Author Neal Stephenson’s $500K Quest to Build a Better Sword Game

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Michael Bulbenko

Author Neal Stephenson.

Surely Medieval knights would be appalled by the swordplay displayed in modern video games. Warriors hack blindly. Swords miraculously catch fire. Characters swing in wild circles like the Tasmanian Devil.

Author Neal Stephenson is on a quest to change that.

He first became interested in the intricacies of swordplay 12 years ago while writing the Baroque Cycle, a sprawling trilogy set in 17th Century Europe. Stephenson, always one to thoroughly research his stories, turned to the professional swordsmanship community to learn how to write accurate sword-fighting scenes.

Yes, there are people out there who translate ancient manuscripts on sword-fighting techniques and teach would-be warriors how to fight like 14th-century knights. The Chivalric Fighting Arts Association includes such organizations as the Chicago Swordplay Guild — which offers classes like “Introduction to Mounted Combat” — and the Southern Academy of Swordsmanship.

“The knowledge is out there,” says Stephenson. “I’m just trying to open up a channel between that network of experts and the gaming world.”

The game he is developing is called CLANG, and it’s already raised more than $200,000 on Kickstarter. The idea is to develop “Guitar Hero with swords,” a way for gamers to experience authentic swordplay without accidentally lopping anybody’s arm off.

The goal is to raise $500,000, which sounds like a lot of money until you realize that, at the very least, it costs tens of millions of dollars to make some video games. Stephenson’s plan is to build a “a working kernel of a game” and expand it as it gets more popular.

“We’d love to do a giant, open-world game,” he says. “But you need $100 million to do that. You often have to sacrifice creative control when you borrow that much money.”

Right now, it will be a simple arena game pitting two armed competitors against each other. When Stephenson and his company, Subutai (named after a famous general who served under Genghis Khan), get around to adding in story elements, there will be a lot to pick from.

That’s because he’s publishing related content on 47 North, an Amazon publishing imprint that’s responsible for The Mongoliad, set in the same Foreworld universe the game is. That’s a big part of what Stephenson is trying to do with Subutai: create books, movies and video games with a singular creative vision unifying them.

First, though, they have to make a video game that works. The trick is capturing historically accurate sword-fighting with motion capture suits, high-speed cameras and LED lights mounted on real swords.

Initially players will control the PC game with the Razer Hydra, a widely available motion-sensing controller, but the plan is to eventually develop specialized hardware. Subutai also plans to include a toolkit to allow gamers to add fighting styles to the game, meaning if one generous samurai decides to input kenjutsu, all players will be able use it.

Stephenson, who likes to liven up exercise sessions on his elliptical trainer by playing Skyrim and Halo, points out that while players of first-person shooters get to choose from a variety of weapons — shotguns to pistols to sniper rifles — that all require separate strategies, most swordplay is limited to charging into enemies while mindlessly mashing buttons.

“It just seems to be the case that gamers like to obsess over the fine details of the imaginary world that they’re playing in,” says Stephenson. “It just seems fair to give them what they want in a sword-fighting game.”

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