My Double Fine Conundrum (With Video!)

This is another entry that has a Geek Bravado Ramble companion video which has a more long-form version of my thought process and arguments. If you’d like to check that out, you can do so below:

One of the biggest Kickstarters in video games (and the one that many would argue launched the Kickstarter game craze) has hit a fairly significant impasse. If you are a backer of Broken Age (formerly Double Fine Adventure) and have been following the accompanying documentary like I have, a fairly significant indicator this was coming was given some time ago. Basically, despite raising significantly more money than what they said was required, Double Fine and Tim Schafer seem to have overscoped the project and can’t complete it as they envisioned without even more funds. Rather than go back to Kickstarter or involve a publisher, they have instead decided to split the game into two parts, putting the first up for sale on Steam’s new Early Access system in the hope of raising enough money to complete and release the second part. Kickstarter backers who pledged enough to get the game will apparently get access to all this for free. The first part will also ship early next year, significantly later than the original ship date given for the entire project.

The response to this has been mixed. Many people are calling this a betrayal of the trust that Double Fine asked of their backers. Some are even stupidly going to far as to call it a scam (it isn’t.) Others are saying they don’t care about this, as long as it results in a great game as opposed to a hacked up rush job. As is so often the case with my opinions, I don’t fully side with either camp and see points from both sides but I’m having a really hard time deciding where I land on this.

First off, let me be clear that I understand what contributing to a Kickstarter is. It’s a gamble. You’re putting money down towards a project you want to see made in the hope that it will actually get made and be of good quality, with no guarantee of either. As backers, it’s on us to determine the trustworthiness of the team behind a project. If your feelings were wrong, ultimately all the risk is on you. Anyone who doesn’t know that going in probably shouldn’t have a credit card. That said, this is Double Fine we’re talking about here. Tim Schafer is the mind behind some of my favourite games of all time. He’s a brilliant game designer and someone who has been beaten to a pulp by the worst elements of this industry and persists nonetheless. Perhaps most incredibly, he’s one of the few people who have managed to make video games that are genuinely funny, an incredibly hard feat to pull off. I have nothing but respect for him and his past work.

I also appreciate that Broken Age was the first really big video game Kickstarter and also the first to totally destroy it’s goal. Things like stretch goals weren’t a concept that existed when this was being run. In many ways, they are a guinea pig to see how and if this model can work and that places an extra undue burden on Double Fine that many other teams don’t necessarily have. I sympathise with how difficult that must be. However, there are elements about this situation that stink.

Tim Schafer has bizarrely come out and said that this move is somehow not them asking for more money. That makes no sense to me. They’re doing this because they don’t have the money to complete Broken Age and by putting it on Steam Early Access, they’re hoping people who didn’t back the Kickstarter will step up and buy in early, thus funding the rest of development. This isn’t being done for free so how can this possibly say they aren’t asking for more money? The game doesn’t have the funding to be finished and this is their way to do so, it’s absolutely asking for more money. In addition, they are claiming that this is happening because Schafer “designed too much game.” Let’s not beat around the bush here, that’s a polite term for “feature creep and bad project management.”

They originally asked for $400,000 (many also forget that $100,000 of that was specifically for the documentary so the game only got $300,000) and that was supposed to be enough to complete the entire project. They ended up with well over $3,000,000, plus money from a Humble Bundle they did after, plus a tip jar that got a bunch of extra contributions, plus it’s been rumoured that the PC port of Brutal Legend was also done to help bring in revenue for Broken Age. They have burned through all that and it’s because Schafer still made the game too big? What happened to the original vision? Why did it bloat out so much beyond even the incredible amount of extra funding they got? More importantly, why was this allowed to happen at all? I love much of Double Fine’s work but if you dig into their past, you’ll see that many of their big projects were very late and way over budget. This isn’t a new problem for them but it’s one they don’t appear to have solved and that’s a major concern. Since they somehow managed to prematurely burn through their funds, despite getting many orders of magnitude more than they wanted, what assurance do we have that even this latest move will be enough? We’ve been provided none. Schafer has assured people that Double Fine as a company is in sound financial health and I have no reason to doubt him but even if it’s confined to a single project, this screams bad management and planning.

Secondly, I also have a real problem with this happening almost immediately after they successfully funded a second Kickstarter project, Massive Chalice. I didn’t contribute to that one because I think it’s kind of gross to ask for money for a second crowdfunded project when you haven’t delivered the first one yet. This appears to have been a well founded fear. They’ve known for months that Broken Age was having financial difficulties, yet withheld just how dire the situation was until after they got a bunch of people’s money for another game. Kickstarter has no control over what they do with the money. I’ve no doubt that they intend for Massive Chalice’s backer contributions to all be spent on that game but what happens if they put Broken Age on Steam Early Access and get a tepid response? Will they start diverting money from Massive Chalice or other projects to get Broken Age done because it’s the CEO’s baby and they don’t want their first Kickstarter project to be a failure? It could happen and well, when it does it usually doesn’t go so well. The timing of this may not have been intentional but either way, it’s very poor form and doesn’t show a lot of respect for the community.

That said, this is once again Double Fine we’re talking about here. I haven’t universally loved everything they’ve made but they have put out some amazing products and even the stuff I didn’t personally care for is well regarded overall. These people know how to make great, creative, unique games and as has been shown before, artistic greatness and business realities are often like oil and water. It’s not like every game that’s come out late or over budget has been terrible or that several of them haven’t gone on to be huge successes that more than justified the overages. That could very well be the case with Broken Age too. I put $100 down on this project and I wouldn’t have done that for any other developer (and haven’t since.) Psychonauts and Brutal Legend didn’t make money but they’re very beloved titles and had they been pushed out the door early, it’s questionable if that would still be the case. There’s something to be said for that and I really do want to give Double Fine the benefit of the doubt. Greatness sometimes comes at a high price and with a lot of turbulence.

Ultimately, I think I still trust Tim Schafer and his team and I know that they’re not doing this because they want to or are greedy but because it’s necessary and they think the backlash from this is less than it would be if they released less of a game than what they envisioned. That’s an admirable stance and it could pay off as a little abuse now is better if it leads to a lot of appreciation later. And Hell, even if I no longer trusted them, it’s not like I’m entitled to ask for my money back. I and everyone else who backed this project are on this ride whether we now want to be or not. I do however, think that they’ve badly messaged this and that the timing of it versus that of the Massive Chalice Kickstarter was a poor decision. I can understand anyone who might have stayed away from Massive Chalice knowing Broken Age’s challenges (that’s what I did) and I think only revealing the depth of this problem when they already got their money was frankly, kind of scummy. I do think their community deserves better than that.

There are a lot of eyes on this project right now and with good reason. It hit a lot of firsts and as I and many others have said, the real test of the crowdfunding model is going to be if people continue to contribute to projects as heavily once the first big disaster happens. I don’t think Broken Age is going to be a disaster but it’s clearly already testing people’s faith in this model and it would be a damn shame to see the horse trip and fall before it’s barely even left the starting gate. I want this game to blow away everyone’s expectations and show that while there are some risks, crowdfunding is an important thing that can lead to the growth of the gaming medium and get us access to a lot of stuff that the big industry won’t touch. Don’t screw this up Double Fine. I’m still behind you but you owe yourselves, your fans and the future a home run here.

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