In 2014, crowdfunding had just begun to take shape as a business. The appeal of Kickstarter and Indiegogo as a way of mitigating expenses opened the door for young and upstart developers to start their dream projects immediately. For the English Visual Novel developers community, it provided an opportunity for developers to get higher end presentations assets: art, music, voice acting, etc. The hope was that it would allow them to immediately beginning putting high quality visual novels out that could stand alongside the expected wave of Japanese VNs that were bring brought overseas. And while that was the case for some developers, there is a darker reality of mismanaged campaigns and broken promises.
A few of the larger cases we have discussed here such as The Guardian’s Spell, the art theft by Akisekai, and Dysfunctional Systems Episode 2. However, as many projects crowdfunded in 2014 are entering their fifth year as essentially vaporware. Some, though, are in even worse condition. Today, I want to highlight one of them and analyze what could potentially happen next for the developers involved. Today, we’re going to talk about the collapse of the 80s horror throwback: Lovely Little Thieves.
Let’s rewind the clock a bit.
2012-2014 were boom years for geek/nerd entertainment as a whole. Gaming and anime hit peak market share and more people realized they could cover those mediums and share their fandoms without being part of an organization like IGN or ANN. Twitch, YouTube, social media, all of its exploded as more content creators entered the fray. Around this time, as mentioned earlier, crowdfunding became a thing. Also around this time, That Guy With The Glasses, officially known as Channel Awesome, hit a peak as a business. With a variety of contributors, a loyal fanbase and a growing catalog of anniversary films, anyone who was a part of the team at the time could build a strong audience for themselves.
Jacob Chapman, known at the time as Hope Champan as well as JesuOtaku, was one of those contributors. At the time, Chapman had just begun to break away from Channel Awesome: joining up with Anime News Network and building livestreams as well as a YouTube channel. The livestreams were key, because that is where Chapman would play games that would appeal to him as well as audience requests. Eventually, the audience began to requests more VNs: leading to Chapman playing and featuring the demo for MoaCube’s Cinders, as well discovering all of the misery that was Nowhere Safe….though the less said about that the better. This, I feel, encouraged Chapman to enter the fray and what led to Lovely, Little Thieves.
Now, at least on paper, this seemed to be a solid idea. According to Chapman, the bulk of the writing was done. The art work would be done by a team of artists instead of an individual one. Hopefully, this would keep anyone from getting burned out. And then there was Chapman himself. His status allowed the game to get a sort of crossover exposure that promised to maintain interest until release. The projects would go on to crush its $20,000 goal and close out with $23,853 and the clock started for a tentative release date of October 2015.
So, what happened?
At this point, it would be prudent to point out that development has not technically stopped. However, with the information we have available to the public, I am forced to be pragmatic about its chances of getting launched as well as how Chapman has handled this business so far. And while there are several personal and professional events that happened in Jacob Chapman’s life including transitioning from female to male, marrying and his career at ANN that I do believe played a role, in my opinion, the reason for the noted ‘collapse’ isn’t just the delays: it’s the money.
Three years ago, one of the backers for the project publicly asked for a refund. After some back and forth between the two, Chapman issued a statement on the delay of issuing the refund. I cannot link the individual comment, however this is a key paragraph that needs to be considered:
I’ve been trying to get Brenda refunded since last April, to give you an idea of how surprisingly hellish the process has been. While Kickstarter projects that are started now have a handy and easy-to-process refund system, one button-click away, Lovely Little Thieves was started back when KS was using Amazon Payments as a middleman for processing payments. When I sent a support ticket to Kickstarter asking what I need to do, they told me I would have to take it to Amazon Payments, that they had no authority over it. To process a refund through Amazon Payments, you have to use the merchant account they give you, except this merchant account kept ghosting on me whenever I tried to log in and access any information or processes. It took me forever to get in and just get a transaction ID for Brenda’s payment out of a giant Excel file. After that, my only option was to call Amazon Payments directly and try to get someone on the phone who even seemed to know that they used to deal with Kickstarter payments. The first several people I got on the phone every time I called inevitably had no idea what I was talking about so I kept getting transferred.
This is important to note because is that the best legal defense to allegations of mismanagement or fraud is a good-faith effort by the person who took the money to either deliver the promised product OR ensure the happiness of their backers. The Department of Justice has a good breakdown on proof of fraudulent intent here. This point would be where, I believe, an argument would have to be made about misrepresentation because the statement makes it sounds (at least to this one) that what stopped the refund was the new processes for refund backers.
My original intent after looking through the comment section was to reach out to Kickstarter and looking into the refund process a bit closer because this explanation is important to nail down. However, in a breath-taking change of fate, Chapman provided the answer himself in a new comment on the Kickstarter page. While not an official update under the ‘Updates’ tab, it does provide an explanation of what is going on behind the scenes. While I cannot link to the exact comment, I am going to highlight the first and second paragraphs for the purposes of this article:
1) I have no power to issue refunds through Kickstarter whatsoever. As I’ve detailed many times, the system they have for issuing refunds now is completely disconnected from the payment system they once used in 2014, and there’s actually no longer a way for me to return the money through their system. I would have to just give people their money back manually, “off the record” I guess you could say, and I’m not going to do that unless I have actually canceled the project outright. I’m sincerely sorry about that.
2) The money raised for the game is not gone. Believe it or not, I still have a few thousand dollars. I don’t have as much left over as I wish I did, but that original account still exists, and I still take care of it. I did have to use some funds from the account to escape a bad living situation a few months ago, and some more of it had already been used against my wishes by the other party in that bad living situation over the years. But every month that it’s fiscally possible for me to put a couple hundred dollars back into that account, I do, because I still want to fulfill this project some day when I’m able. I haven’t been able to because…
Chapman admits to a few things here that are important to the larger case. The first is that he admitted he could give refunds now outside of the Kickstarter system, but is choosing not too. The reason given for this, not wanting to issue refunds without cancelling the project, is contradicted in paragraph 2, where Chapman admits that the funds from the campaign are nearly gone. Beyond that, he admits the funds were used by a party outside of who backers believed would have access to them AND that they were used for personal reasons. While no one wants someone to suffer a bad situation, the reality is now how the funds have been used over the last five years is a valid question.
So, what happens now?
Near the end of this post, Chapman states the following, “…until I can safely reach a more stable and supported place in my life, I have had to accept that I will not be able to devote my time to Lovely Little Thieves.” I have no reason to doubt that is the case, and unfortunately that means it will most likely never get done. Whether or not the questions surrounding the spent funds will be answered is up to the financial backers of the project. I urge Jacob Chapman to explain, as clearly as possible, what happened to the money: which would make the best possible case on his behalf of good intent afflicted by personal issues.
In the meantime, I have reached out to Kickstarter to clarify their refund process with project started before 2015. If I get a response I will report it here. We will also be keeping our eyes on Lovely Little Thieves for other developments. JP3: OUT.