26 October 2017 | 93 Comments
A few days ago, a creator (Jan from Underground Games) approached me with a difficult situation they had recently encountered on a live Kickstarter project. I’ll let Jan tell the story, then I’ll chime in with my thoughts.
Kickstarters are all about reputation and how people perceive the project and its creator(s), so building your reputation is an important task that takes quite long and there have been numerous very good posts about it like this one here. But what if that reputation comes under attack? It can take months or years to build it, but only seconds to tear it down and spread negativity. Kickstarters live from positivity, from looking forward to something and being excited, so this can become a real problem.
And that can hurt you financially and emotionally.
I have been making digital games and RPGs for over 25 years now and have dealt with licenses for brands from games to movies, so I consider myself to have at least modestly aware of the legal parts of IP rights. So, before we launched our recent Kickstarter for our Jagged Alliance board game, we made sure we had all the rights in place for names and pictures prior to launch. But the problem we faced was not a legal one.
Two days in, we had someone appear in our comments section claiming we stole their mechanics and designs for our game. It was a game I had heard of, but never played before and initially I thought that was a hoax. But it turned out it was the actual designer filled with righteous indignation about how we stole the design he had taken years to hone and refine.
I looked at a playthrough and there were indeed striking similarities, visually and mechanically. The mechanics in question had been developed 6 years ago as a paper prototype for a computer game.
After a little back and forth in the public comments section, we managed to move the conversation to a private channel and I hoped we could resolve the matter amicably, yet the next day his company also posted in our forums and kind-of sort-of still claimed that we had copied parts of the game. And suddenly our backers began to wonder if maybe we did.
What’s more, people suddenly popped up on our Facebook page and rated it down, responding to explanations and reasoning with laughter emojis. We were forced to again take up the discussion on the comments section and explain in length what transpired and that added a certain…heaviness to things, distracting from the positive atmosphere so far.
So now I am spending time trying to fend off allegations and I realized how Kickstarter and the ecosystem of relationship building around it is very vulnerable, as are all social mediascapes. This is not even about being sued or taken to court – in most cases ideas cannot be trademarked, only the specific form they take like graphics, text, or an actual tune. It is about losing credibility, which essentially is your currency as a creator.
I wish I had a universal solution to this. In our case we explained in detail how we derived the ideas and stats from the original Jagged Alliance game and it seemed enough to hopefully resolve this. We also hope we can meet the other company in Essen and talk about this over a fizzy drink.
First, it saddens me that a designer would act that way, especially since there’s absolutely no legal grounds to sue someone in the US for using similar or the same game mechanisms. Designers should celebrate when others are inspired by their mechanisms, not threaten their peers.
Second, as Jan points out, this isn’t really about game mechanisms. It’s about surviving an unfounded attack on your character on a platform where reputation, trust, and integrity have a huge impact on your success.
I think Jan did a number of things right:
- He first managed to shift the attack from a public channel to private message.
- He publicly acknowledged that there were some strong similarities to the other game.
- He repeatedly explained the history of his design process on various forums.
Overall, I think the key is to be consistently trustworthy and transparent. At some point, someone is going to make an attack on your character, whether its big or little. When they do, other people are going to look at what they know about you to see if the attack is consistent. If the attacker’s claim doesn’t fit at all, it will be much easier to dismiss than if your history contains a series of contradictions and mysteries.
Have you survived an unfounded attack on your character, on Kickstarter or elsewhere? How did you deal with it?
- Kickstarter Lesson #231: Cult of the You
- Kickstarter Lesson #58: How to Manage Toxic Backers
- Kickstarter Lesson #226: When a Backer Threatens You