When Kickstarters go bad: chasing down the Recreated ZX Spectrum
Some Kickstarter backers of the Recreated ZX Spectrum have yet to receive the nostalgia-fuelled retro keyboard - and the boss of the company behind it has been silent for months.
I've spent the past two weeks investigating what looks like another example of a Kickstarter gone horribly wrong - at least for some who forked out for what was supposed to be the glorious revival of one of the most beloved computers in video game history.
In December 2013, veteran Britsoft publisher Elite Systems and its director Steve Wilcox announced plans to release a recreated ZX Spectrum primarily for use with its mobile gaming apps. It was designed as a bluetooth keyboard with the form factor of the original computer, and still is billed as "the only full-size recreation" of the 1980s PC.
Elite Systems launched a Kickstarter that was successfully funded in January 2014. The project gained a modest amount of attention from those fond of the ZX Spectrum, with 821 backers pledging a total of £63,194.
After the campaign finished, the spec changed considerably. The decision to expand the device's compatibility to Android opened the door to making it work with PCs, and from there it evolved into a more adaptable piece of kit than was originally planned.
The Recreated ZX Spectrum looked promising, but after a promotional push in 2015 that sparked the interest of the likes of Sky News and Stuff magazine, Elite Systems went quiet - leaving some who pledged to the Kickstarter but have yet to receive their devices out of pocket.
Now, it's important to point out that many Kickstarter backers have received a Recreated ZX Spectrum (to secure a device you had to pledge at least £50). But I've spoken with a number of backers who, despite multiple efforts to get an explanation from Elite Systems and Steve Wilcox, have hit a brick wall - and now have all but given hope of either getting what they paid for, or their money back.
One, Californian Marko Rukonic, put down £150 to the Kickstarter, primarily because he wanted a special Manic Miner-themed version of the Recreated ZX Spectrum, which required an £80 pledge.
"Manic Miner was the first game I had with my ZX Spectrum," Rukonic told Eurogamer.
"My uncle bought it for me along with the ZX, so there's a certain emotional relationship involved in my pledge."
As of April 2014, the ZX Spectrum appeared to be on track, with an autumn 2014 estimate for delivery of the first 1000 production units. In August 2014, the first photos of the device prototype were sent out, signalling progress.
In December 2014, Elite Systems suggested the first pre-production unit would be available in January 2015. Then, on 31st January, Elite offered backers a first look at the pre-production unit of the recreated Sinclair ZX Spectrum.
In the first half of 2015, Steve Wilcox took the Recreated ZX Spectrum on the road, promoting it at the likes of The Gadget Show Live and on Sky TV.
In a July 2015 update, Elite Systems said it would soon write to backers and those who pre-ordered directly from Elite to notify them of delivery options. This should have seen them receive their recreated device in early August 2015.
In August, Elite Systems released an app designed to work with the recreated ZX Spectrum. The app was important because it was where games were stored, rather than on a processor on the Recreated ZX Spectrum. Elite Systems said the app would be updated with new games and features regularly.
On 7th September 2015, Eurogamer received a press release from Steve Wilcox declaring the launch of the Recreated ZX Spectrum. It was, finally, on sale. But some Kickstarter backers still didn't have their devices.
In November 2015, Elite said dispatch of almost all primary rewards was complete. But some had not received their keyboards, including Marko.
Meanwhile, the special Manic Miner "signature edition" of the Recreated ZX Spectrum had been cancelled, and those who pledged for it were offered regular devices and a partial refund as a peace offering. This did not go down well.
Marko tells Eurogamer he sent multiple emails throughout 2016, without response. He's not alone. A cursory glance at the Recreated ZX Spectrum Kickstarter page reveals more customers who feel cheated by Elite Systems and Steve Wilcox.
There's even a Facebook group just for those who are still waiting for their keyboard - or their money back.
An email sent in January 2016 to Kickstarter backers revealed Elite Systems had run out of stock of its own Recreated ZX Spectrum, and so couldn't fulfil orders from those who lost out when the Signature Edition was cancelled, or those who pre-ordered with Elite Systems' own website.
According to Wilcox, Elite Systems ordered 1000 units of the recreated device for its backers. This stock, it said, was owned by Elite.
However, resellers ordered "many thousands" of units for those who pre-ordered the recreated device online earlier in 2015. This was considered "reseller stock" and was not owned by Elite.
"We cannot supply our Kickstarter backers (nor those who ordered a recreated device directly from Elite after our appeal closed) from the reseller stock, since Elite does not own it," Wilcox said at the time.
Even so, on 4th January 2016, Steve Wilcox sent Eurogamer a press release declaring Amazon UK had sold one Recreated ZX Spectrum every five minutes during its Boxing Day sale. Digging into the detail, 57 units were sold between the hours of 3.30pm and 7.45pm on 26th December 2015.
In the same press release, Wilcox trumpeted the Recreated ZX Spectrum's appearance on Charlie Brooker's 2015 Wipe TV programme. In the video, below, skip to the 18 minutes, 15 seconds mark. Blink and you'll miss it.
Emails obtained by Eurogamer confirm that as of December 2015, Wilcox was still trying to "get the word out", as he put it in one conversation with a potential TV presenter, about the Recreated ZX Spectrum. He had contacted shopping channel QVC, according to emails we've seen, in an attempt to arrange a showing in March 2016.
And we know that as of February 2016, Elite Systems still seemed keen to promote the Recreated ZX Spectrum, as evidenced by emails regarding the QVC deal (the device did not appear on QVC in the end, because, according to the TV channel, "we did not agree commercial terms").
In an email sent to Eurogamer on 26th February 2016, Wilcox said the Recreated ZX Spectrum was out-selling its competitor, the ZX Spectrum Vega, "by several to one".
Here's what he said:
That was the last press release we received from Elite Systems and Steve Wilcox. Nearly half a year later, it seems the Recreated ZX Spectrum might have finally bitten the dust. Its iOS app, Android app and online web app have all been withdrawn without explanation, and the "order" page of the website says, "This area is currently unavailable."
Kickstarter backers are further incensed because Elite Systems is still selling the Recreated ZX Spectrum on the likes of Amazon to new customers - although at the time of publication Amazon says there are only four of the things left in stock.
So, what's going on? My initial email to Stephen Wilcox was met with a frustrating refusal to comment.
Eurogamer understands Elite Systems has run into a dispute with its chosen manufacturer, a UK company called Ceratech. Ceratech specialises in the manufacture of computer keyboards and mice, so it was an obvious choice for the Recreated ZX Spectrum.
A source close to the project told Eurogamer that Ceratech has unfinished standard units which Elite Systems has not yet paid for. Ceratech sales director Angela Lennox confirmed to Eurogamer that it's getting its solicitors involved.
"We have been notified that many of the Kickstarter backers have yet to receive their hardware and / or credit from Elite after paying their money," she said.
"Ceratech solicitors are reviewing this matter with the Elite Kickstarter backers and once we have any update, we will let you know."
Back to Steve Wilcox. The man at the centre of the Recreated ZX Spectrum last issued an update on the Kickstarter page in November 2015 - that's over half a year ago. Wilcox has not returned my calls, and hasn't answered my follow-up questions.
This isn't the first time Steve Wilcox has been engulfed in controversy. The Recreated ZX Spectrum has been a controversial product from the very start, facing cynicism from within the hobbyist Speccy scene regarding its legitimacy as an actual "Spectrum", as well as criticism from the games industry itself after it was revealed that game developers who had licensed their games for use in Elite's apps hadn't been paid.
Will Recreated ZX Spectrum Kickstarter backers who have yet to receive the product they paid for get their money back? Most agree it's unlikely.
A representative for Kickstarter told Eurogamer it had "reminded" Wilcox of his commitments under Elite Systems' contract the project's backers - but it was up to backers, not Kickstarter, to take up grievances with Elite Systems.
Here's the statement:
What this means, effectively, is that Kickstarter backers who are out of pocket will have to pursue Elite Systems via the courts, which is unfeasible for most, including British student Alex Casper Cline, who pledged £50 to the Recreated ZX Spectrum two years ago and has yet to receive his device.
He tells Eurogamer his experience has put him off crowdfunding projects in the future.
"I'm a graduate student without much access to funds," he said.
"While I'd love to support other hardware restoration efforts, this experience has shown me I can't risk doing so - I imagine it's the same for many other younger Spectrum fans.
"I didn't grow up with mail order, and was born after the Spectrum came out; for me waiting two years to receive a product I paid for isn't part of any nostalgic or authentic experience - it's just annoying. It's a betrayal not just of the legacy of Elite, but of UK hardware and software development in general."
A day before publication, I sent Steve Wilcox one final request for comment. Here's his response:
For Alex and others like him, the Recreated ZX Spectrum is just another Kickstarter gone bad.