Free Money: When $500,000 Simply isn't Enough
The problems facing Neal Stephenson's Clang show that good intentions are crowd-funding's biggest threat
Clang. Is it the sound of the piercing, insistent spark of steel-on-steel, the audible manifestation of two blades locked in furious combat? Or is it the sound of half-a-million in silver dollars, skittering towards the nearest drain?
Today, some 9,000 people may be asking themselves that very question, and their disdain is entirely justified. Clang, the fanciful sword-fighting simulator fronted by the impressively bearded and bestselling author Neal Stephenson, has fallen on hard times. Subutai Corporation, the development company co-founded by Stephenson, has burned through every gnarled shilling of the $526,125 pledged to its Kickstarter campaign, and, after a series of corporate dead-ends, must now shelve the project until it stumbles into another haystack of cash. Verily, the heart bleeds.
"The Subutai Corporation's grasping explanations offer little in the way of comfort or even humility"
By any measure, this is a sorry affair, and Subutai Corporation's grasping explanations offer little in the way of comfort or even humility. This, the company proclaims, is the fault of a struggling industry, one where trying economic times have turned those holding the keys to the safe into obstinate penny-pinchers. The regrettable bankruptcy of THQ and the closure of the once vital LucasArts are also referenced, extra ballast against what they no doubt anticipate is a storm of disapproval forming on the horizon.
"The overall climate in the industry has become risk-averse to a degree that is difficult to appreciate until you've seen it," Subutai claims, and that comment highlights its gravest dereliction of duty. The 7,000 or so backers that pledged $50 or less to Clang aren't likely to be budding investors or industry analysts; just Neal Stephenson fans eager to see more ripened fruit from his estimable imagination. It's not their responsibility to see the tensions at the heart of the modern games business, but one would hope that Subutai had at least looked before taking 500,000 of the easiest possible dollars.
The problem is, of course, that anybody working in or around the games industry at any point in the last five years has seen it. Frankly, it's been pretty difficult to miss. The stability and influence of practically every established publisher has been consistently and rigorously tested for more than five years. THQ didn't sneak up on anybody. It was a car crash in slow motion.
And yet Subutai overlooked this seemingly vital perspective while asking the general public to contribute to a concept whose lofty ambitions were never in balance with its commercial appeal. Now, not only is that project on hiatus while much of the core team takes temporary work elsewhere, but Subutai recommends that its backers donate to yet another Kickstarter to fill up some of that "indeterminate" period in limbo. This time, it's for STEM, the equally ambitious motion-control system for which Clang was designed.
"In the right hands, crowd-funding is a revolution is how games are made and sold; in the wrong hands, it's free money"
Expensive, bespoke peripherals - a real seller's market. The mind reels.
This is the sort of cautionary tale that advocates of funding platforms like Kickstarter had hoped might never emerge, and yet there are more of them all the time. Ambient Studios closed before Death Inc. could reach its army of patrons, Shadow of the Eternals trudged a winding path towards collapse, and Ouya seemed to design its Free The Games initiative specifically for opportunists out to make a quick buck. Even Tim Schafer, who did more than anyone to raise the profile of Kickstarter for game developers, couldn't finish Broken Age with that initial $3.3 million haul - news that broke just days after Double Fine launched a second Kickstarter campaign for Massive Chalice.
And yet of all the disappointments, it is those involving Schafer and Stephenson that grate the most. In both cases, a beloved figure with a hard-won reputation pitched a passion-project that simply wouldn't be possible working within the system, and yet even with vast sums of money pledged in good faith - to a large extent by their most loyal fans - neither managed to find the frictionless creative nirvana they promised, and neither expressed a suitable degree of remorse or regret when they veered off course.
In truth, the similarities end there. Subutai's apparent ignorance of even the most fundamental market forces, and flagrant use of Stephenson's celebrity to raise consequence-free dollars for a risky project, set it apart from Double Fine's apparent satisfaction at its own ill discipline. Tim Schafer's backers will get their game eventually, and it may prove to be worth the wait, but Subutai's backers are already six months past the promised delivery date of February 2013 with no end in sight. In the right hands, crowd-funding is a revolution is how games are made and sold; in the wrong hands, it's free money.
"I would never question the value of good ideas. Making a game is no small task, but finishing one is an altogether more daunting challenge"
The act of creation lends itself to romantic sentiment. We are drawn to the concept of the artist as an elemental force - visionaries forsaking all in the name of their integrity and ideals. Equally appealing is the idea that these Byronic dreamers are shackled by the demands of vast corporate structures, forced to compromise and capitulate at every turn. It is only once you've seen behind the curtain of a creative industry that you realise the absurdity of such notions. I would never question the value of good ideas. Making a game is no small task, but finishing one is an altogether more daunting challenge. Not everybody possesses the skills to make that happen, and those that do are rarely described in terms of genius or artistry. More's the pity, because they, more than the day-dreaming visionaries, make the truly great games possible.
This kind of pragmatism seems to be the quality most obviously lacking among Kickstarter's growing community of disappointments and failures. Could Neal Stephenson have used some of the earnings from his long career as a best-selling author to fund the prototype for Clang? Would Clang have raised more money with a working prototype rather than a sackful of good intentions? Could that working prototype and larger pool of development capital have made the whole proposition more attractive to those curmudgeonly publishers? Perhaps, but then it would have been Subutai that stood to lose half-a-million dollars, and I don't need to elaborate on why that's the less attractive option.
These days, I make a point of asking any well-known developer using Kickstarter to get a passion project off the ground the same question: If the game is a success, and makes enough money to capably fund the development of new projects, will you return to the crowd for funding? The immediate response, always and without exception, is yes.
I have no axe to grind, but something about that answer makes me uncomfortable.