Back in June, an unfinished video game named Haunts: The Manse Macabre by a company calling itself Mob Rules Games appeared on Kickstarter with a funding goal of $25,000. In their pitch, the designers noted they’d already spent $42,500 on the game and needed just $20,000 more to bring it home.
By July 6, Haunts had met and actually exceeded that goal, luring 1,200 backers and bringing in $28,739 of pledge money. The game’s projected release date: this Halloween.
The idea behind Haunts was novel enough: a turn-based, horror-themed strategy game where you’d play as either the nefarious creatures haunting the manse, dubbed “Haunts,” or the “Intruders” Scooby Doo-type gang out to get them. The game could be played either against the computer or another player, online or off, said the designers, and would include “a lengthy single-player campaign [telling] the house’s horrifying history.”
It looked like something Tim Burton might have devised, a stylish black-and-white (with splashes of blood-red), vaguely cartoonish series of levels through which vampires, psychopaths, evil geniuses and creepy children would roam as intruders worked to thwart their plans while unearthing objects like “artifacts” and “ancient tomes” — Plants vs. Zombies meets Haunted House.
And then something went badly wrong. Work on the project abruptly stopped last week, when, according to the BBC, all of the game’s programmers quit “after running out of cash and staff.”
“As I’m sure many of you suspect, things haven’t been going well for Haunts and Mob Rules Game,” wrote Kickstarter project lead Rick Dakan in a blog update last week with the subject line “Desperate Times.”
The principal cause for our dire condition is that there are no longer any programmers working on the game. Our lead programmer, Jonathan, was always going to move on to something else after a year or so. We had hoped that he would be able to work on the game in his spare time, but now that he’s going back at Google, he has told us that his spare time will be very minimal and not enough to make progress on the game. Our second programmer, Josh, has quit the project entirely to take another job. He does not want to work on the game in his spare time.
That, according to Dakan, left just him and the game’s artist, Austin McKinley, neither of whom are programmers. For various reasons, some of them to do with developmental misestimation, Dakan says the game was in “a very patchwork state” and that it was coded in a relatively obscure programming language, complicating the process of finding new programmers to finish the job.
I’m not sure if Haunts is the first video game-related Kickstarter to fail (Dakan claims it isn’t). I’m not sure the “video game” angle matters as much as the crowdfunded one. Haunts certainly isn’t the first Kickstarter project to go awry, and with its apparent failure people are asking the usual questions: Does Mob Rules Games have a legal obligation to finish the game? If they don’t, can pledgers get their money back?
The answers to both questions are clear. As I’ve noted before, Kickstarter isn’t a store. While you pledge money, you’ve bought nothing — what you’ve spent is essentially a donation. Kickstarter won’t step in to twist someone’s arm if they drop the ball. In this case, Dakan has offered to “personally refund out of my own pocket anyone who wants to withdraw their support, no questions asked,” but that’s an ethical gesture, not a legal one. The system either pairs good intentions with dependable projects, or it doesn’t.
It’s the psychological fallout when circumstances result in a “doesn’t” that worries game designers like Obsidian Entertainment’s Chris Avellone, whose “Project Eternity” old-school PC roleplaying game just closed with a record-setting Kickstarter take of nearly $4 million (from an initial funding goal of just $1.1 million).
When I asked Avellone what worried him most about using Kickstarter as a funding source a few weeks ago, he told me this:
I worry about someone else failing. To quote Archer when something bad happens: “This is why we can’t have nice things.” While I’m confident in Obsidian being able to deliver a quality title, it only takes one other Kickstarter developer to ruin things for everyone else and cast doubt on the donation process going forward. We sure as hell aren’t going to drop the ball, but Kickstarter is still in its near-honeymoon period and there’s still plenty of room for failure in the future.
Will Haunts “ruin things for everyone”? Probably not, especially not if much bigger-time projects like “Project Eternity” succeed (we’ll find out come spring 2014).
And there’s still the possibility that Haunts could see the light of day. While Dakan initially sounded defeatist about the game’s long term prospects, in a followup blog post, he was defiant, writing: “We have not given up. This is not over. We are going to finish this game.”
But it’s a reminder that these projects are each and every one a gamble, not a guarantee, and that for all the potentially amazing products we could see from crowdfunded projects, sometimes things fall apart. That said, here’s hoping Mob Rules Games can find a way to salvage what they’ve done, and somehow turn failure into delayed success.