It was the talk of the pinball world when we published our report into the Predator Pinball project and confirmed for the first time what had only been suspected up until that point - that Skit-B Pinball did not in fact have a licence for the use of the Predator name or any of the other assets used in the game.
We ended that article with the hope that Predator Pinball could be saved and those who pre-ordered could eventually get their game. Unfortunately, so far none of those possibilities have have so far proved to be the lifeline which could save the project.
So to get his take on the event of the past few weeks, what it all means for the project, the buyers, and for him personally, Pinball News spoke to the man at the eye of the storm, Skit-B's Kevin Kulek.
He told us how it had been a tough time for him and his family, and although we had asked him many questions in the preparation our report, Kevin felt he still had a lot to say and wanted to fill in some of the blanks left after our earlier conversation.
So we are happy to give him this opportunity to put his side of the story.
Key amongst the claims he makes is how Skit-B did contact Fox at the outset, before they built the first prototype Predator game, and received some kind of guidance about what they could and couldn’t do for their own personal project.
Although this is something that is very different to a licence to make a commercial product, that, he says, is how they interpreted it at the time.
“The general consensus, the general thought people have is that we have done something really bad intentionally, and I would really like to clear that up”, he told us.
“You see the thing with that is, when we were first starting out, the pinball landscape was much different. This is when it was just Stern and this random guy from New Jersey might be trying it out, you know. We did contact Fox initially, and they had given us, like…. I don’t really know how to say it, it’s almost like, how to do this under fair use kinda thing. We read it as a permission to do what we were doing. And it’s like, this really dark corner of this really small, niche community and, you know, it’s no big deal.”
This was before the announcement of the intention to build and sell 200-250 Predator pinball machines, when it was still Kevin and Aaron’s next basement project.
“Yeah!", he said. "So when it came to licensing we could make these things and people could buy them. So it was like, we’ll make sure it was OK with the people on the licence, because that’s obviously something we’ll have to deal with. And… in retrospect is seems as though it was, their take on it was we’re just, you know, a couple of guys who are going to make this thing and ride around the shows because we like to do that kind of thing. I guess a better sharing of intent would have… maybe helped that to be resolved sooner. But at the time we were just looking for permission and we thought we found it. And we moved on.”
Even when Fox told them to remove all mention of the Predator project from their website and stop promoting the game, Kevin says they didn’t see this as a big deal.
He told us, “When they asked us to take the things down from the website, it was like, ‘Oh, I guess we overstepped. Let’s draw it back a little bit and stick with the agreement that we had.'”
Pinball News put it to Kevin that people will find it hard to believe that no checks were made on whether he and Skit-B really did have any rights to use the Predator intellectual property (IP), especially since people have been questioning whether they truly had a licence right from the initial announcement of the game.
Surely when Fox contacted Skit-B and told them to take down the material, we asked, they would have checked to see what they were entitled to do?
He replied, “There’s a very black-and-white side to that part of the story. To say that, obviously there had to be checks made, yeah that’s true. But, at the same time, to assume that there was absolutely no contact [with Fox] from the beginning to the end of this whole thing is somewhat irresponsible Because we’ve taken [the game] to so many places around the world and we’ve done Pinball News a handful of times, we do podcasts and all these little radio shows. We were not hiding… If we were trying to do something under the table, I mean I could probably do it a lot better than that. To say there was zero contact is mentally irresponsible."
"But obviously the truth has to lie somewhere in the middle. And that’s what I’m giving you now, the middle truth. We were told what we could do, but, as it more seems is, it is more like a fair use response. So this is what you can do with our IP, and those are the rules that we followed. We took that as the permission, and we continued."
"And of course, as we get head down into this stuff and we really started having to hit the nitty-gritty on what we were doing, and when people would ask, ‘Do you really have a licence for this thing?’ it becomes really dismissive to say, ‘Yeah, of course we do’. Because, as far as we knew, we did. So it’s like, ‘Of course we do’, and we’ll just move on to the other questions everybody has.”
He continued, “You know, it never became a situation of, like, we should really look at the thing and post it. You’ve never seen any company do something like that before. When it comes down to the real nuances is when it really becomes apparent that we’d sincerely screwed that up. And by the time we were able to rectify the situation, it snowballed and exploded to something wholly uncontrollable.”
Kevin admits he doesn’t understand the ferocity of the backlash from the news that the project has been unlicensed from the outset, saying Skit-B’s believed they had permission, even though that was never backed-up by any formal agreement.
"I don’t understand the complaint. I don’t want to sound like I’m living under a rock or in a bubble, but I don’t know what the hell I did to anybody to make them this mad at me. It’s come to me from many people that there’s lots of speculation about who these [anonymous] people are, what they’re doing. It’s come to my attention that a fairly small collection of people – 2 or 3 people – who were in on the project at one point, and bailed for whatever reason they had, and were refunded, and that was it. I don’t know where the animosity or the need to vilify me or my project comes from. I have no clue. No idea."
We suggested that they were convinced that the whole Predator project had been sold on a lie. That it was misrepresented as being a licensed product all the way through until the last few weeks, when in fact it wasn’t then and it wasn’t ever. That was why they were angry. Kevin replied, “Well, I have to say, and this is just a human response but, wouldn’t that boil down to a matter of intent?”
But, we asked, what if they believe it was wilful misrepresentation; when people have asked, several times, for confirmation that everything is in order, and been told that it is. Not just by Kevin of course, but by others, and then it clearly turns out not to be.
“Right. But again it’s not a matter of deliberately lying to anybody”, Kevin insisted. “As far as we were concerned, everything was on the up and up."
"And honestly, if these anonymous folks would have started by contacting me, instead of deliberately going out to attack the situation, it would have been taken care of quietly and quickly. And everyone would not only get their game, but get everything they ever asked for. It would be back on websites, and we would be able to promote the crap out of it, it would become this all-encompassing really cool thing, that these people could feel special to be a part of. And now most people feel like they were taken, and they were lied to, it’s like this really bad thing.”
When Fox were first contacted by the anonymous group at the end of 2014 resulting in Fox contacting Skit-B, Kevin said it was a wake-up call for him. “It was actually because of them that I started looking closer into the licensing to begin with. We were darn close to sending games out, you know, an unlicensed product. And that would have been terrible. You can only imagine if we had had ten or fifteen or, God forbid, a hundred games out, and then we find out it’s a licensing issue, people might not only not get their money back, but have to destroy the game or something, or send it to somewhere else. That would have been catastrophic.”
And when the licensing situation was fully revealed last month, Kevin claims he was very close to arranging a deal to secure a licence and get the games made. “That’s when everything kinda steamrolled or snowballed out of control, and it just couldn’t have happened at a worse time. We had a lot of really talented, you know, really well-established people in our corner helping us out making sure everything was going well, and honestly, in just a little bit more time it would have been handled completely up to the end.”
Kevin had tried to work out a deal with Fox himself, but he says his lack of experience negotiating licences meant that proved to be impossible. He said, “When I had tried to work something out directly with them, it’s hard to put a real term on it, but, I don’t know what I’m doing. You know what I mean? I’m not a licensing guy. And, to the point where we first started this thing and we had what we thought was an agreement, I thought I was being clever. Like we figured something out, and we were doing it right and everyone else was doing it wrong for the last, like, forever."
"So there’s some naivety there too. But, when I reached out to Fox I was consistently… you know, obviously not taken seriously.”
Despite that rebuff, Kevin told us he had real hopes the Predator project could be saved and brought to production, if not by him, then by a third party. “After you and I had talked, you’d got me in touch with Andrew [Heighway], he was hopeful for some outcome, and we had talked with a couple of other people, and they had gotten in touch with other professionals that work directly in that industry, and things were moving along in a very positive way."
"And with all the pressure we had from the same people who were pressuring you, I’m sure but in a different way, we had to make some kind of a statement to get out in front of that, before it came out in a negative way."
"So once we had confirmation that there was an appetite from Fox to continue in an amicable way, is when we said that we were having some issues but they are already being worked out and it’s going to be positive for everyone involved.”
But ultimately time ran out and the truth about the licensing situation was made public.
“That is when the community at large just collectively shit itself, and it spiralled out of control to the point which… there’s no way you can save it as a project at this point. The only amicable thing to do here is to send everybody’s money back, and then tell the story afterwards.”
And refunding the money is Kevin’s priority. “Yeah, that’s paramount. That’s number one. Everybody needs to get their money back. So they can understand I didn’t blow all their money on crap, and it’s obviously not as bad as they thought it could be. Once that’s done, maybe people will take a more objective look towards what was going on, and say ‘well, maybe if that was untrue, I guess this might be untrue’, and… hopefully after hearing some of these things, people will understand all the better where I’m coming from.”
So now he is at the point of having to refund everyone, we asked if Kevin knew how much of the pre-order money remains? He told us, the great majority of the funds still remains in the PayPal account.
After years of building prototypes, developing add-ons, taking the game to shows, and ordering parts, we feared the account might have either run dry or been close to reaching that point.
Kevin explained, “Well, yeah. This is one of those hot topics. It’s really easy to think, like, ‘Well, shit! I sent this guy three grand. He’s had my money for this long, and he’s probably pissed it away on crap!' And… man I wish that were true. Like, if I had all these people’s money worth of stuff… I would not live in a 30-thousand dollar house and I would not drive a 2001 vehicle with a quarter tank of gas in it. I do not live the life of a multi-million dollar scam artist. I just don’t."
"And people assume that I personally have their money. Like I took it, I said ‘OK thanks’, I went to the store and I bought a TV and all this other crap. It’s just not me."
"And I’ve been trying to explain for the entirety of this project that any money that is sent to me is protected. And it’s created a huge pain in my butt, to be perfectly frank. It’s a pain that whenever I have to make, in comparison, a small order, like to get all the parts to build ten playfields, that’s a check for $5,900. It’s a lot because that’s more than the cost of a game and I’m sure, off the top of anybody’s head, you can think of something better to spend six grand on than a shitload of pop bumpers and flipper mechs. But honestly, to give a percentage of what went out compared to what has come in, it is incredibly small."
"If I had any intent to scam people or rip someone off or just take the money and disappear and not do anything, I wouldn’t have assembled playfields in my shop, and I wouldn’t put my first and last name all over everything. There are certain logical steps that have to be considered, and after this cools down a little bit I think a lot of people will start to see that."
"And, you know, a lot of naïve decisions were made, but, you know, I want people to walk away from this knowing that, like, pinball is not ripe for bad things to happen to good people. I don’t want people to think that there’s a door open here that allows shady people to do shady things with shady intentions deliberately, you know what I mean?”
Kevin told us that although it is happening slowly and streadily, the refund process has begun and a number of those who pre-ordered have already received repayments.
Once the remaining money has been refunded and emotions have cooled a little, we asked, would there be any way for the Predator game to eventually be made? Although he’s not thinking about that at the moment, Kevin definitely didn’t rule out the possibility.
He said, “With the amount of people that have sent me a message just to say, ‘No matter what, I’m still in until you send me my money back for whatever reason you have’, that’s a really nice thing to see. And, you know, if it comes back later then I’ll let everybody know, but for now I can’t ask anything more of anybody that is in on this, you know."
"I’ve been doing this for a really long time now, and it’s been an absolute rollercoaster of ups and downs, and to ask anything more of these people that are involved… I can’t do that. You know I feel like that guy who moved into your basement and said he’d be gone in a week and is, like, still there three years later. That’s me right now. That’s how I feel. It’s awful.”
Much of the initial support for Predator Pinball came from the pinball discussion forum on Pinside. But it has also be source of much of the rampant speculation and outright malevolence towards Kevin in recent weeks and months.
We asked Kevin how he coped with such a vociferous group. He said, “I did for a long time, but then but it got to be too much, and I publicly posted, even on there, to pretty much apologise for my absence. I just… I can’t do this anymore. It’s just not healthy for me. I need to keep focused. And people keep referencing that, like I backed out of something, like it’s just not healthy for him to respond. But you send me an e-mail I’ll respond. I’m not coming onto a forum. Nobody tells this shit. I only get told about it when it gets out of hand."
"And you’re right. A lot of the speculation states that all the money’s gone. Like, where the hell did that come from? Who the hell knows my monetary business? It doesn’t make any sense. Why would I have no money, and no games built outside of the ten that we have here? What the hell did you think I was getting that money for?”
We suggested that in the absence of any updates, people tend to assume there is bad news which is being buried.
Kevin didn’t disagree with that and owned up to not being innocent of that behaviour himself. “Well, that’s a fair assumption. And I would be remiss to say I’ve never done that before. When it comes to not sharing something because it’s bad information, you know, I’m not above that when it comes to money."
"It’s hard to give bad news. If you remember, I said, as early as last April I said we were supposed to be hitting the line, and we got everything in order, and that was the time to pull the trigger. And that’s when the gravity of manufacturing really hit home and we drove through it, you know. And when problems arose, we stepped over them, we got through it."
"But sending those e-mails in the interim, that’s hard to do. I’ll give you that."
"Lack of information when it comes to, like, ‘Why isn’t my game built when we were told, like, April?’ and it’s like, October. I can only say so much about manufacturing hurdles, because that’s a thing, but I don’t want to sound like a broken record. But giving bad news is difficult."
"Now when it comes to people think I’m a straight-up criminal, and they think I’m scamming people and fraudulently taking their money, that’s not a message that I’m going to hold off of. This is real life, and my family is directly involved now. The information has to be out there. It’s not good. But it’s not nearly as bad as people are painting it to be.”
Finally, looking to the longer term future, we wondered if Kevin sees how he can recover from this and return to play a positive part in the pinball community. He was upbeat about the possibility of continuing to develop pinball and other games products further down the line.
He told us, “There’s a handful of things to consider. First of all, the people who know me personally in pinball, they’re the guys who are calling me saying ‘What the Hell’s going on? You would never do anything like this.’ And that’s the general consensus of the people I know personally. Locally or far away, it doesn’t matter."
"So I’m not worried about, as you so unavoidably put it, rehabilitating myself into the community."
"But, when it comes to the rest of the community, there’s an air there now. There’s this weird deniability or believability. It’s all going to come down to what people believe at what time. You know, what information is fed to them and from what sources."
"And so as far as the pinball community goes, the biggest preface is; Pinside is not the pinball community. But people see it that way. And as far as that community goes, I have no interest in redeeming anything with the people who tried to post my wife’s phone number in order to harass me directly or indirectly, or suggested that I paid all the money to my mother, and whatever else was said."
"It’s madness. I’ve nothing to do with any of that shit."
"But as far as continuing on the project afterwards? [Sigh!] We’ll see once everybody has their money back and they understand the situation better."
"You know, I would hate to see it all go to waste, but at the same time I’m not going to ask anybody for anything to keep it going either.”
© Pinball News 2015