Code Hero: The dangers of a Kickstarter success story

Code Hero
"It's totally not abandoned," says Alex Peake, developer of Kickstarter project Code Hero, his face filling the screen of a Google Hangout window. Late on the night of December 12, Peake responds to comments on the Code Hero Kickstarter page, inviting backers and journalists to join him in a video chat if they have any questions, and apologizing for a lack of updates on the project.

In the chat, he answers our questions directly. "Code Hero is my reason for living. It's not like –"

One of Peake's friends jumps in. "I can second that," he says. "I can second that."

Peake continues, "No matter what, I will make Code Hero because that's why I live. That's my purpose in life."

Peake finds himself defending his commitment to Code Hero following a string of events that began when he established the Kickstarter late last year – events that, for his backers, represent some of the greatest concerns of Kickstarter funding.

On December 26, 2011, Dustin Deckard was in the middle of a Kickstarter-funding spree. His passion was indie games, and one of the pages that caught his eye was Code Hero, a Unity project aimed at teaching people – especially kids – how to program games using a "Code Ray," from Peake and his studio, Primer Labs. Code Hero had a goal of $100,000. Deckard pledged $313, wanting to cash in on the reward of "a week of daily one-on-one live mentorship sessions with the developers of Code Hero," with an estimated delivery time of February 2012, when the Kickstarter ended.

As the Kickstarter gained momentum, Deckard's confidence in Code Hero wavered – updates promised extravagant additions, such as a Code Hero webseries, a victory party in San Francisco and an MMO version of the game if the project raised $200,000. When funding closed, Code Hero had raised $170,954 on Kickstarter and $30,000 on its own website, making that MMO a reality, as Peake's celebratory update read. It also said the money would help Peake "start" the game, though Deckard was under the impression that it was already in development, as there was a "beta" version.

Peake updated the Kickstarter in March, then was silent until July, when he announced a release date for Code Hero of August 31, during PAX Prime. Peake's final update on the Code Hero Kickstarter was on September 3, apologizing for missing the release date and promising to ship an alpha version of Code Hero to backers "on Friday."

"No matter what, I will make Code Hero because that's why I live. That's my purpose in life."Alex Peake, Primer Labs

Three months later, Deckard is scrambling to collect contact information from dozens of Code Hero backers who feel they've been duped, just in case they need to take any legal action to secure their refunds, and Peake is pouring out his soul to strangers in a Google Hangout.

Peake's spoken words echo the sentiment of his statement in the Code Hero Kickstarter comments, where he promises the game is still in development and that he will launch a second alpha on December 13. Not every backer is angry, and some give Peake the benefit of the doubt. Those that are upset, however, point out that Peake's reputation precedes him: One of his previous ventures, a clothing line for "empowered" women called Tactical Corsets, has a Facebook page filled with comments similar to those popping up on the Code Hero Kickstarter, claiming it's a scam and complaining that orders never materialized.

"Tactical Corsets was something that I originally created to try to create a fundraiser to help pay for Code Hero, and the difficulty in making corsets is they're extremely hard to manufacture," Peake says. He sewed corset prototypes himself, and then hired professional seamstresses to help. Still, "the difficulty in actually turning that into a profitable business, as compared to software, where you just copy the software as many times as people need it, is really substantial," Peake says. "So what I did is I issued refunds to all the people who had paid for them, and I shut down to focus on Code Hero."

Code Hero
Code Hero has 7,459 backers, 18 of whom pledged more than $1,000 each, and two of whom donated $10,000 or more. The project raised $200,000 in total, and Peake says people still sporadically donate via the Code Hero website. So, since the game isn't completed by now, where'd the money go?

"We spent the money on programming the game and basically doing nothing but that for the last year," Peake says, noting that many of the programmers live with him. "So even though I'm not able to pay them right now to work on it full-time like we were before, we're still all roommates and it's just a matter of getting more funding so they can work on it full-time again."

Peake says he has a team of volunteers – including himself, it seems – who work on Code Hero. Peake's roles in development span CEO, lead developer, programmer, artist, musician, designer, "everything," he says.

"Programmers are not cheap. We were paying $4,000 - $5,000 a month for really great programmers. And many people have been working on the project as volunteers. Myself, I don't really use my money as a salary; I use my money to pay my programmers out of my own salary."

Code Hero
The main issue that Peake claims responsibility for is a lack of communication with Kickstarter backers. He posts updates on the Code Hero site, he says, but not on the Kickstarter, mainly because he's a "perfectionist" and doesn't want to publicly present anything buggy. His attention was so diverted over the past months that he didn't notice the Kickstarter comments reach critical levels.

"It's hard to think of an answer that doesn't sound really stupid in retrospect, because I feel really stupid for not following the comments more closely," Peake says. "I was focusing on development and trying to finish the game so that I could address all people's questions as a whole, instead of just individually, and what I should have been doing is putting out, at least, small updates."

Kickstarter agrees with this assessment.

"There have been more than 33,000 successfully funded projects on Kickstarter and the overwhelming majority have great track records," says Kickstarter communications team member Justin Kazmark. "Delays, of course, aren't uncommon when bringing new and ambitious ideas to life. If a backer community is feeling frustrated about delay, talking with the creator about what to do about it is a good next step. Communication is vital from creators. It makes sure everyone knows what's going on, and it gives backers a window into the creative process. Getting a behind-the-scenes look at the story is what Kickstarter is all about."

Code Hero
Kickstarter project creators are legally obligated to fulfill the promises of their projects, including distribution of rewards. Peake's team didn't spend any money printing shirts in the beginning because everyone thought the game would be done much sooner. He's now focused on getting the game out, rather than the rewards. As for the project itself, Kickstarter can't guarantee anything will be completed and doesn't investigate a creator's ability to deliver.

Legally, that puts backers in an awkward position.

"The contract between the backer and the project owner is the Kickstarter terms, and those are clear that things could fail," says Mark Methenitis, attorney and Law of the Game scribe. "Now, at a state law level, some jurisdictions might provide a remedy under a deceptive trade practices statute or something else (probably against the project owner, not Kickstarter itself). And even if you could sue the project creator, he has to have assets for you to recover from, and he may very well not."

Peake and Deckard both hope it won't come to a legal standoff. Peake promises to provide updates on the Kickstarter on the first of the month, every month, and he will refund those who really want one. On Thursday, December 13, Peake plans to launch alpha 2, the next version of Code Hero, directly on the Kickstarter page. After that, alpha 3 is the next milestone, and it will be "as close to a complete, working, learning experience as we can get, so that teachers with a class full of kids will be able to teach their kids using it."

Deckard, for his part, thinks Peake is "charming in person," though he doesn't want to see anyone conned out of any money, especially teachers, on Kickstarter or elsewhere.

At least everyone can agree on one thing, which Peake notes in his December 12 Kickstarter apology: "Game development is hard."

This article was originally published on Joystiq.