For those who haven’t followed the Double Fine Adventure story this week, let me summarize it thusly: the acclaimed Tim Schafer studio, tired of relying on restrictive publishers, decided to use the crowdsourced funding website to bank roll a new point and click adventure. They needed somewhere around $400,000 to hit their goal; they drew in over a million dollars within 24 hours, and currently sit at $1.5 million. And there are still 31 days to go.
This isn’t the first time a video game has gone to the fans for its funding: smaller studios have been using KickStarter for some time, and even before its rise, I recall the developers of the criminally under-rated Diablo-style RPG Titan Quest going straight to fans to get a follow-up funded (I don’t know how well it went though). It’s a novel idea for a support system, inverting how things have gone since almost the beginning: instead of studios finding big companies to bankroll a game, with the hopes that people will want to play it, the studios go directly to the gamers with their pitch. If a gamer feels confident about the proposed product, they could pay forward their $15 and guarantee a copy of the game at release. Think of it as pre-ordering in the most extreme form.
It definitely requires a huge amount of trust and goodwill on the part of the consumer: in a field plagued with delays and cancelled projects, gamers are being asked to buy a product they may not see for years. Tim Schafer is a legend in the field, and his last few projects– the absurdly wonderful Brutal Legend, the DLC trio of Stacking, Costume Quest, and Iron Brigade, and the Kinect’s best looking title, Sesame Street: Once Upon a Monster – have built him a lot of rapport with gamers. So when he says, “Support my latest game,” you know he’s good for it. And it frees his team to create a game on their own terms, without an out of touch publisher demanding features be changed and cut (Schafer notoriously had a falling out with Activision, who wanted the third person action/RTS Brutal Legend turned into a Guitar Hero game, because those were selling like bonkers at the time).
But is this really going to change things for everyone else? Can you really envision a nobody earning the millions of dollars needed to make an Xbox Live Arcade game, let alone the tens of millions a retail release costs? I’m skeptical, but for a certain type of project, it may be a boon. Video games, in general, are starting to sag under their own weight: with costs ever increasing, and the demand for high end graphics and tight gameplay at an all-time high, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for any developer to succeed without the backing of a billion dollar studio, who in turn will put their force behind established franchises and genres over more experimental fare. Even the latest indie success story, Kingdoms of Amalur, had to rely on big bad Electronic Arts to reach the masses, and you can hardly consider an all-star team like Curt Schilling, Todd McFarlane, R.A. Salvatore, and Ken Rolston to be nobodies. And the game itself, while tweaking the genre slightly, is still an established third-person RPG formula.
So is Kickstarter the answer? I asked fellow gamer Blake for his thoughts:
Look, it’s hard to get mad at Tim Schafer. I mean, just look at the guy. He just has some sort of hugging emanation that exudes through his personality and his games. However, I think people are being a bit hyperbolic by calling this a “game changer.” Double Fine has a certain following, a niche audience of people who adore the old school “point and click” adventure game. If Treyarch asked for fans to help pay for “Black Ops 2: Op Blacker,” they’d be told to kick rocks, son. Indie developers with no previous works would also face such a problem. At the end of the day, I believe this is an unique, one-time-only situation, where PC gamers can stop wasting the hundreds of dollars on making their rigs run one more frame per second and actually put their money towards something interesting and fruitful.
What the potential for crowdsourced funding might do, however, is open the market up to smaller, niche titles. The biggest benefit to this generation of consoles has been the PlayStation Store and Xbox Live Arcade (and also the iTunes Store), which have opened the market up to smaller, less-ambitious projects, like 2D platformers, shooters, fighters, adventure games, and beyond. Who would have thought games like Angry Birds, Plants vs. Zombies, and Castle Crashers could stand side-by-side with the latest AAA graphics pushing shooters in terms of profit? But for every word of mouth success, there are a lot of indie projects that get swallowed up in the buzz.
Kickstarter is never going to replace big developers with regard to the Call of Duties, Halos, and Battlefields of the world: those need the kinds of budgets only the big guns can provide. But what Kickstarter can do is find a way to build a following and support developers with ambitious ideas and modest projects, provided they can sell the public on them. Schafer’s huge success is going to be a benchmark, of course, and he better be able to stick to the promised deadlines and deliver a solid project on time. If he makes a masterpiece, gamers are going to jump on future crowdsourced projects. But if the 41,000+ early backers end up with a mess of a finished project, there’s not going to be much hope of expecting gamers to pay on faith like this a second time, for Double Fine let alone anyone else.
But in this social media age, perhaps we are returning to a Renaissance-style of art: one where patrons support the work for the promise of the end result instead of large corporations supporting the work for the promise of profits.