Crowdfunding Fraudsters: The Sinclair ZX Spectrum Vega+

Fraudster:
2
a:  a person who is not what he or she pretends to be :impostor;

Meet the Sinclair ZX Spectrum Vega+, a handheld device designed with the backing of Sir Clive Sinclair himself, and a modern representation of everyone’s favorite 80’s computer system designed by Sir Clive Sinclair. The Vega+ was crowdfunded on Indiegogo back in March 2016 to the tune of over half a million pounds, exceeding the goal at 367% with a scheduled delivery date of September 2016. As you’ve probably guessed by this article’s existence, it hasn’t shipped yet. As nature seems to demand in these stories, the actions of Retro Computers Limited and those involved are a much more interesting crapshoot than the actual product itself, which again hasn’t shipped yet.

(Full disclosure: I backed the Vega+ to the tune of £110, I fully expect this fact to be used against me but in the interest of disclosure and because my name and contribution are public, I will say it again here.)

A lot of this story dates back to the origin of the hardware’s funding, with the departure of directors Paul Andrews and Chris Smith, their exit due to irreconcilable differences, with both maintaining a 25% share in the company despite doing everything possible to distance themselves from it. If that doesn’t make sense, keep reading, I promise it doesn’t get any clearer. As someone who still eats at the McDonald’s that I’ve tried to burn down, I can completely understand the logic.

The agreement between Retro Computers Ltd and Cornerstone Media International Ltd went sour over unpaid bills and RCL headed up a lawsuit over breach of contract allegations. When asked if RCL would be able to ship the Spectrum on time, managing director Suzanne Martin had the following to say:

“The team at Retro Computers Limited and our partners are fully committed to delivering the Vega+ in accordance with our IndieGogo campaign, and with the added bonus of some new features created by the new technical director and his team,”

Evidently not, because in September the RCL crew went on Indiegogo to announce that the product was on schedule to hit its October launch. Wait, October launch? Well, on one hand it’s just a month delay and they’re having a launch party. Who has a launch party without a launch product? And the notice did say that the product would be available on select online retailers for the holiday season, so that’s something to go off of, right?

A launch event, for selected backers, supporters and media, is planned to take place at SMS Electronics Limited , in Beeston Nottinghamshire. SMS are the manufacturer of both the original Vega and the new Vega+ products, on behalf of Retro Computers Limited.  Andrew Maddock, CEO of SMS said “We are excited that the project is going ahead and will soon be in volume manufacture.”

The next announcement told backers to make sure that their contact and delivery details were up to date, and that they’d be in contact over the following week to discuss delivery schedules. Now that we’re in November/December territory in our story, it’s probably a good time to tell the backers what’s been going on. As it turns out, that play test that RCL did with the first Vega+ systems identified a problem that simply needed to be fixed. There’s a light on one side that won’t light, so they’re taking it back to the factory to fix it up there and bring it back here.

“Assembling and playing with these first units we identified an improvement we believed was essential to the Vega+ gaming experience. An improvement that would make the feel of the product far better, including a correction in the design of one of the buttons making it more robust and able to withstand the rigours of extended game-play.”

Well since we missed the September, then October release dates, what do you have for us now, Jack? After thanking backers for their patience, RCL announced the new, new, new release date:

“This change has caused a brief delay and we are truly sorry about that, but we needed this time to improve the product and we have now completed the necessary revisions and we are delighted to announce that we will ship the first units in February 2017.”

Very good, now hopefully this won’t be overridden by the next quoted announcement.

“First Vega + units will ship after the 20th February 2017”

It’s like I knew it was coming. Yes, the schedule had once again changed to a tentative “sometime in the future,” let’s play it by ear and see where nature takes us. You see up until this point the talks of delays have been pretty much all about technical designs, making the device as cool as it can be, normal stuff that happens with hardware manufacturing. We got the child’s view of the parent’s impending divorce with all the nastiness cut out. Now all of a sudden RCL starts talking about lawsuits. We learned from the world of petty business tactics that Andrews and Smith had not just left the company, they threw the baby out with the bathwater, then stole the baby and the water.

Seriously, after promising that the duo would hand over all assets, they didn’t, meaning RCL was now on the hook piece of Vega+ hardware and no firmware to back it up. To top off matters, this is the point where Cornerstone Media could no longer figure out who owned the rights to the Vega and subsequently stopped paying royalties, hence the lawsuit.

Unfortunately the handover did not include any technical assets, and specifically excluded the software for the Vega+ which had already, in December 2015, been developed to the point of having working prototypes available in time for the January 2016 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. We therefore had to create the Vega+ technology completely from scratch, starting in May, and the development work had to be carried out by a small team who did not have any of the specific Vega knowledge and experience of Chris Smith who led the development of both the Vega and the company’s Vega+ prototypes.

And then, to top off the cake, according to Retro Computers Ltd, they used their powers (likely as shareholders) to try and stop RCL from suing Cornerstone over the breach of contract. Paul Andrews then, allegedly, began contacting developers who had pledged their games to the Vega+ and tried to convince them to withdraw their support from the system. Again, I can understand. This takes me back to the days when I sent in my college application and then penned a letter writing campaign to tell the applications board that I wasn’t college material. I’m just looking out for my own well being.

I’m going to reiterate because I feel like this is important enough to again be summarized and hammered down: 25% shareholders are allegedly calling business partners and trying to convince them not to do business with their business. Perhaps these guys should get into automobile accident fraud law, they seem really skilled at throwing each other under buses. The great thing about text is that you don’t hear the frustrated vulgarities of the editor trying to wrap his head around this whole ordeal. I’ll leave it up to RCL to once again ask why the hell the shareholders are damaging their own business.

Once again, the question needs to be asked of Mr Andrews and Mr Smith, as to why they would wish to damage Retro by attempting to prevent the recovery of a significant amount of money owed to the company. The recovery of this money would enable Retro to make additional royalty payments to all the games rights owners whose games are in the Vega, and to make an additional donation to our chosen charity, Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity.

But it gets better. It always gets better. This is where we need to introduce a new player, Darren Melbourne. Melbourne is the director of a company that is not a Chinese knockoff of Retro Computers Ltd, even though it is named suspiciously close, Retro Games Ltd, and was founded less than two years after RCL, and it also has a few of RCL’s ex-directors. Retro Games Ltd has four equal shareholders, including Melbourne and coincidentally enough Paul Andrews and Chris Smith. What are the odds? By virtue of happenstance, Retro Games Ltd launched an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign in April 2016, a point that oddly coincides with Smith and Andrews deciding that they couldn’t stand it anymore at RCL.

What were they crowdfunding, you ask? Well it just happened to be a different modern version of a different old computer system, in this case the Commodore 64 which is in fact not the Spectrum. The campaign, which the trio had been working on going back to March, constituted a conflict of interest according to RCL director David Levy. Chris Smith retained ownership of the firmware for the Vega and Vega+ which he allegedly offered to sell to RCL for twenty grand. According to reports, they refused and in April appointed Janko Mrsic-Flogel and Suzanne Martin without Smith and Andrew’s approval, and made their own firmware.

At one point in this whole debacle, the two parties went to court over attempts to remove Smith and Andrews as shareholders, if for anything for the crime of being the worse hype men in the history of business. In November, the Chancery Division court ruled against RCL.

Nicholas Cooper, 99% owner of Cornerstone Media International Ltd (said defendant) put his company into liquidation at the end of January this year. Cooper, thanks to Chief Master Marsh, has been named a defendant and will be held personally liable along with his company to the tune of over one hundred fifty thousand pounds in funds that RCL hopes to recover from the botched business deal. RCL’s deal with Cornerstone Media happened after the company stopped paying royalties for the Vega, which were suspended (according to Cooper) due to the dispute over ownership of the Vega firmware.

But let’s go back to Darren Melbourne, who in a correspondence with RCL’s lawyers, had the following to say:

“I’ve been in the games industry for over thirty years and I personally know at least three quarters of all of the rights holders of games on the Vega. I will write to each rights holder encouraging them to approach RCL [Retro Computers Ltd] for the royalties that are owed in respect of their titles. I will also encourage them to withdraw permission for their games to be used on the Vega.”

According to RCL, Melbourne has gone further by not just contacting a children’s hospital charity (that RCL had made a donation to) to slander the team, but showing up at the home of Sir Clive Sinclair himself, of which he was apparently immediately booted out.

The Unsubstantiated Threat of Violence

But where would a campaign such as this be without threatening the press? According to a BBC report published earlier this month, when the news agency contacted RCL in December to ask about the status of the Vega+, they were threatened with legal action. Evidently, according to RCL’s lawyer Michelmores LLP, the BBC has it out for RCL:

“Our clients are concerned that the BBC is in fact supporting and participating in a malicious campaign intended to denigrate our clients’ reputation,” wrote lawyers Michelmores LLP in a letter to the broadcaster.

Absolutely, keep up the narrative that it’s a campaign of hate, it puts you in the same crowd as Digital Homicide and every egotistical independent creator for whom threats are a convenient excuse for not doing the job they’re paid for. In addition to the legal threats, RCL wanted the ability to view BBC coverage 48 hours before it went live so they could point out any “false information.” The BBC refused, and if you haven’t noticed it’s given rise to a huge amount of other press taking an extra close look at Retro Computers Ltd. Us not exempt, and I did indeed give RCL plenty of time to add any comments. They ignored my email.

I do want to point out that I’m not casting doubt or making light on whether or not people have made death threats against Retro Computers Ltd. This is the internet, I am guaranteed to get a death threat for writing this article, because this is the internet and there are a lot of psychopaths who are on here. I’ve received death threats over covering the death threats reported by other people. It does not take a lot to invoke the wrath of the internet’s mentally unstable underground, let alone when you’re a public facing company.

No Refund Requests Received = No Refund Requests Denied

Suzanne Martin boldly told Eurogamer that “we have never refused a backer a refund,” a statement that stands at odds with the Vega+ Indiegogo page which is currently saturated with comments of people reporting numerous, if not a few dozen, refund attempts going unanswered. I suppose if you never check the page, your email, or any other forms of contact that people have used to get in touch with you, you technically never say no.

“RCL, I have emailed you for a refund request on two different sources, the comment section being third source in the last 30min, I know how forgetful you can be at getting back to people and posting online manuals etc so I posted here now can I please get my refund?”

“Just for clarity I will once again post my refund request of £105 for the Clive (Black). Probably kicking into mid 20’s now in terms of refund requests. Eagerly awaiting any new info or footage which may change my opinion on this but currently I still want off this ride until that is forthcoming.”

“Still waiting for even a reply on refund request. It seems RCL doesn’t deny refund requests by way of ignoring them.”

I would point out that the RCL Facebook page is similarly plastered, but it isn’t. Those users are banned and their posts deleted, talks of refunds are against the rules there. It isn’t uncommon for me to check my phone and see that six people have posted things on the RCL Facebook page only to click the link and find nothing there.

You People Need To Get Over Yourself

As if to compound the bad PR, over at the Vega’s ironically named “DEMOCRACY!” page, a closed Facebook group where for the past week MMO Fallout has quietly observed regular bans for skepticism, loyalty to the product is fervent if not fanatical. News postings covering the Indiegogo campaign are immediately labeled fake news, in spite of either the inability or unwillingness of those pointing fingers to notate any actual inaccuracies. Claims of upcoming fact checking of articles never seem to come to fruition, and paranoia is also high over fake accounts, and the group seems to have deep contempt for another Vega+ group seemingly made up of those banned from the official group, to the point where RCL people are regularly seen calling it a “hate group.”

Just read this following passage to skeptics and try not to forget that we’re still talking about a piece of consumer hardware, specifically complaints over a video being delayed.

RCL’s inability to meet basic deadlines for what should otherwise be pretty mundane stuff doesn’t go far to help their image either. This week, the company promised photos, videos, and footage of the system booting up, which were posted late because taking shots with a smart phone is a monumental task in 2017. They did release this shot of the units which looks pretty fancy if I do say so myself, but not until after acting as though having an employee take a few snapshots on his phone during lunch might push the launch date back to October.

I actually delayed this piece by a week to give Retro Computers Ltd time to put out these shots and videos that they were purportedly making, because I didn’t want to call them incompetent or question that the product actually existed only to be shot down by the end of the week. They delivered, with the photo above and most recently the video below.

RCL doesn’t have to go far to find haters, but the public face of the company sure puts a lot of effort towards taking disgruntled backers and turning them into pissed off jilted lovers thanks to comment deletion and banning. They do have their work cut out for them as the “public” (closed group) discussion page on Facebook, where the mood regularly swings between healthy skepticism and paranoid delusion, has put together the most skilled assortment of expert digital photographers to ever haul freight and set them on the task of using forensic analysis (read: pixelated photos) to determine (read: confirm their already made conclusion) that the pixels look all wrong and therefore it’s all a giant conspiracy. It’s only a matter of time before we find out that the materials used in the Vega+ models are from the faked moon landing.

In Conclusion

This is the longest Crowdfunding Fraudsters I have ever written and definitely the longest from start to finish, because the story is ridiculous and I felt that some of the pieces needed to be put together. I also had some serious doubts about publishing this piece at all, because the more I dove into it the more apparent it became that this wasn’t the case of an incompetent crew receiving a lot of money and getting in over their heads with promises that they never conceivably could make, as it usually is, but the case of what would have been a well oiled machine seemingly sabotaged from the inside. To put it in another analogy, by most accounts the train was running fine until one of the conductors broke the steering wheel off and jumped ship. Train. The train should reach the station any day now, but having that steering wheel would have been nice.

So as much as a certain Facebook group probably relishes in the thought of people like Suzanne Martin and David Levy sitting in the RCL offices every day, sipping tea out of cups made of backer money and laughing maniacally, I have my doubts. If the crew at RCL is guilty of anything, it is of talking too much about the wrong topics. Focus less on giving intricate details about the aspects that people care less about, like the lawsuits, and put that time into talking about the things that people do want to hear, like game lists, like acknowledging delays. More importantly, acknowledge delays. Stop promising that you’ll put something out “tomorrow,” only to say nothing when it’s several days later and you haven’t produced anything. In fact, stop using the term “tomorrow” entirely, just boot it from your vocabulary.

Barring some crazy shift, I think it’s likely that backers will eventually receive their products, myself included. A six or seven month delay, assuming it does launch this month or in April, isn’t crazy for hardware. It is unfortunate, but not entirely out of this world. I expect by that point most of the drama going on at both Facebook pages will mostly cease, but who says you can’t enjoy it while it lasts, or until they figure out my Facebook profile and I get banned.

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  • Zebrasinamerica

    This hurt my brain.

  • Zebrasinamerica

    I am hoping that companies like Indiegogo and Kickstarter are keeping track of these sorts of shenanigans. It would be nice not to have to worry about backing a project that involves the people who operate like this. The Digital Homicide fellow knew just enough to hang himself while kicking everyone around him with his twitching legs. This is an entirely different situation from the sounds of it. Having a vested interest in the company ultimately putting out the product you were promised puts you in a rough spot. I think if you didn’t have skin in the game, you would be much more critical of those involved, and much less optimistic about the outcome pending (presumably, someday). Thankfully, journalists like you keep us informed, can keep track of the complexities involved in this type of wrongdoing, and warn us off of projects with the stink of those involved in the future, but yeah, my hope is that startup backing companies are doing as good a job as you in sorting these messes, determining who the nefarious parties are, and barring them from participating in future projects.

    As I said, this hurt my brain, so it was easier for me to write off everyone involved in the fiasco. Even if there was a reasonably-minded person touching this situation, they would have jumped ship, announced their parting ways due to irreconcilable differences, then distanced themselves from everyone else involved. It looks like one or more attempted to do that, but decided that their reputation wasn’t tarnished permanently yet, and continue to cling to everything else circling the drain along with them. These are the kinds of people that go on my list of people to avoid at all costs, and things to avoid at all costs if any of these people are involved in any way with them.

    Thank you Connor. I wasn’t even aware of this device, so don’t care much about the outcome, but now I know to avoid anything in the future related to these companies and the people in them. Cheers!