10 min read

Kickstarting a Coding Education Video Game in a Post-"Code Hero" World

We knew that launching a coding education video game on Kickstarter after the catastrophe that was "Code Hero" would be challenging. We studied the Code Hero campaign intensely, so that we could later prove ourselves competent & trustworthy to backers.

On Feb. 23, 2012, the Kickstarter, "Code Hero: A Game That Teaches You To Make Games", was funded for $170,954, well beyond its $100,000 goal. The 7,459 backers of the Code Hero campaign were thrilled! What better way is there to learn coding than by learning how to make your own video games?

What happened next can only be classified as a catastrophe... Here's the dark, abbreviated history of Code Hero:

Six months after the Kickstarter's end, the Alpha of Code Hero (not the final release as was originally scheduled) was to be launched at PAX Prime in August 2012. But what happened at PAX? Nothing

Then, there was no word from Primer Labs for several months. Finally, in February 2013 (a full year after the Kickstarter had been funded), Primer Labs posted a Kickstarter update explaining exactly how their funding for the project ran dry, apologizing to backers for the complete lack of communication, and they released an "Alpha 2" version of the game.

Come the next PAX Prime in August 2013, when the full, stable alpha build of Code Hero is to be releasedNothing. The Beta release didn't come out until December 2013. The final release of the game is expected to never see the light of day.

Backers were furious. They wanted their money back & many considered class action lawsuits in the Code Hero Kickstarter comments board. 













It felt like coding education video games were done for. We were terrified. We had been developing CodeSpells (a video game that teaches coding through the metaphor of magic) as a research project at UC San Diego for several years, but now it needed funding: we had two amazing video game developers who wanted to work on it and not enough money to pay their salaries. Kickstarter was our way to make CodeSpells the blockbuster game we had always wanted it to be, but how could backers trust us after Code Hero?

Our team spent many hours dissecting the Code Hero campaign, trying to figure out where they went wrong, so that we could make it clear to backers that we weren't going to turn out like them. When we launched our Kickstarter, we expected backers to bring up Code Hero, and we knew we needed to prove ourselves competent & trustworthy. We knew we would need the answers to "How is CodeSpells different?"


Where did Code Hero go wrong? (And what will CodeSpells do differently?)

  1. CODE HERO: Large, expensive team. From their Kickstarter page, it was not clear who would be helping Alex Peake make Code Hero. The Kickstarter page said they would use 4 programmers & 2 artists - but who were they and did they have previous experience in the video game industry? How much would each be getting paid? In later interviews after the Kickstarter funding had been burned, Alex revealed that in order to "poach" developers from industry jobs, they paid industry-standard salaries ($4000-$5000 a month) to about 10 developers. Simple math explains why the Kickstarter blew through its funding so quickly. 
    • CODESPELLS: Small, inexpensive team. The CodeSpells Kickstarter is funding one Lead Developer & one Lead Artist to create the game over a 1-year period (and beyond, depending on the stretch goals reached.) Our team is passionate enough about CodeSpells not to be in it for the money - our developers will not be receiving an "industry standard" salary. The other 3 members of the team (Sarah, Stephen, and Lindsey) are the co-founders of ThoughtSTEM, a coding education business in the San Diego area with a reputation to uphold. These 3 members of the team do not need Kickstarter funding, but will provide stability & oversight to the project.  
  2. CODE HERO: Largely inexperienced developers. The developers Alex hired were inexperienced! In his apologetic update on Feb. 2, 2013, Alex said, "We were figuring it out as we went along by asking more experienced developers how we should do things. This cost us a lot of time." The Code Hero Kickstarter spent a significant portion of its funding on inefficient development. 
    • CODESPELLS: Experienced developers, particularly in the niche of teaching coding through video games. The CodeSpells team, on the other hand, has 31 years of cumulative video game development experience. In fact, much of our experience lies in a very applicable niche: video games that teach you how to code! Four years before the Code Hero Kickstarter even launched, CodeSpells team members, Stephen & Adrian, were developing a video game that taught you how to code video games, OpenMetaGame. OpenMetaGame development petered out around the time Stephen left to pursue his PhD in Computer Science with an emphasis on CS Education. CodeSpells was inspired by Stephen's early work in OpenMetaGame. CodeSpells has been a significant portion of two CodeSpells team member PhD dissertations (Sarah & Stephen). In addition, ThoughtSTEM has recent experience in this niche: LearnToMod is a software that allows kids to code (mod) in Minecraft that ThoughtSTEM has been developing for the past year.


  3. CODE HERO: No budget & no other sources of funding. My guess is that Alex never made a budget; if he had, he would have realized how tight on money the project would be. After the Kickstarter funding ran dry, Alex said he was searching for more funding, but from where? 
    • CODESPELLS: Prepared a budget & additional sources of funding. We know exactly what we're spending our budget on: primarily the salaries of our video game developer & artist. Furthermore, ThoughtSTEM is actively going to be seeking funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for further CodeSpells development. ThoughtSTEM has previously been awarded NSF funding for CodeSpells, making it more likely the NSF will fund it again in the future! 
  4. CODE HERO: Fear of negativity from backers. Repeatedly, Alex Peake cited his lack of communication with backers stemmed from the "negativity" he perceived on the Kickstarter comment boards. Peake has said, "I personally got very discouraged by the amount of negative comments. It's hard when you make a game and you want it to be awesome, and people want to see all the early versions of it, but you don't necessarily want to share them until they're good." Peake's fear of releasing a partially finished product that would make backers upset, probably caused many of the release date delays that made backers so angry. 
    • CODESPELLS: Experience dealing with customers. Customers can be hard to deal with sometimes! Negative criticism from customers is no excuse for a complete lack of communication, however. ThoughtSTEM has two years of experience dealing with customers, and we plan to treat our backers like customers - and customer feedback MATTERS to us. 
  5. CODE HERO: Inexperience when preparing the project goals & timeline for the Kickstarter. The Code Hero Kickstarter promised its backers a lot of in-game content in a very short amount of time. Given that no one on the team was particularly experienced in developing video games, it's no surprise that no one knew how long it would take to develop this game. 
    • CODESPELLS: Experience in video game production. Adrian & Jason, our expert video game developers, have years of industry experience & have been approximating development time for several years. Because of this experience, our team has been very careful about what deliverables we promise our backers. We've been very careful not to make extravagant claims so that we can deliver on the release dates that we've set (and we always hope to deliver MORE than we promised.)


  6. CODE HERO: Kickstarter funding was spent traveling to video game development conferences. Showing a game at PAX is expensive! It's no wonder the Code Hero funding ran dry. Preparing for these events, traveling, and the registration fees likely took a chunk out of the Kickstarter budget! 
    • CODESPELLS: Kickstarter money will not be spent on travel & video game dev conferences. Our team hopes to demo the CodeSpells Alpha at PAX South in late January, but we won't spend Kickstarter money on this conference! If our team heads to PAX, ThoughtSTEM will be paying the registration fees & associated costs from its own pockets as an investment in the future of CodeSpells. 
  7. CODE HERO: Lack of transparency. Backers were left in the dark for months wondering if Alex Peake had run away with their money. This was unforgivable, and immediately lost the trust of many backers. The team wasn't transparent about how the money was going to be spent upfront either. Backers were unaware of the budget until the apologetic update on Feb. 2, 2013 explaining how all the money was spent. 
    • CODESPELLS: Open & honest communication with backers. From the beginning of our Kickstarter, we've tried to have an open & honest dialogue with backers. We plan to continue this communication long after the Kickstarter ends by posting monthly updates about CodeSpells development & keeping up a dev blog. We will have our first development update ready for backers later this month! 
  8. CODE HERO: No accountability. It was clear from their Kickstarter video that Alex Peake & his fellows at "Primer Labs" were young, inexperienced, and had little to lose by shooting for the stars and launching a Kickstarter. What's the worst that could happen?
    • CODESPELLS: We're held accountable. If ThoughtSTEM doesn't deliver on its Kickstarter rewards, its name has been tarnished & its local customers will be angry. ThoughtSTEM has a reputation to uphold, unlike the mystery team from Primer Labs. ThoughtSTEM wouldn't put its name on the line if we felt we couldn't deliver on this Kickstarter.


  9. CODE HERO: No back-up plan. Code Hero development has come to a screeching halt. The last comment by Alex Peak on the Kickstarter comments board was in December of last year. Code Hero never released its source code to the public. There is an enormous base of developers who would love to work on it. 
    • CODESPELLS: Back-up plan. If CodeSpells development comes to a screeching halt, we promise our Kickstarter backers that we will release the CodeSpells source code so that development of this game can continue through crowd-sourced volunteer development. 

As expected, the community has brought up Code Hero on several occasions, but every time CodeSpells has proven itself worthy of funding. One Redditor commented: 

Code Hero was too ambitious and too inexperienced to deliver. There was absolutely no chance that game was going to be delivered complete. However, I funded it for the same reason I vote outside of the two parties: because otherwise nobody will notice what we actually care about.

Edit: after reading the kick-start page and seeing the video, I'm basically sold. I think [CodeSpells] has a much better chance at succeeding, but I'm not going to be upset if it fails. This team really seems to have their shit together.

This comment summarized our biggest win of the entire CodeSpells Kickstarter campaign. People realized we had our "shit together". 

As of this writing, the CodeSpells Kickstarter campaign has overshot its goal of $50,000 and is funded at $88K with 15 days still to go! We have been amazed at the incredible support from our backers. We plan to post a full post-mortem at the end of our campaign to detail how we got to where we are today! 

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