This is a tale of two Kickstarters. Two video games, similar in ambition, that have found two wildly divergent fates.
Both games chased after Ouya's Free the Games Fund, a program that promised matching funds in exchange for a limited window of exclusivity on the platform. Over the weekend one of the games reached its goal, but all was not joyous in crowdfunding land. Joystiq's Mike Suszek explains:
Gridiron Thunder was under suspicion when it first met its funding goal in late August, thanks to curious funding spikes witnessed by backers. To reach its goal, it received more than $10,000 apiece from a limited number of funders, as revealed by Kicktraq.
The developer of "Gridiron Thunder", a company called MogoTXT went so far as to issue legal threats against those who made inflammatory claims on their page.
Charles Luzar of Crowdfund Insider has documented some of those exchanges. If you've ever wanted to see a project creator call a self-appointed investigator "paranoid and delusional" now is the time.
The comment thread reveals that MogoTXT believed it was being unfairly targeted by, essentially, vigilante members of the Kickstarter community.
This is an argument that holds some truth. Crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter rely on their community to act as a kind of immune system for detecting fraudulent claims. However, the end-users of the site don't necessarily have access to the same data that the sites themselves have. This can lead to unnecessary antagonism between users and creators, as not everyone agrees on what is "fair" in crowdfunding campaigns.
Alongside the "Gridiron Thunder" story was the case of "Elementary, My Dear Holmes", a point and click adventure. This game had its campaign suspended and has since withdrawn from the Free the Games contest.
Both stories circled around in the gaming press and the crowdfunding media. (Yes, we have crowdfunding media now. Yes, we're definitely a part of it.) Earlier today both Wired's Game|Life blog and Giant Bomb weighed in on the stories and what they mean for Ouya. The short version: the indie console developer is not looking too hot in the eyes of developers and gamers.
By failing to get ahead of these stories some of the trust Ouya has built up has eroded with the indie community. That Sony has just entered into the microconsole market with a strong indie focus may just be the death-blow for Ouya.
But what is really going on? Why was "Elementary" suspended while "Gridiron" was allowed to fund? It is especially strange when viewed from the outside, because "Elementary" developer Victory Square claims they asked for their own project to be investigated for suspicious activity before they were suspended.
"Gridiron Thunder" developer MogoTXT, on the other hand, just stayed on the offensive. One appears to have been punished for trying to cooperate, while the other goes scott-free.
This is where we all run up against a wall. The only people who have a good sense of what's going on are Kickstarter, and until today they were not talking. Wired published the results a conversation–which I have been told as part of my own talks with Kickstarter was given off-the-record–in which a representative from Kickstarter revealed that both campaigns were investigated by their internal teams. "Elementary" was suspended for violating terms, while "Gridiron" got a clean bill of health.
It still perplexes me, somewhat, that Kickstarter won't get out ahead of this story. However I do understand some of their reluctance at tipping their hand when it comes to their internal verification methods. After all, if scammers knew what the platform was looking for, it would be easier to manipulate the site.
So what really went on with "Gridiron Thunder"? We may never know exactly, but the most likely scenario is this: the developers called in a lot of markers from associates to fund the game, knowing that if they got enough they would be showered with the matching funds.
That's completely legal–provided they did not promise a share of the proceeds to those backers–and within the bounds of the rules Ouya laid out. It is somewhat against the implied spirit of the contest, and made even stranger by MogoTXT's pledge that the game would be released this month. Instead of being a spur to development, the cash would in this case be paid out, essentially, as a reward for shipping.
Ouya is already facing the consequence of bad press for this episode, but our greater editorial interest lay with Kickstarter's role and what this means for crowdfunding in general.
Matching funds challenges for campaigns are an potentially exciting prospect, a play taken right out of the public media handbook, which so much of crowdfunding resembles. These two campaigns, however, demonstrate the dangers of the technique if strict guidelines are not in place. It is worth noting that Kickstarter does not have an official method of supporting matching funds for campaigns, which is itself a hint as to where they stand on the practice.
The other big take-away for crowdfunding observers is this: Kickstarter does pay attention to the campaigns that its users flag as suspicious. That comes as a relief. Yet it remains strange, even frustrating, that the platform remains reluctant to speak about what efforts are made in order to ensure a fair playing ground for campaigns. As crowdfunding continues to grow that position may prove to be a liability.
Follow Noah Nelson on Twitter (@noahjnelson)