Kickstarter Suspension Blows Up Crowdsourced Gaming's Next Big Idea

Ouya's "Free the Games Fund" promises to double a crowdfunded game's money—if it releases exclusively for the Android console. The potential for abuse should be apparent to anyone with a brain. Two games are accused of backing themselves with fake funding to claim the prize, and one has been suspended by Kickstarter.

The suspended game is Elementary, My Dear Holmes, which two weeks ago was accused of artificially inflating its funding, a charge the game's developer denies to Kotaku. On Aug. 27, someone pointed out that the game's backer list was shot through with new accounts bearing the names of celebrities, missing persons, fugitives, and university students and faculty—"[avatar] images unlikely to be used by someone else as a profile pic," as the commenter mentioned.

Why would a game back itself with fake capital? Because Ouya has promised to match, dollar-for-dollar, the backing of any game that, between now and next August, meets a minimum $50,000 goal on Kickstarter and then releases exclusively on their console for its first six months of release. The hypothetical scheme isn't that farfetched: Log in, give yourself $50K from your own credit card(s), pay that back immediately, and then make the game with whatever Ouya gives you.

Holmes isn't the first project to face this kind of scrutiny; Gridiron Thunder, another Ouya-exclusive project that, on its Kickstarter page, featured actual NFL branding—and EA Sports paid zillions to solely control the rights to make NFL games on consoles—also has been accused of astroturfing its funding or overstating its features, charges it also denied to Kotaku.

Gridiron Thunder and Elementary, My Dear Holmes were cited in an email sent to Kotaku (and, presumably, other news organizations) by an Ouya flack on Aug. 26, touting the success of the Free the Games Fund, with Ouya offering to put writers in touch with both projects' creators. If any other projects have surpassed the $50,000 funding prerequisite to be eligible for Free the Games matching money, I'm not aware of them.

Sam Chandola, the CEO of Victory Square, the studio behind Elementary, My Dear Holmes, said "Kickstarter did not provide a reason for the suspension of the campaign, instead stating that they do not comment on suspensions.

"Victory Square Games definitely denies setting up a Kickstarter account or accounts to fund its own projects, or asking any other person or organization to do so on its behalf," Chandola told Kotaku. He mentioned that after Elementary, My Dear Holmes, hit its funding target "we announced a console giveaway and that was in violation of Kickstarter's terms of service," implying that might have been the disqualifying reason. The giveaway has since been rescinded, Chandola said.

Chandola acknowledged the apparent irregularities in the accounts backing his game and said when that was brought to his attention, "I myself informed Kickstarter and Amazon Payments about the discrepancy in accounts when they were first brought up.

"The issues that were raised were quite alarming, and we wanted nothing to do with it, so I wrote to Ouya, Kickstarter and Amazon informing them of the situation," he said. "My hope had been that Kickstarter would investigate the matter and cancel any pledges from accounts that were deemed suspicious."

Indeed, some of the accounts that were mentioned in first comment pointing out funding irregularities appear to have been canceled, or their names removed from the backer list.

"While what has happened is definitely deeply saddening for us," Chandola told Kotaku, "the attention it has brought has got us noticed with some venture capitalists who emailed me after the project suspension offering to support and finance the project." Evidently Elementary, My Dear Holmes will proceed with this private funding. Chandola didn't say if the game will remain Ouya-exclusive.

Kotaku reached out to Ouya, in light of this second case, to ask about its confidence in the Free the Games Fund and how it administers the money. An Ouya representative said that "per the rules and regulations for the Free the Games Fund, Ouya does not pay out any of the matching funds until after the developer’s campaign ends." With the campaign for Elementary, My Dear Holmes suspended, it hasn't received any money from Ouya and won't, unless Kickstarter restores it.

With regards to Gridiron Thunder, Ouya noted that Kickstarter "is ongoing. At this time, they remain compliant with the rules and regulations of eligibility for the Free the Games Fund.

I asked Ouya if it audits or investigates the backing of game projects seeking its matching funds. The reply:

"Kickstarter has much more access to information regarding the funding of campaigns on their site than we do. We’re confident in their methods for verifying the integrity of all Kickstarter projects. An essential element of the Free the Games Fund is that only projects that are successfully funded through Kickstarter are eligible. Until Kickstarter raised a red flag on this project, it complied with our terms and conditions."

Once again, it's the usual shitshow of unintended consequences arising from Ouya's näive, idealistic posturing: Let's make a console that's completely open-sourced! OK, what if people use it primarily for piracy and emulation, and no one buys anything from the Ouya store? Well, let's underwrite a bunch of We-the-People exclusives no one else is courageous enough to make! Fine, how do you safeguard against a developer who "funds" a game with phantom donations, to get Ouya to supply the actual development budget with the matching money?

At this point, why anyone would still "back"—as if that money is actually an investment, instead of a straight-up donation—this amateur-hour console or any of its games is a mystery to me.

To contact the author of this post, write to owen@kotaku.com or find him on Twitter @owengood.