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Dev Behind Gaming Watch Kickstarter Addresses Concerns (EXCLUSIVE)

It took the Gameband, a smartwatch packed with retro mini-games, less than a day to hit its Kickstarter goal early last year. And then, thanks to branding partnerships with both Atari and indie darling “Terraria,” that modest $75,000 goal was more than quadrupled.

The Gamebad was a genuine hit, but now, 16 months later, the smartwatch seems plagued with problems. Company FMTwo Games, lead by the person who created the successful Minecraft Gameband, is nine months behind its ship date and in the past few months has grown silent, ignoring the increasingly angry requests for updates from its more than 1,700 backers. More troubling are rumors that Atari pulled its licensing and news that “Terraria” developers Re-Logic are just as in the dark as the backers, and growing just as disenchanted.

After weeks of sending request to FMTwo Games for comment, FMTwo Games CEO Feargal Mac Conuladh responded saying he was ready to chat. His response came less than an hour after “Terraria” responded to Variety’s questions, putting into doubt its continued support of the watch.

The Dream
Early last year, Conuladh said the idea for the Gameband was inspired by his work on the Minecraft device and his love of old ’70s and ’80s watch games. He said he worked hard to build up relationships with both Atari and Re-Logic and was in talks with other game developers. He said the combination of the company’s tech and its relationship with developers would allow them to kickstart a brand new movement in gaming.

The initial idea for the Gameband was a design that could compete with other smartwatches on the market.

This time around the company’s efforts are for a much more complicated device. It was to feature a 1.6-inch AMOLED display powered by a Wualcomm Snapdragon Wear 2100 processor, 512 MB of RAM and 4 GB of ROM. There’s also a slew of sensors, 802.11 b/g/n wifi and 4.2 Bluetooth. The watch was to be powered by a 400 mAh battery, which is slightly larger than the battery in the Samsung Gear S3 and include a Micro SD slot and a USB C connector. The whole thing was to run on Android Marshmallow 6.0.01, which will support a collection of apps like a calendar, contacts, phone dialer, weather, music player and alarm, and will have some other neat little surprises, like Alexa voice controls and its own online store called PixelFurnace, which was envisions as a sort of iTunes for watch games.

That was the plan and for a while, things looked good.

In March, the company announced it was upgrading the watch to be IPX7 compliant. That means it could fall into a bit of water and not break. They also added the option to upgrade the face of the watch to Gorilla Glass.

Over the following months things seem to progress nicely, with upbeat updates about trips to China and work on the boards that power the watch and its basic design. November saw the first major hiccup in the design. The watch’s promised USB-C port was causing issues with the design. Size constraints meant they needed to either make the watch bigger or use an adapter instead of a built-in port. In the January update the team mentioned “difficult weeks” and taking “much needed downtime,” without noting what the issues were. The following updates trimmed down from massive details on where things stood to essentially short apologies for the lack of updates. The March update noted the team was continuing to work on the schedule and development plans, but didn’t update either. The last update on the Kickstarter page, dated April 21 and headlined “Still alive and kicking!” noted that the challenges of running a Kickstarter can “become overwhelming.” The update notes working through challenges and issues. The team says it has had knock backs on several fronts including personal, technical, financial, staffing and more. Most ominous, though, is a note about still working on a plan with their production partners and having to create a new one.

Radio Silence
In the two months that followed, the only updates came by way of the growing comments section of the Kickstarter page, and only from backers. A May 22 comment posted to a thread on another forum where someone who seems to be speaking for Atari says that Atari is no longer associated with Gameband and that the license has been revoked.

When Variety reached out to Atari for confirmation, it declined to speak about the license, Gameband or where things currently stand.

Atari VCS is an Atari product,” a spokesperson told Variety via email. “Gameband was an Atari licensee and we cannot comment on their behalf.”

When asked if Gameband was still a licensee, the company said it was “not able to comment on Gameband in any fashion at this time.”

A response Friday afternoon from Conuladh confirmed that Atari did indeed end its licensing agreement with the company. But, he said, it remains unclear if that will impact the still in-development watch.

“We are currently reviewing this and once we have clarity we will make sure our community are the first to know above all else,” he said.

Re-Logic, the developers behind “Terraria,” were much more forthcoming than Atari with their answers, calling the entire situation unfortunate and unacceptable.

The company says they were approached by the Gameband creators about two years ago with the idea of creating a “Terraria” Gameband, much like the “Minecraft” Gameband the company had created. “It seemed like a pretty cool idea,” said Ted Murphy, Re-Logic’s head of business strategy and marketing. That discussion eventually evolved into the idea that Gameband eventually launched as a Kickstarter.

While the relationship between the two companies still exists, Murphy said that Re-Logic’s connection is passive. “Our relationship with the Gameband project was solely as a licensed IP. We imagine that was the same with Atari,” he said. “To be clear, Re-Logic has not received any financial compensation whatsoever as a result of this project. In addition, all of the Kickstarter funds went to FMTwoGame toward the development of the promised product.”

As with the backers, Re-Logic hasn’t heard anything internally on the project for a while, in spite of “many repeated follow-up attempts over several months. This was troubling not only on the company side, but also because several of our team actually backed this project on KS as well.”

Murphy said that Re-Logic did recently get in touch with the company and made it very clear that they are beyond unhappy and frustrated with the situation. “We fully expect them to make things right for the backer here,” he said. “Failing that, then yes, we would most likely be in the same spot as Atari found themselves.

“What actually happens remains to be seen. Ideally, it would be cool for the project to get made according to what was promised. Barring that, some other way to settle things in a satisfactory way — refunds, etc — for all of the backers would be good to see.”

Re-Logic added that they expect “actual, factual, action-oriented, and time-bound updates” to be given publicly and soon. Murphy said Re-Logic hasn’t fully disassociated themselves from the project yet because they feel they can use the relationship as a way to leverage the Kickstarter into doing the right thing.

“Fully withdrawing from the entire thing would be expedient — and if there is a failure to satisfy the backers in a timely fashion, we will absolute do so — but we are still hoping to try and push for a positive outcome for the gamers and customers out there first.”

Conuladh tells Variety that the Gameband passed Electrical Validation Testing, which means the electrical design is solid. He said both the operating system and software are also on track. But added that the team still isn’t ready to tell its community what the new ETA is for the device.

“As soon as we resolve the issues we have been working through, and have clear re-commitments from partners, we will issue a new ETA, and will keep the community updated every step of the way,” he said.

While the team hasn’t updated the Kickstarter page since April, Conuladh said that they “continue to actively talk with the community 1/1 on a daily basis. Due to some of the product development challenges we told the community in our last update that we needed additional time to address those and that we will be back to them with an update as soon as we could.”

The biggest open question, why the watch has been so delayed, remains mostly unanswered, beyond technical difficulties.

“Gameband is a complex product, where we are putting a lot of components, into a small enclosure, adding features that are firsts in this format (MicroSD & USB-C), an OS, unique content, a desktop software solution, and we also added additional features based on backer feedback,” he said. “We need to do all that and ensure it is robust, water-proof, wearable, and passes an insane amount of certifications; and while we have known that from the outset, and have been working with some great partners to make it happen, we have faced some challenges along the way.

“One of the main challenges (identified at DVT, the Design Validation step where mechanical issues are figured out) was that the USB-C solution would not work as specified, and with an enclosure this size, with all the other complexity mentioned, one challenge like that can impact everything else; the knock-on effect of that design issue has cost us considerable time and money.

“As we are a small startup, any delays mean the whole team are part of the process, and as soon as one person has an issue (even if not directly related to the project) it can set us back, that said, we’re extremely happy with the team we have and remain as excited as ever to move things forward, and at the end of the day we are going to work Gameband through to conclusion whatever it takes for our backers.”

Editor’s note: The writer of this story did back the watch at the basic level.

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