.

This story begins with my fourth post, about a little game called Project Lodus. Normally, what I do is follow a project that I find particularly offensive in its absurdity, and wait for the moment it runs out of time, not having reached its goal. I screen capture that moment, and write about what I feel they did wrong – which is usually everything. I was all set for this routine with Project Lodus, but as I watched it during its last day, something happened: the project succeeded in reaching its funding goal.

(Fund The Wardenclyffe Horror!)

That in itself is not so unusual, of course. What is unusual is that with no more than 14 hours left in the campaign, Project Lodus hadn’t even reached half of its funding goal. At the time of my post, I chalked this up to an anomaly – they were lucky enough to gain so much interest, literally overnight, that they were inundated with last minute pledges. Now I’m not so sure.

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you may have seen David’s post about a site called Kicktraq. It’s a great resource to get in-depth analysis on Kickstarter projects. So what does it say about Project Lodus? Well, see for yourself. If seeing that graph doesn’t make you at least a little suspicious, I shall use the powers of mathematics to change your mind.

First, let’s get an idea of the exact numbers we’re dealing with. Up until the last day, Lodus had received $22,684 in pledges over the course of 35 days from 358 backers. That’s roughly 10 backers per day, with an average pledge of $63.36. On the last day, they raked in $28,516 from 112 backers – an average pledge of $254.61. Let’s go over all of the ways that that is literally unbelievable.

It means that at the last minute, they got over 10 times the average number of backers up to that point. Not only that, but the average pledge from those 112 backers more than quadrupled the average up to that point. It means that the total pledge amount more than doubled in one day – from less than one-third of the number of backers up to that point. I’m just going to go ahead and make the obvious math pun: something doesn’t add up here.

The list of backers is equally questionable. The list is ordered by the time of the pledge – that is, first pledges are listed first, and last pledges listed last. Now, were we to postulate that there was some foul play involved here with the last day of pledges, there should be something a little off with the end of this list. And since I don’t just want you to take my word on it, here are some specifics.

The beginning of this list looks exactly like one would expect: Level Zero Games, joined March 2010, backed 14 other projects. Joshua Thomas, joined April 2010, backed 1 other project. Seumas, joined May 2010, backed 252 other projects. And so on. This is your standard Kickstarter crowd – they’ve been around a while, and have backed a few projects in their day.

Now let’s take a peek at the last page: Spenser, joined August 2012, backed one other project. Sewart Brown, joined August 2012, backed no other projects. Alicia Froelicher, joined August 2012, backed no other projects. David Freeman, joined August 2012, backed no other projects. Monica Alvarez, joined August 2012, backed no other projects. And so on. And I do mean so on – the last two pages are filled with people who joined in August, have no location, most don’t have a picture or any other projects backed. They have every sign of being what is known as “sock accounts”.

So we’re supposed to believe that in one day Leviathan Interactive managed to convince over 100 people to make accounts on Kickstarter and contribute more money than they had made over their entire campaign – an average donation of $254.61? And since we can only see the reward numbers and not a pledge amount, we know that one of these backers pledged at least $2,500. That’s one hell of an enthusiastic Kickstarter newbie. And since these accounts were made specifically to fund Project Lodus, they were obviously not your usual Kickstarter browsers, meaning any argument about being discovered on the “Ending Soon” list gets thrown out the window.

So is the more likely scenario that Leviathan saw that they were about to lose $22,684 by not reaching their funding goal, and found a way to artificially boost their pledges so that it just barely reached the funding goal at the last minute? After all, not only was the spike unusual, but how likely is it that this huge burst of interest in the project was just enough to make their goal?

For another example, check out Conclave. Same spike in both number of pledges and average pledge on the last day, same crowd of faceless newbies at the end of the backer list, and just barely made the goal – even closer than Lodus.

So, what do you think of this? Just a conspiracy theory from a hater, or possibly legitimate? And if it is legitimate, is it a problem? I mean, the 358 backers for Lodus were prepared to part with their collective $22,684 to make their donations to Leviathan Interactive. Kickstarter still got their cut from the last $28,516, so does everyone win? I can only guess that padding your own project’s pledges is against the Kickstarter terms of use, but I think the more important question is: is it really wrong?

I think it is, for one very important reason: you have a funding goal. The concept of having a funding goal mean that you can only make your project happen if you get a particular amount of money. That’s why you’re not supposed to take anyone’s money if you don’t reach that goal. And that’s why Indiegogo is Kickstarter’s graveyard – if you fail at your goal on Kickstarter, at least you can just toss the project up on Indiegogo and get your pledges even if you don’t reach the goal. That kind of makes your whole project a stretch goal, but that’s another topic for another day. Maybe I’ll have a post about that on my blog. Hintwinknudge.

The Wardenclyffe Horror -- Kicktraq Mini

This entry was posted by davidgaames.

21 thoughts on “When Good Kickstarters Go Bad

  1. Great post David. I love reading your posts, whenever you take the time to put up a new one; they are always amusing, insightful, and acerbic in equal parts! I’m sure one day you’ll get around to writing a glowing review of a post you fall in love with, but that day is not today.

    Kicktraq is an invaluable tool for everyone including backers, researchers, and creators. I also had the chance to chat with the man who created the site during Friday night’s Kickathon, and he is every bit as awesome as you would expect.

    • Hey david w I’m a newbie doing research for my first kickstater project and am currently reading/researching all blogs that actually talk about the specifics of running a ks project/working with Kickstarter. I just read through your blog last night 😉 Anyway, just saw you out ont eh inter-tubes and thought I would shout out. (FYI, I recognized your picture avatar from your site..)

      ANyway, loved this article. Now I know about “sock puppets” Something I was actually wondering about. (If creators fun their last pledges if need be) Just another aspect of kickstarter I didn’t know before. %-} Thanks for the info Joe!

      • Hello Hue, if you have any questions, feel free to ask. I did quite a bit of research for my own project, and would be glad to offer you advice on anything I have looked into, for what it is worth.

        Did you read the whole blog in one night? Impressive.

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  3. It’s because the social subtext of Kickstarter is you need help funding a project, and when the curtain is pulled back and you see so-and-so actually *had* the funds and was just pumping for free money, it leaves a sour taste in your mouth.

    The problem isn’t that you’re willing to self-fund your own project, it’s the slight dodge in how you present it. When Wasteland 2 launched they put the goal at 900k because they were already set to invest the last 100k for the million. In hindsight now that was a pretty cool move.

    A more recent (possible) case of this is the Sword of Fargoal 2 project. It’s slightly different in that they had this Kick-a-thon thing going and there’s actual footage of one of his friends putting down 1500 during the last hours. Everyone’s on the edge of their seats and there’s a ‘will they or wont they?’ feeling to it. Personally, I’m cynical and still think they fixed it. David (of this blog) is more inclined to give them the benefit for the doubt, which is fair too. There certainly IS that kind of funding potential within kickstarter.

    Ultimately I think we shouldn’t be surprised that it is happening. And I think we’ll see less of it as more creators become savvy to kicktraq and how they’re being watched. It’ll still happen, but better hidden. I honestly don’t blame anyone for not wanting to let thousands of dollars go and seeing your dream die, and if you’re backing the project you DO want to see the product happen. What I’d like to see different is how the creators go about presenting it, rather then hide it.

    • Sadly, I agree that this kind of thing will still happen, but be better hidden. Perhaps others will start pledging to their own projects halfway through the campaign to try and make it look like there’s more interest there, and start backing out those pledges once legitimate backers sign up. Not that I want to give them any ideas…

      I would also love to see creators being more transparent about this kind of thing, but I don’t see it happening. Most aren’t even very open about where the money is going, much less where it came from. I think we just need to get over the sensationalism of Kickstarter and start taking a closer look at what projects deserve our money. I think if more people had looked closer at what Project Lodus was really offering, it wouldn’t have made it to the point where it was worth Leviathan pledging to make their own goal.

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  5. I followed a link here from a Steam Gifts post and found this post interesting and illuminating. I backed Conclave and just shot them an e-mail. They might not want to answer, but I think it’s worth asking.

    A lot of project creators put a higher goal than they really need. I saw it with a recent project I backed, the Red Queen of Oz. The guy asked for $7,000 and got $4,400. He then relaunched with a goal of $2,750, discounted the reward levels significantly, and got $18,000.

    Setting a too high goal can cause a project to falter and fail, and I guess some creators get desperate, and instead of relaunching with a lower goal they just try to get whatever funding they can. However I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a third party service.

    • Let me reply to myself, with some help from 10×10, the creators of Conclave.

      First of all, it looks like everything that’s out of the ordinary is made ordinary if you do some statistics. I took a small sample of the successful projects I pledged to so far, and the pattern is always that the first backers are people who pledged to quite a few projects, and the last backers are those who pledged purely to that project. It doesn’t matter if the project got $6,000 and had under 200 backers or raised several millions with tens of thousands of backers, the pattern is the same.

      So there goes one “proof” of a conspiracy attempt.

      On the micro level, the response I got from 10×10 was quite lengthy, but the summary of it is: the got some articles about them near the end, such as from Wired’s GeekDad, as well as tweets, plus they got close friends and family pledging big sums. So lots of backers because of press plus a few big pledges made up for a great ending.

      Bottom line, there’s no need to create lots of fake accounts to create such a pattern. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen, just that there’s no need to jump to conclusions based on a pattern.

      • Another followup. I googled Project Lodus. It ended on August 14. On August 13 eXpertComics had an interview with the project’s people. I’m not personally familiar with eXpertComics, but I figure it has enough audience to cause a surge. Perhaps like for Conclave there were a few added tweets and large pledges from friends as family. This could easily explain what happened.

        Again, no need for a conspiracy theory.

        I think it that the next time something like this is posted it would be nice to check some more figures and contact the projects in question. It’s rather rude (and might constitute libel) to imply that a project did something like this when it didn’t.

      • I can’t really comment on Conclave, because I wasn’t following it at the time – it just had a similar aspects in terms of funding trends. That’s why I made this about Project Lodus and not Conclave.

        As for your “pattern”, maybe the number of backers isn’t quite as relevant as the fact that over half of the funding came at the last minute. Yes, there is always a spike at the end, but it’s usually closer to the last 20% – not the last 55%. That’s not a spike; that’s a miracle.

        As for the article on Lodus, I don’t really see what’s so specifically huge about that. I mean, you’re saying that articles on GamingAngel, Co-Optimus, GeekyKool, etc. did nothing, but all of a sudden, an article from a site you’ve never even heard of before got it funded in a matter of hours? Who’s supposed to be the skeptic here?

        And let’s talk about those hours. As it turns out, I gave this funding spike way more time (and, therefore, legitimacy) than it had. Here’s a comment on the Kickstarter page:

        “Not so sure if we’re going to make 45% of the goal in the next three hours…”

        Three hours. Not even the 14 I estimated. Over $28,000 in 3 hours for a project that didn’t even break $23,000 up to that point. Am I really being so unreasonable in my suspicion?

  6. Ummm, I’m not sure what you’re talking about. I see a post on the comments “We’re almost there with 3 hours to go!” Where exactly is that post you mentioned?

    The full comment is “And yes, some serious huge major thanks are in order! But not just to the few insane high pledge backers, to ALL of you! Thank you so so so much! We’re almost there with 3 hours to go!”

    Also a little later “@Steve Lipinski Thanks for your huge pledge increase today too! Our backers do really rock.”

    Clearly some backers made some very big contributions the last day. They’re even thanked for that. Again, doesn’t look like a conspiracy.

    • The comment I quoted was only 4 down from the one you quoted. And in between those two comments is this one:

      “Damn. Went from 29k to 49k … but the backer total only went from 406 to 410.”

      Even taking into account people raising their currently existing pledges, it means that they got about $20,000 in a matter of minutes. Again, are you seriously saying that’s not suspicious? I’m not saying it *proves* anything, but it’s certainly suspicious. And a comment from the creators thanking their backers doesn’t make it any less so, nor would a denial if I were to question them about this. It’s very kind of you to give them the benefit of the doubt, but it’s a little absurd to have no doubt at all.

      • My bad for not looking further down.

        I agree it’s unusual. It’s looks like a couple of people paid $10,000 each. That leaves the argument about most of the backers and the average pledge questionable at best. I think that it’s reasonable to think that the new backers in the last day are legitimate. They follow a reasonable pattern of other Kickstarters and they obviously didn’t stray much from the average pledge to that point.

        Regarding these high pledges, yes, that’s questionable. It’s possible that they paid for them themselves. It’s possible that like Nick from 10×10 Room said, it was friends and family. Maybe the creator’s mother decided to pay, I don’t know. Maybe it’s a legitimate crazy backer. I agree, there’s some doubt there. But that’s not the way you presented it in your blog. You talked about creating lots of fictional accounts, and for that I think there’s no shred of proof.

    • Okay, that’s fair. To be honest, my assumption was that there were a couple of really high pledges that bumped the average up to the statistic I mentioned, and I just got carried away with other details of things about it that looked odd. But that is why I brought up the $2,500+ pledge from the reward tier statistics – it was the only evidence of a single high pledge. My real guess as to the bunch of new accounts was simply that they were made to make the couple of high pledges look less suspicious, not that they were actually there to contribute evenly.

      And I get that there’s no evidence for that. I didn’t write this to prove every little detail of every one of my guesses as to what happened here. I could be wrong about everything here, but the point is that it looks really suspicious, and it would be nice to get real answers as to what *did* happen. I just think that those answers can’t come from the creators themselves, who are obviously not going to admit any possible wrongdoing.

      And you can call this a stupid conspiracy theory, and that’s fine. I don’t think it’s anything to call the cops about, but I think it’s something to keep in mind as a Kickstarter user. Even if it didn’t actually happen in this case, it almost certainly does in some cases. I want people to be a little more wary of Kickstarter than they are. And honestly, if I look like a jerk for some false “accusations” while doing it, I’m okay with that. I’d rather be overly skeptical than overly naive with where my money goes, and I don’t want people wasting money on unworthy projects. And regardless of the truth behind Lodus, I do find it to be very much unworthy of funding.

  7. I checked earlier today, and there’s about $30,000 unaccounted for by pledges in that project, meaning that people pledged that money and didn’t ask for anything or asked for a reward of a much lower tier. Conclave has around $23,000, Arakion has around $5,000. This is consistent with “friends and family”, but also with the creators doing it.

    By the way, while the creators might not admit it if contacted, I think that the reply (or lack of it) can be telling. I feel that 10×10 Room’s reply cleared them. It was quick and detailed enough, and it made sense. If they didn’t reply or wrote something more vague, I might have been more suspicious. In any case, I think it’s worth digging some more when making accusations like this.

    Project Lodus is something I wouldn’t have pledged to, and I agree it’s a risky proposition, but I’ve read some of your posts, and you inflame things beyond the reasonable interpretation. I think you did that here, too. Can’t say I like it, but at least your responses here are reasonable.

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  9. Basically, they wanted to get the 22,000 they originally acquired from the original backers because they didn’t want to give the money back after it failed. Essentially, they took peoples money in a unethical manner, but its unknown whether they’ll deliver. But their webpage has nothing but concept art on it which makes me suspicious. Thinking about this, it begs the question, how long does it take for a kickstarter to be considered legitimate fraud? With all the excuses going around saying its okay for a game to be years into development, and to go past your estimated date because its an “estimate” (meaning +/- 10 years lol) I’m just curious when someone can actually say you didn’t deliver.

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