We've hit the pause button on further CLANG development while we get the financing situation sorted out. We stretched the Kickstarter money farther than we had expected to, but securing the next round, along with constructing improvised shelters and hoarding beans, has to be our top priority for now. We hope we'll be able to make an announcement on that front soon. In the meantime, if you're still interested in helping the next generation of swordfighting games move forward, have a look at the STEM Kickstarter now being run by our friends at Sixense. We've contributed to an update on their Kickstarter that will explain some of the reasons we are excited about what they're doing.
Now, a lot more detail for those who are interested.
THE FINANCING PICTURE IN GENERAL
Loyal donors may be curious as to why an apparently promising game is difficult to finance. The answer has a lot to do with the current state of the video game industry. 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 AAA franchises.
The overall climate in the industry has become risk-averse to a degree that is difficult to appreciate until you've seen it. It is especially bemusing to CLANG team members who, by cheerfully foregoing other opportunities so that they could associate themselves with a startup in the swordfighting space, have already shown an attitude to career, financial, and reputational risk normally associated with the cast members of Jackass.
To a game publisher crouched in a fetal position under a blanket, CLANG seems extra worrisome because it is coupled to a new hardware controller. Not that you can’t play it with mouse and keyboard--you can--but we’ve been clear from the beginning that the swordfighting problem can’t really be solved without new hardware. Coupling the success of CLANG to concurrent developments in hardware adds an additional element of perceived risk that is off-putting to the small number of people who are still willing to even consider funding games.
Which is why supporting Sixense’s STEM project is the most effective way to help CLANG: it will get the next generation of hardware out on the market, reducing the element of perceived risk and, we hope, clearing the way for us to pursue our own quest to find financiers who have steady nerves and other anatomical prerequisites. Moreover, it embodies a number of upgrades that we specifically asked for and that will improve CLANG in specific ways.
CLANG and STEM
OUR STANCE ON UPDATES
As some of you have quite reasonably pointed out, we have gone a long time without updates. This doesn't reflect our ideal of how to go about communicating with our donors. It is a consequence of the very nature of fundraising. Even in favorable circumstances, the search for funding can last a staggeringly long period of time. At any given point in the fundraising process, one or more conversations is underway with possible funders; each of these conversations tends to spread out over a span of months and to turn into its own separate drama complete with moments of hope and reversals of fortune. The dreaded term "next week" makes frequent appearances in emails. All of those interactions are, of course, confidential. 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, and then making a triumphant announcement of that. We have been in exactly that holding pattern since early 2013 when we began the fundraising quest in what we believed was a timely fashion, i.e., long enough before the exhaustion of the Kickstarter funds that we believed we had a healthy safety cushion.
WHAT WE CAN SAY ABOUT OUR CURRENT STATUS
Is the CLANG project dead? At what point do you put a toe tag on an indie game and call it finished? Opinions on that might vary, but in our opinion, the project doesn't die simply because it runs out of money. Projects run out of money all the time. As a matter of fact, game industry veterans we have talked to take a blithe attitude toward running out of money, and seem to consider it an almost obligatory rite of passage.
The project isn't dead in dead-parrot sense until the core team has given up on it and moved decisively on to other projects. Other events such as declarations of bankruptcy can also serve as pretty reliable markers of a project's being dead.
In the case of CLANG, none of this has happened yet. When a couple of promising leads fell through for us in a short span of time circa May, it became obvious to us that our essential people would have to find other ways to keep body and soul together during an upcoming span of time, of indeterminate length, during which the CLANG project would be unable to pay them. They chose to find temporary work in the Seattle area, rather than giving up on CLANG altogether and seeking permanent jobs.
We are working on CLANG as an "evenings and weekends" project until such time as we get funding for a more commercial-style reboot. Paradoxically, we feel better about the future of CLANG now than we did when the clock was ticking down. Then, we were feeling under pressure to make decisions that might not have been in the project's best long-term interests. Now that the pressure is relieved, however, we can operate more calmly and look for ways to set this thing up in a sustainable way. Meanwhile, the publishing side of Subutai continues to fulfill its obligations and transact business normally.
--Kickstarter lock-in. 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. In our case, what it meant was that in April of 2013 we were still executing on a strategy that we had come up with at the beginning of 2012. A conventionally funded company would have changed course several times during such a long span of time, adapting its strategy to what was happening in the market.
--the Neal Stephenson fan obfuscation hypothesis. The potential financiers most likely to talk to us are Neal Stephenson fans. Once they have actually met Neal and gotten their books signed, it turns out that they are not really that interested in our project. But they don't want to make Neal Stephenson feel bad and so they don't give him any useful feedback; instead they just go dark. In the meantime we have wasted a huge amount of time on them. We were slow to cotton on to this.
--we don't match the profile, or the timing, of their fund/investment strategy. VCs have extremely specific requirements and generally cannot color outside those lines.
--we simply haven't talked to that many potential investors yet. It is time-consuming and a small number of people can only do so much of it.
--they assume we don't actually need the money. This might actually be a variant of the Stephenson fan obfuscation hypothesis. We frequently encounter a sort of wall of incredulity that Stephenson could really be having trouble obtaining funding for a swordfighting game project.
--the prototype/demo is underwhelming in its current state. We always knew that this would be the case, but there is little to be done about it since we are trying to build a new game play mechanic from scratch, not just re-skin a familiar mechanic. In other words, this is not a failure of execution our part, but 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, since without fundamentals we don't really have anything new to offer.
--the "fruit fly among the elephants" problem. A small startup can be founded and pass through its entire life cycle, including death, during the time that it takes a large entity to make a decision and draw up the legal documents. It is almost impossible to get large company employees to feel even a mild sense of urgency about anything.
--Potential investors/publishers are worried about our team. This hypothesis is the one we hear most frequently from sympathetic people within the industry. Video game investors are extremely team-conscious. Our team punches above its weight, but the amount of the KS raise wasn't sufficient to staff up a full-sized group, leaving us vulnerable to the criticism that the team is missing certain elements. Of course, the answer is "we'll hire some awesome people once we get funded." In the climate of anxiety that seems to pervade the industry now, however, any perceived risk factor is sufficient to torpedo a pitch, and so all such discussions end up following the template of the justly famous "Tesla pitches VCs" video.
Why bother to keep trying at all then? Because the advent of new hardware in this market is soon going to make the existing blockbuster game franchises look old and tired, at which point people will be looking for something fundamentally new to make buying that new hardware worth it.
What will our approach be, now that we've bought ourselves some time? We doubt it is productive to subject CLANG to comparison shopping before the jaded eyes of generic VCs. Our approach needs to be more selective. But it is almost impossible for a small group, focused on making a game, to obtain the sort of Olympian perspective on the game funding landscape that is needed to identify the right sorts of investors quickly enough to be of any use. Our only efficient choice is to keep doing what we're doing and wait for the right investor to come along.
The right investor for CLANG is one who has some pre-existing interest in what we are doing. This might be as simple as a personal fascination with swordfighting or sword games, or something more strategic such as a connection with a hardware-based strategy within the video game industry. Finding people like that takes time, which is one reason we ran out of it.
Some team building might help, but, keeping in mind video game publishers' extreme focus on all-star teams, the only people who could really help us in this department would be ones with truly first-rate credentials--people whose mere association with a project can bring in investment dollars--who are willing to take a chance on something that might or might not get funded and work without pay in the meantime.
What can people do to help? Probably not that much, unless they happen to be qualified investors or superstar game programmers looking for an adventure. If you are one of our Kickstarter donors, then probably the most helpful thing you can do, as far as the CLANG team is concerned, is to be patient. We always knew that this was going to take a while and that we'd hit some bumps along the way. And we feel that the decision we've made is much better than the alternatives which were to [a] quit, [b] panic and sell out, or [c] get into a bad relationship with the wrong investor.
The CLANG team