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YogsCast Kickstarter game “Yogventures!” cancelled - A legal perspective
by Zachary Strebeck on 07/17/14 01:46:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Yogventures!, a Kickstarter-funded game developed in conjunction between the creators of YouTube show “The Yogscast” and Winterkewl Games, has been cancelled. In a statement from Yogscast, the creators say that the scope of the project was “too vast” and that developer Winterkewl has abandoned it. As a replacement, Yogscast is working with another developer, Nerd Kingdom, to deliver copies of their game TUG and create in-game items for that title that would be similar to those promised for the Yogventures! game backers.

One look at the comments on the Yogventures! Kickstarter page, however, shows that not everyone is okay with this, and rightly so.

I’ve written before on the topic of what legal liability project creators have toward their backers, on indie game site Ind13.com (check it out!). In addition to that, I’d like to make a few points specific to this project, from a legal perspective.

“Under no obligation…”

Yogscast themselves state that they are under no obligation to do anything.

Yogscast themselves state that they are under no legal obligation to do anything. This may be true, since the project was created by Winterkewl Games, LLC. Therefore, the “contract” would be between Winterkewl and the backers who were promised a reward. However, one look at the Kickstarter page shows that the Yogscast name is all over it. For instance:

  • “Yogventures! is an open world sandbox adventure game featuring characters developed by Simon and Lewis of The Yogscast!”
  • “Why are the Yogscast making a game?”
  • “Winterkewl’s artists, modelers, animators and programmers are partnering with us on this project to create the game our community wants.”

See that “us”? Though the creator is Winterkewl games, the project text is written from the perspective of the Yogscast themselves. This may (but not certainly) could be enough to show that a contract was also formed between the Yogscast and the backers. Additionally, whether or not Yogscast received any of the money from the backers may change the analysis. There’s lots of information that we don’t know, which could help to determine contractual liability for Yogscast.

Winterkewl’s liability:

At the very least, Winterkewl could be on the hook for refunds, though it is not certain they could do so.

They are an LLC, and assuming that there are no “piercing the corporate veil” issues like Alter Ego or undercapitalization, if the money’s gone, the money’s gone (check out my post here to read up on these issues with business entities). It may not be possible to go after the personal assets of Winterkewl’s members.

yogventures_kickstarter_cancelled_02

What can burned backers do?

This is one of the truisms regarding backing/donating/ investing/gambling into anything; don’t put in more than you can bear to lose.

Besides simply asking for money, since the amount is very small it is possible to file a claim in small claims court or a similar level of the judicial system. In California, the filing fees alone are anywhere from $30 to $100 plus service of process, but if a backer has pledged thousands, it may be worth it. Again, however, the real issue is that there may be no money to get at this point, even if there is a legal judgment against the LLC.

This is one of the truisms regarding backing/donating/investing/gambling into anything; don’t put in more than you can bear to lose. It is just a part of this new reality that actual investors have known forever and new backers will just have to learn. It’s not a perfect situation, but this is the price we pay for donating money to sometimes-untested developers. I, personally, think that it’s worth the risk, though, for the good of the community and the industry.

I don’t know what happened inside Winterkewl. They could have tried their hardest (and probably did) to deliver a product that was top quality and met all of a backer’s expectations. I don't doubt their skill or sincerity in getting the project completed. However, they didn’t, and they’re not delivering what they promised. While there are contract defenses such as impossibility or impracticability, it is unclear whether these would apply.

Takeaways

The object lesson here is that it can be extremely beneficial to bring on the necessary business-minded people to keep the scope of the project within the financial and temporal realities that are allowed. Project planners, lawyers and even marketing people can help – get them on your side before you even start the project.

Also, grab a copy of my eBook to get an overview of the legal issues facing game developers and Kickstarter creators.


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Comments


Peter Bollok
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In the Kickstarter video: "My own game" and "A game about me"... OMG how selfish and arrogant these people are. How can it come so far where LP Channels can do such a thing. It is so unbelievable and frustrating to see such things happening. But its like, what sales sales... I guess.

And to the article, I want to add,
"...the project text is written from the perspective of the Yogscast themselves...",

that yogscast has also put a link to their website there in the description. So don't know what is more obvious then that?

Zachary Strebeck
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They certainly seem to be integrally intertwined with the project. Whether or not that creates a contractual obligation BY THEM to deliver the game is for a court to decide, I suppose. It certainly seems possible, however.

An obligation to deliver in order to maintain goodwill and secure funding for future projects, though, is obvious. This is why I would caution new developers to start small! Once the first few smaller projects are out and successful, then the larger visions become more feasible.

Matt Robb
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"This is one of the truisms regarding backing/donating/investing/gambling into anything; don’t put in more than you can bear to lose."

Most of this doesn't really apply to a Kickstarter of this kind. This isn't an investment of cash hoping for a return of more cash than you put in. You get the game, perhaps some recognition, perhaps some fun experiences, but the money is all lost. It's not an investment, it's the least common denominator between a donation and a gamble.

Zachary Strebeck
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That doesn't mean that it's not true. There is not cosmic guarantee that the product will be made, only a contractual promise on the part of the creator. You have two options when things go wrong (and they have, and they will in the future): Suck it up and take the loss, or sue and hope you can get the money back.

That's why I'm saying that you shouldn't be donating any more than you can bear losing, because in a situation like this where the money is gone and there is potentially separate entity that took the money in the first place, you may be SOL even if you get a court judgment against them.

Matt Robb
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You don't put in more than you can bear to lose on an investment.

You don't spend more than you can afford when you make a purchase or donation.

Kickstarter is the latter. The loss of money is guaranteed.

Zachary Strebeck
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I don't think that semantic difference negates my point, but we can agree to disagree. You are getting something in return for that money on a Kickstarter, unless you aren't (in this case). In both cases there is a potential for loss, I'm just cautioning those who are donating to be prepared for the worst.

Matt Robb
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It doesn't negate your point really, my issue was with the comparison between what traditional investors do and what happens on Kickstarter. You get more guarantee about what happens when you donate a shirt to Goodwill than you do with giving money to a Kickstarter, let alone "real" investments.

Kyle Redd
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So change the statement to "Don't put any money towards a Kickstarter unless you can withstand the possibility of getting nothing in return." Everyone should be in agreement with that, I hope.

Matt Robb
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Exactly.

Ron Dippold
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Just wanted to say I am enjoying these legal perspectives (Noriega, Lohan, etc) from someone with an actual law degree.

Though non-legally, after reading their statement, I feel that douchio ad coelum applies here.

Zachary Strebeck
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Thanks! I love writing them.

No comment on the other part :)

Matt Robb
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You know, as unpleasant as it is that the project failed, the fact that they're going so far as to provide all the code and assets to another developer to incorporate the ideas into a similar game is actually pretty cool. They can't magically make the project complete itself, but they're doing what they can to try to get people something. They really didn't have to go that far, whether they're doing it altruistically or just to try to save their brand or some combination of the two.

Zachary Strebeck
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Well, one of the points I made in the article is that perhaps they DID have to go that far, at least under the agreement with backers and Kickstarter. Whether what they are delivering is substantially similar to what was promised is another story. I have a feeling that people would rather just get their money back than get a different game with assets shoehorned in. But that money probably doesn't exist anymore...

Robert Carter
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Is there any weight added, legally speaking, due to the amount of money they raised? Even if they only were able to net 50% after taxes and fees (and Id be willing to bet they netted roughly around 65%) they would still have had enough to make a game of decent size with any sort of competent team. Either the scope was absolutely absurd (which wouldnt surprise me if no one on the team had an experienced career in game development), or money was misused, likely without any malicious intent (Buying more than what you need or paying for something by way of man hours instead of already available plug-in are two common mistakes for new developers)

Every way I try to see it with the very limited information I have says they probably didnt have an experienced hand at game development, despite having the funds to likely afford at least one as a consultant. Could this constitute negligence on their part, or on the part of the studio if any of this happens to be true?

Zachary Strebeck
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A couple things:

1) Fees on a Kickstarter project are around 10 percent, including Amazon's fees. Taxes (and I'm not a tax guy, so don't take my word on this) for an LLC could be offset by the fact that they have no profit on the game yet - they're spending it to create the product. Assuming an accrual basis (here's where my little knowledge gets me into trouble) they can deduct losses before they are spent, I think. Hopefully there's an accountant on here that can help out.

2) The amount of money they make doesn't change their liability regarding delivering the project. If they set their goal too low, then that is their own fault. Unless it rises to the point of Impracticality (see this link - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impracticability), they are still responsible for delivering the product. They presumably knew how much the fees would be and should have planned for it.

I'm not ascribing malicious intent. I understand that bad things happen to projects. However, that doesn't remove their responsibility to backers who trusted them, contracted with them and gave them money.

A few thousand of those dollars could have bought them some good professional advice. It's a point I stress in a lot of my posts. I'm not so sure about the negligence claim. This is more of a contract issue, not a tort.

Robert Carter
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@Zachary
Thank you for your response! Very helpful for someone like myself with no real knowledge of legal matters around these things.

@Eric
If their scope was absurd for the funds that makes sense. I didnt look into the game itself much, I just know that you can make a decent size game with those funds. Shovel Knight received substantially less than this, and while Im sure the scope of that game was smaller than what Yogscast wanted that is exactly why you need an experienced hand at game development at your project start.

Eric Deplume
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Funny, I assumed from the start they were going to fail cause I've worked with budgets of 500,000 and know how little that really is if you are trying to make something like Yogventures.

Stephen Horn
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Not a lawyer, but I would think that even the law can't draw blood from a stone. If there's no money left, all the lawsuits in the world won't matter. The more interesting questions would be whether Yogscast (who potentially has money, and/or continues to make money) got themselves tied into the contract and could be held financially liable for refunds, or whether anyone from Winterkewl did anything that could put their personal finances at risk.

Zachary Strebeck
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@Robert
You're very welcome! I appreciate the comment.

Matt Robb
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@Stephen, that really is the pertinent question at this point. It's possible Yogscast simply licensed their IP and acted as a marketing company. For all we know, they lost money in the situation as well.

Rik Spruitenburg
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I think the main point of the article is that Yogscast might be sued, and they do have some money.

Kevin Irving
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Hello, accountant here. Tax isn't my specialty, but judging by this article (http://nofilmschool.com/2014/04/crowdfunding-taxes-kick-starters-
hidden-bite-stop-the-bleeding/) by Ben Henretig, it seems reasonable to assume the net money you raise from a kickstarter is subject to income tax. An interesting point he brings up is to do the kickstarter at the beginning of the year so that you can spend the money on deductible expenses (such as licences, payroll, and other business expenses). This lead me to believe the funds raised by kickstarter show up on your company tax return as taxable income.

So, in short, yes you are taxed on funds raised by kickstarter, but you can spend it on your business to offset the tax burden (or already be carrying a loss from earlier in the year that osets the kickstarter income).

Again, I'm not a tax expert, but I have had to help prepare tax returns for LLP's (Limited Liability Partnerships).

Edit: This was meant to be in response to Mr. Zachary Strebeck's comment about Kickstarter funds and if they were taxable; I somehow managed not to reply to the correct comment. Sorry about that!

Zachary Strebeck
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I have a similar understanding, but I believe (could be wrong) that there is a way to account for the money as spent in your books, even when it crosses over taxable years. Cash v. Accrual accounting, where in a cash basis you are showing the money spent AS it gets spent, as opposed to Accrual, where you show the money spent on the books even before it is ACTUALLY paid out.

I'll stick to copyright, instead.

Kevin Irving
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After thinking through this more, you are correct that Kickstarter funds should be tracked over the time period the project is worked on and a business does defer revenue it has not earned under accrual basis accounting. Before I go any further, here are short descriptions of cash and accrual accounting:

Cash Basis: Revenues and expenses are recognized when money is received or spent. Personal Income Taxes follow this basis.

Accrual Basis: Revenues and expenses are recognized when they occur. So, if you do work in December, 2013 and are paid in January, 2014 you recognize the revenue in December, 2013 because that's when you did the work. Companies typically use this basis (though not all; I currently work for a company that works on the cash basis). Individuals are typically not allowed to use this basis for taxes

I prefer to work more with record-keeping accounting than tax accounting, so I do not know how the IRS (or any other taxation entity) deals with differed income. I would 100% recommend talking to a tax professional about doing a kickstarter campaign to see the taxation effects. The article I linked to previous was most likely a personal tax return rather than a business return, so that is probably why he was taxed in the year he earned the money (Personal income is typically cash basis).

*Stop here if you don't want to read about defered revenue and my thoughts on accounting for kickstarter funds in general. I am including this because this is how I determined that Kickstarter funds are most like recorded as defered revenue rather than considered revenue in the year it was recieved.*.

Here's how I understand the situation; the IRS taxes revenue but not investment capital or loans (that would be unreasonable if they did). So the question becomes "What is Kickstarter money? Investment, Debt, or Income?"

Side note: I am going to be walking through as s double entry accounting exercise. It is called double entry because every entry made to one account is offset by an entry to a second account; each side is called Debit and Credit respectively. (Technically you can hit as many accounts as needed, but for this exercise, only 2 are needed.) The accounts will be either Asset, Liability, or Equity/Income because balance sheets are setup as Assets = Liability + Equity (What you own is equal to how you got the funds to own it). Now that we're all on the same page, let's continue.

So, as a hypothetical situation, let's say you've received a net of $100,000 from a kickstarter campaign with 10,000 bakers who will all just receive the game when it comes out. So, from an accounting standpoint, you gained $100,000 cash and need to book it against a second account. The first three reasonable offsetting accounts that come to mind are: Debt Payable (Liability), Ownership Share (Equity-Investment), or Non-standard Revenue (Equity-Income). Let's go through each one:

Unsecured Debt Payable (Liability)- While there is a legal liability to the backers, the is currently no reasonable way to record that liability because the costs associated with it are too hard to quantify. You may owe 10,000 backers 1 copy of your game each, but you have no idea how much it will cost to provide them that game. It could be less that $10 each and it could be more than $10 each. So while the liability exists to the backers, it exists in a way that can't be reasonably quantified as a debt on the accounting records.

Ownership Share (Equity-Investment)- This is a bit more straightforward than the debt argument because you've give no promise of ownership or share of income. The kickstarter agreement is typically "You give us X dollars and we'll give you Y back." No mention of ownership or profit sharing, so kickstarter funds are not Investment Equity.

Non-standard Revenue (Equity-Income)- So this is the last, reasonable option of the three. I believe it fits best because kickstarter looks much more like a presale than anything else. You have backers paying a price for a product you promise to deliver. The main difference is that the product will be made with their money. Though, it does make little sense to say you've earned the money because you still do own the backers a product. As such, it's time to consider a different account.

At this point, I am going to mention a fourth option that fits best for record keeping: Deferred Income (liability). I'm willing to be this is how companies like Larion recorded the money they received for kickstarter because while it's not a secured or even easily quantifiable debt, it is money that Larion can't rightfully suggest they earned until they released their game. (Side note: I am professionally curious if they recognized it when they gave out Early Access codes or when they game officially launched). I didn't mention this at the start because it should only be considered in the (typically rare) occasion you are paid before you earn revenue. It's also important to establish that the money you received is revenue and not something like a deposit on the work.

For anyone who has read through this, I am sorry if this is little hard to follow. I wanted to write out my though process of how I came to my conclusion in the way I (and many other accountants) think through accounting problems. Crowdfunding is something new and not specificity addressed by current accounting rules and I would not be surprised to see new accounting and tax rules in years to come.

Zachary Strebeck
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@Kevin
Wow, thank you so much for writing that up. Most of it makes no sense to me, of course, but it is interesting to know how this particular model is vexing for accounting professionals.

Everything I know about Kickstarter taxation comes from this podcast episode, if youre interested - http://www.buzzsprout.com/4646/87687-kickstarter-and-taxes-ep-139

He discusses the use of cash v accrual basis. It's one of the many reasons why it is important to form a business entity BEFORE putting up the KS project. Otherwise you are probably forming a contract between yourself and the backers personally, and even if you assign the contract over to the corporation, the original project creator still remains liable, I presume. Google "Promoter liability" for more info, if you're interested.

That, coupled with the tax issues and putting on a professional appearance are reason enough to spend the $5-600 to form an LLC (at least through an attorney like myself). As I always say, a little work and spending up front can avoid a ton of hassle later.

Thanks again for contributing!

Wes Jurica
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This has nothing to do with the specific topic of this article (the legal perspective) but, what were people thinking backing this project?

From the KS page:
"This will be Winterkewl Games’s first title but after seeing what they have been able to put together for our demo we are sure these are the right guys for the job! In only a few months of part-time development, the game is already looking fantastic."

A few things:
1. How does a project get this kind of funding without providing any info at all about the developers experience or past games?
2. If that alpha was the best they could do in a few months of development, it should have been obvious they were in over their heads. Yeah, I know. Hindsight and all that but, Any "talented indie developer" or "long-time veterans of film and game companies" could put that together in a weekend.
3. This is Kickstarter...

Zachary Strebeck
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I guess there's two ways to look at this. I mean, the whole point of Kickstarter is to give people a chance who otherwise wouldn't get one. I think this is great (I just think the scope should be commensurate with the developer's experience)!

The other way to look at it is "a fool and his money are soon parted."

You decide what fits!

Joel Moore
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I feel like there must be a middle ground between "Meh, it's kickstarter. The money is gone" and "Let's sue them for a refund".

Making people liable for refunds if a project doesn't deliver would probably kill the whole concept of crowdfunding but letting everyone and anyone off the hook will just encourage scams.

I do feel like the yogscast folks could have been a little more contrite when delivering the cancellation news. And perhaps avoided immediate proclamations of "WE OWE YOU NOTHING!!"

Zachary Strebeck
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@Joel
People ARE liable for refunds. It's in the Kickstarter Terms of Service. Washington State has sued one developer over it, citing their own state's false advertising laws. I'm not aware of any other lawsuits, other than the Hansfree one from a few years back, and that was just one guy.

My point is, it's already like that and it hasn't seemed to slow Kickstarter and crowdfunding down.
Also, the number of Kickstarter projects that outright fail is pretty low. But, as always, if it bleeds, it leads. No one cares when one delivers its rewards after a year or two. By then, the hype is usually gone. However, when something is a "failure," all eyes are going to be on it. That's not a phenomenon specific to Kickstarter, but it is happening, I think.

I do agree with your last paragraph, though. There's nothing worse than telling someone who was just burned "well, we don't really owe you anything, but here's what we're going to give you." I know that it wouldn't make me feel any better.

Michael Pianta
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I think many people maybe don't understand this liability. I know I didn't. I was under the impression that Kickstarter amounted to artistic patronage - which is to say, the money is a gift that has no particular legal binding. Both as a backer, and as a potential project creator (though I've never gone through with that), that was how I thought it worked. But now, with the Washington State lawsuit, and other stories and articles, I see it differently (more accurately, I suppose) and the appeal has completely vanished, as far as doing a Kickstarter of my own.

Kickstarter, for logistical reasons, is sub-optimal. The fact that you have a number of backers, and a commitment to various rewards, means a portion (perhaps a large portion) of your money and time will go towards managing the community and producing and delivering reward items. Far better, I think, to procure money from a traditional source, where you are dealing with a single entity. The problem is that these entities are risk averse, and will not give money to unproven talents, or fund risky, experimental projects.

So here comes Kickstarter to resolve this dilemma. But it turns out, Kickstarter leaves you fiscally liable to your backers. So in addition to being logistically more complex, you are assuming personal financial risk in exactly the same way as you would with a traditional publisher. Worse, governments are getting involved. A single disgruntled backer could bring the consumer protection apparatus of the state down upon you, consuming all your time and resources and ruining the project, thus leaving you fiscally liable to all the OTHER backers!

Now, Kickstarter starts to look like an enormously scary gamble, in which honesty and good faith are not enough. It seems like only 100% guaranteed projects are a good fit for Kickstarter. But if the project is that much of a sure thing one could procure traditional funding for it and save themselves the logistical head ache! So what is the point of Kickstarter? As a marketing gimmick I guess? It certainly doesn't sound like a safe option for unproven young creators. Perhaps if you're a bit larger, or more experienced, and you're properly incorporated (so that you don't lose your house over it!) it could still be worth the risk, but otherwise young, individual creators might be better off self funding with a bank loan or credit card - or better yet just keep their day job and work on their projects in their free time.

Perhaps, once these legal matters get more settled, and all the rules are in place and can be evaluated, the situation will look a bit better, but for now I think it's smart to keep well away from Kickstarter.

Zachary Strebeck
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Well, it seems like the problem could be avoided by streamlining the rewards and setting low goals. I think the crux of the problem in this particular case is biting off more than they could chew (though I will investigate further on the particular causes of this failure). I definitely recommend ramping up the Kickstarters over time - start with a small, manageable project and get bigger as your infrastructure grows to match. If you raise enough money, you can have a person on hand to deal with the reward fulfillment and other issues that come up. It's all a question of scale.

Also, not every Kickstarter failure rises to the level of criminal activity or state civil actions, like in the Washington state case - http://www.strebecklaw.com/gamedev-legal-news-government-sues-ove
r-failed-kickstarter-campaign/
There would have to be "deceptive business practices," and I suppose we'll see as that case goes further exactly what rises to that level.

Also, Kickstarter failures are more of an aberration than they are the norm. I wouldn't draw too many conclusions from this case, since so many others are at least moderately successful in delivering the rewards. However, I do agree that many place a burden on themselves by agreeing to give a lot of other rewards along with the game.

Rhys Gibbon
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With a recent update from Winterkewl, stating that the remaining funds of $150,000 were transfered to Lewis Brindley, wouldn't that make them liable to some degree?

Philip Lomneth
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Now that Winterkewl posted an update where they claim they spent the money, I'm wondering where this leaves Winterkewl and Yogscast in terms of legal responsibility. It seems Winterkewl tried to complete the project to their best ability, but was hindered, at least in part, because Yogscast failed to hire a full-time, professional developer. Does this make Yogscast more liable and reduce some of the pressure on Winterkewl?

Also, Kris from Winterkewl claims that he put at least $25,000 into the project (and other members put in personal money as well). Does this increase his (or other Winterkewl member's) personal legal responsibility or relieve him from some?

Along with this, I'm curious what effect, if any, would there be if the $35,000 initially lost (due to a fumbled contact) was compensated by Winterkewl's employee's personal funds. Would this have any effect on Winterkewl's responsibility or the employees' personal responsibility?

Also, sorry if the questions are a bit confusing... I'm trying to wrap my head around all this and am not sure if I've made myself clear or misused terms.

Christian Nutt
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Here's the link in question, btw: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/winterkewlgames/yogventures/posts/91 9100

Jonathan Murphy
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I read in Polygon that one artist walked away with $35,000 after 2 weeks of no work. How in the hell did he manage that? What I saw was a bunch of, "experts" more interested in getting fully paid up front, than worrying about unit sales upon completion.

I'm more pissed at the people they tried to do business with. There are thousands of artists, coders world wide that would have killed to get paid $150k, and would have done the work. Next time anyone considers KS, make sure your employees are in for the long haul, and for god's sake make a good contract.

Zachary Strebeck
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If only there was a nice lawyer out there who could take care of that for them 😉

Don't know about that first part. I will have to check out the Polygon article. Thanks for letting me know!

Christian Nutt
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Posted a link to the KS update post above, which details how the money was spent...

Zachary Strebeck
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That sounds like an awfully-written contract. I am curious if that was created by them or if they had an attorney draft it for them. Not having a termination clause of some kind if the work isn't completed is a huge and obvious ommission for a contract of this type.

Jonathan Murphy
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I worked 2002-08 as a contract artist. I never demanded $35k up front. I guess that's what, "Experts" think they can get away with. When I started looking for, "Experts" back in mid 2013 I encountered similar problems. But... I had a damn good contract! I also don't put up with BS. Today everything is going well! We're coding the game.

Zachary Strebeck
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It certainly is a sub-optimal way to pay for work. Payment at certain milestones is a better setup, I think.

Glad to hear everything is going well!

Jonathan Murphy
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I agree. Milestones work. It's like a marathon. Maintain the pace. Days of downtime can turn into months. There will be slow points, but consistent progress must be maintained.


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