[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t seems that every time a sketchy Kickstarter campaign launches there’s a small group of backers that are on the case to expose any potential improprieties. This hardcore group of sleuths go to great lengths to dig up dirt on rogue developers and their shady campaigns. In light of the recent Maksym Pashanin situation involving Knuckle Club we thought it appropriate to finally talk to one of these Kickstarter Cops; and who better than Ahmad Khan? Who’s that? Ahmad was a central figure in the blow-up of the Knuckle Club and Areal campaigns, so we thought it appropriate to speak with him about his motivations and objectives.
Cliqist : Who are you exactly?
Ahmad Khan : A passionate videogamer, a proud Canadian, a loving husband and according to my neighbors a real nice guy.
Cliqist : You’re a kind of Kickstarter Chris Hansen, going after rogue campaigns and campaign organizers. What started that?
Ahmad Khan : I can assure you it was totally by chance. It all started with project Areal by West Games. According to West Games Areal will be a spiritual successor to cult FPS survival-horror S.T.A.L.K.E.R franchise.
I have been backing Kickstarter project since 2012 and I know the risks of crowd funding: delays, removal of features and subpar end product. So I understood projects don’t always go as planned, during the campaign or afterwards.
However, never did I imagine I would witness something so bizarre and infuriating as the Kickstarter project Areal by West Games. Lies, deception, misleading-statements and bizarre reactions by the developers towards backers asking critical questions left a really bitter taste in my mouth. The people behind that project were making a mockery of the crowd-funding platform that helped launch the likes of Wasteland 2 and Might No. 9.
I and a small group of backers decided that West Games couldn’t get away with this. We emailed Kickstarter administration during the first week of the project, but all we received back was the generic “Thank you, we are looking into it” response. As the final week of the project approached we decided enough is enough and emailed any and every news site that covered video games and technology. The media slowly started to pick up the story and in a few days the Areal fiasco become the top search result on Google for the keyword “Kickstarter”. It appeared the people working at Kickstarter noticed the bad press and Areal was suspended shortly before the 48 hour deadline.
Cliqist : What were some of the specific concerns about Areal? How did the developers handle it poorly; what could they have done differently?
Ahmad Khan : That project did so many things wrong that I think we won’t see anything like that on online crowdfunding platforms any time soon. I can literally write a book about the 28 days of lies, deception and outright bizarre activities that happened during that project. But for the sake of this interview I will highlight the most relevant information. The developers claimed they are developing their own new game engine to be used in the game, yet they never once provided any direct or indirect proof of this claim. When they actually decided to show in-game footage of their so called new engine it was in reality the Unity game engine. They claimed they will port this game on all next generation consoles and translate the game in multiple languages for a mere fifty thousand dollars. Worst they were using footage and concept art from S.T.A.L.K.E.R franchise as part of their promotional material. I won’t even go into the bully tactics, the spam attacks, breach of privacy, the Russian President Putin’s letter, or the creators claims that backers asking critical questions were trolls paid by Russian government to discredit their Ukrainian based game studio. Suffice to say that project was a clear cut scam.
Cliqist : How do you decide which campaigns are worthy of your additional attention?
Ahmad Khan : I do not actively go looking for suspicious projects, as a videogamer my focus has always been videogame and videogame technology projects. Every weekend I browse Kickstarter and Indiegogo for new gaming projects. However I always take some time and double check any project that make haughty claims of “spiritual successor”, “remake”, “inspired by”, “redefining” or “next-gen” when describing their games. Thankfully most of the time such projects are legitimate, however the chance of foul play is also high in such projects, as demonstrated most recently by West Game’s Areal.
Cliqist : Do you think you’ve ever been wrong? Sometimes one can confuse being incompetent with being a scammer.
Ahmad Khan : Fortunately most gaming projects on Kickstarter are run by honest and passionate people who deserve to be funded, and based on my observations the amount of actual scammers in the video game category of Kickstarter is quiet low. However, there is a fine line between deception and incompetence. Even the most poorly run project can promptly answer backer’s questions with honesty and forthrightness. Interestingly enough that is the exact reason why West Games and Kilobite both ousted themselves as scams, they provided false information about their projects, delayed and ignored answering backers questions and made misleading claims about their games.
Cliqist : What drew you to the Knuckle Club campaign?
Ahmad Khan : Being a childhood fan of brawler games like double dragon and Final Fight I was very excited and nostalgic about the knuckle club project. The intro video was very slick and the music was pretty catchy. And the shadow effects and backgrounds were some of the best I have seen in retro-remake games.
Cliqist : What about the campaign said scam to you though?
Ahmad Khan :In addition to all the suspicious things I wrote for one of the question below, two things that struck me as suspicious about Knuckle Club were (a) why did Maksym not mention Confederate Express on this page and (b) the website for Kilobite had no biographical information about people working there.
Cliqist : Obviously the Confederate Express campaign has been pulled into the Knuckle Club fiasco. Up until now there hasn’t been a whole lot of drama surrounding it, even when Maksym announced changes to its development several months back. Why the sudden alarm? Kickstarters miss their target dates constantly.
Ahmad Khan : After backing Knuckle Club at a mid-level tier I went on Googgle to check out Kilobite Studio, the results showed a link to Confederate Express Kickstarter update page where Maksym had announced Knuckle Club. That was the first red flag: a developer announcing a new Kickstarter project while the old one is still unfinished. I then checked the previous updates of Confederate express and saw that it has been over four months old, that was the second red flag: a developer that does not keep constant communication with his backers. With that in mind I posted my very first comment on the Knuckle club Kickstarter “…Do not (pledge) until they (Maksym) provide credible proof of progress of the previous OVERFUNDED project…”
Cliqist : Does someone abusing the Airbnb and California Legal System automatically mean their Kickstarter is a scam?
Ahmad Khan : No it definitely does not make their Kickstarter a scam, it does however provide circumstantial evidence of the developer’s character. Would you be comfortable donating your hard earned money to a person who exploits laws for personal benefits?
Kickstarter is based on an honor system where goodwill in the form of pledge is provided to developers to help them make products, any verifiable evidence that indicates that the developer is of suspicious character takes that goodwill away.
Cliqist : Have you ever heard a response from Maksym?
Ahmad Khan : His one and only response on knuckle club to backer allegations was “what an embarrassing witch hunt“, that was on July 17, roughly one day after the project was launched. That’s all we heard from him, no Faqs, no project updates, no KS inbox messages. Kickstarter suspended that project around July 31.
Cliqist : What would you say to someone that says you’re just a troll, taking pleasure in destroying dreams?
Ahmad Khan : If someone with lot of free time read all my postings on Knuckle Club and Areal they will notice I rarely use the word scam, scammer ,scamming or any combination of the word to describe the projects while they was active, only after Kickstarter suspended them did I use the dreaded S-word. There is a clear line between asking critical questions and hurling allegations. Only after receiving the project suspension letter in email do I openly start calling the project in question a Scam.
Cliqist : What can backers do you help ensure they’re not backing a scam?
Ahmad Khan : There is not fool proof system, the objective here to reduce your chances of funding a scam and not minimizing the inherent risk that comes with online crowdfunding. As such backers can make a mental check-list when think about pledging a project:
- Are the developers new or experienced? It reasonable to assume that experienced developers like Brain Fargo have a higher incentive for being honest about his project then new developer nobody knows about.
- Do they have a website for their studio or project? Facebook and twitter accounts are easy to make, if the developers are really serious and passionate about their project they will take the time and money to build a slick website with tons of concept material and information. Of course scammers can also make slick website but how many of them post their personal information on it? If it doesn’t show pictures and biographical information of the developers one has to wonder why bother pitching your idea in front of millions of people on Kickstarter, that’s a red flag.
- Do they introduce themselves in the videos and pictures on their KS project? This is a double edge sword, scammers do it to gain the trust of the backers. A typical backer would think that they are showing themselves to the world, they wouldn’t dare do anything crooked. However that tactic also backfired for both West Games and Kilobite, they showed their faces and people online and offline recognized them and started to dig dirt on them. So if a developer avoids revealing themselves in pictures and videos, that’s a red flag.
- Regular updates: Most Kickstarter projects are 30 days long, are the developers releasing concept art, mockups, in game videos and music samples for their project? This serves two objectives, one it shows the developers are using their own resources in creating material for their project and secondly if they are plagiarizing material then it gives opportunity for backers to recognize the offending material and alert everyone about them.
- Check the comment sections: The best indication if the project is suspicions can be found on the comment section. Check how many times the developers have responded to backer comments, check if there are spam messages on there trying to push down backer comments, check if people are writing long paragraphs that are not full of praise for the project.
Cliqist : Is Kickstarter doing everything it can to protect backers?
Ahmad Khan : Protecting backers? No. Protecting themselves, oh yes. There is a reason there are no official forums where backers can alert Kickstarter about suspicious project. But to play devil’s advocate, Kickstarter has always been very straightforward about the risks of crowdfunding, and at the end of the day it is basically about random strangers sending money to people who are pitching their ideas on an online platform.
We do not know the exact amount of scams that went unnoticed on Kickstarter since its creation in 2009. However in most high profile cases it was the backers and online communities that alerted Kickstarter and media about the scams. Kickstarters response in my observation has mostly been reactive, if there are enough complaints and media buzz about a suspicious project then they will pay attention, otherwise they will let it fall through the cracks and continue on.
Cliqist : With the number of high profile scams and failures there’s a lot of people that say Kickstarter is nothing but a breeding ground for scammers, suckers, and over promises. What are your thoughts on that?
Ahmad Khan :I want to assure your readers that most video gaming projects are legitimate and are run by very passionate and honest individuals, they deserve your support. Furthermore, never lose hope in the wisdom of the crowd (at least on an online crowd-funding platform), someone will always find something odd about a project and raise important questions about it. Your jobs as a backer is to take some time and check out the project before giving away your hard earned cash to it. Just follow the check list and look for the red-flags. As for suckers and over promises, well that’s part of the human condition, there will always be people naive enough to give money to snake oil merchants, online and offline.
Cliqist :Any final words for our readers?
Ahmad Khan :When in doubt skip the project, or pledge for the lowest tier where you can get a playable online copy of the game.
Given the nature of Kickstarter, and crowdfunding in general, there’s little question that we’ll be hearing from Ahmad in the future. Hopefully under less controversial circumstances though. Are Ahmad’s motivations pure, or does he just enjoy trolling projects? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section!
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