Tales From the Kickstarer Crypt: Neal Stephenson’s CLANG

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Have you ever wanted a real sword fighting game? With motion controls? One which facilitated the learning of ancient sword fighting techniques, and somehow magically created a sense of force-feedback? Well Subutai Corp’s developers promised all of this when they launched a Kickstarter campaign back in the crowdfunding gold rush of 2012.

The thing which probably got them a lot of attention though, was Sci-fi /fantasy author Neal Stephenson, who is apparently a big deal (I’d never heard of him, but I don’t really read those genres), was heading up the pitch. He even presented their flashy Kickstarter videos:

CLANG just scraped by with its funding goal, reaching a total of $526,125 out if its $500,000 target. I must confess this was during my first brushes with Kickstarter, and I was quite excited about the prospect of the game. Not quite enough to back it though, it must be said. Perhaps now I’d be a little more cynical about this sort of project, because it was quite clearly never going to end well.

Kickstarter Claims

What should have been my first red flag is that the plan was for the game to utilise a third-party motion controller:

“Low-latency, high-precision motion controller: Critical to a satisfying sword fight is fast, accurate response. This is especially important for CLANG given the depth and complexity of moves that are used in real sword arts. Initially, CLANG will make use of a commercial, third-party, off-the-shelf controller that anyone can buy today”

Now, it seems unlikely to me that many people would be willing to buy a third party peripheral in order to play a game. However it seems more unlikely that any motion controller available these days is capable of reproducing the kind of complex swordplay being discussed here. For example:

“Depth: Roundhouse swings and crude blocks just aren’t enough. Real sword fighting involves multiple attacks delivered from different stances, pommel strikes, grappling, feints, and parries.”

I doubt anyone who has wildly flailed around a Wii controller will recognise those kinds of fighting as a possibility, and even the best motion controller available now couldn’t replicate force feedback, in the manner Stephenson discuses elsewhere, very effectively at all. 

Something which may have escaped peoples attention around the time that the pledge was launched, was that Subutai were in fact seeking only to develop a functional prototype of the game in order to obtain further investment.

“Raising an army (or, in this case, building an enormous story-driven video game) is an expensive proposition and can take a number of years. In keeping with the scrappy, ragtag band of adventurers model, we are building this larger vision one step at a time. The next step is to build a functional proof of concept in the form of an exciting prototype we can share with you and use to achieve our next level of funding…”

This is fine of course, but I think you’d be forgiven for not noticing this, especially when many of the pledge tiers refer to things like: “Two copies of the game. Keep one for yourself, give one to a friend! Includes a thank you credit on our website and within the game.”

clang-best-indie-games

Lack of Updates

When the developers began to go quiet after some months of development, many backers began to fear the worst. Until Neal Stephenson produced an update, called The State of Clang, in which he stated that “we’ve hit the pause button on further CLANG development while we get the financing situation sorted out.” In essence, they had run out of money and the game would not be completed in any form, even as a prototype. A lack of interest from investors was the cited reason, with all backers money seemingly invested into a product that would be very unlikely to see the light of day again.

This is perhaps an understandable risk with this sort of ambitious project, which also seeks to reinvent the use of third-party hardware. However, the tone of the announcement left many feeling angry. Here follow some of my favourite quotes:

“Is the CLANG project dead? At what point do you put a toe tag on an indie game and call it finished? Opinions on that might vary, but in our opinion, the project doesn’t die simply because it runs out of money. Projects run out of money all the time. As a matter of fact, game industry veterans we have talked to take a blithe attitude toward running out of money, and seem to consider it an almost obligatory rite of passage.”

“The potential financiers most likely to talk to us are Neal Stephenson fans. Once they have actually met Neal and gotten their books signed, it turns out that they are not really that interested in our project. But they don’t want to make Neal Stephenson feel bad and so they don’t give him any useful feedback; instead they just go dark. In the meantime we have wasted a huge amount of time on them. We were slow to cotton on to this.”

And my absolute favourite:

LESSONS LEARNED

–Kickstarter lock-in. Kickstarter is amazing, but one of the hidden catches is that once you have taken a bunch of people’s money to do a thing, you have to actually do that thing, and not some other thing that you thought up in the meantime.

As you can see, there is a casualness with the idea that backers money would see no return that some found a little infuriating.

Over Ambition

I see no malice in this project, it seems to have been a failure because its goals were simply too lofty and, ,half a million dollars doesn’t go to far with this kind of  hardware development. To reinvent sword fighting using motion controllers is a monumental task, and half a million dollars doesn’t seem like a anywhere near enough to accomplish that. 

CLANG certainly ought to serve as a cautionary tale to any would be Kickstarter backers, and the projects themselves. Ambition is a good thing, but only promise what you can deliver, especially if you’re trying to reinvent the wheel.

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