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Another Kickstarter project runs out of money – blames everyone else

Oh dear, let's not hope this is going to be a growing trend with Kickstarters, as it could really dampen people's interest in giving to fledgling developers. Another big Kickstarter project has run out of money, with not much hope in sight of completing it.

The game in question is CLANG, a motion controlled, sword wielding combat title being developed by American author Neal Stephenson and his company Sabutai. Despite raising over $526,000 ($26,000 more than the campaign required) the developer has apparently run out of money and there's no game in sight. According to Mr Stephenson however, that was expected. Understandably, annoyed fans don't feel the same way.

“We've hit the pause button on further CLANG development while we get the financing situation sorted out,” reads the most recent update on the campaign's Kickstarter page. He goes on by suggesting that they actually did more with the Kickstarter money than they expected, despite not delivering more than a somewhat playable tech demo to backers, even though the campaign put the game's estimated release as “February 2013.”

Look kids, it's the corpse of an exciting campaign, riddled with half truth worms

Don't worry though, he covers all these problems with humour, something all good writers should be capable of right? “Securing the next round [of funding], along with constructing improvised shelters and hoarding beans, has to be our top priority for now.” Ha ha, get it? They don't have any money so they have to save cans of beans. What a riot this guy is, taking half a million dollars of backer money and then ending up poor. Except he isn't, because he just got back from holiday according to his Twitter.

Still though, don't worry. CLANG is still looking for extra financing to finish, using whatever unseen demo has been created so far to pitch it. Unfortunately, due to everyone else – not Mr Stephenson of course – having trouble in the business, it's not as easy as that.

“The answer has a lot to do with the current state of the video game industry. While we have been working on CLANG, two major video game publishers, THQ and LucasArts, have gone out of business. Others have fallen on hard times. The current generation of consoles is coming to the end of its life cycle. Rather than invest in innovative new titles, the still-surviving publishers tend to keep their heads down, grinding out sequels and extensions to well-worn AAA franchises.”

While LucasArts was admittedly bought by a multi-billion dollar giant and then gutted, THQ has been on hard times for the past few years – well before CLANG was even a project. On top of that though, Kickstarter projects are supposed to circumvent the traditional publishing game, not be used as a stepping stone to a publishing deal which might have meant breaching original promises to backers anyway.

Mr Stephenson isn't worried though: “Paradoxically, we feel better about the future of CLANG now than we did when the clock was ticking down.” Perhaps in the same way that a cheating partner might feel less guilty after admitting where they've been putting their genitals?

Amazingly Stephenson goes on, explaining that he and his team have learned a lot from developing CLANG and not releasing it to backers. They now know that you actually have to do what you said you'd do – except they haven't actually done it.

“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.”

It's not a hidden catch, that's the whole purpose of Kickstarter.

The bearded Lex Luthor look should have tipped us off to his conniving ways

The big problem of course for people like Stephenson, is that he just has so many fans, some of them even trick him into thinking they'll give him money for the game's development, but at the end of the day all they wanted was their book signed. Of course right? Because that's how publishing companies work. They're just all massive fanboys.

“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.”

Still, as Wired points out, there is a part of the original campaign – though it's buried in the wall of text –  that suggests the money raised will be for a functional prototype only, which the backers can surely play with, even if the full game requires extra financing. That demo does exist , but it's “underwhelming,” at the moment. Apparently that was the plan all along though, to make something underwhelming with other people's money and then pitch it to financiers that are just fans of his books.

“The prototype/demo is underwhelming in its current state. We always knew that this would be the case, but there is little to be done about it since we are trying to build a new game play mechanic from scratch, not just re-skin a familiar mechanic. In other words, this is not a failure of execution [on] our part, but some might consider it a tactical mistake, arguing that we should have put more into gameplay and less into fundamentals. We're comfortable with the direction we went, since without fundamentals we don't really have anything new to offer.”

Yea no kidding it's underwhelming:

[yframe url='http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nV39GiK4Hw0′]

So moving forward, what are Stephenson and his motley crew going to do? They're going to get normal jobs and just wait for the “right” financier to come along, because it's apparently very difficult for a company with no experience at game making to pitch games to publishers. You'd have thought they might hire someone with some of that half million dollars to do the pitching for them, but that would be too logical.

“We doubt it is productive to subject CLANG to comparison shopping before the jaded eyes of generic VCs. Our approach needs to be more selective. But it is almost impossible for a small group, focused on making a game, to obtain the sort of Olympian perspective on the game funding landscape that is needed to identify the right sorts of investors quickly enough to be of any use. Our only efficient choice is to keep doing what we're doing and wait for the right investor to come along.”

That's the advice Stephenson and co are giving backers too. Just be patient, they'll get to the game eventually. Probably. Maybe not.

The sad part is we've seen this all before, with the first big crowd funded game, Broken Age, from Tim Schafer's Double Fine, which will now be split into two games instead of one while the second half is finished, way off schedule. On top of that, The Doom That Came to Atlantic City was a board game that saw the developer move house on people's money, before admitting he'd squandered it all and would never be able to finish the project, or pay people back.

KitGuru Says: According to Stephenson, he and others “always knew this would happen.” If that was the case, why wouldn't he tell everyone? While it's clear that the project was never designed to be about creating a finished game, it seems rather underhanded the way it's turned out, with lots of backtracking and blame placing everywhere but with the devs themselves. Why not just be honest and say you screwed up and are sorry, but hope to fix it?

While we can argue with Tim Schafer splitting up Broken Age after making way more than he hoped from the Kickstarter, he at least admitted that their scope grew too large. Here, Stephenson just seems content to not deliver on his promises and carry on with his life. It'll be interesting to see if backers decide that legal action is the best recourse. 

[Thanks again to Wired for some great select quotes]

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