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Game Changer: Can Tim Schafer's Kickstarter Project change the way games are funded?

Mike Bracken's picture

Game Changer: Can Tim Schafer's Kickstarter Project change the way games are funded?

It's unclear if Grim Fandango creator Tim Schafer intended to change the way games are financed or not, but his latest venture could have long-lasting repercussions on the hobby we all know and love.

Schafer, who's one of elder statesmen of the medium, has chosen to fund his latest creation solely through contributions gathered by crowd-sourcing site Kickstarter. While indie developers have been using the popular web destination to find backers for quite some time, it's highly unusual to see an industry luminary of Schafer's stature utilizing the service. Should the developer and his San Francisco-based crew at Double Fine Productions manage to raise $400,000 in funds before March 13th, he will not only create a new point-and-click adventure title, but he'll allow gamers to see inside the development process—promising unprecedented access to what happens behind closed doors.

That's all interesting, but what's really captivating about the Double Fine Kickstarter campaign is the response. In a mere 12 hours, fans have already pledged more than the $400,000 Schafer needs to make his game. To say the response has been amazing is an understatement. There's an air of excitement surrounding this project, and some gamers and industry pundits are already postulating that this could be a "game changer" when it comes to how games will be funded moving forward—but should the Activisions and Electronic Arts of the world lose sleep over it? Probably not.

There's no denying that Schafer has tapped into something with his Kickstarter campaign, but it remains to be seen whether it's a gaming fanbase fed up with the industry's status quo or simply a lot of very rabid Tim Schafer fans wanting a new game from the man responsible for some of the medium's most revered titles. Even if we assume the answer to that question lies somewhere in the middle, calling this a "game changer" seems at least somewhat premature.

Maniac Mansion: Day of the Tentacle Screenshot

Instead, Schafer may well be a pioneer—the first major studio boss to show other developers that the old business model of depending on publishers for funding and distribution doesn't have to be the only way to conduct business. If his move is successful, perhaps other developers will follow suit. Maybe this will even lead to a gaming utopia where developers, funded by patrons just like artists in the Renaissance era, are free to create their best work without worrying about the interference of middle men more interested in commerce than art. It could be the beginning of a golden age of gaming...

If we take off the rose-colored glasses, we see the reality is that most things will likely stay exactly as they are—and even if they did change, it might not be the Shangri-La we're all envisioning anyway.

First off, Double Fine is looking for $400,000 to make a new game. That's a lot of scratch to most of us, but in the realm of game development? It's pocket change. Schafer says as much on his Kickstarter page, noting "even something as "simple" as an Xbox Live Arcade title can cost upwards of two or three million dollars.  For disc-based games, it can be over ten times that amount."

Raising that kind of money from people who're simply fans of good games is still impressive, but there's arguably a threshold to the amount of funds one can realistically expect to raise using something like Kickstarter—and I'm willing to bet it's well below the "two or three million dollars" for an Xbox Live Arcade title, let alone the $30 million of a big budget retail disc release. So, with that in mind, it seems likely that crowd-sourcing will remain a viable tool for small projects for the foreseeable future. Big budget games are going to still need deep pocket publishers.

Even moving past that, the bigger question becomes "do we really want this as gamers?" I suspect in the long run that the answer would be "no."

Psychonauts Screenshot

In a worst case scenario situation, it's easy to see crowd-sourced funding turning into the new pre-order campaign with developers continually trying to sell gamers on investing in their project in much the same way GameStop harasses us for an extra five bucks every time we try to check out. What's worse is that games still get made if people don't pre-order, but developers could constantly hold the threat of not making a game at all over our heads if their funding demands weren't met. That's not a good thing, particularly since it forces gamers to invest real money in projects without knowing much of anything about them. Sure, the pitch might be great and the pieces of concept art look cool, but there's no way of knowing what a finished product will look and play like when it's not even in the alpha stage.

There's also the potential issue of "investors." If a person donates money to fund a product designed to make a profit and that product makes vast amounts of money, does the "investor" have a right to share in those profits? A publisher certainly does—and it's not a stretch to imagine that people who ponied up the cash to fund "Generic Space Marine Shooter #4518" will expect a cut of the proceeds when it pulls in a billion bucks in its first week of release. We're not at that point now, because this is still a novelty to most people, and no one expects the projects on sites like Kickstarter to make millions of dollars. If we start funding mid-level and AAA titles? That all changes—and so will people's attitudes and expectations.

None of that even factors in the important services publishers do provide (marketing, public relations, production, etc.) that would now have to be handled by the developer, because the patrons who donated surely aren't going to come up with TV spots and press releases. Even if those things are part of the funding, dealing with them takes time—time that could be spent making the game better. Publishers don't always have our best interests at heart, but they do provide some valuable support that developers wouldn't have in a consumer-funded environment.

The idea of a game community where developers are free to be creative and try new things without worrying about publisher bean counters sounds great, and maybe some day we'll get there. Only time will tell if what Double Fine is trying to do will go down in history as the start of a new era in game development or as an interesting historical footnote. If I were a gambling man, I'd put my money on the latter.

Category Tags
Platform(s): PC  
Developer(s): Double Fine  
Key Creator(s): Tim Schafer  
Articles: Editorials  
Topic(s): Business   Game Design & Dev  

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It has to be stated that Tim

It has to be stated that Tim Schafer is, as you said, one of the medium's elder statesman. He has a fanbase that will be happy to support his project, but a smaller startup or anyone else that would try something like this won't have that, and probably wouldn't get even a small fraction of what Schafer was able to raise.

That doesn't mean I think it's bad, I think it's great that Schafer is able to do this. But we need to be realistic here. Hell, I'd gladly donate to an effort to get Grim Fandango released on GoG so I can finally play it.

Yep -- very true. An upstart

Yep -- very true. An upstart developer wouldn't get that kind of funding, and if they did, it wouldn't be overnight.

I think the whole thing is fascinating, and I'm not opposed to something like this catching on. I just don't see it happening yet and not without many of the potential issues addressed along the way.

It's certainly been something exciting to watch.

Nice work getting Tim

Nice work getting Tim Schafer to pose for a picture in the middle of all this!

He's a big fan of the

He's a big fan of the podcast. He told me he'd only do it if you stay on as host, though -- so I guess you're stuck. Seemed like a small price to pay.

There are many angles to

There are many angles to this.

I have seen the comment, "If you donate $15 you get the game for free!" many times. It seems more to me as if this is a pre-order for a game that doesn't exist yet. The "investment" is based on name recognition alone, which isn't always wise. Whether we are talking about longtime brands or prolific developers, they are not immune to bad games. Imagine backing a John Romero venture before we discovered that he's a scoundrel.

There are two competing ideologies inside of me right now. On one hand, I want to see a classic point and click adventure game be made (and this is on track to be a very expensive point and click adventure game). I am a guy who purchased Psychonauts three times, once for Xbox, once as a gift and once on the PC years later. This is what "voting with your wallet" means to me.

On the other hand, I can't shrug off my responsibility to be a good consumer. It's hard enough to make purchasing decisions with full information. Now people are being asked to decide whether or not to buy/support a game based on vague platitudes. There is no concept art, budget outline, detailed timeline or business plan. I am not entitled to a private company's financials but if they are asking me to back a project, I feel I am then entitled to ask to see these things. Otherwise, this just feels like giving them an interest-free loan (to be paid back in the form of a game) with zero due diligence involved.

I hope it's a success, but it's not something I can donate to at this stage. If they get to a later stage and I like what I see, then I would consider kicking in some cash.

I also don't think the situation with "evil" publishers is as dire as it seems. There's always going to be a struggle between the creative side and the business side of any entertainment industry.

I think this is a really

I think this is a really exciting project and what comes out of it we'll see by the end of this year. I threw $30 in the hat myself. Being a big fan of old-school Lucas Arts adventures this was a no-brainer for me.

I don't think AAA-titles will ever be funded like this. We will still have Activision dropping a Call of Duty each year and EA throwing yearly iterations of Fifa, Madden et al around. But for small developers in the awkward position between AAA and Indie this is a new frontier. For A to C-grade developers this might be the way to go in the future. Who will look at this the most careful? Studios that struggle finding funding for projects they dream of and are forced to make map-packs for Call of Duty instead (Raven anyone?).

Cliffy B. famously said go AAA or go bust. He might be wrong on that one.

I love kickstarter, i've

I love kickstarter, i've funded over a dozen different projects. Double Fine is blowing up the current records, but many small ios/android projects have been successful. One of the hurdles is just getting the word out, and the Double Fine kickstarter program has done that. You may not get a kickstarter for Mass Effect 4. But you could get for a Collector Edition, or as a direct to consumer business model. A company with a loyal fanbase, like Nis or Atlus or xseed could definitely have a preorder campaign as they are doing similar stuff on their own webstores now.
I'm excited to see what happens next.

Indies

It's definitely interesting, but what you didn't mention was the possible impact this could have on the indie scene. This much buzz around kickstarter is good - especially for other games on the site which don't have the cloud (ie, all the rest). As someone who has funded games on kickstarter before, I think the largest barrier for those devs is simply foot traffic - enough people who are aware that this is an option and find themselves feeling good about supporting what they love. I think your assessment for AAA devs is about right, but this could have repercussions for the indie scene which is only getting stronger.

I'm curious if it will

I'm curious if it will actually trickle down to the indies -- I think a huge part of this is attributable to Schafer and Double Fine being famous in the community already.

That being said, I think it would be great if it gets more people to check out Kickstarter and fund indie projects -- I'm just not 100% convinced that will really happen.

Thanks for the comment.

Hi Mike and thanks for

Hi Mike and thanks for talking about his story.

While I agree with most of your points, I am more excited than you by all of this (by the way, there is now almost 1,7m$ pledged). Don't you think that if this picks up as a trend, we could finally see more auteur-driven games instead of publisher-driven ones ? Auteurs like David Jaffe, Tetsuya Takahashi, Swery65, Hidetaka Miyazaki, Yokoo Taro, and such could have what this medium really needs: more creative freedom.

In the Internet age, publishers are less useful as they used to be, but they still take the same share of profit and have the same amount of control on content. I have yet to hear a story where a publisher made a game better, but I heard plenty where they made it worse or at least less unique. In every medium, the publisher is going to have less and less of a role to play: blogs replace book publishers, last.fm replaces music publishers etc. etc. This could be it for videogames.

While I don't see it as a new venue for indie (but indie games are already exploding under the current market), this trends is something that can really resurrect mid-budget games. If pre-orders are directly paid to the developers, they really only need 1/3 of what they would need had they to pay the publisher and retail. And what do they lose ? TV ads ? seriously ? Valve did the TV ads for Portal themselves and I'm pretty sure any intern could do an ad for a videogame better than most of what we see.

I like Schafer, but money for nothing?

Psychonauts is a favorite of mine, Grim Fandango had great characters and i really liked Brutal Legend, certainly much more than the average RTS was terrible basher. (Full throttle was only ok.)
But spending money on a game based on some vague information who will be involved and what genre it will be?
I could imagine giving money for an alpha, an already sort of playable alpha, where i see a clear vision were it is going. But buying a name without any content, hope for something good?
No way!

Hi Mousse, I do think the

Hi Mousse,

I do think the potential for more auteur-driven games is there, and that's what's ultimately exciting about the idea of more developers crowd-sourcing their games. I guess I'm just more of a "worst case scenario" guy (George Carlin once said that deep inside of every bitter cynic is a disappointed idealist -- that sums me up pretty well) and see some issues that could arise if this system took off.

Publishers have become a lot like studios in the movie biz -- a necessary evil because they have access to nearly unlimited funds, but more of a hindrance to the creative vision than a help. I'm not sure where, exactly, that changed along the timeline of cinema (which is probably an article I should write for another site one of these days...), but you can certainly see it happening in games already. That being said, there are some useful services that publishers provide.

$1.7 mil is an amazing number -- and honestly, significantly more than I expected them to make. I'm sure most of that's because it's Tim Schafer, but it certainly does make you sit back and wonder "could someone raise ten or twenty million for a game this way?" Maybe they could -- or maybe gamers would get tired of all the competing Kickstarter projects vying for their money once the novelty of all this wears off. I don't know -- that's the fun of watching all this stuff unfold.

I'm really curious to see what happens when Double Fine reveals the first concepts of the game and the first gameplay footage, etc. You just know there's going to be a contingent of donors who're pissed because it's not going in the direction they want. What will happen then? People donating money to a project sight unseen that winds up not being what they expected might be less likely to take the plunge again. I think that's going to be pretty amazing to watch too.

At any rate, you gotta love Tim Schafer for trying this. No matter what happens, fans get a new game out of the deal and maybe it opens doors for other developers to craft the games they want without the interference of publishers.

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