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July 09, 2012

‘Clang’: Sci-fi author Neal Stephenson kickstarts video game career

Posted in: Books,Games

Neal Stephenson (Credit: Subutai Corp)

Neal Stephenson, author of science fiction novels such as “Snow Crash” and “Cryptonomicon,” wants to swap his pen for a game controller. The 52-year-old writer, whose work has been honored with a Hugo Award,  the Arthur C. Clarke Award and multiple Locus awards, has come up with a concept for a  fantasy sword-fighting game called “Clang.”

But as the author followed an unfamiliar industry’s path, he learned how difficult the terrain can be for independent game developers who have a fresh idea but not a track record or reliable brand name. With development budgets ballooning beyond $50 million, traditional game publishers play it rather safer with a known franchise.  Kickstarter has leveled the landscape a bit for indie game developers by giving them a way to raise money. Projects are given 30 days to collect money from the site’s visitors, who can donate anywhere from $1 to several thousand dollars. In exchange, people who contribute above a certain amount are given a copy of whatever product is created. In the case of “Clang,” $10 gets you a mention in the game credits, $25 gets a copy of the game. Give $10,000 and you also get a steel sword, a tour of Stephenson’s studio and lunch with the development team, among other goodies.

The catch: Stephenson only gets the money if he can raise at least $500,000 by … Monday morning … which he did. Check here.) We caught up with the author to talk about swords that cut both ways.

“Quicksilver,” the first novel in the “Baroque Cycle” trilogy.

How did you get into sword fighting?

I’ve had the baseline nerd interest in sword fighting my whole life. I took fencing while I was in college. I did Kendo for a while. Then about 12 years ago, I was writing the “Baroque Cycle,” which had some sword fighting. I became uncomfortably aware that I was writing BS. I was sitting alone in my room stick fighting with pencils. When you’re writing, it becomes painfully obvious when you’re lying. So I began to find information about the style of sword fighting in this book. I ended up making contact with a larger community of Western martial artists, which has been studying and reviving these kinds of arts.

When did you start thinking about it as a game?

Pretty early. At the beginning when my friends and I messed around with this in Seattle, we did it with pads and fake swords. It’s hard to score those kinds of fights. People get excited. And even if they are scrupulously honest, they may not be aware they’ve been hit. It’s very difficult. And it moves very fast. So we started to play with electronic sensors embedded in swords, thinking about whether it was possible to gamify any of this. For a while, I didn’t think it as feasible to make a video game because the technology has gotten so advanced.

When did you think it was possible again?

In our minds, a game was inseparable with a hardware controller. It had to be shaped like the handle of a controller, and you had to move in intuitive ways to play. So we asked, what would it take to make the controller and make it cheaply enough to make it mass market? After playing around with a few ideas of our own, we became aware of promising technology developed by Sixense. The high-dollar solution was to use accelerometers. The Sixense people routed around that and came up with a much cheaper yet very precise way to do it using coils that can sense magnetic fields. That was a breakthrough. It’s embedded in the Razer Hydra game controller. That gave us confidence that the hardware problem could be solved. When we saw the controller, it came together in our heads. We made a demo version of the game last year.

A screen shot of game play in the Clang demo. (Credit: Subutai Corp.)

You tried to get the game funded in the traditional way at first.

Yes, we went to various publishers and showed them our demo. We had many polite conversations, but none of them led to anything. Nobody laughed at us. Nobody kicked us out. They asked good questions. And said they’d get back to us. Eventually they found oblique ways of turning us down. We couldn’t have known that there was a sea change happening in that world. The whole financial model has become like Hollywood, where the productions are so expensive and such long lead times that there is a large element of financial risk involved. In the same way Hollywood keeps making Spider-Man over and over, a lot of the game companies feel pressure to keep making games that are likely to make money. Then Kickstarter suddenly popped up on the radar. We decided that would be an option worth exploring.

Neal Stephenson at his studio in Seattle. Credit: Subutai Corp.

Do you play games?

In the late 1970s I played “Dungeons & Dragons” in college. Also “Pac-Man” and so on at campus bars. So I’ve been a casual gamer for a long time. I never got incredibly serious about it. But I’ve stayed in touch with developments in that world as it came along.

How do you, as a writer, view games as a medium?

It’s a common pattern for writers to get involved in other kinds of media projects, be it plays or movies. To me, games is another one of those. In some ways, games are a cleaner fit with what fantasy and science fiction writers do for a living. The thing that differentiates us is the world build aspect. That’s what science fiction and fantasy writers do. We don’t just create stories, we create a world. And then we write stories within those worlds. I can remember my amazement when the “Halo” novels came out. Suddenly, these worlds were becoming rich enough to support novels. And in important ways, the novels buttressed what was going on in the games. So that became a signal that getting involved in games may be a totally rational career move for a science fiction fantasy author.

What are you going to do with the money you raise?

Hire people. It’s a really simple answer. It’s at the point now that we know the talent is there. It’s time to bring them on board and put them to work. That’s our goal.

– Alex Pham

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