ere at Cliqist we make it a habit to camp out on Kickstarter all day, hitting refresh in order to see what new campaigns pop up. Sometimes they’re fantastic, other times they’re a little sad. Then there are campaigns that are just confusing; such is the case with the Last Year Kickstarter by James Matthew Wearing. When the Last Year Kickstarter launched on November 4th it seemed like yet another campaign destined for failure. Sure, there was some fantastic artwork to go along with the intriguing game concept, but there was a complete lack of game footage or screenshots. On top of that, the developer information raised some alarm bells; which I’ll get into later. After a brief email exchange with another Cliqist writer it was decided that we wouldn’t feature the game; it was just too risky. A number of other sites did though, including a number of big name sites far larger than Cliqist. The extent of our coverage was in our weekly Kickstarter recap, where the entry for Last Year states “An interesting concept of a game that several sites have been reporting on breathlessly, unfortunately there’s no game.” I checked back in with the campaign about a week after it launched and it looked dead in the water, having only raised about $4,500cad of its $50,000cad goal. Unfortunately, even when a campaign looks pretty, sounds cool, and gets some solid coverage, it still doesn’t happen.
But it did happen, and that’s the worrying part.
A few days ago I was going through a list of campaigns ending soon and noticed that not only had the Last Year Kickstarter met its funding goal, it smashed it. How was it that a holiday season campaign with no developer and no game to show had raised over $80,000cad? After some digging I started getting a sinking feeling: is the Kickstarter for Last Year a scam? Is it something worse? Unfortunately, the answer isn’t as simple as it was with Areal, Dark Skyes, and other Kickstarter disasters. Let’s take a look at the evidence and see where it takes us.
[dropcap]A[/dropcap]t first glance the Last Year Kickstarter doesn’t look suspicious, in fact its pretty average. Sure, the backer rewards aren’t anything to write home about; you may not want six copies of any game, but at least you’re not being promised something that seems entirely unrealistic. The artwork looks fantastic, the game sounds great, and the developer touts an impressive body of work. The bizarre backer levels are certainly a curiosity (having all the tiers so close and not including a couple high level ones isn’t the way to do it folks), but they point to someone in need of campaign help, not a scammer.
Unfortunately, a closer look reveals a number very real issues. The great looking artwork was all that anyone had to go on for a few weeks. There isn’t a screenshot to be seen, except maybe for this one that makes a clumsy attempt at a UI overlay.
Is that worth $50k?
How about some gameplay footage? Check it out.
Ok, so calling it “game footage” is stretching things pretty far. And in case you’re curious, yes, that’s all of the game that’s been shown, and even that wasn’t released until November 25th.
Someone asking for tens of thousands of dollars on Kickstarter with nothing to show isn’t new, it happens every day in fact. Usually those campaigns don’t go very far though; at least they haven’t since the Kickstarter golden age of 2 years ago. The thing that’s unique about the Last Year Kickstarter is that nothing has been shown, and yet backers and game media are fawning over it and not asking questions. But hey, it’s not uncommon for developers to make a killing on Kickstarter based on their name alone. So who is the developer of Last Year?
[dropcap]J[/dropcap]ames Matthew Wearing is an industry veteran with a number of triple A titles under his belt. He’s partially responsible for bringing such gems as Assassin’s Creed 2, Crysis, Far Cry 3, Assassin’s Creed 3 (hey, I love it!), and many more to market.
What the main page of the campaign fails to mention is that James worked on those titles as an audio guy. What does being an audio engineer have to do with making your own game? James addressed that in an update on November 9th, stating in part:
“…being a sound designer doesn’t auto-make you an animator or a genius programmer but you do learn how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together. At least thats how I learned.”
Sounds great! This would be the point where we see some examples of James’ design or coding work; but unfortunately there’s nothing; just those pretty pieces of concept art and some “gameplay footage.” Running a Kickstarter to pay someone to develop the game for you isn’t unheard of, but it’s not a great idea. It’s even worse for backers when there’s no word on who the developers are. James has been asked multiple times for details on who will be developing the game, but it’s been radio silence. What happens when these mystery developers need more money due to delays? What’s the backup plan? It’s at this point that a detailed financial plan would come in handy. Let’s take a look at that, shall we?
[dropcap]I[/dropcap]’m not sure how to put this politely. There is no detailed financial plan for Last Year. None. A backer named Mukilan Suresh asked for one though, but look at how that turned out.
Notice how James is very involved in the comments section, and in the midst of answering several other backer questions flies right past the one of real substance. Donating money to a project without having a rough idea how that money will be spent is insane, especially when the person collecting the money hasn’t made a game of their own, and hasn’t shown a proof of concept. Who would give money to that sort of project?
[dropcap]A[/dropcap]s of this writing there are 3,570 backers of the Last Year Kickstarter campaign, contributing a total of $99,713cad. Those are some pretty good numbers, especially when you consider what a slow start the campaign had.
So who are these backers? Between November 4th and December 1st a total of 288 people backed the Last Year Kickstarter. Then, very suddenly, on December 2nd 523 new backers jumped on board. This can’t be chalked up to the usual rush we see in the closing days of many campaigns, this one still had 17 days left.
Another curious element of this sudden influx is how unengaged those new backers were. The comments per day had a slight increase as a result of hundreds of new people jumping on board, but not what you would expect.
When Kickstarter launched their redesign a couple weeks ago they made it more difficult to see who is backing a project. Thankfully you can still get a list by adding /backers to the end of a campaign’s URL. What’s the backer list for Last Year look like? Scroll down to a couple weeks ago (based on backer per day count) and you’ll see something along these lines.
A sea of backers with no profile pictures, no location, and no other backed projects.
I tossed the backer list into an excel file and did a random sampling of 100. I found that 63 had backed no other projects, and 24 had backed one other project. Of the total 3570 backers, 1359 haven’t backed any other projects, and 853 had backed just one other project. Of the 100 I did an audit on, 92 joined Kickstarter in December of 2014. Is it possible that Last Year has drawn tons of new people to Kickstarter? Sure, but it’s difficult to see how that happened. While the game has received a fair amount of press, nearly all of that happened in the first week of the campaigns launch, and then once it got funded. There was very little press activity in the days leading up to the backer boost. James made a post to Dorkly on December 2nd that proved to be moderately popular with 142 comments, but it’s unlikely that it drew hundreds of people to give thousands of dollars to the campaign.
Are there a large number of straw (i.e. fake) backers in the Last Year Kickstarter? My feeling is that yes, yes there are. I could certainly be wrong, it’s possible the Last Year Kickstarter is the world’s first example of a campaign hitting its stride 4 weeks into a 6 week campaign as a result of almost no press.
[dropcap]L[/dropcap]eaving the backer questions aside, it looks like James is going to get his money. There’s only a day left in the campaign at this point, and it’s unlikely tons of people are going to pull out. What sort of game awaits them? An “asymmetrical multiplayer” game in which a group of players must work together to fight off a larger, player controlled, opponent. Sounds great!
Looking into James’ work history we find a game he’s billed as the Project Lead on called Outrise that’s described as an “asymmetrical multiplayer” game in which a group of players must work together to fight off a larger, player controlled, opponent. I didn’t even copy/paste that last sentence, the games are that similar in concept. To be fair, while Outrise and Last Year have similar high level descriptions, they’re certainly different games. One is a sci-fi game, and the other is horror. One received a ton of press last January from several large gaming sites, and the other is asking for donations on Kickstarter. One has a Facebook page and a Twitter account that haven’t been updated since January 2014, and the other is asking for donations on Kickstarter. One appears to be dead in the water, and other is asking for donations on Kickstarter.
So what’s the point? Plenty of developers start projects, only to eventually cancel them for various reasons. While it would be nice if they let their fans know when that happened, they’re certainly under no obligation to do so. Last Year is different in that it’s not just a dream project, it’s a dream project that’s being funded with other peoples’ money. With Outrise James has shown that he’s willing abandon a project without telling anyone. Will he do the same with Last Year?
So what does James have to say about all of this? I sent him the following email a couple times over the past few days, and even posted the same questions to the Kickstarter:
Unfortunately he has yet to respond, and I doubt he will.
That still leaves us with the big question. Is the Last Year Kickstarter a scam? Believe it or not, I don’t think it is. However, I do believe it’s something worse than a scam. In Last Year we have a campaign that backers and media are buying into without doing any sort of due diligence. People love blasting crowdfunding as one failure after another, and while that may be unfair there’s a certain level of truth to it. Over the past few years we’ve seen a number of scams, but we’ve seen far more examples of developers getting in over their head both financially and development wise. My fear is that instead of asking questions like “What did people expect, there was no game to show!” or “They gave $100k to someone that wasn’t even the actual developer?” ahead of time, they’ll be asking them a year from now when Last Year is MIA. There are too many cautionary tales on Kickstarter, and unfortunately Last Year is destined to be yet another.