Picture the videogame industry as a body, with a bustling hierarchy of distributors, studios and hardware manufacturers serving as key organs and the life-giving systems they comprise. Console producers Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo form a bedrock skeleton of disc drives and cloud networks for the game makers to house their software around. Software giant Electronic Arts and its $4 billion of operating revenue are a brain, terrible and vast, analyzing more aggressive ways to penetrate a market through consumer trends and endless spreadsheets. French developer/distributor Ubisoft connects to outside media bastions in film and fashion, casting a global circulatory system outside North America to new audiences.
And then there’s the undeniable heart: developers, those binary sculptors who cleave art from zeros and ones into cascading swaths of pixelated glory. Quantifiably, no designers are more beloved than the cool and cozy group of 60 gamesmiths known as Double Fine, who have occupied the second floor of a bleached office building in San Francisco’s South of Market District since 2004.
The studio’s owner and de facto leader, Tim Schafer, is a bearded hug of a human being, full of witty observations and a mythological history of creating interactive magic. And as hearts are full of love, this metaphysical organ has received a fair amount of love back. Specifically, 87,142 devoted fans prefunded the studio’s latest videogame, Broken Age, by $3,336,371 on the crowd-funding platform Kickstarter back in 2012. The campaign initially requested $400,000, but received more than that in its first day alone by $600,000. That game, a revival of the point-and-click adventure that’s populated the endangered species list since the nineties, saw its first half released last Tuesday. And it’s awesome.
Broken Age presents the story of two adolescents controlled by circumstances both superficially different and fundamentally similar: A young girl’s village selects her as a sacrifice to a giant noodly monster, while a young boy is sustained by a parental artificial intelligence on a massive spaceship. Daddy issues abound. And as each character learns the critical nuances of what it means to give and take, Double Fine discovers new ways to alter that same relationship with its fans.
“It was really enlightening to me when we did the Kickstarter and I saw a Youtube rant about a guy talking about how great this is: this Kickstarter campaign being so successful, but what it meant to him; it never occurred to me that it would make those backers feel empowered. I knew it would be great for us, and we would get this money. The team felt support coming from the world like the end of It’s a Wonderful Life,” Schafer laughs.
But the unorthodox road to crowdfunding—as opposed to a distribution/marketing deal with a massive publisher—was built on years of awkward partnerships. And though the project started almost two years ago, its game-changing reality hit Schafer hard when he spoke in Argentina only last October.
“I was at the VideoJuegos conference, and we had more adventure game fans there than I’d ever seen in my life. I gave this talk and they just surrounded me, giving me this huge Who-concert type feeling afterwards. By their own admission, none of them had bought [a Double Fine] game: they’d all pirated it, because you couldn’t buy the game there, because it was really hard to find or too expensive. You have that on one hand: people not paying for something when they should. And then you have this Kickstarter, where (players) give money they don’t have to give. We have a special community.”
This revelation comes at the end of a history full of combative relationships with acquiring distributors and bureaucratic frustration. But Schafer has dealt with these obstacles before. For years, the revered developer crafted hyper-stylized descents into fantasy at LucasArts, where he created such games as the biker fantasyFull Throttle and Dia de los Muertos-inspired Grim Fandango, not to mention collaborations on such iconic game-changers as The Secret of Monkey Island and Day of the Tentacle. Each adventure brimmed with candy-colored visuals and a startling amount of humor and unadulterated story. They were as close to a cinematic narrative as the medium had ever produced.
This critical success continued after Schafer started Double Fine in 2000 with the creation of Psychonauts, an engulfing psychedelic platformer about a summer camp for telepaths, and later with Brütal Legend, a heavy metal homage and strategy game featuring the voices of Jack Black and rock legends like Ozzy Osbourne, Rob Halford and Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead. One issue plagued all of these projects, past and future: None of them initially made money, at least by AAA publishing standards.
“After first-person shooters came around, the games industry exploded with console games, but adventure games seemed to stay in that same size. It was a full-grown conclusion that you could not bring an adventure game to a publisher and get it published. I heard stories from a friend at another game company who said ‘I want to do an adventure game,’ and (the publishers asked) ‘well, is it better than Grim Fandango? Because Grim Fandango didn’t sell that much. Unless you’re going to make a game three times better than Grim Fandango, don’t expect it to sell anything.’ I thought, wow, my game helped bring about the death of Adventure Game.”
Brütal Legend, the last big-budget console game Schafer and his team worked on (with an alleged price tag of $24 million), was the final domino that incited the studio to innovate its own indie-centric path. After original publisher Sierra Entertainment merged with Activision, the game was left in a devastating limbo before new publisher Electronic Arts rescued it, agreeing to distribute. Activision sued and Double Fine fought back, ultimately resulting in out-of-court settlements. The process allegedly rushed development of the game, but a glimpse of Double Fine’s sovereign future reared its head even as Legend’s future remained unclear. During this time, Schafer invited his staff to pitch new concepts, accepted four and divided his staff to work on them. Schafer called this 2-week period the Amnesia Fortnight, and it’s largely been the modus operandi of the company for the last five years, with a new round slated for early 2014.
“Every business move that we’ve ever made has been about getting more and more creative control. If I wanted ultimate creative control of a project, I had to run the project. And if I wanted to control more things, like how my employees were treated, and making sure they were treated well and then also controlling the fates of the intellectual properties, I’d have to start my own company. So it’s really the desire to have creative control that’s put me in the position of running a company, because it’s not naturally what I was born to do.”
This managerial experiment resulted in a series of smaller, downloadable gems like Costume Quest, a Halloween nostalgia RPG led by Pixar animator Tasha Harris; Stacking, a steam punk puzzler with Russian Nesting Dolls; and Iron Brigade, a Cold War propaganda parody / tower defense simulation, among many others. Juxtaposed to tired 80s mascots and realpolitik military blockbusters, there’s no question that the studio prizes unhinged creativity over safe bets, even when it translates Sesame Street into a colorful motion-sensing escape called Once Upon A Monster.
“If you bring your entire extended family to a multiplex, your grandma could probably find a movie she wanted to watch, you could find one, your kids could find one: Everyone could probably find a movie they were into seeing,” Schafer says. “And that’s not the way it is going into a games store. It’s not like I want to make games for grandmas right off the bat, but there are comedy movies. There aren’t that many comedy games. There are romantic movies. I don’t know that many romantic games. This is so much more of a human experience that’s addressed by these other art forms that’s not in games for some weird reason. I just want them to be broader.”
Broken Age brings that innate humanism to new levels. An interactive storybook with lush hand-painted graphics by Nathan “Bagel” Stapley, the experience ushers a tidal wave of emotion and awe rarely seen on a monitor. It’s also a harsh wake-up call, revealing just how big the creative gap has spread between mainstream and indie efforts. Schafer points out that artier standouts like Gone Home and Journey have taken huge steps in gaming diversification, and that console czars Microsoft and Sony are finally opening up, notably with the launch of the new Xbox One and PS4 systems.
“When we Kickstarted Broken Age, what you had to do to become a publisher on a console was really onerous and pretty prohibitive. You had to leave a deposit of a bunch of money we didn’t have, and then you had to have shipped retail games, which a lot of people don’t do anymore, especially indies. What has changed in the new generation is that all three of them [Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo] have announced that they’re allowing self publishing, which means we can publish, because one thing I know is that we really like to publish our own games. That brings us back into the realm of possibility.”
Double Fine’s large-scale pretail crowd-funding (only three other games have raised more funding on Kickstarter) has worked so far, with one major public relations blockade. Last July, Schafer decided to to split Broken Age into two halves with an approximate 6-month intermission, with the first half funding the second set for release this summer. Bloggers and commenters cried foul. In an inflammatory July 2013 post titled “Broken promise,” Engadget writer Ben Gilbert accused Schafer of misrepresenting the project. “What we do know is that one of the most prominent examples of a crowd-funding success story just became one of the most prominent examples of why consumers should be wary of backing crowd-funded projects,” Gilbert wrote. “If long-established players like Double Fine pull in more than eight times the capital they originally asked from fans yet still can’t meet a grossly over-inflated budget, that’s what we’d call a warning sign.” Project backers came to Double Fine’s aid, citing the company’s perpetual transparency; Double Fine streamed a documentary throughout the game’s entire development, chronicling every step and business decision. All pledgers still also receive the game in full, while anyone who buys the first half of the game will net the second portion for free.
“Backers care; they’re really your best advocates,” Schafer says. “It’s the people who didn’t back the project who are really bent out of shape about it. They’re skeptical about Kickstarter; they think it’s a scam. So they misrepresented our story, saying that we’re out of money and asking for more, when we’re actually just putting our money that we made off Humble Bundles and Steam back into Broken Age, and then releasing half the game early. That does help us to bridge the gap. But it was our own backers in the comments sections who corrected them.”
Schafer says future projects, including the Zelda-flavored Hack n Slash, the kingdom-admin epic Massive Chalice and synthy shuttle simulator Space Base DF9, will be funded by the previous Kickstarted project that specific team worked on, if it’s successful.
No matter the outcome, Double Fine is dead set on controlling its own stories on its own terms without any interference or financial dependence. The company has reclaimed all rights to properties including Psychonauts, Brütal Legend, Costume Quest and Stacking, the latter two recovered as recently as November.
“We’re going more and more independent and doing fewer and fewer straight publishing deals,” Schafer says. “We’re still open to publishing deals, but we don’t have to take bad publishing deals anymore. We don’t have to give up our IP.”
If this heart was ever broken, it appears to have made a full recovery.
Sean Edgar is Paste’s Comics Editor. He has a dog who’s 1/15th coyote and can be found rambling about the Goonies octopus @seanmedgar on Twitter.