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Another high-profile Kickstarter runs out of gas
Another high-profile Kickstarter runs out of gas
September 19, 2013 | By Kris Ligman

September 19, 2013 | By Kris Ligman
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    34 comments
More: Console/PC, Business/Marketing



Subutai Corporation has announced via a public update that its Kickstarted title Clang has run out of funding and has reverted to an "evenings and weekends" project until new investors can be found.

In mid-2012, Subutai Corporation and its chairman, novelist Neal Stephenson, launched a successful Kickstarter to fund Clang, a new type of swordfighting game with custom peripherals. The Kickstarter raised $526,000, narrowly exceeding its pledge target, and the developers went to work. Then, in April of this year, the frequency of status updates on the game's development fizzled to nothing.

"Sending out a vague update about inconclusive, ongoing conversations with potential investors doesn't seem nearly as attractive as waiting a couple more weeks for a deal to actually come through," the team says in the new post. However, the company ran into trouble closing any such deal with anyone. "We don't match the profile, or the timing, of [venture capitalists'] fund/investment strategy... Potential investors/publishers are worried about our team."

In short, rather than set the game's Kickstarter goal to fund the entirety of the project, Subutai used the $500,000 funding target to drive the first lap of development, with the optimism it could find conventional funding to complete development down the road. Unfortunately, that funding hasn't materialized.

"The overall climate in the industry has become risk-averse to a degree that is difficult to appreciate until you've seen it," Subutai explains. "While we have been working on Clang, two major video game publishers, THQ and LucasArts, have gone out of business. Others have fallen on hard times. The current generation of consoles is coming to the end of its life cycle. Rather than invest in innovative new titles, the still-surviving publishers tend to keep their heads down, grinding out sequels and extensions to well-worn triple-A franchises."

Combine this risk-aversion with Subutai's own admission that it "punches above its weight," and development has reached deadlock.

Subutai says Clang is to continue on a volunteer basis until further funding can be obtained. In the mean time, it appeals to backers to fund a similarly-minded project, STEM.


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Comments


Harry Fields
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There needs to be better accountability mechanisms with KickStarter... plain and simple. Free capital should not come with no strings attached. Especially when we start looking at figures of a half million bucks.

Mike Higbee
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Not really. People pledging the money need to realize this isn't pre-ordering a product, but rather a "Like" button with their wallets.

Mike Engle
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Kickstarting = Investing

Invest wisely.

Mike Kasprzak
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Okay so if it's investing, then it's investing *without* a financial ROI... Not the same thing as a typical investment.

Kickstarter is investment-ordering (invest ordering?). Its a combination of both.

Michiel Hendriks
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The return would be the promised deliverables, usually the final product. Not a share in the profits.
But it is still investment, so there is a risk that not all deliverables are delivered.

Jonathan Adams
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KickStarter is an inherently risky proposition. It's incredibly useful, but payment is not a guarantee of product, especially when the KickStarter does not itself provide enough to fund the project. KickStarter is much safer for relatively easy-to-deliver promises. That said, I would certainly like to see other funding alternatives which take up different methods than KickStarter.

Ian Fisch
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EDIT: I wasn't aware that they actually released a playable beta version to backers. I retract my statement below.

$500,000 is an awful lot of money to do a basic sword-fighting game.

I'd say 2 full time programmers and a full time animator are all you need to have something really nice to show off. I'll even throw in a full-time artists for textures and GUI stuff (even though you can buy most of that stuff from online repositories).

That still doesn't come close to $500,000. So yea, I'm thinking they weren't very organized about their approach.

Sean Francis-Lyon
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What do you consider 'a basic sword-fighting game' to be?

K Gadd
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They DID build a playable tech demo with art and animation and gameplay in it... and released it to backers... what more do you expect them to have done?

$500k is NOT that much money considering it's been over a year since they got it. Paying salaries, paying for benefits, etc. for a sizable team is not trivial.

I mean, give them shit for not asking for as much money as they needed, or give them shit for trying to build more than they were capable of - but seriously, this nonsense about how much you can get done with a given budget needs to stop...

Ian Fisch
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I wasn't aware of this fact. I retract my statement.

Ian Fisch
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After reading the update, I no longer retract my statement haha.

"We stretched the Kickstarter money farther than we had expected to"

What? Your $25 reward tier promises a downloadable copy of "the game". Did you not expect to actually make the game with the kickstarter funds? If that's the case, there's no mention of it on the kickstarter page.

"The overall climate in the industry has become risk-averse to a degree that is difficult to appreciate until you've seen it.
Rather than invest in innovative new titles, the still-surviving publishers tend to keep their heads down, grinding out sequels and extensions to well-worn AAA franchises."

Are you kidding me? This has been the case for years now, if not decades. This is by no means something that happened over the last year.

"We have been in that holding pattern since early 2013"

The kickstarter campaign ended in July. So you spent $500,000 in four months and all you have is a barely functional prototype to show for it?

"the prototype/demo is underwhelming in its current state...some might consider it a tactical mistake, arguing that we should have put more into gameplay and less into fundamentals. We're comfortable with the direction we went"

Don't mean to nitpick here, but what the heck are fundamentals, if not gameplay? Does anyone know what he's talking about here?

Spencer Franklin
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The KS ended in July of 2012... Well over a year ago now.

Dane MacMahon
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The general populace is learning what it's like being a publisher and dealing with creative types who have poor business instincts.

Michiel Hendriks
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I don't think this has anything to do with creative types, or them having poor business instincts (which is an awful generalization). It's not like those publishers have proper business instincts (otherwise the recent Tomb Raider wouldn't have been marked as a "failure").

Estimating the effort of doing something new (which is usually the case when software development, or other creative processes are involved) is very difficult. Enough has been written on this subject over the last decades, and not much has changed.

As I read this, Clang was only going to be "kick started" via kickstarter, and seeking additional funding to finish the project. This last part apparently hasn't succeeded yet. If you watch the "elevator pitch" on kickstarter he also mentions this: "Our goal is to produce a game prototype and toolkit others can use...". But, nobody has stepped on board to start using their technology, thus this project grinds to a halt. The same thing could have happened to the Occulus Rift.

Dane MacMahon
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I said "creative types who have poor business instincts," not "all creative types have poor business instincts."

In any case it's not a generalization to say there is often, not always, a dynamic of creative types wanting more and more funding and time, while business staff are tasked to reign it in and ship. This is a pretty frequent dynamic across all types of media. In independent development there are no business staff from the publisher reigning you in, so you have to reign yourself in. A lot of creative types do a poor job, a lot do a great job.

What we are seeing is backers becoming the publisher, but they don't have a business focused staff at the developer's office pushing for a ship date or feature cut. All they can do is watch and hope the developers' business instincts are there and honed, otherwise the project could go off the rails. It's an interesting dynamic.

Jonathan Murphy
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A new team of 3 people staying practical, with no office, will be more successful than an ambitious team of 12 experts.

I started back in 2002 when the average budget went from $200k-$2 mil. Unless you can spot the reasons why it went up, and know how to address them your KS will fail. He said, "Games are expensive, and hard to make." An obvious hint.

K Gadd
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Presumably if they scaled early and up to a larger team, that was probably driven by a desire to look like a good investment. It sounds like they were always aiming for venture investment or an acquisition, and investors certainly like seeing early stage companies that are shooting for the moon - sometimes they can't resist the allure of huge returns, even if something is high-risk. That bet doesn't seem to have paid off, if so, though.

Phil Maxey
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I think there's a huge swathe of talent out there which is not getting funded, because a lot of the available funds is getting sucked up by projects that never needed the money in the first place. The startup I'm working on fundindiegames.com will hopefully go some way to helping that talent.

Spencer Franklin
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Did the people who supported this on KS know they were supporting only the "initial Phase"? I can't imagine a lot of people climbing on board knowing that... it just reeks of poor management of the project. What do they have to show for the half million they received?

Its these kinds of projects that are going to sour people away from supporting future projects...

Mike Rentas
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I supported it with the full expectation that I would be disappointed with the end product. I'd happily do so again. It was an ambitious project, but something I'd be very excited about if they got it right. I've enjoyed Neal Stephenson's writing for years, and was happy to help him try something new. This hasn't soured me on kickstarter in the least. If you get mad when a project you funded fizzles, you're thinking about it wrong. This is the patronage of the masses, not a pre-order system.

Kevin Fishburne
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It would be enlightening to know what the money was spent on. As in an itemized list accounting for every last penny. At what point does an unfulfilled promise become fraud? For example, if a Ferrari or $5000 HDTV were purchased, can they be held legally accountable? Is there literally zero accountability (legally) with Kickstarter projects?

Andy Cahalan
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Hey that $5k tv I just had installed in my new Ferrari is crucial to my process, brah.

Lance Thornblad
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That KS video alone looked like quite a production. I'd be curious as to how much was spent on that!

Harry Fields
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Well, since they did it as a legal entity, there would be some legal precedent for a lawsuit. It would be tricky since KickStarter themselves have legal disclaimers posted. I'd love to see someone try with this guy. He looks so pompous and his "oops sorry, we're in nights and weekends mode" excuse was arrogant. I don't care what he was shooting for. This is a clear case of someone who had an itch and used their name to scratch it. After this and the whole Ouya fiasco, I finished with KickStarting.

Marvin Papin
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I don't know how much geeky he is, but it's not enough to make a novelist a good chairman in video game development. But with 500 000 $ you can already do cool things. Also, how couldn't that fail be anticipated ? 15 devs 4 month, 500 000 / 4 / 15 = 8000$ per person without taking in account equipment and charge. I wouldn't be outrageous but entering the industry and say, hey i'll do my first AAA with 500k$ without any preparation... I guess backers were aware of that, with all mess in the vid for a little demo of gameplay, that seemed obvious.

The problem is that people who deserve that money will not get it.

Alan Wilson
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This, from their KS update: "Kickstarter is amazing, but one of the hidden catches is that once you have taken a bunch of people's money to do a thing, you have to actually do that thing, and not some other thing that you thought up in the meantime."

Now, I for one am very glad I didn't put any money into this project. These guys need, at best, a severe slap upside the head. The sheer disregard for all the people who gave them money in that statement above disgusts me. And blaming the industry, next-gen consoles and pretty much anything except yourself in this mess just deserves another slap.

Oh - and they aren't "punching above their weight". They are "punching well below their weight". We started with $37,000 in cash, built 2 (two) games for PC for about $500,000, released them through Steam and other outlets and have gone on to sell over 3 million game units, plus many millions of units of DLC. And then gone on to build other million-selling games, growing a successful business off the back of it all.

Its (yet) another case of a bunch of people taking on something they don't understand properly - and doing it with the fans' hard-earned money. They could at least make SOME attempt at showing a little humility and remorse. But I guess that would be beyond them.

Michael Pianta
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Funny enough I was just thinking about this project last night and wondering what became of it. It was always ambitious and experimental, I'm not surprised they ran into trouble. On the other hand, it's a cool idea and hopefully they can somehow find the money to finish it. I should say, I didn't back the project, but from my memory they weren't really promising a finished game with the kickstarter. As I recall, the kickstarter was for a prototype and basically an engine, which they could then develop into a full game later. The unsolvable problem though is what to do when your sword and your opponents sword hit each other. In reality the swords go "Clang!" and bounce off each other, but in a game like this you both finish your swings leaving your body in a totally different position from the on screen avatar. I can't think of anyway to resolve that problem.

Jonathan Adams
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There are a few clumsy solutions involving wires or a robotic arm affixed to the sword and something sturdy enough to halt players' actions, or making "get your sword back into the actual position it should be in" something like a QTE.

Kevin Oke
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Wow - this just reeks of irresponsibility, taking $500k to make a demo (demo!) of an ambitious, niche project to try to appeal to investors, during a time when VC spending in games is down.

Troubles on the console side, the smartphone threat, state of the global economy, the risk-averse nature of the industry (especially in the last year or so), end of the current console generation's life-cycle - these were all known facts before they started their Kickstarter.

Moral of the story: Get a business plan and do some market research before jumping into the deep end.

Lincoln Thurber
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Well, at the very least he didn't steal the funds to create of a data haven in the Sultanate of Kinakuta. Or, did he?

Mac Senour
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What I didn't read in this letter was: "we messed up". I heard lots of blame being thrown around. I even heard blaming the console cycle as a problem for publishers, when they were developing a PC game.

I get the general feeling that the last meeting of the devs was spent coming up with people or situations to blame the failure on.

I think they had the same misunderstanding that I hear from CS people, that making games is easy*.

- Mac

* Personal story: I was working for Seiko Instruments and my boss told me that they do real work here, nothing like easy things such as making games. I asked him if he'd ever made games, he made disgusted face and said no. I promised him that in my time at Seiko I would never make pronouncements about things I knew nothing about. (No I was not fired)

Harry Fields
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The guy just looks like a shyster...

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