Crowdfunding Fraudsters: Marvel Heroes and the Diploma Mill of Nostalgia

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

Despite all evidence to the contrary, I actually get a lot of criticism when it comes to Crowdfunding Fraudsters for apparently being too lenient on the subjects. I take a lot of time to carefully parse my statements so that we’re not making any assumptions on motivation or things that can’t be proven outright, and quite a few people take that as me trying to play devil’s advocate for what they see as an obviously shady campaign. I understand where they’re coming form, and on behalf of protecting my own legal liabilities, I humbly disagree.

Now this campaign, on the other hand, nobody’s getting sunburn with all of the shadiness present.

I introduce you to the Marvel Heroes Rebirth, an Indiegogo campaign seeking $450,000 on a promise that it can’t keep for the sale of a property that they haven’t secured the rights for. It may look like your run of the mill predatory “jump on the nostalgia” sort of campaign that we’ve seen to revive old games or port them onto new systems either without the intention of or without the attempt to secure the rights from those who hold them, but if you shovel away the first layer we come upon a whole world of oddities. But more on that later.

I’ll start with the opening statement which reads like it was written by a timeshare salesman.

A sinister villain has shut down an iconic game. Fans are outraged. There is no relief in sight. Where is the hero destined to save the day and ease their suffering??? Oh, it’s you! We have an opportunity to save a great game that would otherwise be destined for the great void. There will be challenges and risks, but a great reward for those brave enough to help save the Marvel Heroes game platform. Help us save this game making it something better, stronger and faster than before.

The developer forming up to save Marvel Heroes is called Eldermage Studios, and if you head to their website it looks pretty independent gamey, very much focused around the proposition to rebirth Marvel Heroes anew. Do they have any credentials? No, but they’re hiring or they would be I suppose if the “Join Us” led to a working link. A company like this has to have some sort of founder, big industry guy, some sort of Richard Garriot-type philanthropist who really likes Marvel. I’ll even take a nerd with no programming skills but a lot of love for nostalgia who really liked Everquest back in the day.

Now $450 grand may seem like peanuts compared to the kind of money you would expect to need to license and host Marvel Heroes, and this campaign has heard your concerns and wants you to know that there is nothing to worry about since this pitch will very likely fail miserably.

  • Unless millions are raised to fund this campaign, the odds of this option being successful are very limited.

There’s the insurance statement. But it’s not all gloom and doom because the Copyright Office is reviewing a proposal that may exempt abandoned MMOs from the DMCA protection, which would allow Eldermage to legally operate the game even without Disney’s approval.

  • If Disney is unwilling to partner with us, there still may be another path.  Through March, 2018, the US Copyright Office is reviewing a proposal that would exempt abandoned MMOs from Digital Millennium Copyright Act protection; if exempted this would allow organizations such as ours to continue hosting Marvel Heroes. However, there is the likelihood that the game could not be further developed.   For more info and to provide your feedback on “Proposed Class 8” exemptions, visit the US Copyright Office.

In which case the pledges would be useless as you either wouldn’t be legally allowed to make those alterations into the game code or it would still be illegal for you to profit off of operating Marvel Heroes. Alternately, they might strip out all of the Marvel characters and replace them with public domain heroes which wouldn’t actually be that bad of an idea. Frankly I’d love to see a Diablo-style game using mostly golden-age heroes and it’d be a great way to bring them back to the public eye. You might have something going here.

And Eldermage does explain what the money is going towards:

To achieve our plan, we are currently seeking a minimum of $450k – $900k to acquire the intellectual property, cover due diligence and legal fees, procure necessary third-party support to host the rebranded game, and restore the game to use.  Yes, this is a large expense but much less than the original tens of millions of dollars used to develop and operate the platform.

A smart business decision that worked out great for Gamersfirst with All Points Bulletin, a $100 million engine that was sold for pennies on the dollar when Realtime Worlds went bankrupt and became profitable under the new company.

Now I could talk all day about the empty promises and nostalgia baiting that accompany these campaigns all day, but I wanna know: Who is the face behind Elder Mage? Unfortunately there is no staff page and the Elder Mage domain was registered by a name hiding company in Scottsdale Arizona. Sorry, I guess that’s the end of our trip! All we really have to go on is this bit about a 501c(3) organization called Paragon Institute.

Paragon Institute is a 501(c)(3) educational, non-profit; our goal is to establish ElderMage Studios as a learning lab to partner experienced professionals with aspiring game developers to help them gain the skills and hands-on experience necessary to work in the field. This may include time spent supporting or enhancing existing titles to create entirely new ones. A secondary mission is to preserve games that are no longer supported so that those who have licensed them may continue using them and so others may learn from them.

When you go to Paragon Institute’s website, you get a landing page for Paragon Academy which appears to be ticking down to something in 386 days, it looks like the academy is relaunching or something. What really interested me was that this Institute has a physical location in Cary, North Carolina and frankly physical location is basically like filling your legitimacy pitcher halfway from the get go. So I decided to just give the address a perusal in Google Maps to see the grandeur of this institute.

It’s a cul-de-sac, and I’m 99% certain that Google didn’t mess up the address, and I’m not all that worried about privacy because it is literally on the contact page for the Institute’s website.

So I continued to check out the website to see its legitimacy because if the Institute is indeed hosted out of some dude’s house, then the rolling photos on the website depicting smiling young people in classroom settings are total nonsense. In fact, I’m not in the greatest of moods and there are only three images rotating on the website, so let’s check those out: I did a quick backtracing on the Googles and it looks like this, this, and this, were creatively lifted and slightly modified from here, here, and here.

So maybe I’m being unnecessarily paranoid. Maybe it’s the fact that I can’t find anything, despite being a seasoned master of Google-fu, and this institute looks like a diploma mill. There isn’t enough information, let’s keep searching. There are three links on the “Students, Faculty, and Staff” page. The student/staff portal leads to the Office homepage, the Portal registration leads to an Office account creation page, and the page for former Chadwick students leads to a non-existent website.

And what is Chadwick University? It’s a diploma mill founded by one Lloyd Clayton Jr., whose credentials need no further introduction than his degree in holistic massage (this is a joke, he doesn’t actually claim to have such a degree). Chadwick University was not accredited and is considered an illegal supplier of degrees in the state of Texas (among others), it offered degrees based on “life experience” and basically just shut down in 2007 with Clayton no longer answering the phone. Chadwick U was accredited by the non-recognized World Association of Universities and Colleges, whose founder Maxine Asher genuinely believed to have discovered the lost city of Atlantis thanks in part to her psychic abilities, however her research was allegedly suppressed by the “Jews and Catholics.” Asher ran her own diploma mill fraud racket and sadly passed away in 2016.

But here you have Paragon Institute, a magical academy run from a cul-de-sac somehow linked to a defunct diploma mill accredited by a defunct diploma mill founded by a psychic who discovered Atlantis, and this is the company that wants to revive Marvel Heroes if only the public will give them lots and lots of money.

Buzzfile lists Paragon’s website as virtucorp, a website that no longer exists but through the power of Web Archive appears to have been filled with lorem ipsum gibberish.

Paragon Inc’s founder and only known employee Willis Adkins is currently running for a Congress seat in North Carolina’s 2nd District. According to its 501c(3) filings, Paragon Institute Inc used to go under the name “American Southern University Inc” and for years did business under names like “SGUS Academy,” “American Institute of Independent Studies,” “ASU Press,” “Miskatonic Institute,” and “American Center for Professional Studies.” MMO Fallout could not procure any web presence, addresses, or information for any of these names. Paragon Institute has filed a 990-N each year, a card for organizations whose claimed gross receipts are less than $50 thousand. As such, we were unable to procure standard public tax records which might include more information about the organization.

But the Marvel Heroes revival has a flexible goal of $450,000 meaning that even if nobody else contributes, they’ll still be able to keep that $305 in dosh that six backers put in.



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