Dabe Alan

Bribery, spam, and harassment: the dark side of Kickstarter promotion

Bribery, spam, and harassment: the dark side of Kickstarter promotion

The press tends to focus on the Kickstarter campaigns that end with millions of dollars given to proven developers to make their respective dream games, but the majority of projects either barely scrape by or fail to make their funding goals. The industry favors success, and the bigger the success the more hype may begin to outshine the reality, but what about the projects that you rarely hear about? What happens to them?

Without a big name attached or a known IP coming back from the dead, it can be hard to get the attention of the press, which in turn can make it hard to spread the word to the people you want to fund your game. Many of the developers working on Kickstarter projects don’t have a background in marketing or PR, and this ignorance of what it takes to spread the word of their game or how to do so appropriately can lead to some shady offers to the press, spam campaigns, and in at least one case overzealous backers of a project have harassed individuals who refused to give a game publicity.

Crowd funding strategies are still being developed, and Kickstarter has barely been around long enough for there to be accepted best practices, so let’s dig into what happens when promoting your project goes terribly wrong.

Bribes for coverage

While people often accuse the games press of accepting bribes for good scores or coverage, the reality is the story of a straight bribe being offered would be worth more to the writer than the money itself. That’s why I was shocked when I, and other writers, received an email that offered us Kickstarter rewards in return for coverage of the Epic Skater campaign.

“We would like to offer you (2) $125 Kickstarter reward tiers (details below) in exchange for promotion on your website in the form of a Press Release, interview or article (see attached). Your reward will be delivered on the target release date of December 2012,” the email stated. “Our developers have a long history of successful games including Tony Hawk, Guitar Hero and many more. Our team members are available to do interviews for your article covering Epic Skater.”

I e-mailed Kurt Gutierrez, one of the game’s developers and the source of the email, to ask about whether he felt that offer was ethical. “Of course I do or else I wouldn’t have offered it. I look at it like paying for advertising. The rewards are worth our time, and in trade you take your time to write an article about us,” he said. “A different approach would have been to send you a story about ourselves and have you write that. Obviously after hearing your response that might have been the better option, but I chose to go with this one. Thanks for the reply.”

I’m often frustrated when covering games, and sometimes confused about why companies keep us from covering certain angles, but this was one of the rare times I became angry. Does he really think that what we do is advertising? “How is it not a form of advertising? People see it, read a good article, see a fun game and talk about it with their friends. How is that not advertising. This is your area of expertise I’m just a game designer, so maybe you know a little bit more about the subject then I do,” he replied. He also apologized for any offense, and said he’d rethink his marketing strategies in the future.

The explicit offer of a reward in return for coverage goes a long way to making your game untouchable. Alex Rubens is a freelance writer for G4, and he also received the invitation to cover the game in exchange for the $250 worth of rewards. “It feels dirty. I felt like I was the wrong, even though I didn’t do anything. It’s a straight bribe, and that’s not acceptable under any circumstances, whether you’re a big publisher or a indie looking to fund your title on Kickstarter,” he told the Penny Arcade Report. So the offer of rewards doesn’t make him want to write about the project? 

“Not at all. If anything, I didn’t want anything to do with it at that point. Every time that I saw coverage of the project, I couldn’t help but think that they got the same email I did. I didn’t want someone to have any doubts about the work that I’m doing.”

Another one of the developers behind the Epic Skater campaign emailed me to calm any ruffled feathers. “We could see how this could come off sketchy with dollar amounts next to them. We’re using the ‘$125’ to identify what you’d get via the reward tier on the Kickstarter page,” he explained. “We thought you might enjoy having some swag to run a giveaway or enjoy for yourselves.  Part of the tier includes access to an early build, and two release copies to give away once the game is out, so you and a friend could check out the game again on release.” He described it as a “press kit with swag.”

It may be that no one involved with the project saw how badly this would look, or the negative impact it would have on the press’ perception of their Kickstarter, but it proves both how important marketing can be, and how you need to understand what is and isn’t appropriate to offer when talking to the press. Even if it was unintentional, their opening email all but made their campaign untouchable.

Spamming sites for coverage

The flood of emails editors receive that promote specific Kickstarter campaigns can make you scratch your head. Most of these emails use the same wording, describe the same talking points, and are sometimes just word-for-word copies of each other, but sent from different accounts. This has happened with more than one Kickstarter campaign, and I was starting to wonder if there was an organized spam campaign to try to drum up support for these campaigns. It turns out, some Kickstarters simply ask fans to email publications about coverage. The Kickstarter campaign for The Other Brothers, for instance, directly called for those who backed the project to flood publications with requests for coverage.

“You guys and girls are the true believers, the early adopters, the real fans and at last check there are over 800 of you! Word of mouth is a fantastic thing but usually it’s very diffuse sometimes, what we need to do is focus all of our efforts on a specific target - how can anyone ignore 800 passionate people!?” This call to action is from an email sent to backers of the project, and shared with the Penny Arcade Report. “So what we need to do is this: if every single one of you could take a couple of minutes to follow these steps, we can make the goal! Submit a tip to Kotaku, let them know how much you want The Other Brothers - link them to the campaign, to the update posts, to the website, to everything. Do the same thing with: tips@destructoid.com and tips@toucharcade.com.”

The email went on to warn backers not to “spam” these sites, but to make the emails personal and honest. “THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IS THAT YOU LET THEM KNOW HOW URGENT IT IS, WE HAVE 5 DAYS! Make your emails honest and personal we aren’t spamming - we’re shouting from the rooftops!”

The Penny Arcade Report was lucky enough to be left off this list, but I’ve been on the receiving end of similar campaigns, and it’s no fun to spend your morning clearing out email after email saying the same thing. There is nothing wrong with sending in a tip to a website to point out a Kickstarter you think looks good, but when you instruct 800 people to do the same thing, it’s spam. There’s no other word for it. It’s also incredibly off-putting, and is unlikely to lead to coverage, positive or negative.

It’s hard to prove this is happening with a campaign without backing it yourself and waiting for an email, so for now we have this one confirmed case and others that may be using the same strategy. My advice is simple: Stop it. You are pissing off the people you’re trying to interest in your game or product.

Don’t speak out against a campaign, or we’ll get you

Eli Hodapp is the editor in chief of Touch Arcade, and he expressed skepticism of the viability of the Republique Kickstarter. This turned into a Twitter conversation with some heated arguments on both sides, and some rather snide comments from everyone involved, which led to a thread being opened on the NeoGAF gaming forum. Soon, things began to get ugly.

The thread continued for pages and, according to Hodapp, it began to get personal. “They got my phone number, started calling me, calling my parents’, all sorts of crazy shit. It was seriously insane,” Hodapp told the Penny Arcade Report. They found an image from a years-old Something Awful thread where Hodapp claimed to have bought a number of Nintendo Wii’s to sell on eBay for profit, and used that as evidence that Hodapp was immoral. In the Something Awful thread, Hodapp also posted that he had told a clerk the system were for a children’s charity.

“Something Awful is a comedy forum filled with trolls trolling other trolls, a friend let me borrow a display box from EB Games when Wiis were impossible to get and I photoshopped like a dozen photos together of me moving the box around,” Hodapp said when I asked about the thread. “And then made up a story about how I was getting Craigslist rich.” It was, he noted, a successful troll. The forum goers simply saw the stunt as proof of Hodapp’s awfulness.

He claimed his personal information was shared on the site, and the harassment began in earnest. He said that his parents would come home to threatening messages on their voice mail. “Just calling to let you know your son is a fucking faggot,” one particularly pleasant message stated. There was an organized attempt to have him fired from TouchArcade.

“This guy better watch himself - he is starting to piss some people off that actually post here & enjoy NeoGaf whom are a part of the development community - myself included,” one poster stated. “That is not a professional way to demonstrate your thoughts on a project and dismiss readers publicly on twitter of the website. Might want to watch out for some people here that know who really control Touch Arcade’s fate and advertising revenue…. “

Others simply stated their intention to call him.

“It was a pretty crazy experience overall, I mean I’m used to internet comments and am fully aware that someone out there basically hates everything we do for whatever weird reason, but I’ve never experienced such direct personal harassment over video games before,” he said. “And it snowballed to the point that the truth in the whole situation in the eyes of the hive mind was just whatever the worst things people could come up with was. I mean it’s the same phenomenon that you see on Reddit when people get all worked up over something insignificant. The anonymity of the internet and the personal investment of Kickstarter combine into this weird soup that takes ‘I don’t agree with this person’ to ‘I hate this guy and will do anything I can to ruin him.’”

The moral of these stories

People are still learning how to run a successful Kickstarter campaign and it seems, at least superficially, that anyone with a good game idea and some industry experience will be able to have their project funded. That’s often not the case, and developers are beginning to try desperate things to earn media attention. Gamers also become invested in the projects they back, especially if they’re fans of the developers’ past work, and this can lead to some very nasty things when others in the media speak out against the project or Kickstarter in general.

“I’ve seen the dozens of emails that other members of the press get that all beg them to cover a title in the same basic wording,” Rubens told the Penny Arcade Report. “That’s gross. When people back something on Kickstarter, they feel a sense of pride, almost that they need to protect it and ensure it’s success. The leaders of these projects take advantage of their backers and use them to get more press coverage.”

Or, in the case of Eli Hodapp and NeoGAF, love and support for a project can turn a normally sane community into a mob.

Offering material goods, or even virtual goods, in exchange for coverage is not okay. Asking hundreds of people to spam the tip lines of gaming blogs and news outlets is not okay. Harassing people who don’t write about certain projects is not okay. These things aren’t forgivable just because you’re a small developer or simply invested in a game; these rules apply whether you’re a part of an indie team or a major publisher.

If you’re thinking about launching a Kickstarter, or are in the process of raising money via crowd-funding, read the stories above. As we’ve said before, your game is the story, not your funding method. Act accordingly.