Neal Stephenson’s failed $500,000 video game and the perils of using Kickstarter

Would have been a cool game…
Would have been a cool game…
Image: Reuters/Susana Vera
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Neal Stephenson, the celebrated author of sci-fi classics Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon, began working on a sword-fighting video game called Clang in 2012 and raised $526,000 on Kickstarter. “I’m dissatisfied with how sword-fighting is portrayed in existing video games,” he said at the time. “These could be so much more fun than they are. Time for a revolution.” One year ago, Stephenson announced that they had burned through the half-million, asked people to be “patient,” and said they were looking for extra money. And on Sept. 18, a year after that last update, Stephenson announced to his backers that the project was dead in the water.

It turns out that after two years of work, the game that Stephenson and his team, Subutai, delivered was boring. “The prototype was technically innovative, but it wasn’t very fun to play,” he said, adding that “I probably focused too much on historical accuracy and not enough on making it sufficiently fun to attract additional investment.” Stephenson said that the team had come up with lots of new and cool ideas and would begin working on those instead. They had processed refunds for more than 30 people who had asked for them—a total of just $700. The author added that he and his team had taken some large financial hits, without saying how much. “They showed intense dedication and dogged focus that I think most of our backers would find moving if the whole story were told,” Stephenson said.

Would they? The comments from backers on Stephenson’s final update are mixed. “Subutai have lied to us and defrauded us,” backer Zarlan said. ”Aside from the T-shirts and the occasional other extra bits, no pledge rewards have been delivered (not even the $10-level reward). We have every right to demand a refund, at the very least.”

Others didn’t want their money back. “I would say ‘keep my money’ except that I understand that you already spent it trying to do something cool, which is what I paid for in the first place,” another replied. Many were happy to lose their money—but unhappy at the lack of communication and transparency during the whole process. Lafazar said: ”I feel this project has been particularly badly managed. Other game/software projects on Kickstarter have achieved far more with far less. Also it is still unclear to me what the money has actually been used for.” Eight Clang backers had pledged $10,000 or more.

What obligation is owed to those who backed a failed crowdfunding campaign? Kickstarter has always noted that backers give at their own risk. Some backers in the comments referred to Clang’s polar opposite, the most successful company to come out of a crowdfunding campaign. Oculus VR, which makes the Rift virtual reality goggles, started out raising $250,000 on Kickstarter, ended up raising $2.4 million, and was bought by Facebook for $2 billion. In that instance, the backers received no compensation for the outcome and many said the company didn’t care about them—Oculus was merely looking to be bought.

That said, everyone knew they were putting money into the development of Clang or Oculus, not investing in them. And these kinds of projects are not cheap; many of the video game projects on Kickstarter are funded to the tune of millions of dollars. As Kickstarter and other crowdfunding sites become more mature, the tension between those backing projects as early adopters and those backing them purely as passion projects remains.

Clang falls between both categories, with some wanting an actual game (which was never delivered) and some wanting to back a hero—one Clang backer, Miguel Pinto, who seemed sanguine about the situation, said: “I’ll settle for a copy (could be digital) of Neal’s next awesome novel! :)”