Quinnspiracy: The Incestuous Nature of Modern Game Journalism

Depending on how one views Gamergate and the events that have transpired since, indie game developer Zoe Quinn is known as many things; hero, villain, fraud, victim, liar, advocate, idol, and opportunist are just some of what one will find when searching for opinions on the controversial figure. Yet almost three years removed from the launch of a Kickstarter campaign she managed, and with still no game to show, it’s time to question if the one adjective that should stick is ‘scammer’.

Initiated on October 26, 2016, ‘Kickstarted in the Butt: A Chuck Tingle Digital Adventure’ was a crowdfunding effort to raise money for an erotic full motion video (FMV) game created by Quinn and her team of developers. With an original asking price of $69,420, the game would go on to raise over 85 grand from 2450 different backers, a feat no doubt accomplished due to a push it received from the media. 

Right away it was highlighted on Kotaku, Metro, AV Club, The Daily Dot, Eurogamer, PCGamesN, RockPaperShotgun, Kill Screen, Logo, Inverse, and elsewhere. On top of that, just a few months prior, Kill Screen, The Daily Dot, Polygon, Rockpapershotgun, and Birth Movies Death, ran articles highlighting the game after its existence was revealed on Quinn’s blog, and in a Vice documentary short. 

From the very beginning it was stated the game was almost a year into development; a claim that suggested the simple looking title would have no problem hitting its February release window.  Now, almost three years later and with no official update on the status of the game since August of last year, one must wonder, is it ever going to release? And, given the spotlight it had attained when the crowdfunding effort was launched, why has no one in mainstream game journalism yet reported on its current status? 

The media was seemingly excited for an erotic Chuck Tingle FMV, so it’s quite telling that not a single site mentioned above has dedicated any articles to detailing the current status of the project, especially given the names of those attached to it. 

Elby Teufal & John Warren from Fanbyte Media, Marvel comics writer Karla Pacheco, Star Wars Show host Anthony Carboni, prolific voice actor Dante Basco, Jared Rosen from Riot Games, professional wrestler Joey Ryan, Rachel Sala from the popular Frog Factions, Jim Sterling of Youtube fame, Ian Hinck of Easy Allies, the designer of Undertale‘s final boss, and even actor Wil Wheaton make up the assortment of game developers, journalists, and actors who’ve lent their expertise to the project.

Also serving as an extra within the game is Matt Kim, a recent full time hire of IGN. I single him out because he is the journalist who helped boost the project during its crowdfunding phase in the Inverse article linked above. This in and out of itself wasn’t unethical as he properly disclosed his role within the project, but what I find particularly galling is that in the years since, he hasn’t written, or as far as I can tell, tweeted about the game. He was all too eager to boost a project he had a small part in, but he isn’t publicly curious as to why there’s nothing to show for it now. 

Though I suppose that’s just due to the nature of modern game journalism. Everything to help a friend, but with no accountability afterwards. To which accountability is something both Quinn’s game and the journalism surrounding it, or lack thereof, needs. Because the red flags aren’t just raised, the emergency sirens are full-on blaring.

Of the articles that hyped the game to the masses following the Vice documentary, three were written by journalists who’d previously had positive interactions with Zoe on Twitter. While this alone isn’t enough to establish any type of friendship given we all interact with random people every day, it’s the context of these conversations that suggest there’s more here than random online chatter. 

Take for example Andrew Todd from Birth Movies Death.  As far back as 2015 Zoe called him the “best guy,” and as recently as December, she said “love you bud.” Those tweets are just two of many interactions between them. Nowhere in his article does he disclose being close with the creator of the game, so the ethics of the piece are highly questionable, especially given the hype-fueled nature of it.

Their conversations show evidence of a journalistic climate where friends help out friends, to which it doesn’t end there. Here’s the interactions of a Kill Screen journalist who told readers to back the project. Notice their many conversations date back to 2013. 

Similarly, his piece offers no disclosure of a friendship. 

Again, friends in the medium help out friends. Why else does Jim Sterling remain silent about a project he lent his voice to? He’s built a career out of taking the industry to task, yet he doesn’t seem interested in why something he dedicated time to has just disappeared. Could it be because he’s collaborated on projects involving Quinn a number of times, including a recent book his own Podcast cohort and close friend Laura Kate Dale is soon to be publishing after her own successful crowdfund?

Not so surprisingly, Laura Dale would boost the Chuck Tingle game’s alpha trailer on Kotaku

As I follow the events of this project I find myself asking all too often where are the ethics of this medium. So because no one else at any major sites seem to care, allow me to detail what’s happening with the game. 

In preparation for this article I reached out to as many team members as I could. Somewhat surprisingly I received some replies. The most important quote labeled the project as a “failed FMV game based on the bad writings of an Amazon ebooks guy.” This was soon followed up with “failure isn’t permanent as far as I know.” Therefore it would be inappropriate of me to say with certainty that the game will never come out, but it is looking unlikely. At least anytime in the near future. 

On March 6, 2017, in a video uploaded to Kickstarter, Quinn announced to her backers that the game had been delayed until June. Part of the reason for this was her work with SAG AFTRA (actor’s guild), and a need to reschedule people for the recording of various scenes. She also revealed that due to the guild work she’d have access to a wider talent pool, and the prospect of bringing on even more thespians had her excited. 

Nothing about the video was out of the norm given game delays and changes in production are common within the industry. What followed however, is a different story.

After missing the slated June release, a pre-alpha trailer was revealed to the world on August 29, 2017. Between that and New Years day, there would be no official updates on Kickstarter as to the status of the project. 

During the New Years’ post, Quinn blamed a three month book tour for her delay in updating backers. She had wanted to complete the game before she left, but says it was naive of her to think it possible. She then adds how the tour changed her perception on the game, and that it would be ported to mobile devices as to be more accessible. As time inevitably shows, she didn’t have the funds to accomplish this. 

When the Kickstarter was launched, the original asking price was $69,420. Clearly this was not a serious number. It’s a meme. OMG, LOL, 69 and 420. Blaze it. 

To a rational person this should have immediately been a clue as to how serious Quinn was taking the project. Game development and production isn’t to be taken lightly. It requires careful planning and resource management. An experienced developer just doesn’t pull a comical number out of thin air for the lulz. 

In an FAQ on the backer page, they do address this by stating: 

Did you pick your goal just because it’s the sexweed number? Do you actually need that much money?

We obviously like things to be…nice. But we also are an experienced development team who take our jobs and accounting seriously. A lot of successfully kickstarted projects struggle to see the light of day because they didn’t realistically factor in game production cost. All jokes aside, we did the math and found that 70k would fund the actors, film crews, voiceover talent, coders, contractors, and wildly sexy props (you could take some of those home, check the rewards!). So basically, it was worth the couple hundred dollars extra of the 70k budget to shave it down to a really nice number.”

Whoever did the budgeting must not be very good because as of August 2018 the team simply didn’t have the funds to finish it. In a backer-exclusive update, and via a post on Twitter, Quinn disclosed the project had run out of funds “a long time ago.” Shockingly, this post was made on the same week she was on vacation in Japan. 

Since the August 2018 post, there hasn’t been any additional updates on Kickstarter. Though on Twitter, Quinn has discussed it from time to time. When Niche Gamer community member Charles asked her in April where the game was, she once again proclaimed she didn’t have money to finish it. Yet oddly, for someone with no money, she still continues to back other people’s projects on Kickstarter. 

Her seeming misuse of money is extremely fishy. To many people, myself included, this rings of being a scam. Until I began researching this piece I was adamant that it was, but after speaking to people involved with the game, my general takeaway is that it’s not. According to my private conversation with Chuck Tingle, he was paid between 1-2% of the Kickstarter’s overall goal. That may seem low, but he is satisfied with the amount. 

Likewise, while speaking with another member of the team I was told they were paid their hourly wage on time, and had even been reimbursed for other expenses. Everything was by the books as per the information that has been revealed to me within recent weeks. No one felt underpaid, and everyone got their checks on time. 

I know a lot of folks are quick to label Zoe Quinn a scammer, and in some areas of her life she very well may be, but in regards to the FMV game I think the actual answer is far more simple. 

Zoe Quinn is the beneficiary of a gaming media too unwilling to provide scrutiny towards certain individuals. She has ties to a lot of journalists and they aren’t going to make her accountable. It is my belief that she set out to make a legitimate game, but fell way over her head. She didn’t properly budget the title, and she made too many late term decisions to increase the project’s scope.

The switch to mobile was probably the final nail in the coffin, and with whatever funds she had available, they just couldn’t make it work. My assumption is that the cost of finishing the title is still much too high, and she’d just rather not devote her own funds to the project. That doesn’t make her a scammer, it just makes her irresponsible, and given the circumstances surrounding the project, a bad developmental lead. 

A sad reality of game development is that games sometimes fail. That’s what happened here. Though that doesn’t mean Quinn should be let off the hook. It is distressing the constant disregard she has towards keeping backers up to date. She received $85,000 from consumers to complete a game, and remains mum as to its whereabouts. We are just over one month shy of a year since the Kickstarter’s last official update, and as of this writing, according to her Kickstarter page, she hasn’t even logged in since January 15, 2019. 

A disgusting show of behavior towards the individuals who were excited enough by her project to give her nearly 100 grand. 

Upsetting still is that the media just doesn’t care. She is protected by friends and colleagues who include her in their projects, and who will boost her newest career ventures, but don’t have the moral fortitude to provide answers to the 2450 people who gave her money. 

Jim Sterling may screech about consumer rights, yet he doesn’t seem to care when consumers get ripped off by a friend. 

Quinn is a person who certainly knows her positioning and will use it to elevate her career at every possible opportunity, aided by journalists who bend over backwards to make it so. No doubt by this point in time she has to be aware of her protected status. Which lays blame at her feet, but the biggest enemy here is not Quinn, it’s the journalists who allow her to keep thriving without accountability. 

This industry is incestuous, and it will continue to be so until more of us start calling this startling lack of ethics out. 




Sophia was a former Niche Gamer contributor.

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