Driving ambition: pCARS, crowdfunding and the FSA

Slightly Mad Studios' initiative was meant to redefine the player-developer relationship, but now Britain's City watchdog is on its case. Tristan Donovan investigates.

UPDATE: Since this article was published, Slightly Mad Studios has reached an agreement with the Financial Conduct Authority to stop accepting new backers and to offer refunds to those already involved, on request. Read our news story on the agreement for more details.

Andy Wise loves racing sims. By day he is an office manager in London. By night he is a race driver, clocking up the virtual miles from the comfort of his three-screen PC cockpit.

"I've been gaming since 1995, when I got my first PC," he tells me over the phone from his racing rig. "I was mainly into sims."

One of his favourites was GTR 2, the award-winning 2006 racer created by Blimey! Games. The company entered administration in January 2009 but the team survived, reborn as Slightly Mad Studios. So when Wise heard that Slightly Mad was working on a new racing sim, he decided to check it out.

He was sold from the first screenshot. "My first thought was, 'It looks pretty,'" he recalls. "With racing sims you used to have very realistic physics, usually at the expense of graphics, or you would get something very shiny and pretty, and very arcade-orientated."

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Images like this caught Andy Wise's attention.

Slightly Mad's new crowdfunded title, Project CARS, promised the best of both worlds: a marriage of gorgeous graphics and perfect physics. And the studio was inviting players not only to finance the game, but to help create it.

Players would pay their money into the company's crowdfunding portal, World of Mass Development (WMD for short). In return they would get access to the latest builds and direct influence over the game's development. If Project CARS made a profit they would get money back, based on how much they originally put in.

Interest piqued, Wise paid €10 to become a junior member and downloaded the latest build of Project CARS. He loved it. "I just got hooked. Every time I had an issue with the game, something I didn't like, they would go and fix it. But as a junior member I had to wait a month to get the next build."

Keen to get new builds faster, Wise upgraded his WMD membership for an extra €25. But they still weren't coming through quickly enough, so he kept upgrading. Eventually Wise ended up with three 'manager' memberships. Total cost: €3000.

Wise would have had to stop there were it not for a lump sum he made from selling a property. This enabled him to join the ultimate tier of Project CARS backers - the 'senior managers'.

The price tag? An eye-watering €25,000.

A sum that, it turns out, he might never get back.

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  • "What is WMD? A platform for games projects that are funded by the community or... A new way to triple-A."

- World of Mass Development overview document, February 2012

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Wise isn't alone. Tens of thousands of people all over the world have bought into Slightly Mad's vision of a first-class racing sim, co-funded and co-created by the community. Together they have poured more than €2.3m into the game.

Forget Kickstarter. This is the next generation of crowdfunded gaming.

Above: a fan-made trailer for Project CARS.

Slightly Mad was inviting driving sim fans to support a new triple-A racer, shape its development and pocket some of the profits. It promised to tear up the traditional publisher-developer relationship, to give players unprecedented access to and influence over a game's development, and - hopefully - to make everyone involved richer. Project CARS and WMD heralded the start of a gaming revolution.

But sometimes revolutions don't go to plan.

Today a dark cloud hangs over the future of Project CARS and the cash that's been ploughed into it. In December 2012 the Financial Services Authority, the government watchdog that polices British financial firms and banks, launched an investigation into Slightly Mad's crowdfunding activities, and told the company to stop taking people's money in the meantime.

The investigation is ongoing. Some of those who put their money into Project CARS are questioning the lack of clarity about how much they can expect to get back. What happens next could transform crowdfunding in the UK - or leave thousands of people out of pocket.

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  • "The whole point of WMD is that the game wouldn't be beholden to some publisher that would insist on having an accountant design the game."

- Micas, NoGripRacing forum, 22 February 2012

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Slightly Mad's crowdfunding revolution began on 14 April 2011, with a tantalising post on the NoGripRacing forum by studio founder Ian Bell. "I have a cunning plan," he wrote.

The studio wasn't in a good place. It had just parted ways with Electronic Arts after making the two Need for Speed: Shift games. Staff had been laid off and the company's annual accounts signalled hard times ahead.

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Project CARS uses the technology behind the Need for Speed: Shift games.

Bell's plan was to reboot his company while transforming the way games are made and funded. "Maybe the community can all buy into a game dev deal, and own a slice of it and the revenues," he explained in the post. "We build the game together with a huge forum so everyone can input and have complete insight into development. That would be very cool and we'd all get what we want."

Six months later, WMD flung open its doors to those wanting in on Project CARS.

The deal was this.

Slightly Mad would put €1.5m into building the ultimate racing sim. The community would stump up the remaining €2.25m.

The overview document explaining the ins and outs of the scheme dripped with ambition. Project CARS would be built using the tech that powered Slightly Mad's Need for Speed games. It would be a player-funded game with triple-A production values, released for PC, PlayStation 3, Wii U and Xbox 360.

People could pay in as little as €10 and up to €25,000 at a time. In return, they would get to play the latest builds and the chance to influence the game's direction. They would even be able to vote on major decisions, such as whether to include rallying (they voted against).

Then there was the profit share. Within the overview document sat an eye-catching pie chart showing how Slightly Mad would split the sales profits with the community. The company would keep 30 per cent, while the remaining 70 per cent would be divided among those who put money into the game.

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A table below the chart spelled out the potential rewards. If the game earned €25m, a sum equivalent to selling a million boxed copies, the 'junior' members, those who handed over €10, would get back €45. People who put in €100 stood to make €450. Those who gave €1000 to become 'managers' would get €4500. Big-spending 'senior managers' like Andy Wise, who injected €25,000, would land a cool €110,000.

A million sales, a 450 per cent return. Good luck trying to find an investment fund offering that kind of payback.

"We thought Kickstarter was quite limiting because it's just about begging for money," says Andy Tudor, creative director at Slightly Mad. (Ian Bell was unavailable for interview.)

"You say, 'I've got a great idea, please give us money,' and there's really no requirement by the people who are making the game or t-shirt or whatever to keep you involved.

"We saw an opportunity to do Kickstarter in our own way and say, 'Here's our idea. If you want to help us make it, don't just give us money - come help us make it and, depending on the success of the game and how much money you put in, you will get something back.'"

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  • "This sounds pretty awesome and I think if other developers went this way for racing games, flight sims and FPSs, the games would be much more in tune with what the gamers want... Hell, I'm in for $1k if it looks promising."

- rlee, NoGripRacing forum, 24 April 2011

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From the moment WMD opened for business in October 2011, people piled in. Their appetites had been whetted by the gorgeous screenshots, the growing online buzz and the exciting ideas set out in the overview document.

Bruno Alexandre was one of those who joined, handing over €1000 in July 2012. For the 29 year-old Lisbon resident, it was a chance to reconnect gaming with its roots.

"I have been a gamer for over 25 years and I witnessed the slow death of games' golden era, when games were made with quality and fun above profit and the feedback from the communities that played those games mattered," he says.

"Then came the mass-production and low-quality games era that we have been living in for quite some time, with money hungry investors from the big companies who just want quick ways to make money, and deliver poor products or half-baked games they then complete with downloadable content - that they charge us for."

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Project CARS started out as free-to-play until its supporters voted for it to be a boxed retail game instead.

Crowdfunding initiatives like Kickstarter and WMD, he argues, are an antidote to the corporatisation of gaming: "There are no money hungry investors behind these projects. They are being made by people who know what they need to do to deliver quality products with lower budgets using only the support and assistance from the communities they are developing the games for. This is what attracted me to WMD."

Christoph Zürcher, who put in €100 as soon as the portal launched in October 2011, had a similar motive. The Swiss resident felt that WMD's vision of giving players a say in a game's development was "particularly compelling".

"I wanted to help prove that new, alternative funding models can succeed," he says. "Slightly Mad Studios in particular was held back by the classic publisher model, in my opinion."

Andy Wise says he handed over his €25,000 because he believes in the game and the team behind it. "I've seen the dedication that goes into everything Slightly Mad does," he says. "It's the tiniest little details.

"For example, just this week a member said that the cross-section of one of the new car model's bumpers isn't square - it's more wing-shaped - and highlighted that on the WMD Forum. The modeller came on and said, 'Yeah, I think you're right.'

"I came down the next morning and there was a post from the modeller saying the bumper was fixed - done inside 24 hours. That constant striving for perfection has made me think this is going to be a great product."

Even so, €25,000 is a lot of money. I ask Wise whether he would have put that kind of money into Project CARS if there wasn't the potential to earn it back and even turn a profit.

"I don't think I would, no," he says. "Anyone who says money is not an issue is lying, as far as I'm concerned.

"But it is most definitely not the be-all and end-all of this project. If we get to the end of this project and we produce a real top-quality sim, and I get my money back, I will be genuinely happy with that. The fact there are fees and the opportunity to make a not insignificant amount of money is a good thing. That is what sets the World of Mass Development apart from other things such as Kickstarter."

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  • "YOU MUST MAKE A CONTRIBUTION TO A GAME TO GET FEES FOR THAT GAME."

- World of Mass Development terms and conditions

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Players rarely get to see behind the scenes of a game's development, let alone give feedback and make direct contributions. In this way, WMD is unquestionably different and bold.

But it was an unsettling idea for the studio's development team at first. "It was nerve-wracking because you are making your game with the actual players watching your every move and decision," says Tudor.

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Andy Tudor, creative director at SMS.

"It's like working in an aquarium; you're in a fishbowl and people are looking through the glass at you, in there working away."

In practice, he explains, it is far better than being kept away from players by a legion of publishing executives, marketing teams and publicists. "We are working alongside the people who are eventually going to be playing our game and we have to be open and honest," he says. "It's worked out fantastically because you get so much more input from the people who matter, as opposed to people who have their own agenda."

The fans are full of great suggestions, he adds: "We put up design documents and no matter how creative we think we are or how much we may think something is a good idea, the community have their own ideas and those then get folded back into whatever we've put up there."

Seeing how a game is developed has also been an eye-opener for fans. "It was a learning curve," says Andy Wise. "It's interesting seeing how long things take to do, what you can and can't talk about, how long licences take to come through - all these sorts of things that you don't think about when you're just browsing your online store or local GAME, looking at the back of the box.

"The thing that still surprises me every day is how fast the team works," he adds. "New content comes out so regularly, so quickly. Bugs are squashed so fast. I still find that a real surprise, even a year on."

And it's exciting. "The whole thing swallows you up. You get onto this roller coaster and you get all the ups and downs of, 'This build's fantastic!' and then the next build's, 'No! You broke my favourite car, how could you do that?' Then in the next build it's back, and even better than it was first time around. It's that constant ebb and flow of the work process. It's great."

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  • "I still feel as much excitement about this title as I felt one year ago."

- Joest, WMD Forum, 12 October 2012

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By November 2012, a year on from WMD's launch, Bell's cunning plan was motoring along. Slightly Mad had got the €2.25m it wanted from some 80,000 backers. The company cut its own financial contribution from €1.5m to €1m so that even more people could sign up.

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WMD members have been able to make decisions over issues such as in-game lighting effects.

Ben Collins, the former Top Gear Stig, and race driver Nicolas Hamilton, the younger brother of Formula 1 star Lewis, had been hired as advisors. A late 2013 release was on the cards.

In December the studio began mooting plans to reduce its financial contribution to €0.5m, so that the WMD community could stump up another half million. The community readily agreed, keen to get a bigger slice of the Project CARS pie.

But three and a half miles to the east of Slightly Mad's HQ, in an office near Tower Bridge, trouble was brewing.

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  • "They pay a certain amount of money and are promised a share of potential profits, and this share is proportional to the amount of money they paid. Looks like an investment, swims like an investment, quacks like an investment..."

- BaldApe, Race Department forum, 7 March 2013

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Not much tends to happen in that lazy gap between Christmas Eve and New Year's Day. Most of the country is too busy dreaming up ways to eradicate surplus turkey for anything important to happen. But while the nation slept off its festive hangover, the Financial Services Authority was busy.

Somewhere within the City regulator's 15-floor glass and steel Canary Wharf tower block sat a file on Slightly Mad Studios. The watchdog had got wind of Project CARS, and didn't like the sound of it.

Aside from regulating banks the FSA keeps financial schemes in check, with the goal of protecting the public from financial wrongdoing. It looked over Slightly Mad's crowdfunding revolution, with all the talk of people making big money. The FSA decided to investigate and asked the studio to stop taking people's money while it did so.

On 27 December 2012 Slightly Mad complied, announcing the immediate suspension of further financial contributions. By then the studio had received €2.328m from people who wanted to be part of the WMD dream. Hopefully, Slightly Mad said, everything would soon be cleared up.

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  • "We should know by the end of January what the FSA's position is... Other than that it is business as usual and development is continuing."

- Vittorio Rapa, IT Manager, Slightly Mad Studios, http://forum.wmdportal.com/showthread.php?11989-WMD-Membership-Upgrades-Closed&p=344731&viewfull=1#post344731">WMD Forum, 27 December 2012

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Investment schemes operating in the UK are subject to strict regulations. While they do not always have to register with the FSA, those that do not are called "unregulated collective investment schemes" by the watchdog.

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The headquarters of the FSA. The organisation recently changed its name to the Financial Conduct Authority.

Despite the name, unregulated schemes are still subject to various rules. These include a ban on promoting such schemes to the general public without proper authorisation and limits on who is allowed to invest. There are serious consequences for those who fail to comply. The FSA can shut law-breaking schemes down, and the people behind them can face prison.

To be clear, Slightly Mad Studios is only under investigation. The fact the FSA is investigating WMD does not mean Slightly Mad is running an unregulated collective investment scheme, or that it has breached the law.

The FSA spokesman I spoke to would not comment on Slightly Mad's situation while the investigation is ongoing. He pointed out that some investigations do not result in any legal action, and usually no one is any the wiser since the FSA only goes public if it decides to take such action.

The only reason that we know of the FSA's probe into Slightly Mad is because the developer had little choice but to tell its backers why it was putting a freeze on any more contributions.

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  • "We will continue to take steps to identify poor conduct in the unregulated collective investment scheme market and will take strong action to protect consumers where we find evidence of failure."

- Financial Services Authority website

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Tudor says the probe isn't anything to worry about. "The FSA came to us wondering what the hell we were doing, thinking, 'Hang on a minute, you're taking money from people - is this some sort of Ponzi scheme where people take money and then run away with it?'

"They asked what we're doing. We explained it to them. They said, 'OK, you might need to change a few things here and there.' We've given them our suggestions as to how we might go about that."

According to Tudor, WMD is not and has never been an investment scheme. "I guarantee we never said it was an investment opportunity, ever, because we know the legal implications of calling it that.

"There may have been talk, or people may have interpreted it that way and replied back to posts saying it's an investment, but it's not. We were very clear. We discussed this for months and months before we launched. Internally we never called it an investment, externally we never called it an investment, the terms and conditions never call it an investment, ever.

"The people on the forums right now understand it is not, and that is the way it has always been. We basically hire you as a staff member. The royalties are us paying you wages for contributing to the project."

Trouble is, Slightly Mad did call it an investment.

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  • "You own part of the game."

- Ian Bell, founder, Slightly Mad Studios, NoGripRacing forum, 18 April 2011

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On 18 April 2011, four days after revealing his cunning plan, Bell responded to a request for more information on the NoGripRacing forum. "My idea is to let anyone interested invest in the development, both financially and with their time, if they want," he wrote. "Our lawyer is working on the terms and conditions so this is going to happen.

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As well as Project CARS, Slightly Mad Studios owns the mobile game developer Gamagio.

"Becoming the biggest developer on earth overnight would be newsworthy, which would pull in more investors. We suspect we might even get banks in looking for a 200 per cent - 500 per cent-plus return in 18 months.

"Imagine we sell 2 million units of the final game (Shift 1 did 5 million and Shift 2 is tracking well also). The revenue from those sales is approx. 70 million dollars. 5-7 million dev cost and a few more million for marketing, and we're still looking at a very healthy return for the investors."

Bell reiterated the point 10 days later, on the same forum: "The plan is that any investment into the development is exactly that, an investment."

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  • "Just let us keep throwing money at this project."

- Jason Ganz, WMD Forum, 21 March 2012

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Even after Slightly Mad began taking money in October 2011, Bell described WMD as an investment - despite the terms and conditions repeatedly saying it's not. On 21 March 2012, a post he wrote on the WMD forum stated he was in talks that would change the structure of Slightly Mad Studios. This move would, he said, "Most likely close off investment for members in the very near future."

Bell said he couldn't reveal any more because of a non-disclosure agreement. But he did tell members: "What it does mean though is that if you are considering upgrading your tool pack / membership level in the future, it might be good to do this within the next 2-3 weeks."

The news sparked a stampede as people scrambled to buy into Project CARS before it was too late. The amount of money pouring into Slightly Mad Studios shot up from €20,000 a week to a peak of more than €20,000 a day.

Following Bell's announcement, a member called James Brooks replied: "I don't have a huge amount of assets, but the minute I heard about this I was sold. I do think sometimes it was a bit crazy... But this can't go wrong, it simply can't."

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To date, players have put more than €2.3m into the game.

Another contributor to Project CARS, Pugamall, told the forum: "I have some money my dad left me when he recently passed away, so it's money I never had before and won't be missed as such. I plan to put in what I can, and then pay what is returned back into the next project if it is a game I feel will sell, and hope to build up a nest egg as such that way."

On 15 April 2012, WMD forum member Martin Nilsson announced he was putting his family's £13,000 savings into Project CARS. He added that he hoped to follow that with another £41,000 from reclaimed mortgage overpayments.

"I'm comfortable with this despite the lack of approval from my family who do not know much about the situation," he wrote. "My wife is being supportive but is clearly concerned and my daughter thinks I'm nuts. Losing the money would not put us out on the streets, but it is a big deal for us."

The next day member Fernando Horta posted questions about "the investment part" of WMD. "I'd like to increase my investment level, but some more info would be helpful," he wrote. Bell replied five minutes later with answers, but did not inform Horta that WMD was not an investment scheme.

The persuasive effect of Bell's message did not go unnoticed by the WMD community. "Ian's 'warning' has allowed many people to cross the psychological barrier of investment in pCARS," Sagedavid posted on 3 April. "€25k this evening, it's crazy."

Yet at no point did Slightly Mad's owners or employees step in to point out to those posting on the thread that WMD was not an investment.

On 8 June 2012, Bell announced that the "intended structure change" was no longer going ahead. The reason, he said, was "to ensure we retain the complete creative control".

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  • "It is not an investment. They buy a development pack and then we pay them fees."

- Ian Bell, founder of Slightly Mad Studios, The Financial Times, 25 June 2012

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I quote the part of Bell's 18 April 2011 post where he calls WMD an investment to Tudor. "I'll have to read the post myself," he says. "You could say I'm very heavily invested in the game, meaning I'm actually spending 24 hours a day working on this game, passionate about it, and that doesn't necessarily mean putting money into the game, so I'd have to check that post."

After the interview I email Tudor links to the post, and others where Bell calls WMD an investment, or doesn't correct someone who clearly thinks it is in a reply.

"As I said on the phone, the posts were from when the initial spark of the idea was being formed," Tudor writes back.

"We then refined this for another six months before launch, whereby it has continually been made clear both in the initial concept doc, the terms and conditions, the very first forum post, et cetera, that it's not an investment. If the word 'investment' ever comes up it's either accidental or being used in the broad sense of the English language, meaning 'involvement'.

"Just because it was mentioned once, or its use wasn't corrected, doesn't mean it's true."

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  • "I never expected a return on investment. But there are members who do."

- Gears, NoGripRacing forum, 11 February 2012

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There's little doubt that some of those who put money into WMD believed it was an investment. The WMD Forum is littered with posts from members who, despite agreeing to terms and conditions that say otherwise, call their financial contribution an investment. Most of the community members I spoke to for this article also say, for a time at least, they thought that's what it was.

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Contributing to the Project CARS fund gives players early access to builds.

"The main reason I joined was because it was basically a no-risk 'investment'," says one British member of WMD, who asked to not to be named. "I was told that I would see a return on the money I put in once the game came out. Now it seems that the criteria for achieving this 'reward' was never actually put in place by Slightly Mad Studios. I am no longer sure if I will see a return, or even get my money back."

Christoph Zürcher, the Swiss contributor who handed over €100, says: "I signed up for WMD very early after the announcement of the platform. It was not very clear to me how the project and the platform would evolve from there, but there was always some talk about the possibility that you can get some return on the 'investment'. It was later elaborated that a financial contribution should not be viewed as an investment, and that you can only get a share of the revenue when you contribute to the game.

"As my involvement is very low, I do not expect any financial gain. But this was never my goal. I certainly don't want to accuse them of any misconduct. It may very well be possible they have disclosed the information about the investment before - I just remember that I have only found the relevant info months after I signed up."

Andy Wise, the racing sim fan who put in €25,000, isn't too worried about the FSA investigation. "It's something you have to accept, really. They are there to do a job. They don't know who Slightly Mad are - they could be up to all sorts of skulduggery. So they have to check these things out and make sure everything is done above board. "I know they've had meetings with Slightly Mad on several occasions and that they've exchanged correspondence. I think they are probably at the stage now where it's just a matter of crossing Ts and dotting Is. If there was anything even remotely untoward, the FSA would have come along with a great big red stamp and said, 'Give everyone their money back,' plain and simple."

Except it's not that plain and simple. Unregulated collective investment schemes, to use the FSA's lingo, are not covered by the Financial Services Compensation Scheme, the public body that bails out savers if a bank or financial service goes bust. So if an unregulated scheme goes bust or gets wound up by the FSA, and the business has no money left, investors will not get their money back.

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  • "You're paying to be a member of the 'team' making the game."

- Headsoup, NoGripRacing forum, 13 February 2012

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Slightly Mad argues that WMD isn't an investment scheme. It says those who backed Project CARS are freelance contractors and they will be paid from the profits. But the details of how much people will get if the game makes money are far from clear.

WMD's terms and conditions says members "must make a contribution to the game" if they want to get paid, but the definition of what that contribution might be is broad. It could be helping with the creation of in-game graphics or striking a deal so Slightly Mad can use a famous race track. At the other end of the spectrum, it could simply be playing a build of the game and allowing information to be sent back to the developer.

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Project CARS is earmarked for release on PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and Wii U.

I ask Tudor how much of a factor people's initial payment will be in deciding how much they earn if the game turns a profit. "If you put more money in then you will get a greater return, yes, but also remember, you have to work as well," he says.

"So that means I could put £1000 in but if I never got on the forum and never had a real impact on the game, never voted on any big decisions, we take that into consideration. It's based off the amount of money that you put in, but also the contribution to the game. That's what the terms and conditions actually say. You have to be an active member of the community - you have to have done some work in order to be paid for your work."

Could that work include nothing more than playing a build? "At the very minimal end, yes, but what we want is the guys who are on there making the big decisions, putting us into the contact with people they know, going out to the tracks and taking photos, things like that. Those are all big things that we will evaluate again when the game launches.

"You can play a build, that's fine, but you're not a real member of the community unless you're talking to other people, promoting ideas and finding bugs. Those are the kind of people we want."

So could someone who put in €10 and did a lot of work on the game earn more than someone who put in €1000, played a couple of builds and then sat back? "All I can say is we have to evaluate it nearer the time of release. It is the kind of thing that would be put to the community as well.

"It's not something where we've got some strange equation we would work out in the background, the number of posts times number of builds played. We would never do that. So how we would calculate what your activity is worth would be evaluated later on in the day, and the community would be made well aware of that in advance."

That means no one who signs up has any idea what they could get back, doesn't it? That's not true, Tudor replies, pointing to the initial overview document with its projections for what WMD members can make.

"This can be thought of as the 'minimum return' in fees - and it's noted that this might be €0, depending on the success of the project," he writes in an email.

"Any further monies returned in fees based off further contribution to the project - in terms of activity on the forum, aiding the project and generally being a highly valued member of the community - would be evaluated and discussed with the community, nearer the relevant time. So players are more than aware of the minimum they stand to see returned, and potentially they may see more."

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  • "BTW your pCARS membership isn't an investment, but funding + reward for helping the game develop."

- redi, NoGripRacing forum, 25 August 2012

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But this explanation raises further questions. The Project CARS overview document suggests members could make returns of as much as 450 per cent if the game brings in profits of €25m. But those figures were based on the assumption that only 150 people would sign up for each of the six membership levels - a total of 900 backers.

At the time of publication (18 April 2013), the contribution figures listed on the WMD website suggest there are 9128 junior members and 526 manager-level members. Put simply, the earnings mooted in the overview document will need to be shared among a far larger group of people than originally suggested.

The lack of clarity over the payback arrangements is one of the reasons the anonymous British backer I interviewed has lost faith in the project. "The criteria's not even written down," he says.

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  • "We have shown people what they will get if there are no sales - it is zero."

- Ian Bell, founder of Slightly Mad Studios, The Financial Times, 25 June 2012

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All this talk of people earning their money back assumes that Project CARS will make a profit.

At the moment the game is set to be a boxed, triple-A game for PCs and the main consoles. Figures vary, but a 2010 study by M2 Research put the cost of developing the average multi-format game at between $18m and $24m.

On top of that, Slightly Mad does not currently have a publisher for Project CARS. The studio could self-publish. But that would mean shelling out for marketing, manufacturing, distribution, publicity and the licence fees Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo charge to publish on their consoles.

Above: another fan-made video.

Given all this, the €3.5m budget for Project CARS seems low. I ask Tudor whether the game is underfunded. "You mean we didn't charge enough?" he replies, sounding a little incredulous. Slightly Mad, Tudor explains, works differently to most developers. While the studio has an office in London, most of the team work at home and are based all over the world, so the company operates around the clock. "It's a distributed-development model so our costs, naturally, are lower than most. So there are savings to be made there, for a start.

"It's not like we're scrimping and saving, we're just being efficient. €3.5m is still a lot of money and there are other ways of distributing games out there."

Tudor adds that when it comes to promoting the game, the studio has an army of backers who can spread the word. "We live in a world where I can put a tweet out and it hits a million people straight away," he says. "We've got hundreds and thousands of videos on YouTube already, all done by the players themselves."

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  • "As a general rule, it is not possible for a company to raise money by crowdfunding by means of a collective investment scheme model. This activity is likely to fall within the UK regulatory regime relating to unregulated collective investment schemes which prohibits the raising of money in this way."

- UKIE Crowd Funding Report, February 2012

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So where does all this leave Slightly Mad's gaming revolution?

Last year UKIE, the trade body for Britain's game publishers, issued a report that concluded videogame crowdfunding initiatives that work like investment schemes are prohibited under UK law.

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Will the sun set on Project CARS?

The FSA is still investigating the pCARS scheme, under its new name of the Financial Conduct Authority, which came into effect on 1 April. If the regulator gives WMD the all clear, other developers could follow its example, and Slightly Mad's revolution could be even bigger than anyone thought.

"There's probably a concern for the FSA about setting a precedent because if they allowed us to do what we do, or make changes that they think are OK, then we set a precedent for other companies. It snowballs and opens up for everyone," says Tudor.

"That's probably a concern from their end, but we're hopeful - crossed fingers and everything."

But if the authorities decide against Slightly Mad, the future of Project CARS is uncertain. Bell's cunning plan to reinvent game funding will have failed. The people who put in money may find themselves with no game, a lighter wallet and no compensation to call on.

Some could be left short of a tenner. Others, like Andy Wise, may end up nursing losses that run into the thousands.

For now, all anyone can do is wait for the investigation to finish. The final verdict could change the game development landscape - or, if Project CARS slams painfully into a wall of regulation, it could leave the WMD community reeling.

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