A comment on another site, gone now, removed by overlords perhaps deeming it uncivilized or its author perhaps experiencing a change of heart. Here’s what it said:
Let me just be the first to say fuck you, Tim Schafer, you lying, sleazy ball of shit.
The man whose Double Fine Entertainment singlehandedly created the Kickstarter Phenomenon of Videogame Funding now appears to have singlehandedly redefined its playing field. Yesterday, Schafer announced that despite having raised almost ten times more than the requested $400K, their crowdfunded adventure Broken Age was over budget and behind schedule. In fact, to meet their Fall 2013 original target release, Double Fine would have to cut 75% of the game. That’s a little more than reach exceeding grasp. That’s beginning to look like development based on a lie.
Disclosure: I did not back Broken Age. I was hesitant about impartiality, and it was a few months before I and a group of journalists I discuss such things with agreed it would be okay with the right disclosures and professional distance. So here we go. Since November of 2012, I have given money to support the following rather esoteric collection of titles:
- Defense Grid 2 (Hidden Path) $20 – successful, $271K
- Forsaken Fortress (Photon Productions) $15 – successful, $121K
- Omega (Steve Stanley) £7 – unsuccessful, £3K of £20K
- Planet Explorers (Pathea Games) $15 – successful, $137K
- Project Eternity (Obsidian) $35 – successful, $3.9M
- Sir, You Are Being Hunted (Big Robot) £10 – successful, £92K
- Sui Generis (Bare Mettle) £10 – successful, £160K
- Torment: Tides of Numenara (inXile) $50 – successful, $4.1M
- Tug (Nerd Kingdom) $10 – successful, $293K
- Unwritten Passage (Roxlou Games) $25 – successful, $78K
- War for the Overworld (Subterrannean) £15 – successful, £211K
- Wildman (Gas Powered Games) $20 – campaign cancelled, $504K of $1.1M
That list serves as more than just an effort at disclosure; it’s a pretty good range of games and funding levels. Except under special circumstances I gave in the $10-$15 range, even for games I really want to see made, and I made an effort to avoid obviously lost causes (except Omega, but I have no idea why I backed that game) and anything that was already fully funded by the time I discovered it. Kickstarter has become kind of fun for me now, I enjoy backing certain games. It’s like “picking the ponies,” you know, selecting racehorses at a track, something I’ve never done, all esoteric names and enthusastic descriptions.
Give Us Your Money
The Kickstarter for “A Double Fine Adventure” launched on February 8, 2012. Video games had sought Kickstarter funding before, but never with big names attached, and never had a campaign been so thought out. Tim Schafer is a highly respected statesman of the industry, and his Double Fine Games is well-loved, though perennially on shaky ground. They asked for $400,000 to build a modest point and click adventure game of the Full Throttle/Grim Fandango style. If they made the target, they planned to release their game in autumn of 2013.
Within a month they got $3,336,371 from 87,142 backers, and the Kickstarter craze was born. Everybody hopped on board, and the rules were quickly learned:
- Success is most likely if you’re someone people like and trust (lesson originator: Tim Schafer and Double Fine)
- Even then, success is not guaranteed, not even if you cry in public (lesson originator: Chris Taylor and Gas Powered Games)
- You need to actually have an idea, not just a name (lesson originator: Tom Hall and Brenda Braithwaite, Loot Drop)
- There really is such a thing as a silent majority, so if you’re pushing something people want – even if it wasn’t a hit before – you might do amazingly well (lesson originator: Colin McComb and inXile)
- The quality of your pitch video is more important than almost anything (lesson originator: Bare Mettle Entertainment)
- If you’re relentlessly annoying with your updates, even people who backed you will wish they hadn’t (lesson originator: Nerd Kingdom)
- Corollary to above: If you get your funding and disappear, people will become suspicious (lesson originator: Bare Mettle Entertainment)
- Don’t launch your Kickstarter campaign within two weeks of others that might get more press (lesson originator: Hidden Path).
- Funded or not, nobody likes whiny bitches and nobody likes Chris Crawford (lesson originator: Chris Crawford)
Anyway, now we learn that what had been called “a Double Fine Adventure” would be Broken Age, and the first teaser trailers looked… damn.
Then July 3, Schafer drops the bomb that despite having raised more than eight hundred percent of what they claimed they needed, Broken Age was nowhere near finished; that to hit their original target release would mean axing three quarters of the game, and that – most shockingly – they needed more money. A lot more money. So now a little bit of Broken Age will appear on Steam Early Access – a service where gamers pay for unfinished games and get updates as they happen – with the full release coming (probably) in 2015.
Wrote Tim Schafer in his note to backers:
Even though we received much more money from our Kickstarter than we, or anybody anticipated, that didn’t stop me from getting excited and designing a game so big that it would need even more money.
I think I just have an idea in my head about how big an adventure game should be, so it’s hard for me to design one that’s much smaller than Grim Fandango or Full Throttle. There’s just a certain amount of scope needed to create a complex puzzle space and to develop a real story. At least with my brain, there is.
Tim Schafer has been in this business for twenty years, so one would think that other things would be in his head: the ability to work within a budget, for example; the knowledge of what a design would cost and how much time it would take. Instead, according to Schafer, his “jaw hit the floor” when they “looked into what it would take” to finish their game. Um, Tim, did you not design this game? Have you not designed games before? How could any of this come as a surprise to you, let alone a surprise of such magnitude?
“Going back to Kickstarter seemed wrong,” Schafer wrote.
You’re damn right.
Clearly, any overages were going to have to be paid by Double Fine, with our own money from the sales of our other games. That actually makes a lot of sense and we feel good about it.
Okay, fair enough. That’s disappointing but acceptable. You got investment, got overzealous, and you’re going to shoulder the extra burden. That’s no different than going over-budget with a publisher, I suppose.
We have been making more money since we began self-publishing our games, but unfortunately it still would not be enough.
And that’s when the Steam Early Access idea hit them. The chunked game will, of course, remain “free” (in the sense that they’ve already paid for it) to backers who donated the appropriate levels during the Kickstarter campaign. But now people can invest their money to buy a buggy, unfinished alpha on Steam Early Access so Double Fine can use that to further fund their title.
Other games have been doing okay on Early Access. Introversion’s Prison Architect has been on there; AJ even wrote it up recently. I’ve been curious about Folk Tale, but not enough to pay money for… well, for a buggy, unfinished alpha. Some games like Planetary Annihilation have the staggering audacity to charge insane prices – $89 in that case – for access to the alpha. Far more than the actual finished game will cost.
I have a problem with Steam Early Access. I think it’s a bad idea. The concept of people, dedicated people, paying advance money to see advance, unfinished versions of a product is okay with me. Mount & Blade did it years and years ago: $11 got you access to a game that was playable all the way through, and regular patches that added new content. Technically, though, Mount & Blade could’ve been called “done” when I bought it. Indeed, by the time they finished adding new stuff and released the game for $30-ish, I was long since through with Mount & Blade, having gotten what I could only describe as far, far more than my money’s worth. I checked out the “final” version and was so disoriented and intimidated by the immensity of new stuff I backed away and never returned. That’s not a knock on Tale Worlds’ final game, just a remark on the fact that it can be dangerous to show people things in tiny pieces.
If Double Fine’s Broken Age had been inches from done, if it had needed, say, a hundred thousand bucks or something, that would be different. That would be a tiny issue, a matter of biting off slightly more than you could chew in your excitement over getting the opportunity to make something people clearly wanted, and something that was completely yours.
But it looks like Broken Age is millions of dollars in the hole. It looks like it needs more than its total original funding, that the three million bucks it Kickstarted is not nearly enough to finish, despite being 834% of what they asked for. If you break that math down, factoring in Schafer’s remark that they’d have had to cut 75% of Broken Age if they didn’t go the Early Access route, they’re short something like twelve million dollars. So suddenly Broken Age is a $15,000,000 game. Still pretty modest by today’s standards, but we were told – backers were told – that it would cost $400,000 to make.
I mean, there’s wrong and there’s wrong. Right?
I Know What it Means. But what Does it Mean?
Tim Schafer says he got excited, in part because Broken Age did raise so much more money than he expected. He also says that games of this style have a certain size and scope in his head, and he can’t conceive of making one smaller than said scope. This creates an interesting conundrum, because it means Double Fine is guilty of one or more of the following:
- Lacking the project management discipline to conform to budget reality
- Being incompetent to manage a commercial game project regardless of scope
- Lying exuberantly about the anticipated budget for Broken Age
So which is it? Is it all of them, or just some? Is 20-year veteran Tim Schafer so incompetent that he’s unable to design a game within a budget, despite that budget being set well before design began? Or does his company lack the ability to stay within the stated parameters of a project regardless of size, so they’d be in this boat even if they’d raised $20 million on Kickstarter? Or is it just that they always knew they’d need exponentially more than they were going to make, and neglected to mention it, in effect deceiving Kickstarter backers into supporting a project by grossly understating the actual budget?
In investment circles, intentionally repaying investors with what they’ve already put in while constantly soliciting new investments to support the circular nature of the activity is referred to as a ponzi scheme, and while I wouldn’t say we’re at that point yet, the parallels are unsettling. So far backers – the only people who should really care, other than people like me who care academically – are split on whether this is a bump in the road, a bump they’re willing to ride out, or a betrayal on the part of this developer they loved.
Many are the discussions I’ve had about the “Kickstarter Phenomenon,” this still fairly new trend of game crowdfunding. I believed – I want to still believe – that it could be far more important than any of us even appreciate right now. That it could return sanity to game development, that it could restore the order in which smaller, more hungry developers create more innovative games with more modest budgets; where ther development landscape splits into the high-budget AAA and the crowdfunded Super-Indies, the $175,000,000 Bioshock Infinite popcorn blockbusters and the low-budget, occasionally clumsy but still how-the-shit-did-you-do-that Miasmatas. Both are welcome in the ecosystem of gaming because both serve important purposes: one is the expensive but stable “what the people want” production value extravaganza, the other is the risky no-publisher-would-touch-this-but-if-it-becomes-huge-man-it’ll-be-HUGE garage band effort.
For years the indies and super-indies have been suffering before the AAA. But Kickstarter (well, crowdfunding in general) offered to change that. And all this year we’ve held our breath, waiting to see what would happen. Would it be what it could, or would it fall apart?
One data point is not a trend, and Tim Schafer – much as I did used to respect him and his company – is not the only torchbearer for this effort. But as recently as last week, I said to a friend, “we’ll see first with the Double Fine game – Broken World I think it’s called, Broken… something… Broken Age – that’s probably going to be one of the first big ones out. That’s the one that might tell us what all this will mean.”
I hope I was wrong.
Do I think Tim Schafer is a lying, sleazy ball of shit, like that commenter above? No. But I’m awfully disappointed, that’s for damned sure. And I didn’t even give any money to them. Good thing, since now it seems they want more. After that they’ll probably want a little more.
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