[Edit: Clang has since reached its funding goal. My thoughts are largely unchanged, though I should congratulate Subutai Corporation on its impressive achievement in publicity and production.]
If you’re not aware, at this very moment, author Neal Stephenson is thirty-six hours away from the end of his Kickstarter funding drive, and needs about twenty thousand more moneys before it can happen.
And here I sit, sort of hoping it doesn’t happen.
That’s terrible of me! Right? I’m a terrible person. I feel terrible about myself. I want this fellow who has done me no wrong to be unable to pursue his dream. Moreover, I’m wishing this failure on a writer who wants to pursue gaming relevant to his geeky interests… that is exactly what I am! Am I some sort of… self-hating chump? Or am I facing some sort of success jealousy here?
Well… no, I’m not. I won’t pretend I don’t feel a twinge of it, because I could never kickstart my way to within spitting distance of half a million dollars ($481,692 as of writing), but that’s not it. Nor is it a particular disinterest in swordfighting, though it’s not my cup of tea.
On the other hand, I resent his funding strategy, and I feel his game design philosophy is fundamentally wrongheaded. That’s a bit of a marginal distinction there, but I’m holding onto it, so I can continue to feel good about myself.
I resent Kickstarter. This crept up on my during the big boom that happened over the spring and summer… I once thought it to be a neat and useful utility which allowed individuals who were good at creating a project to sell the project to consumers, who would then (potentially) fund the project. But, while it is that, it’s something else entirely: it’s a forum which allows individuals who are good at making videos to appeal to consumers, who then (potentially) fund a project which generally has nothing to do with making videos. It hasn’t done away with the need to market oneself, but it has shifted the paradigm away from marketing oneself to producers who are used to being market to, and over to the Masses, who do not have so finely-attuned bullshit detectors. And oh my god, there’s a lot of bullshit in these videos! Gabe Newell with a Half-Life joke, a joke about greenscreens, silly acronyms, people jumping and yelling and being wacky is crazy outfits, Stephenson himself being low-key and sarcastic… all of this is fluff and bullshit, and while I don’t want to imply that it’s malicious, it is disingenuous. It distracts the viewer, the supporter, from the actual product being presented. For everyone out there who’s opening their wallets for the Word’s Best Swordfighting Game (the actual product) there’s someone opening a wallet for Neal Stephenson What a Cool Guy (the idea being sold).
And the Actual Product is… vague. Because it’s not being aimed at actual producers, versed in cutting through bullshit, the kickstarter page manages to be utterly full of the stuff. Today’s drinking game: go to Clang’s page, start at the top, and take a shot whenever you see or hear “should,” “want to,” “plan to,” “ideally,” or any other phrase which should make an investor cock an eyebrow. I don’t want to accuse Subutai Corporation of lying… I believe they are truly as committed to producing an excellent game as they say they are. I ALSO think that 3D Realms intended Duke Nukem Forever to be the best game it could possibly be, and if it were to be Kickstarted today, it would be just as vague in its mission statement. An attitude of “we’re just super geeky and passionate about this project so we’ll work on it and make it awesome” can do wonders, and it can be a quagmire, and here we’re putting things in the hands of a company which does not have a track record of creating great things, because it doesn’t have a track record yet.
(To put it another way… we see ten seconds of Gabe Newell and we’re meant to think this is Valve, who have a history of pulling off this sort of crazy shit. It’s not. It’s literally not Valve. No two ways about it.)
Second point, and perhaps a lesser point, is that I feel he’s coming after this the wrong way. In his initial video, he tells us not to expect “a whole lot in the way of plot and character development, but that’s kind of what we do for a living, so we can always add that stuff in later.” Ouch. This burns me, as a fellow who believes that, no, narrative can’t be bolted on later. If you’re making a game that’s not narrative focused, that’s fine, but for chrissakes, make the game what it is, a game. Narrative and mechanics are not separable entities, built in different factories and slammed together as the game wends its way out the final pipe (notwithstanding the many games for which that it, seemingly, the case). Neal Stephenson, you’re an author! You should get physically ill when you suggest that the medium and the message are anything but inseparable!
Additionally, the comparison to first-person shooters is unfair. FPSs are as stylized as any other game, even if you do pull a trigger to fire. Being stylized is what makes them accessible and being accessible makes them, for the great majority, fun. There are plenty of games that throw a lot of recoil at you and make you conserve bullets, but they aren’t nearly as well-played as the ones where shotgun kickback lets you do a double jump and you reload your weapon by running over a glowing crate of bullets. While I think that swordsmanship is underrepresented in the medium, I also think that the market for “the most realistic swordfighting game” is much, much more niche than Mr. Stephenson thinks it is.
(I have literally no cause to suggest that Stephenson exists in a filter bubble which doesn’t allow him to realize how niche the market might be, but that doesn’t mean I’m not thinking it.)
… but maybe I’m wrong. He’s made $4000 dollars from people upping their pledges since I started writing this, so obviously there’s a world of folks eager to see this come to fruition. But I’m not one of them. I don’t trust the product. I don’t like how it’s being sold. I hold no ill will to Neal Stephenson, and the biggest shit I’m taking in his soup is this, a blog post that will be ready by, maybe, three people before his project is funded or not. But I confess, if it were up to me… if he had $499,999 with ten seconds to go, I’d withhold the dollar. I’ll be the petty grumpus who says “No, I disapprove” and forces Neal Stephenson to MERELY be a millionaire novelist beloved around the world. That’ll show him.