Defunded: How Kickstarter trolls use hope as a weapon

As the clock ticked toward midnight on May 13, David Jimenez and Alejandro Santiago were deep into late-night party mode. The founders of 2Awesome Studio were trying to raise money for their newest game, Dimension Drive. Despite their all-night efforts, they were coming up over €7,500 short of their Kickstarter funding goal with four hours left on the clock. They were determined to have a good time, chatting with fans and livestreaming themselves lounging on a couch and playing their game. The stream chat suddenly became restless and Jimenez put down his controller, looking off-camera. His mouth dropped open. “What?” he asked, sitting up. Seconds later, he’s yelling, his palms on his forehead. “WHAT?!” A mystery donor gave them €7,000, bringing them inches from success.

Three hours after the screaming and spontaneous happy dance, Kickstarter integrity checkers would discover that the massive pledge was fraudulent, a prank made with a stolen credit card. The amount and the timing of the pledge made Dimension Drive go from funded to unfunded with 31 minutes remaining in 2Awesome’s month-long campaign.

“Honestly speaking, it has been an exhausting month for us. We have been working really hard to make our campaign a success, and right now we are speechless, demoralized,” Jimenez told PC Gamer from the Netherlands that night. “We really do not know what exactly happened.”

Trusted platform

Plenty of Kickstarter-funded games have been big successes—Elite: Dangerous and Divinity: Original Sin, for instance—but there have also been infamous failures, such as Yogventures, which raised its money and failed to deliver. That risk and uncertainty is perhaps part of the platform’s allure, but also its biggest weakness. More than money, Kickstarter traffics in high-grade, uncut hope.

Sometimes, though, the let-down runs from backer to creator instead of the other way around. Backers can cancel their support during a campaign, or pledges from invalid credit cards bounce immediately after funding ends. “This one is particularly cruel, and not something that's supposed to happen,” Rami Ismail, part of indie studio Vlambeer, told PC Gamer hours after the Dimension Drive Kickstarter failed. “Usually, the campaign finishes and people just suddenly hear they're getting less than they should, but at least that's ‘less’ and not ‘nothing,’ and they can figure out whether to cancel and refund the other pledges at that point. It's the timing that makes this one absurd.”

Kickstarter tries to protect creators and backers with a few rules. Backers can’t cancel a pledge in the last 24 hours of a campaign, a rule designed to guard creators from uncertainty in the final hours of the push. Kickstarter itself also checks incoming pledges to make sure they’re on the up-and-up, usually cancelling obvious frauds within a few hours. Because it was made only four hours away from Dimension Drive’s deadline, this fraudulent €7,000 pledge had just enough lead time to get caught by the integrity team and removed when it would sting the most.

Kickstarter responded publicly to Dimension Drive’s public pranking with a short statement: “We work hard to keep Kickstarter a safe and trusted platform. Our Integrity Team actively monitors the system with a range of tools, and acts on reports from our community. We don’t tolerate abuse of our system, and when we identify users who are acting in bad faith, we don’t hesitate to take action.“

According to Jimenez, Kickstarter called the team in the Netherlands and expressed their unhappiness with the way the last hours of the campaign unfolded. Speaking anonymously, a Kickstarter representative told PC Gamer that they’re looking into ways to keep this kind of thing from happening again. This source wasn’t able to go into specifics or describe what a new policy might look like.

A small price

“People make a big deal out of fraud on Kickstarter but the fact is, these are extreme edge cases,” Max Temkin told PC Gamer. The creator of successful Kickstarter projects Cards Against Humanity and Werewolf, Temkin is a proponent of crowdfunding in general. “The vast majority of successfully funded Kickstarter projects are a great interaction for backers and project creators. Of course there is always the risk of something really sad and surprising like this happening, but that's just part of the risk of making a new thing with a big group of people. That's a risk backers and creators have to be OK with if they use Kickstarter, but it's a small price to pay for the other ways in which Kickstarter reduces risk.”

It’s impossible for anyone outside of Kickstarter’s integrity team to know how often this kind of fraudulent trolling happens, but it usually isn’t as devastating as what happened to Dimension Drive. Elyot Grant, the co-founder of Ontario-based Lunarch Studios, told PC Gamer that the same thing happened during the Kickstarter for its game, Prismata.

“About three days before our kickstarter ended, we had an $8,000 pledge. It was the maximum amount [allowed by Kickstarter in Canada]. We kind of raised our eyebrows about it. ‘Why would anyone want to give us 8,000?’” The team had received some large donations, but they had come from industry friends or long-time fans of the game. “This came out of the blue. Then it was gone four hours later.” Grant isn’t sure if this pledge was removed by Kickstarter as fraudulent or cancelled by the backer as a joke, but because it occurred before the final twenty-four-hour window, it could have been either.

“Kickstarter pledges are stressful,” Grant says, referring to last-minute gambit’s like 2Awesome’s all-night livestream party. “[Y]ou feel like you can do anything, everything, and it’s never enough.” On balance, though, Grant agrees with Temkin that Kickstarter is worth it—and for more than just money. “What Kickstarter provides isn’t just the money, but the community. Kickstarter made our server five times as busy and to this day it’s still way busier than before Kickstarter. And the feedback we get from this playerbase that arose as a result of Kickstarter is of tremendous value to us.”

Immediately after their fundraising drive failed, Dimension Drive reached out to Kickstarter and asked for an extension, a few more hours on the clock to redo the end of their fundraiser without troll influence. Kickstarter, unfortunately, does not have a way to add hours to an expired campaign. The only option is to relaunch the campaign and do the last month of work over again, something that the wrung-out team didn’t want to think about at the time.

“Starting from scratch is something that we [won’t] consider now. We are too exhausted,” Jimenez told PC Gamer that night. After a couple of days of worldwide sympathy, though, 2Awesome was feeling decidedly more optimistic. “After all the support we've had from all over the world. People calling us, sending us e-mails, [tweets]... We have decided to fight again one more time and re-launch after the weekend,” Jimenez said. “On Monday, we will re-launch our campaign and work one more time to try to make it.”

After a weekend of gathering momentum and building up their spirits, 2Awesome relaunched a new Dimension Drive Kickstarter. “During our last kickstarter we were trolled,” the page reads. “We were played, we were taken for a fool, and we were gutted. But you guys helped us back up and that just goes to show that through the power of community we can do anything.”