Double Fine, Kickstarter, and why you shouldn’t expect a revolution

Double Fine's recent Kickstarter success is great, but won't change the industry overnight.

Like everyone else I couldn’t help but get all giddy about the maelstrom of exciting news surrounding Double Fine last week. It started with an innocuous tweet from Notch about wanting Psychonauts 2 to happen, then ballooned into something epic when Double Fine launched their Kickstarter campaign for a new adventure game. It’s currently sitting at well over $1.7 million with 27 days left to go and when you consider their initial target was $400,000 that’s pretty bloody amazing. It’s an immense outpouring of love from the gaming community to one of its most respected developers, and like I said in one of my own contributions to all the hubbub you simply can’t be cynical about that.

What you can be a wee bit cynical about is the speculation that Double Fine’s record-breaking Kickstarter success will radically change the gaming industry. I confess I made similar noises to that effect and I still stand by them for the most part. Recent events demonstrate the viability of alternative funding models for larger-budget titles to the standard publisher-developer symbiosis we’ve all grown up with. It also proves gamers aren’t all slack-jawed juvenile imbeciles that shriek in incomprehensible terror if you take them out of their militarised comfort-zones. A trickle of creativity, experimentation and originality has poured out from the wonderland of indie games to form a puddle of colour in the cold, grey-brown sterile corridors of modern mainstream gaming. It’s easy to get hopelessly drunk on all this brilliant possibility but a trickle is not a flood.

It therefore gives me no pleasure to don cynic’s hat and mystical cynic’s robes, drawn a cynical chalk circle of doubt and call forth a Demon Prince from the Pits of Pessimism to slap us out of our haze. As exciting as all this potential may be it is still only potential and a trickle is not a flood. Double Fine’s success will have a noticeable effect on the industry, and for the better too. It just won’t be as profound or come as quickly as you might hope. You see Double Fine had a fair number of aces up their sleeve before they went all-in with their Kickstarter idea, and what worked for them won’t produce the same results for everyone else.

As one of the few developers truly willing to take risks on barmy ideas Double Fine have accrued a lot of fondness and goodwill from the gaming community over the years. Having the charismatic, witty and entertaining Tim Schafer for your supreme lord and master doesn’t hurt either. These elements and others have brought them a lot of critical success for what they do but critical success doesn’t put food on the table. If it did the staff at Double Fine would be incredibly fat or long-dead of heart failure, having gorged themselves gargantuan every day on honeyed pheasants stuffed with quail’s hearts stuffed with caviar, washed down with bucketfuls of the finest wines available to humanity. Double Fine won’t be banished to a Dickensian workhouse any time soon but they’re hardly swimming in money either. Despite that they remain plucky and spirited, and we all love an underdog with a bit of fight in them. As well as helping to spawn a new point-and-click adventure game, chucking money at Double Fine let us raise a middle finger to the Ebeneezer Scrooges of the industry.

Now consider that one indie game you stumbled across that one time, which you really want to play before you’re too senile to appreciate it. You know, the obscure avant-garde one about a hamster made of stardust gliding through the dreams of a giant rainbow serpent to find the meaning of life? Made by a team of hippies that haven’t updated their website since 1999. Yeah, that one. Resign yourself to never playing it before you crap yourself in front of strangers who claim they’re your grandchildren, because this Kickstarter legend-for-the-ages ain’t bringing it any closer any time soon. People gave Double Fine money because Double Fine have proven they can deliver games, even if they’re not always what we  expect (yes I’m talking about you, Brutal Legend). Unless the hypothetical Team Hamsterdreamer have something concrete to show the jaded gamers of the world the only dreams Muffy the Astral Rodent will ever explore are THC-laced fantasies. The same goes for any other hopeful indie dreamer who thinks Tim Schafer has somehow blown open the magical gates to the Money Kingdom for all and sundry. Yes, gamers can be generous and make dreams come true. That doesn’t mean we want to play your anarcho-syndicalist turn-based strategy game about passive-resistance through blogging starring Atonio Gramsci.

If you entertain any foolish notions about seeing multi-million dollar triple-A titles funded by Kickstarter on game store shelves, stop entertaining them and start dashing their heads repeatedly upon a rock until they die weeping. Trying to use Kickstarter to fund the sort of gigabudget distractions you young game-playing whippersnappers demand nowadays is like trying to survive on the surface of Mars without a spacesuit. Both lead to bug-eyed agony swiftly followed by death and mockery. Double Fine’s $400,000 target might just about cover a nanosecond of time on the big blood-spatter simulation mainframe used in all triple-A games nowadays, with perhaps some pennies left over to pay a homeless art student to make all the level textures greyscale in Photoshop. It probably wouldn’t even cover the cost of hiring the machine that puts game discs in their cases. As targets go $400,00 is low even by point-and-click standards: Grim Fandango, the genre’s swan song, cost $3 million to make. In today’s terms that’ll buy you a lot of balloon animals of Robert Frost and precious little else.

Don’t think Double Fine’s triumph demonstrates an abrupt change in attitude amongst gamers either. Next year you’ll most probably be standing in line at your local videogames outlet to buy “Modern Triple-A Blockbuster 37,” or sat at home chucking pennies through your monitor at “Now That’s What I Call An Indie Bundle!” Between now and then developers will go broke whilst aggravating their collection of ulcers trying to satisfy your picky tastes. Assuming of course they can even grab hold of the wispy shred of your tattered attention-spans. Publishers will still snatch up successful new IPs in their greedy claws, slap them in chains and bleed them dry for the amusement of shareholders. Promising franchises offering something bold, beautiful, brand new and interesting will be ignored by the gaming masses in droves, until their names live on only in obscure newsgroups populated entirely by ex-members of the development team. Other great developers will be cut down, grafted onto others, dissected, flayed and abused, and yet you won’t shed a single tear. You’ll be too busy consuming every last copy of “Beefcake Gun Party IV: Veiled Sexual Tension” by “acclaimed” developer Chucklefuck Distractions, a gang of rabid man-children that murders endangered animals for sexual gratification.

Still, it’s not all doom and gloom! We’ve might have a long, long, long way to travel before developers can assuredly tell publishers “we’d rather do things our way thank you,” but Tim and the crew at Double Fine have shown us the briefest flicker of a fleeting glimpse that such a place can exist. Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither will a better gaming industry where IPs aren’t enslaved to indifferent publishers at birth. A place where creativity and imagination are nurtured and encouraged, not disparaged and trodden into the muck for being not commercially-viable enough. A healthier and more diverse industry in which games deemed too “risky” or “niche” can achieve both critical and commercial success on their own terms, and where there is truly something for everyone.

It’ll still be a place where developers pitch games to publishers, work to milestones and tear their hair out when crunch time comes around, because some things never change. Some projects are simply too big to subsist entirely on donations and goodwill, and not all publishers are evil scumbags who milk franchises until their udders turn to dust. Some of the greatest and most innovative games we’ll ever see will come about when the right crazy person meets the right equally-crazy person in charge of a big publisher with lots of money and clout. Other equally-fantastic games will be made in a bedroom in somewhere like Scranton, Ohio and funded entirely by online bake sales. Unlike the way things are now these extremes won’t be two halves of a binary system, but rather two ends of a vast spectrum with all sorts of crazy shit going on in between. Don’t expect any of this to come about through sudden, violent revolution though. It’ll be a gradual evolution, one that’ll creep up on us before we know it. I don’t know about you but personally I can’t wait to see it.

I have to though, and so do you.

Matt McDermott

About Matt McDermott

Matt is the irresponsible degenerate behind bitscreed.com.