"I'm the new poster boy for Kickstarter cautionary tales," says Rick Dakan, unabashedly jumping right into the reason for our interview. Dakan is the head of Sarasota, Florida's Mob Rules Games, which was, until recently, developing Haunts, a competitive haunted house game funded via Kickstarter. Last week, Dakan announced on the Haunts Kickstarter page that the project has halted production and that Mob Rules' two hired programmers have left.
All of this despite the fact that Mob Rules raised $28,000 on Kickstarter, $3,000 more than studio's goal. So what happened?
"The short answer is that both the programmers we had working on it left," says Dakan. One of the programmers, Jonathan Wills, had always intended to leave the project "after a year or so," Dakan wrote in last week's Kickstarter update, and with Haunts running well behind schedule, and no funding left to pay the team, both programmers had little choice but to move on. Both programmers went into the project with a "venturesome spirit," says Dakan, and were making full-time salaries, though the pay may not have been commensurate with their abilities. "I don't think Jonathan has ever made that little or will he ever again make that little in his adult life."
While there were certainly financial problems, Dakan says the project didn't run into any interpersonal issues. "There's stress on any kind of project and little stuff like that," he says. "You know, fundamentally it is that it ran just way over schedule." Dakan believes the original schedule was realistic, and the team was hitting all of its deadlines through January of 2012, but delays began to accumulate. "When you have, really, one programmer – because [Haunts' second programmer] Josh didn't come in until August – any single delay really becomes a cascading delay." As the group started implementing systems that were unfamiliar, it started "eating into" the schedule. Dakan says he had originally set aside four and a half months solely for debugging. "We just ate up all of that time, just making stuff work."
Scheduling problems aren't uncommon in development, he says, but the financial situation made things more difficult. "It was kind of the bet we were taking. It was like 'okay, can we do a full game for about the salary of one low level developer at a big game company?'" In short, hiring programmers for relatively low wages and hoping the schedule would bear out was a risk.
In last week's Kickstarter update, Dakan specifically cites the difficulty of implementing online play as a factor in the development shutdown. While it wasn't the only part of the project to go over schedule, it was the last major system to be worked on. "In retrospect, it's no particular surprise that online would prove to be the most finicky aspect of making a video game," he says. "But what was really unexpected was the way that it cascaded out to affecting other systems of the game. The scripting for levels had to be redone to accommodate the way we ended up doing online play." In the end, implementing online play was "the single line item that ran the most over time."
Of course, the crux of this entire story, and the reason it's gotten this much attention, is that Haunts was a fully funded Kickstarter project, something that everyday people sunk their money into, expecting to see a final product. With video game Kickstarter projects coming out of the woodwork every single day, we've seen very few of them make the transition from funded project to finished product. Dakan is aware of the money and faith that backers had in Haunts, and has offered refunds to anyone who wants one, even though he has no obligation to do so. "I really do honestly think it's the right thing to do." Not many people, however, are taking him up on the offer. In fact, at the time of our interview, only two had asked for refunds. "I've had to refund $30 so far," he says, though he notes that some of the higher level backers are understandably wary of the situation.
"This software thing just takes, no matter what, longer than you think it's going to take."
Dakan was "fully expecting to have to fork back over five, ten, fifteen thousand dollars," when the announcement was made on Kickstarter. The funding has all been spent, he says, apart from money currently earmarked for the IRS (Mob Rules was paying its programmers full-time salaries, remember). Kickstarter wasn't the only source of financing for Haunts, however, as over $42,000 was received from the Lewis Charitable Foundation last year. Those funds financed the project through July of this year, which is when Mob Rules began the Kickstarter to fund the final leg of development.
With nothing left to pay potential programmers, Dakan is determined to get Haunts completed one way or another and has been "really surprised and heartened" by the response he's received since development officially halted. "Almost ten programmers emailed me today, offering some of their free time to work on this." That number has increased to thirty since our interview was recorded, and Mob Rules has now decided to finish Haunts as a coordinated open source project.
The future of Haunts seems brighter than it did a few days ago, but it doesn't change the fact that the original plan outlined on Kickstarter never really came to pass, and those who backed the project may never see it come to light. I ask Dakan what advice he would give other developers on Kickstarter, what advice he would give himself if he could do it all again. One lesson he learned was that of simple staffing. Wills is a talented programmer, but he was "effectively a work-for-hire person," as opposed to a studio founder. "I think you need that," says Dakan, explaining that startup studios need a core founding group to see a project through.
Another lesson, he says, is that "what seems like a lot of money is never a lot of money." Even with Mob Rules paying its programmers half of what they were worth, he says, the Kickstarter funding was gone in three and a half months. "You just need to be really realistic about that stuff, about how much you need, how much work it's going to take." The schedule is key. "This software thing just takes, no matter what, longer than you think it's going to take."
"The other thing, that I've really just learned today, is ... don't be afraid to share bad news with your supporters," says Dakan. "It was easy for me to forget that the backers – the 1200 backers – are already on my side, they've already signed up for team Haunts." Being open and forthright is important, and Dakan attributes the supportive reaction he has receivd to Mob Rules' openness throughout development. "I put out exactly where the money went, and how we're spending it," he says. "Almost everyone who's emailed me has said, 'hey, we knew that this was not pre-ordering a product, this was taking a risk on a project,' and I guess that people should be forthright about that."