A Bunch of Sturm und Drang About Clang
Last week author/swordsman/videogame entrepreneur Neal Stephenson announced that his Kickstarted medieval martial arts game Clang has stalled out while still in development. This is a disappointing turn for the 9000 or so backers who donated over 500 grand to realize the Clang team’s vision of a pitch perfect sword-swinging simulator, no doubt. Just skimming the project comments, it’s clear that a lot of backers have taken the project’s stall pretty hard—and who’s to blame them? After all, there is a lot of green on the table (well, there was anyway). I’ve been giving a lot of thought to Kickstarter success and failure lately, and the onus of responsibility in the event that a project collapses. I think this Clang kerfuffle is a perfect opportunity to talk it out.
Peek below the fold for more.
Before we go too deep, I think it’s important to elevate a few points. First, the primary goal of the Clang project was to fund tech development for the game, and produce the core framework of the game, which could be enhanced in subsequent phases. While I’m on the fence about this particular practice—that companies should be using Kickstarter as a means of getting pre-venture capital venture capital—it’s important to have a firm grasp of what backers were promised. Rewards include, in addition to the playable game: original art, printed works set in the game world, etc. Its clear to read in the backer comments that the project has fallen short of nearly all of those goals (so far at any rate).
Some of the backers have started talking “class action lawsuit” . This is where I start scratching my head.
The Kickstarter creator FAQ, which echoes the sentiment that all project creators read before they launch, reads:
If you realize that you will be unable to follow through on your project before funding has ended, you are expected to cancel it. If your project is successfully funded, you are required to fulfill all rewards or refund any backer whose reward you do not or cannot fulfill. A failure to do so could result in damage to your reputation or even legal action by your backers.
To avoid problems, don’t over-promise when creating your project. If issues arise, communicate immediately, openly, and honestly with your backers.
It’s clear that the onus is on the project planner to plan for shit to go south. It’s on them to have a realistic grip on the actual cost of doing what they’re doing, and that includes anticipating delays, overruns, and the like. For project creators that plan big but have no actual experience in their field, they need to evidence their competence even more.
Maybe “geeks in armor and geeks at computer workstations” aren’t enough. Maybe you also need geeks with project management experience? How about geeks with product planning experience? When you’re going for the gold with a big time, high visibility video game project, these are the geeks you need in your corner.
All that said, how much is a good faith attempt worth? Assuming that a creator is communicative, transparent, does everything they reasonably can to appropriately leverage backer funds to realize their project, and in the end still come up short, can they really be said to have squandered the money? I err to the side of no on this one.
There is risk inherent in the crowd funding system that the guidelines only kinda sorta acknowledges, but they smartly put the onus of seeking redress on the backers. Fundamentally, it falls to the backers to buy into the creator’s vision and to assess the risks and rewards for themselves. For my part, I didn’t back Clang because as much as I like sword fighting and Neal Stephenson, even Gaben’s appearance in the launch video couldn’t convince me that this would ever see the light of day–but that was just MY read of the situation. Lots of earnest people gave up their hard earned money for the sake of this folly. At the very least, they deserve an accurate accounting of how their money was spent. That said, I have never backed a project with the expectation that I’d get a red cent back in the event of a meltdown. So I back smartly and I back what the budget will bear.
Suing Subatai/Stephenson could recoup some amount of money, but those kinds of things take forever and are always decided out of court. Ultimately, no one would garner nearly the full amount they pledged and some number of lawyers would profit on the burgeoning niche market of chasing failed Kickstarters (I’m imagining the Better Call Saul reel now. “Did you lose money on a Kickstarter that was more like a Kick…non-starter?”). I have no doubt the act of suing would send a message, but lets be honest–it would do more to deter earnest creators afraid of the consequences of failure than it would any number of real shysters out to steal your Kickstarter money. In my opinion, the best recourse is to take Stephenson at his word and see if he and his crew can right their ship. Trying to squeeze blood from a stone is the wrong answer.
Ultimately, I hope what comes of this Clang kerfuffle is that backers become a bit more critical and start asking for more clarity up front. People got taken in by what was then probably the best project video ever, the cool factor of concept, and the name recognition of the creator. They didn’t evaluate whether the goal was reasonably attainable for the money they were asking for. Maybe backers need to start asking for clear business plans. Backing a losing horse then suing the jockey isn’t the right answer.