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Neal Stephenson Sheathes Crowdfunded Swordfighting Game for Good

Sep 19, 2014

So long, Clang. You were a very, very expensive curiosity, in part because your lead proponent is something of a literary treasure.

The crowdfunded project to develop an ultra-realistic motion control driven sword fighting simulation, which originally generated over half a million in funding but ran out of money in September 2013, has been officially shelved -- it sounds like for good.

In a "final update" to Clang's Kickstarter site, Stephenson writes that he's decided to "cut the cord, and announce the termination of CLANG." He says he delayed announcing the end sooner because of "new ideas and opportunities" that were happening, and that he says "may ultimately wind up in some of the same places we wanted to take CLANG."

But he says as far as Clang-the-Kickstarter-project is concerned, it's over. He expresses regret that it couldn't continue further, but makes it clear he believes it delivered on its promise, though assuming much of the blame for its inability to continue.

Last year, Subutai Corporation delivered the CLANG prototype and the other donor rewards as promised. The prototype was technically innovative, but it wasn't very fun to play.

Stephenson, author of speculative fiction novels like Snow Crash, Cryptonomicon and Anathem, launched Clang in 2012 as a project he hoped would "revolutionize sword fighting video games." Stephenson is a self-described "swordsmanship geek," though I'm not entirely sure what that means. I can't find anything about him actually hefting blades or suiting up to fence with sabers, foils or épées, but he often talks about sword history (at least in the many interviews I've read over the years), for instance admiring the way a show like Game of Thrones is careful to represent aspects of swordsmanship realistically.

Here's Stephenson's original pitch for the game:

Clang sounds like a classic example, by Stephenson's own admission, of someone relatively un-versed in the insanely byzantine complexities of game design (and bringing a concept to fruition), but very well-versed in the history of sword fighting, over-obsessing about the latter and not enough over the former. As he says of the reasons that ultimately led to Clang's termination:

Some of these [reasons] were beyond our control. Others are my responsibility in that I probably focused too much on historical accuracy and not enough on making it sufficiently fun to attract additional investment.

The debate from here out, I suspect, is going to be over whether Stephenson and his cohorts delivered the goods. The promise made on Clang's Kickstarter page, somewhat buried in the print, does seem fairly unambiguous: "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." Anything subsequent to that prototype would have required additional funding, writes Stephenson -- funding beyond the project's original Kickstarted $526,125, that is.

I'm not sure anyone's verified whether Stephenson and Subutai delivered their prototype or donor rewards to backers as claimed (it doesn't seem that anyone's yet written about their experience with the prototype). Stephenson says he's issued $700 in refunds to "around two dozen CLANG backers" who've asked for their money back. He adds that the financial burdens on members of the design team, as well as himself, have been substantial, above and beyond the money spent from the Kickstarter pool:

Members of the team made large personal contributions of time and money to the project before, during, and after the Kickstarter phase. Some members, when all is said and done, absorbed significant financial losses. I am one of them; that has been my way of taking responsibility for this.

There are no further formal plans to return backers' money (or at least no obvious ones). Stephenson ends his final update by offering a link to sign up for a list to receive updates about future projects, but cautions those projects may or may not come to anything. The reactions to the announcement, restricted to backers, have been mixed, from folks chiming in to express their support for Stephenson and satisfaction with the project, to others asking for their money back.

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