So, with all of the events surrounding Tim Schafer and Double Fine recently it gave me pause for thought “How will this impact our industry?” My answer was simple. “Not at all” or should I say “Not at all…yet”
If you are unaware about the events which I mentioned regarding Double Fine, Tim Schafer and the Kickstarter project – allow me to explain. [Note: If you do know about them then you could probably skip to the next heading, go ahead – I won’t mind, we’ll still be friends!)
Tim Schafer has always held a certain reputation in the gaming industry for thinking outside the box, and by this I mean that he is ever so slightly insane – but in a good way!
Bringing us such iconic titles like the Monkey Island games, Psychonaughts and Grim Fandango to name but a few, all of these games are highly regarded by both fans and critics as ‘revolutionary’ and ‘ground breaking’ – after all, these are the games where – in Grim Fandango for example – you found yourself playing as Manuel “Manny” Calavera is a travel agent at the Department of Death in the city of El Marrow, forced into his job to work off a debt “to the powers that be” and in Psychonaughts you found yourself playing as Razputin “Raz” Aquato, the son of a family of circus performers who runs away from the circus to become a Psychonaut (an agent with psychic abilities) so it’s easy to see why Schafers games are considered ‘off the wall’ and a direct opposite to the carbon copied games that you sometimes find littering the shelves of your local video game store.
Even one of Double Fines latest games, Brutal Legend, love it or hate it you can’t help but agree that it’s premise of mixing action-adventure with real time strategy in a heavy metal infused world was definitely different.
So it’s easy to see why Schafers games suddenly achieve cult classic-esque status amongst his fans. So when people started asking en masse for a second Psychonauts game, Tim responded.
In an interview with Digital Spy, Tim explained his position in regards to a Psychonauts sequel, which he apparently pitched to publishers ‘several times
“I mean I get a lot of, on Twitter or whatever, daily questions about Psychonauts 2. And I would love to do Psychonauts 2, I’ve actually pitched that to publishers several times and no-one has taken the bait so far,”
“So it is hard because fans often don’t know how the business works, with the difference between a developer and a publisher, it’s hard to explain that.”
“I’d love to do that game, but I’d have to convince someone to just give me a few million dollars, that’s all.”
Ask and you shall receive, Tim! Only a few days after this interview, the indie developer most recognisable from his work with Minecraft, Markus ‘Notch’ Pearson, posted this on Twitter:
The majority of people assumed this was a joke, that it was something that maybe Notch and Schafer would get together about and share a couple of beers over – nothing more.
That’s not what happened…
Not long after this tweet by Notch, Tim Schafer and Double Fine announced that they had started a Kickstarter page for their latest ‘adventure game’
Now, Kickstarter is a little bit like asking your friends to lend you money when the bank refuses to give you a loan. Officially, it’s an online pledge website which allows end users (people like you and me) to give money to projects that have not started yet.
Examples of what Kickstarter is usually used for are music artists who want to finance the publication of their album and as an incentive, will give the album to anyone who pledges over a certain amount or artists who wish to have their work exhibited and will offer pledges free gifts etc.
What Tim Schafer and Double Fine did however is ask the general gaming populace to fund their next adventure video game, aiming for a grand total of $400,000 in 31 days.
They made that target in a little over eight hours…
The current amount at time of writing is as follows:
Yep, that’s right, $2.4 million! That’s half the budget of Grim Fandango, one of Double Fines most expensive games to develop.
The gaming community exploded with donations from all over the world, Tim and Double Fine had essentially proved several publishers completely wrong, people do still like adventure games.
So by essentially taking the publisher completely out of the equation and being given complete control over the project I sat back and thought ‘How will this impact the industry?’
Are you back now, people from the top? See I told you we’d still be friends!
So, if you were to ask people what a game Developer actually does for a living, most people would be able to give you a fairly copperplate and accurate answer ‘They make games’ and they’d be correct. However if you asked most people what video game Publishers do for a living, some people might not be able to put a fixed definition on it.
In short, video game publishers literally finance every aspect of the game creation process, development, marketing, advertisement, distribution, snacks (okay, maybe not that last one…maybe)
Developers approach a publisher with an idea for a game, pitch their idea and then, if the publisher think it will generate enough income and it’s not too much of a risk, they will give the developers large sums of money to go and develop it.
But there’s always a catch…
I know what you’re thinking, what’s stopping less scrupulous developers from approaching a publisher, getting an idea approved, being given (sometimes) millions of pounds (or dollars) and simply loading these sacks of money onto the back of a truck and driving off into the sunset? Well, nothing really – which is why publishers have to be extremely careful in their approval process.
There are usually a lot of rules and budgets involved with the money allocated to a developer, and not to mention that even if the idea sounds fantastic and the demos play great there is no definitive guarantee that the game will actually sell enough copies to generate a positive income (like Enslaved for example) so there are usually safeguards in place, most publishers employ ‘milestones’ these are the business version of checkpoints, you are allocated a sum of money to kickstart (no pun) the project then when you meet your first milestone (first tech demo being produced for example) then you have achieved that milestone and therefore obtain your next sum of money to continue production.
The only problem here of course is that there will always be individuals in the industry who are looking out for themselves more than the game they claim to want to produce.
There are countless horror stories of publishers being told that, Pete Wanat once retold a personal horror story in an interview for Game Informer which he says happens all the time
A developer acquired funding from a publisher for a project and after very little progress was made on the project, Wanat became suspicious and after investigation he discovered that the developer had left his game idle while it was using the publishers money to fund a secret project they were working on. It wasn’t until Wanat sent out an associate producer to literally oversee day-to-day operations (through a series of surprise visits) that work was completed on Wanats project.
At one of the GDC Burning Mad sessions, Lee Jacobson – vice president of business acquisitions at Midway Games – told the crowd some of his own experiences. One example involved a studio head that kept $300,000 in milestone money for himself and then told his own employees that Midway never sent it. Jacobson also told a story of a visit to a developer who said it had devoted two teams to his project. Jacobson met the first team and then went to lunch. When he came back to meet the second one, he realized that it was made up of a bunch of members from the first team who were pretending to be different people by wearing different clothes.
So publishers are right to be somewhat cautious sometimes, they hold a lot of responsibility and increasingly, these days, many publishers do not want to take the risk of an uncertain name or brand in order to leave their profits to chance. Unfortunately with scenarios like this, you inevitably end up with publishers like Activision who only seem to release ‘safe bets’ like the Call of Duty games and the now redundant Guitar Hero series so it seems almost logical that Double Fine would turn almost 180 degrees in the industry and go from a Triple-A game creating studio to a crowd-funded almost indie developer.
And perhaps this will enlighten other studios to do the same thing, studio names such as Obsidian Entertainment (Fallout: New Vegas, Dungeon Siege III) have expressed their amazement and interest in this whole situation. The main attraction here comes if you look slightly under the surface of this seemingly innocent observation.
Chris Avellone, Creative Director at Obsidian Entertainment was also the lead developer on the utterly fantastic and near-legendary isometric PC RPG Planescape: Torment back when he was with Black Isle Studios so theoretically we could see a sequel if Obsidian decided to go down this Kickstarter road. I know I’d pay towards that project.
It doesn’t always work…
So therefore, in conclusion – this whole Kickstarter situation is an interesting development in the video game industry – it’s highly unlikely to change the way that the industry works as a business and frankly I feel that personally there are some fantastic publishers out there, many of which work extremely well with their developers because they usually started out as developers themselves.
We also should neglect the fact that Double Fine isn’t the first video game developer to attempt to use Kickstarter to fund their project. Back in November 2011 the developer behind Tony Hawk: Ride attempted to use Kickstarter to fund their next game, a Kinect-exclusive title nameed Bodoink with a goal of $35,000 they ended up raising merely $5,547.
So perhaps this endeavour will only work with certain titles or certain developers. It’s no lie that both Tim Schafer and Double Fine have a certain reputation in the industry and maybe, now that this Kickstarter scenario has happened, more ‘well known’ developers will take the chance to get their dream game published by the crowd.
So my answer remains the same. I don’t believe that this situation will change our industry. At least not yet. There may be a time when obtaining crowd funding will be a possible and potentially viable route for most indie developers – and when/if that day comes, what game would you put your money into?