There have been some strange things happening this week, but I want to focus on just one: the Double Fine Kickstarter campaign, and in order to do that, we have to go all of the way back to an interview between Digital Spy's Matthew Reynolds and Double Fine's talismanic creative director, Tim Schafer.
"I mean I get a lot of, on Twitter or whatever, daily questions about Psychonauts 2," said Schafer. "And I would love to do Psychonauts 2, I've actually pitched that to publishers several times and no-one has taken the bait so far."
A Twitter Conversation And The Snowball Effect
The discussion surrounding the very possibility of Schafer revisiting old material was picked up by a number of media sites, ourselves included, and credit should certainly go to Reynolds for the little bit of excitable hubbub that was generated. Of course, it would never happen, we told ourselves; damn publishers! But then which publisher would be mad enough to go for a sequel to an admittedly astoundingly original game like Psychonauts that tanked on release? Schafer has always been something of a creative genius, but commercially-speaking he has been something of a risky venture for the last fifteen years. It wasn't wholly responsible, but the failure of Psychonauts played a big part in Majesco's retreat from big-budget games.
The solution, of course, made after Brutal Legend more or less disappeared off of the face of the earth, was to split the studio into smaller internal teams, working on smaller titles with smaller budgets and more creative freedom.
And then Notch stepped in.
Whether a throwaway comment, to which Rock, Paper, Shotgun immediately asked the most pertinent question of the moment "Do we report this? Should we report this?". It was too late, and as the indie darling of the moment floated the idea, dozens of sites around the internet, all bearing at least one or two staff who'd found solace in the LucasArts classics of the Nineties and followed Schafer's career with eager eyes, allowed themselves a little bit of speculative excitement.
Kickstarting A Game
Psychonauts 2 isn't mentioned anywhere in the brief for the Kickstarter campaign, which purports to be geared towards "a classic point-and-click adventure", but the level of interest created in just a few short days and the importance of the snowball effect shows just how much power both consumers and developers lose when it comes to traditional publishing models. Notch approached Tim as a fan. The fact that the campaign surpassed its $400,000 target in under eight hours, the fact that the total reach over $1 million in the space of a day, shows that he's not the only fan willing to reach into his pocket.
Not that Kickstarter campaigns for games are anything new. Titles like Stardrive and No Time To Explain have found their feet through crowd funding, and it's not uncommon to see campaigns looking for anywhere between $2,000 and $30,000 prove successful. But this is the first time that we've seen a gaming development project - a completely unseen project, a detail-less project (more on that in a minute) - knock seven figures out of the park in one day.
There are so many questions that arise from this. What could this mean for the retail industry? What could this mean for publishers? Should the executives of the large industry corporations be quivering in there boots? What does this mean for consumers?
Reports Of My Death Are An Exaggeration
But the first question that should probably be asked in this particular instance is why and how this happened at all. I don't know about you but I don't go to the supermarket, hand over an amount of cash in return for some indeterminate food (unless Pot Noodles count). I don't blindly give money to directors who've blithely informed me they want to make an action film. I haven't given money to a friend with a pleasant singing voice so he can buy a guitar and then receive his first album for free.
There's a slightly flippancy to the above, but the message rings true. This project, unlike many of the indie projects out there, is virtually blind. The fact of the matter is that Tim Schafer and Double Fine stopped making point-and-click adventure games when they became unfashionable. When Schafer says "Publishers tell us that adventure games are dead. Our fans tell us they aren’t." There's a reason for that last bit, and it's because the likes of Telltale, Wadjet Eye, Amanita, Capcom and many more have kept them alive.
And that's just point and click. Look at the works of Quantic Dream and Jane Jensen. What about Ubisoft's Beyond Good And Evil? Adventure titles may not be as prevalent or as popular as they used to be, but dead? I think not.
Community And The Cult Of Personality
Of course, the difference is Schafer himself. Telltale's re-release of the Monkey Island titles, and their excellent subsequent episodes which captured perfectly the spirit of the originals, proved that there's still room for creative visionaries of his calibre and sort, even if the casual COD market remain unaffected. There are still tens of thousands of fans around the world who pray one day for a re-release of the likes of Grim Fandango, Full Throttle and Day of the Tentacle. Fans who would love to see Schafer and his team make another point-and-click adventure game. I should know, I'm one of them.
Considering that Double Fine were asking for money directly from the community, I went and asked a few people what they thought of the idea and why, if indeed they had thought about it, they did or did not invest, particularly in light of the lack of details surrounding the project itself. I've popped some of the answers below:
"I think the only two phrases you really need are 'Tim Schafer' and 'adventure game'. - Pontius
"I just remember falling in love with the Monkey Island and Grim Fandango and then wondered why they stopped. I've got to admit, I haven't given money yet, I want to see a few more details first, but I might do down the line." - Anon
"Have you heard of the phrase 'I'd pay good money to see that!'? Well this is exactly what that phrase was invented for!" - Mr. M Warren
"Great idea, but I'm not putting money down until I know what it is I'm actually putting money down for." - Turner
"I just want to see what happens really. It's all a bit exciting, felt like it was something I should be a part of. We might look back on this moment in years to come and look on it as a turning point." - Jess
We might indeed and that, quite literally for my money, is the point. There could be an ethical dilemma with journalists reviewing games that they've publicly backed with their own pockets, but is that so very different from buying a game that you then review?
Cutting Out The Middle Man
The answer will probably depend just how involved critics become in the community aspects, and impartiality is important, particularly when it comes to the community feedback and involvement. But all that's really changed is the removal of the middleman. Developers and consumers will have a direct link, bound through commerce and creative interest, with open communication. As a few others I spoke to have suggested, it was this that proved the draw for them - no longer simply waiting patiently with noses to the release window, but now a part of the process itself.
"Yesterday, I pledged $15 to Double Fine's kickstarter fund for their new adventure game. Why? Well, I wanted to get involved in a project that should provide an insight into the world of game development, and maybe even the inner workings of Tim Shafer's mind," said The Average Gamer's Nick Silversides.
"Earlier on this year I also gave money to fund Slightly Mad Studio's C.A.R.S project. However, unlike Double Fine's kickstarter fund, which to me is a pre-order with access to the development videos, C.A.R.S allows me to help shape the development of the game and get a share of the profits upon release. Both these projects fuel my interest in game development as watching an initial idea or sketch being shaped and transformed into a playable game is, for me, as interesting as playing the game itself."
As myself, Jon and Carl discuss in the inaugural podcast, which will be aired this weekend, although there are more ways than ever to put your game in front of an audience, the advent of DRM and online passes, punitive measures and removal of utilities (thanks, firmware 3.21) for the sake of a tiny minority, has meant that the relationship between gamers and cultural generators has deteriorated. Perhaps most excitingly, this is a chance to address that wrong.
"I chose to support the Double Fine games Kickstarter not because I'm a particular fan of Tim Schafer, or even adventure games in general (shameful, I know) but instead because of what the success of this project could mean on a wider level," said Phasemonkey.co.uk's Andrew Rackstraw. "The games industry has in many ways become too big for itself, with projects being greenlit solely on how many points they tick off on a marketing checklist; diversity has been killed in the name of copycat profitability.
"Hearing that Double Fine were unable to get funding for an adventure game from any of the major publishers was shameful if unsurprising, and so this method of putting the power back directly into consumers' hands and allowing us to send a message to the "major players" that some people do want to play something other than by-the-numbers FPS #4729 was something I absolutely had to get behind. That so many other people seem to feel the same way is absolutely wonderful."
As consumers, voting with our wallets is all we can do, but whereas in some respects this has led to digital persecution, there's a chance here for reward. In funding Double Fine's efforts, gamers are given the opportunity to go behind the scenes with each step, to have an active role (how active remains to be seen) in the shaping of this new title, and to get a game out of it at the end. The type of game that, as Mike notes in the quotes above, a number of us have been wishing upon for some time. Supply and demand, really.
This won't have the publishers, retailers and distributors quivering in their boots yet. But it does underline that times are changing, that we can (and need) to look beyond traditional models - and that will include both trade and criticism. It's early days, certainly and proclamations such as Rez developer Phil Fish's - "Did you hear? the death-rattle of a million middle men." - may be premature, but there's certainly an opportunity here to show that crowd funding can work on a large scale. If it does, it puts a little bit of pressure on publishers to perhaps make their terms and conditions better, particularly if developers making up their own is a viable and profitable alternative.
Addendum: I realise that I may not have actually outlined my own, personal perspective. I did indeed back the project and chipped in with $15 just as the total hit the £380,000 mark. As someone who has eagerly awaited the possibility of a return for Schafer to classic adventure gaming it would have been hypocritical of me when presented with a situation I could influence, in however small a way, not to get involved...
...because I would pay good money to see that. And now I have.