Business

It got $3M through Kickstarter. But this Idaho biz hasn’t delivered games it promised

Ninja Division in Garden City turns to Kickstarter

Ninja Division, a table top game publisher in Garden City, raised about $3 million from Kickstarter.com crowdfunding campaigns. In this Statesman archive video from 2016, Marketing Director Deke Stella talks about keeping backers in the loop.
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Ninja Division, a table top game publisher in Garden City, raised about $3 million from Kickstarter.com crowdfunding campaigns. In this Statesman archive video from 2016, Marketing Director Deke Stella talks about keeping backers in the loop.

The little table-top game maker based in Garden City was on a roll. It was close to $5 million in annual sales. Its Kickstarter campaigns had racked up $3 million from enthusiastic backers across the globe, eager to throw money into the pot for a new game from Ninja Division.

“A lot of Kickstarter is loyalty,” Deke Stella, marketing director for Ninja Division, told the Idaho Statesman in 2016. “Most Kickstarters pull in a couple hundred backers. We pretty comfortably pull in 3,000 to 7,000 backers. It’s all people who are super invested into the stuff we do. They are passionate. They see our pride of ownership, and they’ve taken that for themselves.”

But that was a few years ago. Now it’s 2019, and those Kickstarter backers are passionate about something else: They want their games, and they want refunds. After waiting months or years for the items they helped to crowdfund, they’re lodging complaints with anyone who will listen.

The Statesman heard from backers who live everywhere from Idaho to Europe and Australia.

“I am well aware that Kickstarter is not a shopping portal and there is a chance to lose money,” backer János Joó wrote from Germany. Joó said he paid more than $400 into two Ninja Division projects in 2015 and 2017 but has received nothing in return.

“When all goes well I invest my money and see something getting created,” he said. “But at least I expect some honest communication and not complete radio silence.”

For the most part, the struggling game company has ceased posting updates — except for responding to inquiries from state attorneys general.

The company’s leaders contend the problems stem from an early hiccup on a single Kickstarter-funded game, followed by a string of bad luck. They say they’re working on a resolution and plan to honor their commitments to their customers.

More than $2.5 million collected

Ninja Division and its sister company, Soda Pop Miniatures, develop and produce “table top games” — a genre that non-gamers might be familiar with through popular brands like Warhammer or Dungeons & Dragons.

It’s not uncommon for a game maker like Ninja Division to tap the Kickstarter.com crowdfunding website for the capital needed to finance the design and manufacture of a game. While it’s not exactly like pre-ordering a game, that’s how most people see it. The “backers” who invest in the product expect to get specific items in return, the chance to be the first to try a product, or special perks when they invest a lot of money.

It also isn’t unheard of for a crowdfunded gaming project to fall apart.

“There are times when a game is hit with an unexpected delay, graphical downgrade or unexpected development cost. Sometimes these games are able to carry on; other times, these games get the axe,” website thegamer.com said in a 2017 article. “Kickstarter is not a store. If it fails, it fails.”

Many of the gamers who invested in Ninja Division games say they’re tired of promises that they’ll eventually be made whole. They also question why the company launched new Kickstarters for other projects before knowing it could finish existing ones.

warehouse
R’Jay Graham moves a shipment of product in Ninja Division’s warehouse in this photo from 2016. Darin Oswald doswald@idahostatesman.com

The problems seem to have started more than three years ago. The company had a track record at the time. Its Kickstarter campaign for “Super Dungeon Explore: Forgotten King” was a hit, raising $1.2 million from 6,589 backers in the spring of 2014. Customers reportedly got what they ordered.

A Kickstarter campaign for a game called “Super Dungeon Explore: Legends” raised $1.3 million over a three-week period in late 2015. That was 16 times the amount the company set for its fundraising goal — $80,000 of seed money to start producing the game.

The game never materialized. The December 2016 estimated shipping date came and went.

Meanwhile, the company in April 2016 had launched another Kickstarter, for a game called “Rail Riders Infinite.” It raised about $340,000 from 4,649 backers.

Ninja Division launched a new Kickstarter campaign for “Way of the Fighter” in November and December 2016, raising $92,000 from 1,385 backers.

The company’s campaign for a game called “Relic Knights: 2nd Edition” in February and March 2017 raised about $387,000 from 2,489 backers.

Its campaign for a set of miniature figures to go with another game raised about $458,000 from 2,294 backers in September and October 2017.

Backers told the Statesman and posted online that some of them have gotten some parts of some of the games. But the orders remain largely unfulfilled.

‘We have every intention’

The company last fall responded to attorney generals’ inquiries. Ninja Division attributes the delays in production of its most popular product to a string of bad luck.

“As of the date of this letter, this project’s completion is currently delayed while we continue final development of some components and actively seek additional funding in order to complete the project,” it said in response to the attorneys general. “We have every intention to complete the project and fulfill the promised rewards.”

Games - Zach
Ninja Division, a small game maker in Garden City, grew revenues to $5 million in 2015. Four Kickstarter campaigns brought in $3.3 million, helping to pay manufacturing costs. In this Statesman file photo, Creative Director John Cadice shows off the best seller, “Super Dungeon: Explore.” Darin Oswald doswald@idahostatesman.com

John Cadice, owner and creative director, initially agreed to an interview with the Statesman but then canceled, referring the Statesman to a letter Ninja Division sent in the fall to Idaho and Washington attorneys general.

“We don’t expect sympathy from the community, we need to provide results,” he said in an email to the Statesman.

The problems began with a decision to scrap the initial design for the game and roll out a new version people would like more, the letter said.

“Unfortunately, we did not fully realize the complete ramifications and ripple effects of this decision,” it said.

The revamp proved more complicated than expected. To make up for the delays, the company promised its backers some bonus content.

deke stella talking
Deke Stella told the Statesman in 2016 that he and other Ninja Division founders grew up as fans of franchises such as Star Wars, Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda. “We were quintessential kids of the ’80s, when there was all of that sugar and bubble gum and pop culture zaniness. We loved it. We absorbed it. A lot of that stuff influenced us.” Darin Oswald doswald@idahostatesman.com

But in March 2017, Stella — whom the letter identifies as the lead designer on the game — developed heart problems and couldn’t work as much. They hired a new designer, Justin Gibbs, in August 2017. The events caused “cash flow issues ... which we continue to battle in an attempt to fulfill our obligation,” the letter said.

The company had been giving its backers updates — 132 of them — but “communication from a small group of backers has become increasingly vocal and hostile” and threatening, it said. Cadice told the Statesman that’s why the company stopped engaging with its customers.

$750,000 in the hole?

So, where did the $1.2 million go?

“Raising the funds needed was attempted (and continues to be attempted) through profits of non-Super Dungeon projects as well as outside investor funding,” the letter said.

The company spent about $486,000 on game development for “Super Dungeon Explore: Legends,” issued about $53,000 in refunds and spent about $344,000 on annual overhead since the Kickstarter campaign ended, the letter said. The overhead for 2017 wiped out what was left of the Kickstarter funds.

The company expected to start producing the game in November 2017, but “funds we anticipated to have in place in order to begin manufacturing did not materialize,” the letter said. It didn’t specify where Ninja Division expected those funds to come from.

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“To date, we have still not been able to secure funding for the approximately $750,000 needed to complete the project,” the letter said. “However, we continue to work diligently in an attempt to find the funds.”

The letter doesn’t address the other Kickstarter campaigns for Ninja Division games after 2015.

Ninja Division is looking at a couple of options, the letter said. It could sell the studio — essentially, selling its intellectual property — or produce a part of the game on credit in hopes that it will “jump start sales” of other Ninja Division products.

Some are resigned, some hopeful

The “Super Dungeon Explore: Legends” campaign has 30,000 comments and counting, as customers speculate on what’s going on with the company.

The Statesman has heard from dozens of dissatisfied backers, who gave hundreds to that and other campaigns.

They accuse the company of defrauding consumers, offering goods they knew they couldn’t deliver. Some of them use the “P” word, asking what the difference is between a Ponzi scheme and a company using fundraising to pay for prior campaigns. They note that Ninja Division also collected shipping costs for items it hasn’t shipped.

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“I understand that Kickstarter is a risk, but [the company] consistently misled or outright lied to their supporters on a regular basis,” backer Matt Johnson of Portland told the Statesman in an email. “Requests for clarity were met with silence or hostility. Deadlines that the company set for itself were missed and then never mentioned again. Multiple projects were being ‘worked on’ in what now looks like some kind of Ponzi scheme to keep the lights on. [Super Dungeon Explore: Legends] alone pulled in almost $1.3 million and the company couldn’t ship out a single component after over three years?”

A few remain optimistic the business will come through — that a box will arrive on their doorstep someday soon.

“I’m a die hard fan of the company and their properties,” Miguel Lackups-Fuentes, a backer from Michigan, said in a December email to the Statesman. “I enjoy the games and have since Super Dungeon Explore came out about 10 or so years ago. ... I trust them to get things delivered and I fear that a lot of the community has turned on them when things are close to being completed. Of course, I could just be delusional.”

Or they hope, at least, for a refund.

“As all of you, I’ve been waiting for this project for three years,” one backer wrote in early February, more than two years after the expected delivery date listed on the Kickstarter page. “Can anyone tell me what steps should I take to recover my money back?”

Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden’s office on Wednesday issued a written response to complaints against the company. Cadice forwarded it to the Statesman without comment. The Statesman confirmed its authenticity with the attorney general’s office.

The letter, from one of Wasden’s investigators, said the office doesn’t plan to take action against the company.

“The Kickstarter website clearly sets forth that while committing to fund a Kickstarter project MAY engender a private contract between you (the funder) and the project creator, there is no guarantee of completion,” the AG’s investigator wrote. “Additionally, while there appears to be significant speculation about what may have happened to the money that Ninja Division Publishing raised through its Kickstarter campaign(s), we have received nothing substantive to suggest it has been misappropriated or used in a manner inconsistent with the promoted project. Additionally, the company indicates it continues its efforts to create and produce the project you agreed to help fund.”

Kickstarter backers might consider filing breach-of-contract lawsuits, the letter said.

Soon, the letter was shared with backers on the game’s Kickstarter page.

“This sucks a lot,” a backer wrote. “I’m not from USA so I don’t know what steps do I must follow to continue this ‘battle’ being a foreigner.”

Editor’s note: The title of game “Super Dungeon Explore: Legends” has been corrected.

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Watchdog reporter Audrey Dutton joined the Statesman in 2011. Before that, she covered finance policy in Washington, D.C., during the financial crisis. She also worked as a reporter in Maryland, Minneapolis and New York. Audrey grew up in Twin Falls.
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