Tim Schafer captured lightning in a bottle by crowdsourcing the development of a new Double Fine adventure game, a genre that he cut his teeth on during his tenure at LucasArts. Schafer made a passionate appeal to the public via Kickstarter, an online pledging service, and asked for $300,000 to make the game and another $100,000 to film a documentary about the process. Shattering all known Kickstarter records, Schafer not only reached his goal in eight hours but the backers and support keep pouring in and as of this writing, he is nearly $20,000 away from earning two million dollars in public financial support. Whether or not he manages to break through that ceiling, the pledges he has earned allowed Schafer to formally announce the game’s release on PC, Mac, Linux and mobile devices, that it will be translated into different languages and voice actors can be hired. Needless to say, Schafer’s crowdsourcing was a big, big success and it had many wondering if we were entering a new era of game development, one that saw middle man publishers getting cut out of the process and, most importantly, profits. It has also given a few big name developers, like David Jaffe, pause as they consider launching their own crowdsourced video game. They saw the passion and strength of the community as well as the piles of cash and thought, “I want that.”
David Jaffe, the mind behind Twisted Metal, God of War and many an Internet rant, left the company Eat, Sleep, Play (which he co-founded) in order to start a new studio based in San Diego, California. When asked by Gamasutra if he was considering Kickstarter development, Jaffe responded with:
"I think the real question, whether in the next month, if [Double Fine's campaign] hits $2 million or $8 million, does that signal a new way of funding games? Or is this kind of a one-off thing, because it was led by [Double Fine head] Tim Schafer? Is this actually moving the needle? That, we don't know."
Jaffe brings up an intriguing point: people love Tim Schafer. Schafer was a major part of LucasArts’ glory days when adventure games reigned supreme. He developed Psychonauts, a critically acclaimed game that was a financial flop but beloved by those who played it. He was sued by Activision for trying to take Brutal Legend somewhere else after the publisher scrapped the game because it couldn’t be annually exploited. Double Fine’s new direction of creating smaller games put them on the map, with Costume Quest and Stacking earning a number of accolades. Tim Schafer himself is an outgoing, funny guy and when he asked for money to develop a game, I’ll bet he was very surprised to see people tripping over themselves to give it to him. At this point, we have to ask the question: if David Jaffe were to open a Kickstarter right now, would it garner the same level of support? David Jaffe is a smart individual and has made some great games, but his personality is wildly different from Tim Schafer. His outspoken views on game design have earned him more than a few fans and followers, but one could say that he lacks Schafer’s charm.
David Jaffe isn’t the only developer out there that has an interest in Kickstarter. Next month, Brian Fargo will be launching his own Kickstarter to crowdsource a sequel to Wasteland, the game that inspired Fallout. Although Fargo’s interests are the same as Schafer’s - the desire to develop a game and market it to a niche group - he is asking for $1 million to fund the project. That’s a lot of money. Double Fine broke the million dollar mark in twenty four hours mainly because, as stated previously, people love him and want to see him succeed. Brian Fargo is interested in designing the game specifically for fans of Wasteland and not wanting to compromise his vision by watering the game down for “mainstream audiences.” Similar visions, but there is a noticeable difference. Tim Schafer wants to make a new game based on a beloved genre. Brian Fargo wants to make a sequel from a game he made in 1988. Will people want that? We’ll have to wait next month to find out.
Here’s something else to consider: Tim Schafer set up a unique bonus for those who became a backer, promising communication between themselves and the development team during the design process. How much input they will have has yet to be revealed but the very idea that I could pledge money and have a say in the game’s art direction or gameplay is pretty darn cool. It also works with the spirit of Kickstarter. I have to wonder though. Would Jaffe or Fargo do the same? One would think that having to answer to a publisher is bad enough, but what about the thousands of backers who feel some degree of entitlement and ownership over the project? How seriously would their input be taken? How long until that gets to be detrimental to the process? What if, as a result, the game is a total failure? Tim Schafer might get a pass on this, but would people cry out for blood if Jaffe’s game failed or he cut out community involvement? What about Brian Fargo’s case? I mean, one million dollars is a lot of money.
In the end, the idea is right: using Kickstarter to fund game development allows for more creative freedom and the chance to work on a dream project. Tim Schafer wanted to make an adventure game, but as they are no longer in vogue he couldn’t get backing from a major publisher. While Schafer’s success is certainly attractive to other developers, there are a lot of factors to consider: he is a household name these days for a vocal group of gamers who grew up playing adventure games in the 1990s. He comes off as a genuinely great guy who loves what he does and has a great sense of humor. Making video games funny is an extraordinarily difficult task, but Tim makes it look easy. Although accomplished members of the industry and beloved by a great many, do David Jaffe and Brian Fargo have that same level of recognition and history? The success (or failure) of their Kickstarters will be the true litmus test.
The take away message from all this is that Kickstarter game development isn’t going anywhere in a hurry. Publishers like Electronic Arts, Activision and Ubisoft won’t disappear overnight and will still be relied on for funding. Crowdsourcing will be a much discussed topic in the coming months I’m sure, but in the end the story of Tim Schafer’s foray into appealing to the community for money will be of a beloved developer finally getting his due.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.