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You probably haven’t heard word of it yet, but renowned author Neal Stephenson has just launched his own kickstarter campaign. It's a game called Clang, and by Stephenson's own admission, it's "guitar hero with swords." Oh, and just in case you weren’t interested, Gabe Newell is in the pitch video.
Those unfamiliar with Stephenson should go read Snow Crash right now. If cyberpunk appeals to you in the slightest, you’ll have a rollicking good time, I promise. If it doesn’t, don’t worry. All you need to know is that Stephenson writes science and historical fiction, and it’s generally agreed that he’s rather good at it.
Stephenson is no stranger to games. Last year, he contributed to the Game Developers Conference (GDC) online and spoke about the future of narrative in the medium. To my surprise, his criticisms were levelled at the way worlds were constructed rather than the actual dialogue (which he didn’t take notice of unless it was “screamingly bad”).
Insightful as Stephenson’s points or narrative design were, in hindsight, he had more to say about game development as a whole. “I'd love it if we could get to a place where you can kind of create your own story, where you're more fully simulating the entire world to the point where there's total freedom to act out whatever story you want. I think that's going to be a long time in coming.” he told Gamasutra.
Now, though this was in the context of story writing, it’s a philosophy easily applied to the new fascination with user-generated content and the more traditional practice of modding. We have to face the unfortunate reality that, at least for the near future, games will always have boundaries. It is extremely unlikely we will be able to do everything we want to when it takes our fancy. If every player could make the scenarios that he wanted to play then that problem would be almost eliminated.
In the same GDC keynote, Stephenson spoke of his new game project based on the collaborative novel The Mongoliad. He called it an “embryonic” game: You would create a character and become part of this world while the individual stories of your adventures would be crafted later — presumably by other players.
I can’t help but think that this kickstarter is the offspring of that idea. Not in its narrative sensibilities but in its design. If you haven’t watched that kickstarter video yet, Stephenson basically says that they’ll make the framework for the game, a super-realistic sword combat simulator, and let the community loose on their design tools.
This is not a novel approach — a more complex, more nice LittleBigPlanet, if you will — but it’s something that I think is perfect for kickstarter. If you’ve crowdsourced the funding, why not crowdsource additional content?
Using this kind of community integration, we can pave a new style of game design. Yes, it may not have the polish and dazzle of triple-A productions, but it’s exactly what we asked for. If it doesn’t get funded, then that proves the community isn’t there to provide the content, and so nobody’s time is wasted thinking otherwise. If it does get funded, that proves that there’s a dedicated, if small, community that will be much more likely to utilize the tools and create additional content.
Though it may take a while to get there, Stephenson’s “embryonic” gaming is a genius idea. It’s economic specialisation applied to entertainment — everyone does what they're best at. Studios have teams well equipped to program and design a game world — that’s something that will never be surpassed by a bedroom programmer or two with grand ambitions. What those guys can do, as well as anyone in the industry, is have a great idea.
Yes, not all ideas will be great, and inevitably there’ll be a mass of dirt to dig through before you uncover the gold. But great ideas deserve to be seen and spoken about, and that’s how they end up in our triple titles. If this is the way to allow every single one of those great ideas to be playable, bring it on, I say. I’ll be here waiting.