The Double Fine Adventure ignited public interest in Kickstarter and adventure gaming back in 2012. After asking for a modest budget of $400,000 to develop a new point & click title, Tim Schafer and co. quickly received over three million Dollars, a massive war chest capable of funding even the most ambitious adventure game. As the project revealed itself as Broken Age and more details became apparent, our excitement continually swelled, despite the promised October 2012 release date merrily shooting past us.
A year on, however, and the project has hit an incredibly controversial stumbling block. Schafer revealed that Broken Age has somehow become too ambitious to complete even with their enormous budget, meaning that the project will have to be cut into two halves - the first of which will be released in January next year in order to raise some extra dosh.
How could this happen? Where did the money go? Does it actually matter? Over the next few hundred words, we're going to take a look at how runaway success can be your own worst enemy.
Broken Age's delay comes down to one of the more worrying Kickstarter phenomena to have manifested over the last few years: Feature Bloat. This term was coined by Zeboyd Games' Robert Boyd earlier this year, who argues that the proliferation of stretch goals and extra gameplay features is having a negative effect on the most successful crowd funded games. It's tempting for developers to spend any extra money above their original goal (remember, we're talking an extra THREE MILLION DOLLARS here) on new features, content, visual flair and frippery; as opposed to delivering on the initial design document and keeping the bonus war chest for ports, DLC and pre-production for their next game.
There's nothing wrong with stretch goals and extra features in theory. After all, more money should lead to better polished and feature-rich games. But in this case, Double Fine simply went off the rails, and perhaps bloated their design with far too many features. “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," Tim Schafer readily admitted, before revealing that Double Fine had managed to all but fritter away three million Dollars on a project that was originally budgeted at less than a sixth of that figure.
Actually that's not entirely fair, because Broken Age was never really on the rails. Double Fine didn't share a design document or brief with us, instead just promising to make an adventure game and keep backers up to date with the development cycle. In fact, they said this:
"Over a six-to-eight month period, a small team under Tim Schafer's supervision will develop Double Fine's next game, a classic point-and-click adventure. Where it goes from there will unfold in real time for all the backers to see."
Okay then. As opposed to being motivated by a tight budget and using it to advantage, Double Fine's vision inflated to monstrous and unrealistic proportions in the false safety of having all the money they could ever need. Which is now running out. For many backers, this extravagance will be more than a little vexing, since Double Fine would have presumably already have released their game had they just scraped past $400K. Especially since they didn't get to have a say in the decision, and backed it because they wanted "a classic point-and-click adventure" in "six to eight" months.
Boyd is right. Kickstarter, when you drill right down to it, is effectively charity. Developers ask for good faith donations, not investment, in order to try and deliver on a promise. The fact that donations sometimes come with bonuses is neither here nor there, because even a few dollars (it's a $1 minimum, remember) can be enough to tip the balance for a starving theatre troupe or amateur graphic novel artist. If you get more than you need, surely it's better to make good on your pitch before looking to the future rather than squirting your extra cash up the wall... and asking for more?
By the same token, though, you've got to look at the other side of the coin. Kickstarter asks you to donate on the strength of a pitch and promise, not a firm pre-order. Projects slip all the time, for games as well as numerous other projects (see also: the Pebble Watch), many of which fail to match their original pitches or don't even release at all. There's never any concrete guarantee that Kickstarted product or even any videogame will meet its deadlines, we knew this going in, so any disappointment has to be tempered with a dose of real-world common sense. Games are expensive. Games take time to make. This cannot be denied, and to do so is dangerously naive.
But that's arguably still no excuse for a $400,000 game expanding into a $3.5 million-devouring monster like a point & click equivalent of the Stay-Puft Man. Schafer must have had a plan, and by the looks of the community reaction, he might have been better off sticking to it. Even if Broken Age turns out to be utterly sensational - there's no reason to suspect that it won't be - we're still only getting half a game fifteen months after it was originally slated, and seeing a studio breaking the bank for a game that should have been better managed to fit the brief.
Personally, I didn't back the Double Fine Adventure because of one of the key points alleged by the campaign: that publishers won't touch adventure games. This simply isn't true (Reverb and Focus Home Interactive do, to name but two, and just look at all those Telltale IPs on home console marketplaces), but more to the point, we've been playing any number of fantastic point & click adventure titles courtesy of great indie developers on shoestring budgets. With only tiny teams and miniscule war chests behind them, games like Time Gentlemen Please!, Gemini Rue and Girl With A Heart Of made their money go a long way with superb writing, clever mechanics and attractive colourful visuals that didn't need to break the bank. Any number of one-man indie outfits, regardless of genre, have accomplished great things with less than 1-10% of Broken Age's budget. The sheer hypocrisy of it all makes me want to, erm, play some of Zeboyd Games' cracking RPGs that were developed on caffeine and peanuts.
In this case, however, I think that Schafer was right about publishers, but for totally the wrong reasons. Even the most liberal and forward-thinking publisher wouldn't agree to spend millions of pounds on such an unnecessarily extravagant single adventure game, one that couldn't even make its mighty budget stretch far enough to releasing the whole thing in one go and let unbridled ambition get in the way of managing an obscene amount of money. Hell, they shouldn't. Not when they could spend the same amount on multiple projects that would make deadlines... and cash.
Despite this polemic, I'm not actually angry or even particularly peeved about this situation. On a basic level, I didn't back the Kickstarter campaign, so it's probably none of my business. But more importantly, the Double Fine Adventure single-handedly raised awareness of Kickstarter as a source of funding for independent developers, directly leading to the likes of FTL, Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams, the OUYA and more. Countless more projects are in the pipeline, many from tiny outfits who desperately need the support. Be in no doubt: Broken Age made this happen, and I'm eternally grateful.
None of which will matter much to the army of loyal backers who'll only be getting half a game in six months' time. I suspect that the end will ultimately justify the means, but Broken Age had better be doubly fine as a result.
Are you paying attention, Project Eternity?
What do you make of the Broken Age delay? If you're a backer, have an opinion to share or want to tear my arguments a new A-hole (the "A" stands for "Arguments," obviously), drop us a line in the comments!