So this happened. Followed shortly after by this. For the latest, you can check this. I won’t recount all the details since if you follow video games at all, you surely know about it. The night my Twitter starting lighting up with news of this, I was thrilled to see what Double Fine was doing and the crazy response they were generating. Without a second thought, I immediately kicked in $100 to the project, even though the reward for that tier doesn’t really equate to the contribution. I don’t care about that, I just cared about helping amazing people make a game in a genre I love that many thought was dead and buried. I have absolute confidence that I will greatly enjoy what they eventually release and that I will not regret the amount I pitched in.
Along with others, I began to think about what this means for the future of independent game development and if this could signal a major shift for how games are funded and produced. Should traditional publishers be worried about this? Could we start seeing major triple-A releases getting funded this way? Is it a sign that their business models are becoming obsolete and that they’re destined to go the way of the big record labels? While I’m sure they’ve all been watching this was surprise and interesting, I don’t think they’re worried. I think it has the potential to be a big deal for a certain class of game but I think it is a very uphill battle the the stark reality is that Double Fine’s case while fantastic, was definitely an anomaly.
One has to look no further for evidence of this than what was likely the thought process of many who decided to contribute to the project. My own went something like this: “Holy crap, it’s Double Fine and they want to make an adventure game?! Shut up and take my money!” Had it not been Double Fine–a company that has pretty consistently produced games I love and which is helmed by one of my favourite game designers ever–I likely would have either contributed much less or just went “Well, that’s a nice idea but I don’t know these guys.” Funding a Kickstarter for a project that has the aim of producing a physical product is much easier because you know what you’re supposed to be getting in the end, what it’s supposed to do and often, there’s a prototype already made to demonstrate it. When it comes to creative endeavours like a video game, it’s much harder to gauge the end product, particularly when the description is as vague as “it will be a point-and-click adventure game”. The reason so many people were willing to kick in so much money is because it’s Double Fine behind the product and their track record gives a strong indication of what kind of game it will be and what level of quality to expect. There’s a reason the bands that have had success with “pay what you want” crowdfunding models are usually huge established names like Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead. When you start to talk about an unproven independent team that has no history and can’t demonstrate a nearly finished product (and if they could they wouldn’t need Kickstarter in the first place), it becomes a lot harder to expect people to kick in hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund it. That’s not to say it could or hasn’t happened but it definitely isn’t occurring at a rate that keeps pace with new game releases. There are tons of problems in the game publishing industry today, particularly when it comes to taking risks. Indeed, Tim Schafer said the reason they had to go to Kickstarter for this project is they knew publishers would laugh them out of the room if they came in with an adventure game. However, publishers are not just good at bankrolling games, they are often good at finding stuff that sells and which can have mass appeal. They’re very good at sifting through numerous pitches and filtering out the junk. We never hear about that because it’s not what they talk about. With gamers as fickle as they are, all it would take is a couple of Kickstarter projects to burn their contributors by releasing a crappy game (whether due to lack of experience, lack of effort or something else) for the concept to break down. Like publishers, gamers will not want to put their money towards bad ideas and it won’t take much for them to become skeptical.
Secondly, I think it’s important to get a little perspective on the true size of Double Fine’s contributions. Don’t get me wrong, this is a monumental event that has marked a historical turning point in the games industry. But take a look at the numbers: At the time of this writing, they’ve raised $1.8 million from around 53,000 contributors. That sounds impressive–and it is–but Schafer himself has said that their two “smaller scale” downloadable titles Costume Quest and Stacking cost over $2 million each to develop. These were not triple-A games, they were small downloadable titles for consoles that were produced and shipped quickly. So that means that even with their Kickstarter campaign having left their initial goal in the dust, they still haven’t raised enough money to produce one downloadable game of the calibre of Costume Quest or Stacking. Needless to say, the total is still light years behind the $20-30 million dollars you need to develop a triple-A product and that’s before any marketing money is spent which is critical to having a hope of making back your investment. Also, while 53,000 contributors sounds like a lot, it’s a very small number of people when you consider the size of even the hardcore gaming audience and sales numbers like that would be considered a flop for almost any title. Obviously people beyond those who contribute to Kickstarter will buy Double Fine’s game and there’s still lots of potential money to be made beyond this initial campaign but to be able to regularly fund titles to the degree that it could make traditional publisher obsolete will require far more involvement than this and on a consistent basis. Say what you will about publishers–and I can say plenty–but they have deep pockets and that’s what you need to make even relatively small games these days.
While I’ve been throwing around a lot of sobering reality checks in this post, I should reiterate that I’m really high on this idea and I think it’s awesome. A project from a highly respected developer is exactly what was needed to firmly impact the idea of crowdfunding into the gaming public’s consciousness. Other big name developers are already talking about the idea in the same way Schafer has, using it to revive old series and genres that publishers wouldn’t touch but that they know there’s a niche demand for. I want to see more of this and plan to contribute to it whenever I can. If the ball doesn’t get dropped too often, I could see this reaching a critical mass where games of the $1-3 million scope of Xbox Live Arcade or PlayStation Network releases could be funded by it. If this makes for more innovation and less of the same regurgitated crap, I think it can serve two purposes. Firstly, it can simply cut the publishers out of the equation for certain titles which is great for creativity and secondly, it can show them that there is money to be made in niche genre titles and that maybe it’s worth taking the occasional risk on something that isn’t the next big military or space marine first-person shooter. Even if publishers remain a big part of the game funding equation (and I think they will for the foreseeable future), there is still a lot for them to learn from this and the smart ones will take those lessons to heart and that can only make things better for us as game consumers. I wish Double Fine all the good fortunes in the world from this and I really hope gamers stay tuned in to this new model. I’m excited and I’ve got more money I’m willing to throw at those who can show the can do meaningful things with it.