A funny thing happened on the way to finishing our Kickstarter
Until September 19, the newest update on the CLANG sword game project (previously written about on The Crowd Publishers here) was April 28. In the new update, someone from the CLANG sword game project posted a project status update on their Kickstarter blog. The news seemed all bad. CLANG had run out of money. The team of developers had relied on securing additional funding from non-crowdfund sources… which had fallen through… neither of which they had bothered to inform Kickstarter backers of until this point. So far as anyone had known up until this point, the $500,000+ raised was supposed to be enough to see things through.
Effective immediately, or possibly already in effect from some time before–it really wasn’t clear–CLANG development was paused. (Or was it? Later on the post said CLANG had become a, “evenings and weekends,” hobby project.) While not canceled yet, CLANG was now in financial limbo at best. In addition, no backers would be getting their money back. There was no money to give back because it had all been spent.
Not only that, the update recommended readers back yet another Kickstarter project being run by “friends” if they wanted to see the promised sword controller. Audacious much? It was a reminder crowdfunding doesn’t always go so well.
We’ve hit the pause button on further CLANG development while we get the financing situation sorted out. We stretched the Kickstarter money farther than we had expected to, but securing the next round, along with constructing improvised shelters and hoarding beans, has to be our top priority for now. We hope we’ll be able to make an announcement on that front soon. In the meantime, if you’re still interested in helping the next generation of swordfighting games move forward, have a look at the STEM Kickstarter now being run by our friends at Sixense. We’ve contributed to an update on their Kickstarter that will explain some of the reasons we are excited about what they’re doing.
Other points made seemed strained through a verbal gymnastics filter. Encouraging gems such as:
The project isn’t dead in dead-parrot sense until the core team has given up on it and moved decisively on to other projects. Other events such as declarations of bankruptcy can also serve as pretty reliable markers of a project’s being dead.
And this doozy of a… Really? You didn’t know that before?! Well…:
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.
…did not inspire confidence.
The Response, part 1 – The people who actually gave money
Backers have little financial recourse outside of the courts because Kickstarter does not issue refunds on projects that raise enough funding but later fail to deliver their goals, nor does it require the entrepreneurs in charge of a failed project to do so. Surprisingly enough, initial reaction from backers was predominantly positive.
However, as the word got out some negative comments crept in.
Still, outside of a couple upset people, replies seemed upbeat. Many seemed merely grateful for an update, so long as the project was not abandoned entirely.
Response part 2 – The Press
In contrast to the users, the press and gaming press was not nearly so kind. Nathan Grayson of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, which had previously been kind to CLANG in coverage, wrote: “The whole Kickstarter update is kind of astounding, to be honest. It seems like the CLANG team wasn’t prepared to handle the actual logistics of creating this thing at all, and now they’re dealing with the consequences.” The, traditional publisher-loving, Gamasutra headline was: “Another high-profile Kickstarter runs out of gas”. Similarly, “Famous Kickstarter Turns Into Complete Disaster“, blared Kotaku.
Rather than simply fall back upon some kind of caveat emptor, buyer beware, apologist piece for why crowdfunding is still awesome–no really! Honest!–despite this high profile failure–just be careful what to back!, or writing a piece discussing how crowdfunding is a scam that will take backer’s money with no return, or something something dark side about how crowdfunding video games is a fool’s errand because video game development is really hard, it’s time to take a closer look.
What was really going on? Were things really that bad?
Or was the situation even worse… or better somehow?
Several interesting things came up in the course of doing research on the project. They all flow from one easy-to-miss fact.
The original CLANG pitch promised mainly one thing outside of various pledge amount rewards (T-shirts and etc.):
A bare-bones arena sword-fighting game.
This seems to have been completed and delivered to backers in the form of a demo on April 28. After which the project went silent until this new update, which admits the demo is “underwhelming”.
However, many of the replies to the Sept 19th blog post expressed a lack of awareness that there had been a demo release at all. Many project backers seemed pleasantly surprised to discover so. The gaming press seems to have been equally unaware. So far they remain so, more interested in a “famous author Neal Stephenson + Kickstarter + failure!” narrative.
In hindsight, it does make a certain sense. Since the demo release was a backers-only update, only backers could see the demo in the first place. As such, the news that a CLANG demo was out seems to have been non-existent last spring, and no word of mouth was able to spread either. After all, the gaming press could not cover something that was for backers’ eyes only unless some members of the press, too, were backers. None of them seem to have been. And if backers didn’t know themselves, they couldn’t exactly share the demo with their friends.
This and several other exchanges with backers, suggest CLANG as a project had a different core problem entirely:
So the demo may have been the only thing promised, and in hindsight the opening pitch seems to have been clear that CLANG was planned to have 3 funding stages: a Demo (Kickstarter), followed by two further stages for a full game and for the special sword motion controller. However, the majority of the pitch was definitely about the controller, and the implication (a strong one) that came through loud and clear was that backers would be getting all three things. Simple game followed by better game, followed by sword controller–not a demo (even if that counted as the first part) followed by silence.
By being unclear (possibly downright weaselly) in their wording, by hyping up expectations (although somewhat understandable as it was a pitch–pitches pretty much have to excite people to succeed), by not informing their audience that the success of the project was contingent on additional funding from non-Kickstarter investor sources, by ceasing updates after phase the first of a three phase project was ostensibly completed, by failing to launch a second public funding round as was expected, by neutering press coverage including when they finally had something to release, and by an update 6 months later full of non-apologies and semantic gymnastics, CLANG has crashed and run aground.
The saddest part is most of how this all went down sounds like a wasted opportunity. The team technically did deliver what was promised, and still do have a chance to deliver the rest. In time. They even have a backer base who is still mostly onboard and wishes them well. However, their PR ineptness, as well as seeming lack of knowing how to run a project smoothly has clearly damaged their good name, especially in the press, and their chance of continuing.
Be that as it may, Neal Stephenson has started replying in the comments as of yesterday. So the dialogue continues, at least. Perhaps CLANG is not dead, only laid low by a blow to the helmet.
As many of the backers replying to the announcement made clear: A lot of times backers just want to be kept in the loop, even when there are setbacks or delays. This suggests a whole lot of crowdfunding users are treating crowdfunding similar to angel investing or venture capitalism, despite the lack of return they receive compared to such investors. (Perhaps there is room for a crowdfunding site where backers are treated like investors? Where backers are given shares and allowed to share in any future financial success?) As it is, many crowdfunding backers seem to treat pledging, not as a glorified pre-order scheme, but almost as charity, and their attitudes seem, well, charitable. Hats off to them.