People are mad at Neal Stephenson. So mad that there's talk of launching a class-action lawsuit against one of the greatest living science-fiction authors.
Stephenson is viewed as one of the sharpest speculative thinkers in the world today. The idea that the man responsible for classic, challenging literary works like Snow Crash, Anthem and REAMDE would be helming a video game project was an exciting proposition. But, after pulling in more than half a million dollars via a Kickstarter campaign to make a prototype of a sword-fighting title called Clang, Stephenson publicly declared that he and his Subutai Corporation have had to hit the 'pause button' on development.
A vocal contingent of Clang backers have seethed with anger after the Pause Button update, with some demanding their money back and others making threats of legal action. When I spoke with him earlier this week, he told me he understands where they're coming from, but wants everyone to know that the journey to making Clang a reality isn't over.
"I would say the general response from the donor community has been disappointed but supportive," Stephenson said. "Obviously there's a spectrum of opinions about it. We don't have PR people. I guess that's pretty obvious. Our updates are rudimentary, homemade devices."
I spoke to Stephenson after he'd attended a swordfighting event in Wisconsin last weekend. He's seen the anger being directed at him on Clang's Kickstarter forums and sympathizes with frustrated backers but thinks that some are mistakenly reading finality into the September 19 update.
"I think the pause button update — where we chose that metaphor to mean a specific thing, which is that it's paused but it's paused in a way that can be restarted quite easily — was interpreted as being a veiled admission of defeat."
"If that's your understanding, your framework for thinking about what's going on, then you end up with a set of conclusions that are completely different," Stephenson continued. "In our case, a cigar is just a cigar. We really did just pause this thing as we explained in the update."
In short, Clang isn't dead. But it needs more funding if it's going to come to full flower. "Nobody is going to be satisfied if the only thing that ever comes out of this is what has already come out," Stephenson said, referring to the playable demo that became available to backers in April. "Nobody wants that. We're going to keep pursuing the commercial funding opportunities. If somehow that fails, and we get to a place where we just cannot hold the team together anymore, then we're not just going to walk away. We're going to open source it."
Stephenson says that the developers don't want to prematurely throw the doors open and let anyone have at the Clang code, only to have potential funding partners get turned off. "We can't play that card right away. If we do end up having that conversation, I'm going to try to get any possible investor to see the value of taking that approach."
Part of Clang's appeal is that it's been pitched as an evolution of how swordplay has been done in video games. The game was being made to pair up with special hardware that would more closely approximate the feel of wielding a katana or broadsword. The peripheral used during development has been the Razer Hydra, a wired motion controller that used technology from Sixense. Sixense has since gone on improve their tech, embedding it in the wireless STEM system that I tried out last week.
Clang and the STEM system are a match made in heaven, and each project has mentioned the other in their funding campaigns. My meeting with Sixense happened just a day after the Clang pause and I asked Sixense CEO Amir Rubin for his take on the development process. The video above, where he goes so far as to take partial responsibility as a putative hardware partner, has his answer. When I told Stephenson what Rubin had to say, he replied by saying "I guess I would just say that hardware gets better. It doesn't mean that the previous generation was bad."
"But the iPhone 5 is better than the iPhone 1. I think Amir is being extraordinarily generous [in assuming any kind of responsibility for Clang]. But rather than worrying too much about past events, I would just say that we'll always support the Razer Hydra. That's done.
"We're looking forward to being able to have a much more efficient development process with STEM because it's actually made for what we want to do instead of us having to work with a more general purpose device."
Stephenson: "Nobody is going to be satisfied if the only thing that ever comes out of this is what has already come out... We're going to keep pursuing the commercial funding opportunities. If somehow that fails, and we get to a place where we just cannot hold the team together anymore, then we're not just going to walk away. We're going to open source it."
In that Pause Button/State of Clang update eight days ago, Stephenson cited a risk-averse climate in the video game industry as one of the obstacles he and Subutai dev team are facing. I asked him if there was a particular moment of rude awakening, where he realised that no entity would be willing to take a chance on a experimental, small-to-midsize gamem even with his sizable cachet attached to it.
"It was more of a slow, dawning awareness of what that climate was like," Stephenson said. "After you've had a few of these conversations go the same way, you start to recognise what the overall pattern is." I asked Stephenson if he could tell me any of the companies he'd pitched Clang to but he, understandably, said that he wasn't at liberty to divulge that information.
The expectations gap fueling the backlash directed at Clang likely comes from the fact that any Kickstarter project is probably dealing with a bunch of different communities. There are people who are unaffiliated insiders, like other game developers who know what it takes to make a title and want to support something worthy. Then you have people who see Kickstarter more as a store where they pay their money and, at a set time, they will get a thing. And there are also some people — outliers, to be sure — who might just throw money at things that they like, with no real expectation of anything happening.
"It says on the front Kickstarter page [that] the goal is to make a playable prototype," Stephen said, "which we would then use to secure more funding. But in our case we are definitely using Kickstarter in a sense of a springboard to a more fully funded undertaking." The goal, Stephenson says, wasn't to make a finished game.
Still, for many, it's the chance to play something with Stephenson's imprimatur that remains the most tantalising part of a possible Clang game. There's a certain cohort of fan — a science fiction reader + video game enthusiast hybrid — that definitely wants the sensibilities from the writing of authors like Stephenson, Neil Gaiman or China Miéville to make its way into video game storytelling. What's been seen of Clang has made it seem like a game that would have been more action-oriented and focused on the moment-to-moment experience of swordplay. But, when I asked Stephenson if Clang is going make those fans happy, he said that there's a plan to embed a deeper, underlying fiction inside all the slashing.
"That's the whole underlying idea that we've been working at Subutai," he answered. "Subutai [was] never intended to be just a game company, but it's trying to come to grips with the media world as it is today, where publishing is a much more dynamic thing. It's streaming prose directly out to people's devices. Film entertainment is no longer a thing you need to go to a movie theatre for, and games can obviously be downloaded on Steam and so on. What we're trying to do is to take the basic sensibility of science fiction, which is a world-building- as opposed to a storytelling-sensibility and find ways to take one world and show that in multiple different media.
"As you probably know, we've been working on the prose part of that and now the graphic novel part of it," he said. "That's going well. That's on an even keel. We've been working on some film entertainment projects but that's a longer lead-time item. It's a lot more complicated. Then Clang is the game."
Stephenson wants your patience. The man who's imagined cyberpunk universes and various tipping points for humanity insists that Clang's timeline isn't over just yet. You might even have a part in making it. For now, the future of this swordfighting game hasn't yet been written.