Psychonauts developer has achieved great initial success with crowd funding but is it really going to change the way the gaming industry works?
Years ago, when the US economy was in a virtual nosedive, many companies were struggling to figure out how they were going to stay profitable while reducing spending. Layoffs and salary cuts were all the rage, but within the gaming world, things seemed okay. The term “recession-proof” was even thrown around quite a bit, and a lot of people believed it to be so.
Fast-forward to the current state of the industry, where publishers are using online passes, pre-order bonuses, and a variety of new DRM techniques just to make sure that no penny is lost; no dollar unearned. The recession forced gamers to be far more selective in what they invest their money into and many consumers have turned to the used game market. The problem is that the money from used sales only goes to the retailer/seller, with not one dime going back to the publishing companies or developers.
This trend has caused the big publishing companies to be fearful of taking chances. New IPs are a dangerous risk because the money put into them isn’t guaranteed to be made back in sales. Therefore, you usually see an abundance of sequels. A look at last year’s holiday lineup only solidifies this, as a good number of trilogies came to a purported end.
Developers are aware of this fact, as well. Tim Schafer, founder of Double Fine Productions, recently commented on the industry’s fear of creating new franchises. “That’s always been our challenge, is getting a publisher to invest millions of dollars in something brand new, like Brutal Legend,” he said.
It only seems fitting then that the man, known for being innovative and experimental, would be the one to take things to a whole new level.
Last week, Schafer began a Kickstarter campaign for what’s tentatively titled Double Fine Adventure, a new point-and-click game that is set to release on Steam. Initially, the goal for funding the project was set at $400,000 and given 33 days to hit the mark. It only took eight short hours. As of this writing, the total amount raised is at $1,867,030 with 54,631 total backers (an average of just over $34 per contributor). The extra money will be put into improving the game, increasing its availability to other formats, and giving a higher quality to the companion documentary.
When word of this project hit the internet, people within the gaming community were excited and glad to show support. Gamers, developers, and members of games media all expressed elation and wonder at the possibilities this kind of fundraising could bring to the business. Of course, other developers were bound to consider their chances at a similar effort. One company, Obsidian, even went as far as asking its fans what they would want to see and whether they’d be willing to support its own attempt to gather money in this way.
While the success of Double Fine’s effort is inspiring, I’m hard-pressed to see this method being a boon for the industry.
First off, don’t be fooled; games are expensive to produce. Even in the early 2000s, the budget for AAA titles were in the multiple millions after all was said and done. Earning a couple million would barely put a dent on today’s costs. Sure, it’s a start, but ultimately, it won’t be enough to get that dream project made and released. At best, it might give a studio a chance to produce a pilot of sorts for publishers to see but, if the game never gets picked up, your donation would get you nothing in the end.
Another point to consider is the type of game this kind of fundraising benefits. With major releases being far too pricey, the best you’ll probably see from these campaigns would most likely be downloadable offerings with small development teams. That’s not saying this is a bad thing, as many of those games are fantastic and very important to the industry as a whole. Smaller budget games often require more innovation to be successful, and the right game could potentially turn a few heads among the big publishers. Titles like the Shadow Complex and Bastion could be seen as an example of this.
What really scares me is the opportunity for big companies to think that this will save them significant dollars on production costs. Sure, people might be willing to help out, but if you release an inferior product, that support will quickly turn to ire in a hurry. No one wants to invest in something they are unsatisfied with. A lackluster use of donation money will push people away from any future backing and possibly cause a bigger backlash than would normally occur.
To me, the key to these efforts lies in the rewards. Double Fine is giving the game away for free if you donate $15 to the project and the higher tiers offer some interesting perks. Other companies could do something similar or allow you to use your donation toward the cost of the game. One bonus that I’d like to see is the possibility to be put into the game as an NPC, even just as a random extra. Interesting rewards like that are probably the most important factor in the success of a Kickstarter campaign. Hopefully, developers will recognize this, as well.
With the current console generation coming to a close fairly soon, games are going to be in a transitional period. New IPs are going to have to be created and the downloadable market is surely going to expand. The window of opportunity for devs to take advantage of this radical new funding technique is going to be wide open but, if they don’t handle it with the right level of care, that window could slam shut and shatter to pieces, causing the shards to cut into any good faith that they may have built with the public.