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Could Godus' failure fuel a crowdfunding backlash?

22cans' bad handling casts a shadow over the Kickstarter dream

Crowdfunding, in principle, is one of the best things to happen to the creative industries in decades. At its most effective, it allows creative people to pitch their ideas directly to their potential customers - in one fell swoop solving most of the problems associated with financing, market research and IP ownership. From the consumer's point of view, it gives them an opportunity to directly and meaningfully influence the kind of products that get made, rather than being lumped into a poorly researched demographic bracket and casually dismissed at publisher green-light meetings; "oh, that demographic doesn't play adventure games any more". To this, at last, we get not just to say "well perhaps we would if you actually made some", but to properly prove the point.

That's the principle. In practice, crowdfunding is a little more troublesome, because it isn't very good at doing some of the other things that publisher green-light processes are (usually) designed to handle. For example, Kickstarter and its ilk do quite literally allow people to pitch their ideas - with their ability to actually execute upon those ideas usually relegated to a minor supporting role in the proposal that's made to potential backers. The enormous gulf that exists between a cool idea for a game and the immense technical, artistic and management skill required to drag that game out of the realms of imagination and into this plane of existence is a damned hard thing to judge, and Kickstarter backers generally aren't expert enough to do so. Sure, publishers get it wrong sometimes too, but for the most part they're able to wave big, threatening sticks at developers who are failing to live up to their promises; Kickstarter backers, robbed of the ability to withhold milestone payments or otherwise coax along a troubled development process, are left to watch their cash go up in smoke with the crashing, burning project.

"There's also a basic and troubling disconnect between how many people see Kickstarter and what Kickstarter actually does"

There's also a basic and troubling disconnect between how many people see Kickstarter and what Kickstarter actually does. Kickstarter allows you to express an interest in a product and quantify that interest by giving the creator money to bring it into being; depending on how much money you give, you may or may not receive a copy of the product itself, or other benefits, if and only if the project turns out to be viable and the product is finally created. That's what Kickstarter actually is. What many of its users seem to view it as, however, is "Amazon for stuff that doesn't exist yet"; a way to pre-order games that are far, far off from release, while simultaneously nudging developers in the direction of making more of the stuff you want. Naturally, this causes wailing, gnashing of teeth and cries for refunds when things don't actually work out as a developer planned; and while misconceptions are largely the consumer's responsibility, I'm not entirely comfortable with how happy both Kickstarter and its high-profile campaigns seem to be to quietly string along the "it's a pre-order, sort-of" crowd without correcting their mistake.

These practical problems with crowdfunding are why even those who are hugely enthusiastic about the concept overall tend to expect a rude awakening within the next few years - a point where a few extremely high-profile, much-backed Kickstarter products (for our purposes, games) have either completely failed to release, or have launched in a terrible state that has utterly disappointed the consumers who invested in the project. There will be recriminations and complaints, but most of all there will be a newfound skepticism in crowdfunding - the "it's a pre-order, sort-of" crowd will suddenly come to see Kickstarter as a risky venture, probably overestimating the risks in a knee-jerk reaction to losing money on a handful of failed projects, and the flow of crowdfunding money will be stemmed. This isn't entirely a bad thing; a little more healthy appreciation of the risks involved would make Kickstarter backers into wiser consumers making better decisions. A strong knee-jerk reaction, however, could leave many genuinely good crowdfunding campaigns high and dry - especially those by smaller, less well known creators.

"A little more healthy appreciation of the risks involved would make Kickstarter backers into wiser consumers making better decisions"

Thus far, most of the major bullets have been dodged. The various crowdfunding efforts by Tim Schafer and his company, and how they've been managed subsequently, have attracted some critics, but it would take a hard heart and a pretty aggressive agenda to claim that Schafer hasn't worked hard to deliver what he promised and created some pretty great stuff along the way. Wasteland 2 was delayed almost a year, but turned out to be pretty great when it finally arrived. Shadowrun Returns is well-liked. Elite: Dangerous, which would have been one of my top picks for "likely Kickstarter disasters" only a short while ago, has proved me very happily wrong and is genuinely delighting long-suffering fans of the classic space trading simulation. Okay, Planetary Annihilation turned out to be pretty rubbish (in the initial release, at least - I've not been back to try out subsequent updates), but not earth-shakingly so - certainly not poor enough to kick off a crowdfunding scandal.

One major bullet, though, looks like it might have nicked an important artery. 22cans' Godus, which received over half a million pounds (almost $800,000) in funding back at the end of 2012, is rapidly transforming into a truly nasty episode for crowdfunding. The game itself is available as an Early Access purchase on Steam, or as an F2P-style mobile title; it's not very good at all, but significant improvements were expected down the line, including the implementation of all the various features promised in the original Kickstarter pitch. Now, though, it seems that most of the team at 22cans has been moved on to new project The Trail; the vastly reduced Godus team is undoubtedly doing their level best, but almost certainly lacks the resources to actually achieve the remarkable goals originally set for the project.

"'Remarkable goals', of course, will probably be written on the tombstone of 22cans boss Peter Molyneux. Molyneux has a history of over-promising and under-delivering"

"Remarkable goals", of course, will probably be written on the tombstone of 22cans boss Peter Molyneux. Molyneux has a history of over-promising and under-delivering; he has a long standing bad habit of running his mouth off about features and concepts without ever considering their feasibility in terms of technology, budget or resources. Often in the past, Molyneux appears to have got away with this behaviour thanks to a combination of personal charm and a genuine, undeniable passion for the games he's involved with; even after this most egregious claims have turned out to be false, people have tended to write it off as over-enthusiasm or excited naivety. Godus may be the turning point in that perception; the reaction to the discovery by Rock Paper Shotgun that the team has been shrunk down despite the failure to live up to Kickstarter promises, plus Eurogamer's report that the winner of Molyneux' previous F2P experiment, Curiosity: What's In The Cube, has yet to see a penny of his "life-changing" prize, has been far more hard-edged and bitter than previous criticism of Molyneux, whose public perception seems to have shifted from "over-enthusiastic, passionate, unreliable" to "dishonest, scheming, untrustworthy".

While the impact of Godus' failure (and let's not beat around the bush, a 1.8 star user score on Metacritic and overwhelming majority of "do not recommend" votes on Steam is nothing if not failure) on Molyneux' career will be interesting and perhaps a little tragic - I've personally got a lot of time for dreamers, even if I can't help but feel that Molyneux' talents are much better put to use in a more structured and directed environment and that he is totally unsuited to running his own studio - the bigger picture is what this means for crowdfunding as a whole. Over 17,000 people backed Godus on Kickstarter, in the belief that they were providing funds for an industry legend to return to the style of Populous, the game which established his reputation in the first place and remains much-loved to this day. Those 17,000 people have been disappointed. That number is small, although it's a bloody big chunk of core fanbase to alienate - but through media coverage and social media spread, countless hundreds of thousands if not millions have watched this little drama unfold. What it has done to their perceptions of crowdfunding cannot be positive - 17,000 fellow gamers just lost half a million quid between them on a project that seems to have been quite dishonest from the outset.

"If there's going to be a string of disappointing or under delivering games from Kickstarter, 2015 is the first year in which it could really happen"

Godus alone, of course, won't trigger a revolution in how consumers view crowdfunding - but it is an ominous start to a year that is absolutely vital for this entire approach to creative financing. 2015 is the make or break year for games on Kickstarter. Thanks to a number of delays from 2014, the release schedule of huge, well-funded Kickstarter games in 2015 is incredibly packed. Shroud of the Avatar, Torment: Tides of Numenera, Mighty No.9, Pillars of Eternity, Project CARS, the second act of Broken Age... 2016 has its share of big titles too, including Camelot Unchained and the biggest of them all, Star Citizen, but if there's going to be a string of disappointing or under delivering games from Kickstarter, 2015 is the first year in which it could really happen. Of course, each of those projects has the backing of an industry legend or two, and each has an experienced development team; but so did Godus.

For the sake of those working on them and those who backed them, I hope all those games turn out to be fantastic. Optimism, however, only gets you so far. With attention already focused on the negative side of Kickstarter thanks to Godus' bad press, crowdfunding can ill-afford one or two more high profile failures in 2015 - which makes the stakes for each of those launches very high indeed, not just for the teams creating them, but for any creative hoping to use crowdfunding to finance their dreams in the near future.

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Latest comments (28)

Darren Adams Managing Director, ChaosTrend6 years ago
Crowdfunding is a great idea, but at the end of the day it is a service that depends on the trust of people and when big name developers (there are a few) spend backers money yet don't deliver what they said they would, run off with the money or just come out and say "Hey, thanks for all the money but we have spent it..... oh ye here's your half finished game, enjoy......", of course it will scare current backers/potential backers off. I called it a few years back (as others did) and it has played out exactly as I thought it would and for the reasons I stated. Doh!!

I am hopeful that there will be some positives from this; one being that now people should fully understand KS is not a pre-order service and that sometimes it just won't pan out. This will drop backer numbers but should mean those who do back projects will now understand what they are actually getting into.

It will be interesting to see if this affects our modest Kickstarter that will be coming out soon..... I am not holding my breath.

Edited 5 times. Last edit by Darren Adams on 13th February 2015 9:54am

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Nick McCrea Gentleman, Pocket Starship6 years ago
To paraphrase the great man, now is not the end of crowd funding. It's not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.
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Julian Williams Founder, WIZDISH Ltd.6 years ago
I backed Godus because I liked the idea and knew the risk, so I'm not too perturbed about that.
However, there is a far darker side to Kickstarter. I've found to my cost that it allows people to steal your patented work and present it as their own, so rather than aiding creative it serves as the weapon of choice for con-men and charlatans. No one performs due diligence or background checks and even VCs think they can depend on KS, which is absurd. Its already been the ruin of many good R&D projects by respectable companies, with the resources sometimes being handed to people with no clue how to deliver a product. This is especially true of hardware with international shipping. There are other tricks too, such as if you decide to withdraw your backing the process is obscure so that what you may end up with is no reward while still owing the money. Let's hope this particular story forces them to re-examine the system, because it would be a shame if a bad few ruined it for everyone.
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Show all comments (28)
George Williams Owner 6 years ago
That's very true Julian. I've been working on a brilliant idea for a game and considered crowd funding but the bigger players could and probably would steal it in a second.

However, if you use kickstarter, you know the risks. Bigger the name, greater the risk in my opinion
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Fazi Zsolt Game & Level Designer @Atypical Games 6 years ago
Kickstarting projects has become increasingly difficult. This started because of more and more projects just ended up unfinished, unreleased or just missing the mark with their promises.
People started to get disillusioned by this, and started growing more skeptical towards these types of ventures so to say.

The same thing is happening with early access games on steam, less and less are buying into it now.
A noticeable declining trend of funding/buying early access games, due to many of these games are released in such deplorable states at high prices for what they offer.
(ex: deep stranded: an over hyped game that really doesn't offer much for 15$ , it's more a pre-alpha , tech demo game).

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Fazi Zsolt on 13th February 2015 11:11am

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Phil Elliott Project Lead, Collective; Head of Community (London), Square Enix6 years ago
It's inevitable that for a lot of people, once bitten; twice shy. Shoring up that trust in development teams that don't have an industry legend or two in their ranks is something we're trying to do with Collective - but I believe that until there are more 'trust checks' in place, we'll see crowdfunders flock to more tangible products (ie board games).
But crowdfunding is still very young, and we shouldn't leap to conclusions about whether a decline in videogames funding is a trend or a blip just yet.
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 6 years ago
Expecting one game to ruin an entire way of funding games is giving it way too much credit, again.
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Adam Campbell Product Manager, Azoomee6 years ago
Godus and Curiosity are making too many headlines. This is not a good thing.
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Perhaps we should take the opposite view of risk in these instances? For a single company to take a bath on that much on one project is a bitter pill to take which a lot of us know from experience but the risk in kick starter campaigns is much more diverse. Julian makes a point above that he (me as well) backed Godus as i wanted to see what would come out. Peter is a dreamer and I think he deserved the chance to have a go at it. Same with Frontier and Elite. Am i losing sleep over what I put in, no. Did i ever expect to see a return on it, not really I got a kick out of doing it for the art. Very few people venture such large sums in Kickstarter projects that they should do proper due dilligence on a project. I think its more like a funding tombola for good ideas and if enough people agree you throw in small amounts each to see what comes off. Put it in context you would probably spend more on a meal for two.
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John Kauderer Associate Creative Director, Atari6 years ago
If Star Citizen ends up being a disaster then you will see a big change in how games get crowd funded.

It will be interesting to see what happens with Kingdom Come Deliverance. The trailers for that game look so ambitious, fingers crossed it will turn out excellent.

There are quite a few success stories from Kickstarter though. Chivalry seems to have received good reviews and it didn't even Kickstart with a lot of money. Darkest Dungeon is already in early Access on steam despite only getting funding less than a year ago. It currently has a very high rating.
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Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 6 years ago
I've personally got a lot of time for dreamers, even if I can't help but feel that Molyneux's talents are much better put to use in a more structured and directed environment and that he is totally unsuited to running his own studio - the bigger picture is what this means for crowdfunding as a whole.
Why should it mean anything for crowdfunding as a whole? Peter Molyneux's failure is his own. No matter how much he might cry that
I'd never done a Kickstarter campaign before, I had never released on Steam Early Access before, I'd never done a mobile game before and all of these things... I made some horrendous mistakes.
He's been in the industry since the 1980s. Co-founded Bulfrog in 1987. Populous was 1989. I would argue that Godus's failure will barely affect crowdfunding one bit, but will vastly affect how much faith gamers have in developers/designers trying to profit from nostalgia and a well-polished name. The other big recent Kickstarter failure - Clang - was once again built on trust of a big name, and fell-through. Does this mean that Kickstarter is heading for a trough? Or does it mean that people place a lot of trust in names - people, companies - they admire, and that this trust sometimes backfires? Anyone who thinks this is unique to Kickstarter should go back and play Neverwinter Nights 2 (after reading who the development team comprised of).

Edited 3 times. Last edit by Morville O'Driscoll on 13th February 2015 5:37pm

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Emily Rose Artist 6 years ago
Almost everything I've kickstarted has succeeded, except an art installation in the desert that got destroyed by a freak sandstorm before it had a chance to be completed (so I don't blame the creators)

It's a shame for the people that supported Molyneux's dream (and the few other failures) but I don't think this will affect faith in Kickstarter much.
@Julian That's pretty scary though.
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Dan Wood Visual Effects Artist 6 years ago

I get the feeling it's already fueling a backlash against Mr Molyneux though...

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Dan Wood on 13th February 2015 6:13pm

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Molyneux has a history of over-promising and under-delivering"
I have always thought Molyneux was better at marketing then actually game development.
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James Berg Games User Researcher 6 years ago
The thing is, we keep hearing "Such and such will fuel a crowdfunding backlash", and it keeps on keeping on. It's too powerful a platform to have any major impact from a few failures, even high profile ones. The vast majority of projects complete and folks are happy, even folks using it as a pre-order system.
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One game has not ruined KS - bloated egos and some incredibly sharp business practices have!

After reading about the changes KS had to make after the Oculus VR fund raiser I am surprised we even have a KS left.

Sadly the KS investors in PM's latest hype-train derailment now know what it felt like investing in him in the past! Just surprised the media still thinks the sun shines out of his "godus" and interviews him regarding industry matters at all - like asking a banker what he thinks of the current tax scandal!

Time for some new voices in the industry to be given a chance to offer their opinions!

Edited 1 times. Last edit by kevin williams on 13th February 2015 7:29pm

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Istvan Fabian Principal Engineer, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe6 years ago
Fact of our industry - and as a whole, the entire entertainment industry - is that products do get cancelled, fail to be completed and finally fail to deliver. Unlike say movies, these things happening got significantly smaller coverage in the mainstream (not industry specific) press than success stories.
The majority of the Kickstarter backers are not from the entertainment industry and as such, are not aware of specifically how the games industry works.
Failed game projects are nothing new, it's only news for the backers and they do learn from these events - just like how actual game publishers learnt from some other publishers' or their own mistakes or eventually went under.
Backers will have learned that failure is part of the process and there are no guarantees - so they will be in a better position to assess the realistic risk of a game development project (although without much insight still into the whys and hows) and base their decision on their experience - just like publishers do.
The whole process will come to a full circle, just the risk is shared by the backers rather than a single business entity.
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Chris Eckersley FQA TRC Tester, SCEE Studio Liverpool6 years ago
Godus backer here (and nearly a Clang backer too). I don't regret my small contribution to the project; there was a chance that what Peter Molyneux promised would come to pass and I'm glad he's had the opportunity at least. If he pitches again with as much passion as with Godus there's even a possibility I'd back another of his projects, if one works out then we'll have one classic game and several forgotten failures, I'll have been glad to be part of that one success.

How has Godus affected my feelings towards crowdfunding? It hasn't really. I made a KS account to fund The Banner Saga and that has turned out delightfully, The Banner Saga 2 is one of my most anticipated games. That The Banner Saga was given the chance to live, breathe and thrive is what crowdfunding is about. So long as backers are fully cognizant of the risks I think they won't feel burned with failures, just like habitual gamblers they will keep going for the wins.

Though perhaps I'll need to reconsider when I see how my KC:D and SC pledges pan out (such high expectations for those projects).
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Andrew Spearin Professor, Mohawk College6 years ago
For every story written about a failed project of a new business model, there's a successful project from the same business model not being written about. While it's in everyone's best interests to recognize and learn from the failure, there are also the successful examples to learn from.
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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 6 years ago
Over 17,000 people backed Godus on Kickstarter, in the belief that they were providing funds for an industry legend to return to the style of Populous, the game which established his reputation in the first place and remains much-loved to this day.

Isn't that THEIR fault for thinking they'd get one game and not the one they got instead? Granted, Godus is hugely flawed from everything I'm seeing. But that's what patching is for, I guess.
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Jeff Kleist Writer, Marketing, Licensing 6 years ago
Moly dud really missed his Kickstarter calling. A farting keychain is the perfect thing :)

Seriously, he's a man that has nearly always had a giant whoopee cushion airbag behind him, and without that, or suits keeping him on task, it ended badly.
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Eyal Teler Programmer 6 years ago
Why would Godus of all projects cause a Kickstarter backlash? It was reasonably big, but not huge, there were enough other failures, complete failures (unlike Godus, which is still getting work done on it), and reasonable people would make the distinction between creator and platform anyway (it's not Kickstarter which failed).

Shadowrun Hong Kong is getting good support, and I'm sure that Brian Fargo will also get good support for his next project. There are enough Kickstarter successes to prove that it's a viable platform, and enough failures to prove that there's need to be careful and you can't count on getting results.
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Thomas Peter Technical Designer R&D 6 years ago
As steam early access subscriber I don't realized that Peter Molineux is involved in Godus. I thought that's an indie project. Otherwise I wouldn't subscribed. On my opinion is Peter a windbag. It's a long time he was involved in a successes rich game and on this fact I'm not sure if he was ever that genius we thought. Maybe he was only on the right place on right time in his past. After part two of Dungeon Keeper he should change his job.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Thomas Peter on 15th February 2015 6:53pm

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Thomas Bidaux CEO, ICO Partners6 years ago
FWIW - by the end of February, there will almost be as many well funded video games for the partial year of 2015 than the whole of 2014.
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Alfonso Sexto Lead Tester, Ubisoft Germany6 years ago
Maybe we are overreacting a bit. A person that in the last years became notorious for under-delivering, under-delivers once again and we consider this to be the almost the beginning of the end of "kickstarter"? By that rule we could say the same of every single game model out there, because every single one of them has projects/companies that under-deliver.

Kickstarter has risks, and giving money to a project does not guarantee you'll have that project released, nor that the project it's going to end being exactly what you want it to. I only have my case with "Carmageddon Reincarnation"; it was the same original studio with Nobby Barnden leading it. That guarantees there is no shady stuff on the background so... was lucky there! game was funded and is a good game (so far, still in beta) But could have been pretty different.

Maybe people needs to remember that backing a game does not make you a producer on it, and that it gives you no right or ownership over it. You are just trusting somebody using your wallet, and that's it.
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Julian Williams Founder, WIZDISH Ltd.6 years ago
The gist of the updates I bothered to read was that they were bending over backwards to change anything that some backers didn't like.
Just playing devil's advocate here but is it possible they should have just ploughed ahead to deliver the key features. I would have thought the concept of battles would have added a lot of jeopardy and may have been one of the things the majority of backers were most looking forward to. "The path to hell is paved with good intentions" and all that..
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Sandy Lobban Founder, Noise Me Up6 years ago
Kickstarter is great for indie projects, but lets be honest, fresh ideas will no doubt be stolen by the people who are now gambling on the games marketplace, and it will continue to hurt crowdfunding as an idea. If you're going to do a kickstarter campaign, then I would say be careful about how much you reveal in your pitch. For backers, do a bit of research on the individuals behind a campaign first.

An alternative option before you publically blow your project and hand it over to others via kickstarter is look into the EIS and EIES funding support, if you are in the UK. People investing in your company have around 80 percent of their money secured through goverment initiatives in the UK, and a lot of high net worth individuals are putting money into projects as risk is fairly minimal. Worth looking at, and you might be surprised by the interest from investors. You could of course do both. With 22 cans being a relatively new company I would be surprised if their accountants and investors (if any, I've not looked) didnt know about that scheme also. Your company has to be trading for less than 2 years to qualify for the EIES backing.

Could be a better option if you have a good idea.

Edited 3 times. Last edit by Sandy Lobban on 17th February 2015 11:18am

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Darren Adams Managing Director, ChaosTrend6 years ago

Indeed. I have been looking at EIS and EIES as well as doing a Kickstarter seeing as it is a big gamble these days to put everything on the success of your campaign. An SUV is usually the way to go if your company is over 2 years old like we are considering, though it may be a bit much messing around for your average small indie studio.
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