darkskyesscamLast week we posted an announcement for a new game on Kickstarter called Dark Skyes, a dating sim that takes place in the world of My Little Pony (MLP from this point on).  Referred to as a “Brony dating sim,” the game would let adult fans of the magical pony world date, seduce, and do who knows what else with a wide variety of beautifully drawn ponies.  In the time since our announcement a number of serious allegations have been thrown at the makers of Dark Skyes, with various elements of the web calling the whole thing a joke or a scam.  The 4Chan /mlp/ group in particular has been in overdrive gathering information and pointing fingers.

Is it really a scam, or just a bunch of trolls picking on the Brony community?  Maybe both?

Let’s take a look at the evidence one piece at a time.

3/14 – Please see the following sections for updates :

  • Development progress: Conflict of development dates and the origins of Brony culture.
  • Michael Harms Reaction: Potential evidence of Michael Harms supporting the MDE MLP prank.
  • The Developers: One of the three remaining developers denies involvement.
  • The Developers: Virgo Hiroshima identifies himself and denies involvement.

3/15 – Please see the following sections for updates

  • The Developers: All developers have been removed from the Kickstarter page.

3/17 – Please see the following sections for updates

  • Million Dollar Extreme: Sam Hyde’s video from December 2013 asking for voice actors for a Brony Dating sim.
  • Million Dollar Extreme: Sam Hyde’s video from December 2013 coaching his voice actors on how to read their scripts.
  • Million Dollar Extreme: Intro background used for the Dark Skyes Kickstarter video matches existing MDE video background.

3/18 – Please see the following sections for updates

  • The Artist Pulls Out: Pukey Pony gives an interview detailing her experience with Dark Skyes.

3/25 – Please see the following sections for updates

  • Development Progress: New screenshots released, demo promised soon.
  • Misc: New game in development
  • Misc: Kicktraq tag

3/30 – Please see the following sections for updates

  • Development Progress: New video released purporting to show gameplay footage

[divider]

$7,500 funding goal

Let’s start from the top.  A $7,500 funding goal isn’t something to be suspicious over, there’s plenty of projects that only ask for a few hundred dollars.  However when you consider that the Dark Skyes developers are promising over 100 hours of gameplay, for a dating sim, it seems a little suspicious.

Conclusion: This could just as easily be someone over promising as much as it could be a scam.  Not necessarily a red flag that it’s a scam, but you should be concerned that so much is being promised for so little.

[wp_ad_camp_1]

[divider]

promisesGame Description

So first we have the 100 hours of gameplay, that’s fine, you could say that any game has 100 hours of gameplay if you want to play it over and over.  Then there’s “deep rpg elements” that are mentioned a couple times but never described, a “massive map” that would seem curiously out of place in a dating sim, and mention of weapons and character classes.  Information on how these elements work together to form a cohesive game would be nice, but are nowhere to be found.

Conclusion: Again, it could be an incompetent designer, someone that doesn’t know how to write a Kickstarter pitch, or a particularly lazy and inept scammer.  Regardless of who it is, this should raise some concern, particularly when the developers have been completely silent with additional information.

[divider]

“Brony” Dating Sim

Over at DeviantArt MLP fan and artist Pix3M said this about the Kickstarter description:

The way they used the term ‘Brony dating sim’ suggests they aren’t part of our subculture. Your run-of-the-mill pony fan will not use the word like this.

Conclusion: This could go either way.  If I were to make a MLP dating sim this is the phrasing I might use, not because I’m out to scam people but because I’m not very familiar with the cultural norms of the MLP community.  MLP fans may want to worry that the campaign is being run by someone that doesn’t sound proficient with appropriate MLP phrasing.

[divider]

videoKickstarter Video

The Kickstarter video is very unusual.  On one hand they have some level production value by using some basic green screen techniques, and a bizarre costume, but then on the other the audio introduction for most of the ponies sound like they were recorded in someone’s bathroom.  The developers did post an update stating that they recognize the audio quality was bad, and that they plan on recording everything professionally.

Conclusion: The fact that the video is presented by someone in a costume is strange, especially since Dark Skyes isn’t purported to be an artistic breakthrough, it’s a dating sim.  Maybe MLP fans enjoy people in off-putting cyclops masks, but I doubt it.  Again, it’s either a scammer that didn’t take the time to focus on quality, or a developer that didn’t take the time to focus on quality.  Either way it doesn’t fill me with confidence.

[divider]

[wp_ad_camp_1]

Pledge Tiers

The top pledge tier for the Dark Skyes campaign is $750.  Here’s the description:

“DARK SKYES SAVIOR —- Our ultimate reward level comes with everything we got, all rolled into one convenient package for you. All twelve posters, the printed, physical art book, phone call from the developer, signed pony figure, custom video message from one of the female voice-over artists, a piece of memorabilia from the development of the game… this package just contains too much crap to list. SO WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?! Gosh… can’t believe we forgot. YOU WILL ALSO BE WRITTEN INTO THE GAME AS A CHARACTER, WITH CUSTOM ARTWORK BASED ON YOUR REAL APPEARANCE AND INTERESTS! Of course it will have to fit within our pony world… we’re not gonna make a pony named John Burton who works at the local pony radiology center doing x-rays, but we will custom-design a pony based on you or your OC. This reward level is truly frightening in how great it is, I can’t even believe it’s legal!”

Conclusion: Does that strike you as being written by a developer taking things serious, whose dreams of making a game depend on someone reading that and thinking “Yeah, let me give them $750.”  It doesn’t.  It’s written either by someone making a joke, or someone that has absolutely no idea what they’re doing.  Either way, it should be of a concern that the person writing those tiers isn’t taking their Kickstarter campaign seriously.

[divider]

Development Progress

According to the Kickstarter video Dark Skyes is 95% complete, with inserting existing art into the game and other “finishing touches”.  The team even mentions that the Alpha is already complete, but in a rough state as Alphas tend to be.  That being said, the team refuses to show any part of the alpha to anyone.  I’ll get into their reasoning why in a bit.  “4 years in the making” is something mentioned in the game description, but there’s no mention of the game on the internet until the Kickstarter launched.  Given that the team is supposedly comprised of experienced game developers wouldn’t they do some prelaunch hype?  Maybe tell friends in a forum somewhere that they’re working on a game?

3/14 Update – “mulp” reports in the comments section that the version of MLP that’s at the core of Brony culture did not premier until Oct. 2010, with Know Your Meme giving the approximate start of Brony culture as Dec 23 2010.  The Dark Skyes Kickstarter page originally stated that the game had been in production for 3 years, but has since been changed to state 4 years.  4 years would put production of this Brony game starting before the origins of the phenominon.

3/25 Update – A new update was posted to the Kickstarter page titled “Screenshots.”  It reads:

*Sigh*… we were really hoping that we wouldn’t have to release any actual visuals until the game was up to our own high standards, but because of this trolling/scam campaign nonsense we have been forced to put something together to show you guys.

This is really unfortunate. The reason why big game studios don’t release development stuff like this is because it’s not representative of the final quality of the game and it turns people off. It is negative hype. But this is what we had to do, I feel, and hopefully this will put to rest some of the misgivings that our ACTUAL fans have. I don’t really care about the haters and the people trying to bring us down at this point, but for the people who have actually backed this project and stand by us, well, thank you guys & girls.

I’ll be posting a playable demo later this week probably. Please keep in mind that it is a TEMPORARY demo, not at all up to our standards of finished quality. That’s all, love you 🙂

The screenshots included in the update :

darkskyesupdate1  darkskyesupdate2  darkskyesupdate3  darkskyesupdate4  darkskyesupdate5  darkskyesupdate6  darkskyesupdate7  darkskyesupdate8

3/30 Update – An update was posted by campaign sponsor Michael Harms.  In the video Michael states that they spent the past week putting “a product together from scratch” so they could have something to show.  Interestingly the update remarks indicate that they “whipped up” the demo “in a couple hours.”  If you head to the update you can see the footage for yourself.  An interesting response was posted by a backer asking some very relevant questions.  It says :

Your video left me with a few lingering questions that I would love for you to answer:

• Why did you need to make the demo from scratch if it was over 95% done over a period of four years?

• Your project page said that your “alpha build is already done,” that “[n]early every part of the game has already been completed,” that you are just “putting the finishing touches on this game” and that “this [is the] last round of revisions”. If this is all that’s done, how can you expect delivery in three months? 
• Most tellingly, your project page says that “Dark Skyes is a pony dating sim with deep RPG elements,” yet nothing really displays that in your demo. Just your average dating sim dialog choices and text, with only the addition of a heart with a number in the corner that isn’t affected by your choices. Why couldn’t you show that off if you already have an alpha build? With the game over 95% done at this point, you can’t claim that it hasn’t been programmed in yet.

You said that this demo gives us a feel for the game that we are looking at. Based on what you’ve shown us, it’s one that can’t possibly live up to the promises given at the beginning

Those are some serious questions, outside of whether you want to believe that the project is a joke or a scam.  When someone starts a Kickstarter stating the game is 95% complete and just needs time and money to integrate artwork, but then doesn’t show the game until there’s widespread finger pointing; that’s cause for concern.

Other questions that I have to ask in response to the new video:

  • Are they really using Unity for a dating sim?
  • No voice acting yet?
  • All of the character artwork is work we’ve already seen from the beginning.  The same characters in the same poses.
  • Is this the result of 4 years of work?  A weeks worth of work?  A few hours worth of work?
  • While lots of disclaimers are given that the gameplay shown is just thrown together to give an idea of the game, the black screens with white text indicating internal dialog on the part of the player is extremely rough for something that’s supposed to be so far into development.

Conclusion: The unwillingness to show the Alpha, or even portions of it, is troubling.  Sure, developers don’t want to show off an incomplete game, but they’re asking people to give them money.  This could still be someone that’s lying about the existence of an Alpha, or someone that doesn’t know how to run a campaign.  A complete lack of chatter about a game that’s been in development by a team of a dozen people for the better part of 4 years?  That’s not good at all.

The 3/25 update is a move in the right direction, a commitment of a demo, and posting new screenshots.  It is a concern that the screenshot quality does not match the artwork shown already, even for characters that have been previously shown (not to mention the lack of new characters).  The repeating of backgrounds, and default Photoshop fonts and graphics is also a concern, but does not necessarily point to a scam.  It could be poor production quality, or, as the author of the update laments, early game footage that’s not ready for prime time.  As it stands now the new screenshots should not give a lot of confidence that the developer(s) can deliver.

The 3/30 update doesn’t really change the final verdict unfortunately.  While it’s nice to see Michael release something he still hasn’t addressed the multitude of concerns expressed by large numbers of backers and potential backers.  His demo serves to show that there’s something being done, but by saying it was thrown together in a few hours he raises very serious questions about what’s been going on over the past 4 (or was it 3?) years.

[divider]

The Artist Pulls Out

One thing the Dark Skyes Kickstarter has going for it is some great looking artwork, which is courtesy of “Pyoo-kee-pony” (Pukey Pony) from DeviantArt.  On March 11th Pukey posted the following entry to their DeviantArt journal:

 pukey

3/18 Update – Horse News ran an interview with Pukey Pony recently and asked a number of questions regarding their involvement with Dark Skyes.  Pukey makes a number of comments that should give Dark Skyes backers pause, including the fact that Sam Hyde of MDE is in fact behind the campaign, that she feels she was decieved about the sincerity of the project, and that “…anyone considering sending money to Million Dollar Extreme, at least wait until they release a demo or a good video showing us that a game actually exists.”

Conclusion: This could just be someone sick of hearing about the Dark Skyes controversy, or tired of being harassed by trolls.  Unfortunately it looks more like someone uncomfortable having their name associated with such a controversial project.  If Pukey was intimately involved with the production of Dark Skyes then they would most likely stand by for longer, or at least post some sort of defense of the project.  Scam, or incompetence, it’s not good.

Based on the interview with Pukey, the conclusion now learns much more heavily towards the scam side of things.

[divider]

The Developers

The image below shows the list of developers as they appeared when the Dark Skyes campaign launched.

originaldevs
Dev team as of 3/6

tweetOne of them, Brittany Ledbetter, is also known as Pukey Pony, the artist that pulled out.  Another person, Chris Conlon, tweeted that his picture was being used without permission.  The next day the Kickstarter page was updated by removing Chris’s name and picture and adding in a person with the name “Virgo Hiroshima” instead.  As of this writing the developers list has been changed to only include 3 people, Psychoactive Charm (the man in the suit), Michael Harms (the person of record for the campaign), and the aforementioned Virgo Hiroshima (no record of which could be found online).

3/14 Update – Earlier today I recieved both a friend and chat request on Facebook from someone that has a profile picture matching Virgo Hiroshima; not the same Kickstarter picture, but the same person with a different picture.  While I didn’t accept the friend request due to mommy’s rules about friending strangers, we did chat.  During our discussion the person expressed alarm that they were being pulled into the middle of the Dark Skyes situation, and insisted that they’re not involved with the game or any potential fraud/prank on the part of MDE.  In reviewing the persons online presence I found that they follow MDE on Twitter, to which they explained they had followed them since high school because the videos and pranks were funny, but that they were not involved with the campaign or any prank.  I’m not going to give “Virgo’s” real name here, but it has already been outed elsewhere by people doing their own investigations.

3/14 Update 2  – A man identifying himself as Matt Parr posted to the /mlp/ Dark Skyes thread with the following photo :

1394848306895

The picture on the phone is from the Dark Skyes Kickstarter page and is the person identified as Virgo Hiroshima.  The name and photo match the identity of the unnamed person I referred to in the last update.  (Thanks TSP for posting this to the comments before I had a chance.)

3/15 Update – As of now there are no longer any developers listed on the Kickstarter page and no information on why they were removed.

Conclusion: It doesn’t get much more alarming than this.  Did everyone just pull out?  Maybe they don’t want their names associated with all the controversy, especially since the people listed were ‘doxed’; meaning that their personal information was being made available to critics of the project.

Dev team as of 3/14
Dev team as of 3/14

[divider]

[wp_ad_camp_1]

Million Dollar Extreme

Million Dollar Extreme (MDE) is an amateur prank and troll group.  What do they have to do with the Dark Skyes campaign?  Remember the picture of the developers?  Here’s the entire image

 teamvsmde

Members of the 4chan /mlp/ group cross referenced the individuals on the Kickstarter campaign page with known members or fans of MDE.  So they like pranks, big deal right?  After all, MDE has over 6,000 likes on their Facebook page, maybe it’s just some MDE folks trying to get into the Brony game.  A number of images popped up on the /mlp/ Dark Skyes investigation thread that seemed to show MDE head honcho Sam Hyde planning a master prank that involved Bronies.

mde1  mde2

Obviously there’s no way to verify these, it’s entirely possible they’re complete fabrications.  Then Sam released the following video.  Warning, it gets pretty offensive at the end.

If you couldn’t stomach the poor camera angle, spastic behavior, or the offensive language I’ll give you an overview.  Sam acknowledges that he’s behind the campaign and that while it’s a big joke there is actually a game.  It’s implied that instead of being your standard dating sim, Dark Skyes is destined to be an interactive trolling of Bronies, and not at all what’s described in the Kickstarter campaign.

3/17 Update – Tavi linked the following video in the comments section below:

In the video, dated December 16th, Sam Hyde put’s out a call for “hot girls” to help him with a new MDE project.  In he video Sam states:

“MDE is doing a brony dating sim, and I need you hot girls to be the voice over actresses for the MDE dating sim”

Sam goes on to give a description of what he’s looking for in a voice actress, the need for a DeviantArt artist to draw some pony art, and that he’s intentionally uploading the video to a different account so it can stay somewhat undetected.  Later in the video Sam expresses a need for “..an actual brony” to act as a script adviser.

The next video, dated December 19th, is described by Sam as a “…primer video for all the pony dating sim voice actresses.”

The most telling portion is when Sam states:

“This is not going to be a joke video, so don’t try to be funny, don’t try to be tongue-in-cheek, don’t be cynical.  We’re trying to get retards to back a Kickstarter project.”

The final update for today has to do with the brain looking background in the beginning of the Dark Skyes Kickstarter video.  More specifically, the fact that it’s the same one that was used in a MDE video back in June of 2012.  Could just be a coincidence.

brainbackground

Conclusion:  At this point you’ll most likely fall into one of two categories.  Either you recognize Dark Skyes as a prank that will result in a funny piece of gag software (at best), or you believe that this entire situation is a orchestrated takedown of Michael Harms legitimate attempt to make a MLP game.  After all, isn’t it possible that Michael is the real victim here?  That perhaps /mlp/ and MDE are working together to create a false sense of alarm around the campaign in order to troll a sincere attempt at a Kickstarter?  This brings us to the final point.

[divider]

Michael Harms Reaction

So far Michael has made a number of comments regarding the accusations of fraud/trolling/pranking.  The first was an update on March 10th where Michael acknowledges the scam accusations and respond by saying in part

“We figured that by throwing ourselves out there and making a game like this, we’d be opening the floodgates for the trolls…”

A good point, however he also states

“There’s no way in hell I’d ever risk getting sued and possibly thrown in jail for a stupid prank.”

There would be no repercussions from Kickstarter or law enforcement if Dark Skyes turns out to be the kind of software that Sam Hyde mentions.  The only obligation to backers project owners have is to deliver them a product, it doesn’t necessarily mean it has to meet the exact specifications.  Taken a step further, there have been numerous situations where people failed to deliver any of their promised product and still nothing happened to them, it’s one of the current gaps in Kickstarter.  Either way, Michael would be home free.

mike1The next response from Michael, also posted on March 10th was much more defensive, understandably so.  He says in part :

“We definitely don’t have time to play public relations and be making videos and answering questions all day… we have a game to finish you guys.A lot of people have expressed interest in seeing the alpha build, as well. No problem. We’ll upload our alpha for you to try out as soon as we can see the alpha builds for Doom 4, Halo 6, Starcraft III, and Skyrim 3.”

As pointed out by a number of individuals, the entire point of a Kickstarter is to market and get money from people for a product that isn’t complete.  Saying that he has no time for PR is either the defense of someone with nothing to show, or one of the worst Kickstarter campaign organizers of all time. The video accompanying the update features Michael passionately defending himself and stating that “the game is real,” and that he “isn’t stupid enough” to risk legal action.   Watching the video it’s hard not to think you’re watching a child or bad actor trying to convince you to play along with whatever game they’re playing, particularly during the numerous times he almost starts laughing, or the telling smirks he gives every time he says how awesome the game is going to be.

The most recent update, made on March 13th, is from Michael again defending himself and stating that he’s received over 200 messages from people asking for answers and that “I’ve taken the time to reply to most of them, in as much detail as time will allow, but at the end of the day there is still much work to be done.”  This again goes back to the entire point of a Kickstarter campaign, which is to get involved with your fans, build trust, and be 100% engaged; something that hasn’t happened.

3/14 Update – User “TSP” commented on this story with a link that contains a cached copy of Sam Hyde’s “cold sweats” Facebook post.  The image shows a response from Michael Harms hestitantly supporting the idea of “Project Mayhem,” which is another name for the MDE MLP operation.  However, keep in mind, I’ve been unable to verify the authenticity of the image.

Conclusion: Either Michael is in on it, or he really doesn’t know how to run a Kickstarter campaign or deal with the stress associated with it.  Either way that’s not someone’s project you want to have complete faith in.

[divider]

Current Campaign Status

kicktraq1The campaign has been bleeding money for the last couple days according to Kicktraq.  The recent uptick in funding is from a few high dollar donors that all joined Kickstarter within the past few days, have only backed Dark Skyes, and have MLP related names and/or badges.

Conclusion: This strategy has been seen before.  The creator makes a number of shill accounts to pump up the pledges in an attempt to restore faith amoungst backers then they back out at the last minute, or simply pays themselves back with the Kickstarter funds.

[divider]

Misc:

3/25 Update :  On March 20th Youtube user Yoshi-K posted a video discussing the problems with the Dark Skyes campaign, and went a step further by showing a game he’s been working on.  The game, It’s Always Sunny In Dark Skyes, promises to be the game originally promised in the Kickstarter.

 

The Kicktraq page for Dark Skyes is interesting in that one of the Tags for the game “parody.”  It’s doubtful that Kicktraq has some sort of inside scoop on what the game is or isn’t, but other tags have been suggested and rejected, but parody made it through.

 darkskyeskicktraq

[divider]

Final Conclusion:

I reached out to Michael the night we posted our original Dark Skyes announcement asking if he would be open to an interview, and the next day he messaged me to say that I could interview him and gave me his Gmail address.  On the 10th, after the accusations had started, I emailed Michael 10 questions.  The first four or five were asking about the campaign, his thoughts on the accusations, his plans on how to get things straightened out, and whether or not I could see the Alpha if I agreed to not post images of it; the rest of them were standard questions asking about the game and such.  I did not receive a response back, and that evening his video update was posted.  I emailed him again the next day and still have not heard back.

As it stands now Dark Skyes is either:

  • A prank that will result in either no product for backers, or a product that is a joke and bears no resemblance to what was offered.
  • A poorly run campaign with an organizer that changes vital information (dev team) without notice, is losing support from his staff, and feels that responding to backers and press is a waste of his time.

Whichever way the campaign ends it is one I highly suggest you steer clear of if you’re expecting the Brony Dating sim advertised.  Money given to the Dark Skyes campaign will either be lost, or part of a joke that has already been outed.

For my part I’ll be putting the money I would have given Dark Skyes towards another campaign.

[divider]

It should be noted that /mlp/ has done an extensive amount of research regarding the Dark Skyes situation, research that has led to extremely important information being brought to light.  The feeling I got from the group during my info gathers is that while they may not be the biggest fans of Bronies, they love taking down a scammer any chance they get.

I also used a number of posts from Horse-News.net, particularly this one where their conclusion is that backing Dark Skyes isn’t worth it.

The images used in this article are not mine and were taken from the research performed by /mlp/, if you feel you were not credited properly for an image please let me know I’ll get it updated.

Greg Micek

Greg Micek

Editor at Cliqist
Greg Micek has been writing on and off about games since the late nineties, always with a focus on indie games. He started DIYGames.com in 2000, which was one of the earliest gaming sites to focus exclusively on indie games.
Greg Micek

@cliqist

All the latest from the world of #indiegames. Partnered with @NewNormative
Greg Micek
Greg Micek
Greg Micek
greg@cliqist.com