kickstart the jams

I’ve got things I want to say about Final Fantasy XIII-2, and also Kingdom of Amalur: Reckoning, and a few more words on Skyrim and the 1.4 patch.

But first I’ve gotta talk about Double Fine’s Kickstarter campaign, wherein Tim Schafer & Co. asked the community to help fund an old-school point-and-click adventure game.  That it’s raised its initial ask amount of $400,000 in 8 hours is amazing.  That it’s now almost a million dollars over its initial ask amount – in less than 3 days – is nothing short of extraordinary (indeed, it might break $1,400,000 by the time I finish this post – it’s a little over $50,000 away as of 12:34pm EST, 2/10/12).   I contributed $40, and I will play it on every platform it arrives on (especially since, with all this extra money, it appears likely that it’ll head to iOS devices), and I will devour the accompanying documentary.

I’d like to think that this experiment would radically change the current development system, which every small developer has repeatedly described as “fundamentally broken.”  Double Fine owns this project outright, and since they’re distributing it over Steam (and presumably other download services), they don’t have to pay retail costs – and consequently, they don’t really need a publisher, either.  It’s pure profit after they recoup their expenses, they retain complete creative control, and they’ll deliver a product that lots and lots of people apparently want.  Why can’t this work for other game developers?

Well, the answer to that question is very complicated, and I’m not going to pretend that I can answer it.  From my limited vantage point, the only real thing I can compare it to is Radiohead’s “pay-what-you-want” release of “In Rainbows”, which they released without a label behind them.  (Similarly, one could also bring up Louis CK’s recent “pay-what-you-want” release of a filmed comedy special.)

The worlds of game development, music and stand-up comedy are so different that to compare them is almost meaningless, but in this particular case these three entities (Double Fine, Radiohead, Louis CK) do share one rather important thing in common – they are adored by their fans, and they have many, many fans, and those fans very much want what these artists are providing.

This is important, I think.  These three entities are in unique positions within their respective industries – i.e., they are near-universally loved from both without and within – and they have a certain amount of clout that allows them to pull stuff like this off.  Tim Schafer’s past work has made him an adored cult figure, and yet none of his games have really sold in huge numbers.  They’ve sold well enough to make back their costs, and he’s retained an adoring fanbase, but he’s not pushing GTA or Call of Duty off the bestseller charts.  That he’s going back to his roots to make the sort of game that made him famous is, for many people (myself included), a dream come true.  That he knew that no publisher was ever going to give him the money to make this sort of game is, sadly, a reality of today’s marketplace.  New IP is very, very risky, and new IP in the shape of a point-and-click adventure title is basically asking to set your money on fire.

I’m not sure Tim Schafer expected this kind of success this quickly, though; I’m not sure anybody did.  And let’s also be clear here – at this point, he’s only raised the money; we haven’t actually seen the game yet.  The game could very well be terrible.  (Unlikely, but hey – Brutal Legend wasn’t nearly as good as I wanted it to be, either.)

Are there any other developers that could pull something like this off?  I’m not sure.  Rock Paper Shotgun is reporting that Obsidian is considering it.   You could see Jonathan Blow (of Braid) working in this way in the future, perhaps.  (My personal dream would be for Erik Wolpaw to break off from Valve to develop his own game.)  You’d need a developer with vision, is the thing.

The great irony to this whole thing is that not 48 hours before Double Fine’s Kickstarter kicked off, Minecraft’s “Notch” was offering to fund Psychonauts 2.   Tim Schafer’s said, though, that such a project would cost between $20-40M, and that kind of money isn’t going to come through Kickstarter, and I can’t imagine that Notch has that much money to kick around.

Anyway, this is a very exciting time, and it will be very interesting to see what happens next.  If Radiohead is any example, though, this sort of thing might not end up catching on beyond artists who are big enough to support such an endeavor in the first place; considering the prohibitive costs of game development, I have my doubts that lightning can strike twice.  Still, we can always hope.

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