When the CLANG campaign began, there was a noticeable air of expectation. Having been open for business since 2009, it was now the summer of 2012, and Kickstarter was starting to take off. Along with companies such as Instagram and ask.fm, Kickstarter was one of the beneficiaries of the next set of internet trends after first world interest flitted onward from the likes of Facebook, Twitter, reddit, tumblr, and Pinterest.
Putting on some new shoes
Kickstarter was part of the so-called “crowdfunding” phenomenon: websites which provided means for someone who lacked the money to ignore a traditional publishing route and pitch a project of some kind to the internet itself. Direct. No middle men! (Except Kickstarter, of course.) Most often used for an entertainment product (books, movies, comic books, video games, and that sort of thing), the project owner would pitch their vision in a sales-pitch format, and visitors could pledge various amounts of money at the project. Campaigns were time sensitive, with a commonly selected time period being 30 days. If the project met its funding goal, Kickstarter would do all of the paperwork and money processing, minus their own thirty percent cut, of course, and disperse the funds. On the other hand, if the project failed, no money ever changed hands. (This was and remains not with some other crowdfunding services.)
A typical Kickstarter project might last a month and have graduated funding tiers such as:
- $1 tip, in exchange the tipper will be promised exclusive updates.
- $10 limited to the first 2000 pledgers: A copy of the product when it is finished.
- $15 – A copy of the product when it is finished.
- $25 – A project-themed T-Shirt.
- $1000, limited to 3 pledgers – The opportunity to have cCreative input on the project.
- $5000, lunch with the people in charge of the campaign.
There were several catches, however. First, people of the internet had to know about the project. Not only that, the viewers needed to like what they saw. Not only that, there had to be something at a price point that viewers were willing to throw some money at. In addition, the project had to have a reasonable funding target. And finally, if the project ended up successfully funded, that meant the people behind the campaign suddenly had to deliver on all of their promises.
However, people proved to be a discriminating bunch, and, in order to get at peoples money, crowdfunding campaigns soon learned getting creative produced better results. How many pledges a campaign got early on seemed at the time to be important for likelihood of success. In turn, first impressions were soon discovered to be a significant factor in how many early pledges a typical campaign might receive. As such, the opening presentation of a campaign, usually consisting of an opening video (the sales pitch), pledge tiers, funding target, the first of many blog updates, and anything else that seemed funny or cool. And so this strange mix of sales-pitch, hey-I-have-a-neat-idea-but-no-money, begging for money from the masses, song and dance variety show (are you not entertained?), glorified pre-order scheme, quasi-investment model, and indie sensibility took form.
When the CLANG Kickstarter launched in June 2012, Kickstarter was a rising star cresting over a horizon of optimism and excitement. A few months before, Double Fine Adventure had just broken crowdfunding records, having raised $3.3 million dollars, well beyond an asked for $400,000.
Part of this was because few crowdfunding campaigns had reached their “pay the piper” time yet. Most had collected their money and gone silent, backers still giddy with anticipation.
Enter the CLANG
CLANG came out of left field because it was one of the first notable occasions when someone with plenty of money was asking for more. That someone with money was Neal Stephenson, a niche but well-loved, well-known, well-acclaimed, and well-sold futurist sci-fi and historical fiction author:
Stephenson wanted $500,000, not for a book, but so he could make a strange looking video game about medieval sword fighting. He didn’t even seem to want to make the game so much as he wanted to make a sword-like controller that people could hold with their hands. It also seemed he had assembled quite a large team of geeks (including a cameo by billionaire game maker Gabe Newell, along with a reference to Newell’s company’s one-decade-and-counting-delayed video game, Half-Life 3.)
Looking at the pitch video for CLANG itself, it is representative of the state of crowdfunding in 2012. One could point out the the trying to be different, yet ragged quality to the whole affair. Or one could discuss the odd effect that occurs when people who clearly are not used to being in front of a camera are doing precisely that. Or the offbeat (but funny) comedy moments. Or the swearing, as if to remind the viewer: This isn’t going to be some corporate, sanitized project, for-better-and-for-worse. Or the trying to be all things to all people, in hopes of reaching a funding goal. However, what comes through the most is something more infectious: Excitement. Neal Stephenson and co really seem like they genuinely want to make their quirky virtual sword-fighting project become a reality. They seem invested in their own idea, but there is a great deal of uncertainty. What works? What does not?
And From There… Boots Hit the Ground… and Got Muddy
The CLANG Kickstarter had a strong start before going on to struggle, ending up barely making it across the finish line after an 11th hour funding push. If I had to speculate, I think the project ran into this difficulty because, despite a steady drip feed of comic updates and videos, most delivered by Stephenson himself, CLANG struggled to find an audience. “Who is this product for?” was a problem on June 9th, and it was still a problem when funding concluded successfully thirty days later. I think that was because waving a sword-shaped object in front of a TV screen and grunting doesn’t actually sound all that fun, despite the high-quality, unorthodox sales pitch and enthusiasm.
Something Different Would Be Nice, But Why Boots On The Beach In Summer?
Also, in the end, it was only a hobby project. A potentially “realistic” sword-fighting game controller is unlikely to change the world for much ill or for much good. Neal Stephenson had many fans, but he was not writing a new book, which is what those fans would have latched onto. Instead he was making a game, something he was unproven in. People also knew Neal had enough money from royalties that he could, no doubt, fund this virtual sword experiment himself, if he wanted. Gabe Newell was popular, and he actually made games, but people knew he was not really involved with this particular project. Lastly, it was not obvious at the time, but me-too crowdfunding campaigns, designed as quick cash grabs more than labors of love, were springing out of the woodwork around the time CLANG came into being. It was only natural, once it was realized there was gold in them thar hills, a gold rush was sure to follow.
Still, where things stand now, the jury is still out, as is CLANG itself. CLANG updates are currently for project backers only, and the public has heard little to nothing since. More than anything, CLANG was a sign that niche products could raise enough money via crowdfunding… if they were careful how much money they asked for. More importantly it was something different, and even as someone who wasn’t compelled to send them some money, it was an entertaining diversion. Their antics have made me hope they do succeed. Plus, they were pitching something different in a world where publishers would never have allowed something like this. Peripheral sales had tanked. Guitar Hero and Rock Band had died. The recession was worse. No one cared about sword games, said conventional wisdom. And yet here we are.
Also, first post on my blog! Feel free to comment.