Is Fan-Funding Letting the Gaming Industry Off the Hook?

Is Fan-Funding Letting the Gaming Industry Off the Hook?
Tim Schafer is a bespoke auteur in a by-committee industry, a Joss Whedon of gaming whose fervent fan base will follow wherever his quirky, self-possessed studio Double Fine leads. Thing is, there aren't that many of us. Or at least not enough for Double Fine to operate under gaming's traditional business model, in which creativity-driven developers are bankrolled by profit-seeking publishers.

Schafer began his career in the '90s at LucasArts, which ruled the then-dominant point-and-click adventure genre with classics like Monkey Island. After some supporting roles, Schafer established his rep by helming the 1998 cult classic Grim Fandango. But when the genre plummeted in popularity, he departed to found Double Fine, launching with the surrealist PS2 platformer Psychonauts in 2005, my all-time favourite videogame. His next major effort was the PS3/Xbox360 game Brütal Legend, a 2009 fantasy epic inspired by heavy metal album covers and featuring voice work from the likes of Lemmy and Ozzy as well as Jack Black as the lead roadie character.

Unfortunately, the game wound up a victim of Kafkaesque corporate mergers and lawsuits with its publisher before finally being picked by Electronic Arts, which then cancelled the in-progress sequel. In a conference keynote in 2010, Schafer darkly joked, "Apparently when they said it's a done deal they meant there's no deal and we're done." Having already invested considerable time and money into part two, Double Fine narrowly avoided bankruptcy with a series of small-scale console games, including the matryoshka doll-themed Stacking and motion-sensing Sesame Street game Once Upon A Monster.

Needless to say, Schafer no longer trusted his fate to fickle publishers, and so when Kickstarter came about, he put up a funding request of $400,000 for a revivalist computer game tentatively titled Double Fine Adventure. It passed that amount in nine hours. By the time the campaign closed, they'd collected $3.3 million from over 87,000 backers.

"Coming back to the [adventure] genre has been like finding an old jacket in a box in your garage that you haven't worn in 20 years but once you shake the dust off and put it on you realize it's an amazing jacket and it still fits, and once you patch the holes in the pockets it could easily take a spot in your main jacket rotation," he wrote to fans. "Oh, and also, in one of the pockets was three-and-a-half million dollars."

But development is expensive, especially when you're ambitious, and last summer Double Fine announced that the game, now called Broken Age, had broken the bank. Or as Schafer put it in an apologetic letter to backers, "I designed too much game." With Kickstarter funds depleted and hooking up with a publisher a betrayal of the crowdsourced experiment, they decided to release the first half this past January and use the sales revenue to finish the game, the rest of which would be a free download for those who bought the unfinished game.

It was a work-around — and a successful one, which secured the required revenue — that left many understandably frustrated with not having the complete work, especially given the game's jaw-dropping cliffhanger.

But what has been released is fantastic, featuring stunning, hand-painted storybook-style art design with unique and amusing twists on gaming's traditional sci-fi and fantasy settings and great voice work by the likes of Elijah Wood, Will Wheaton and Jack Black.

Broken Age tells two parallel tales of a boy, Shay, trapped in an infantilizing spaceship environment and a girl, Vella, set-up to be cheerfully sacrificed to a monster in a medieval world. As the boy struggles to escape the safe haven he's stuck in and the girl makes plans to save her village by killing the monster rather than becoming its meal, it becomes clear that their struggle to take control of their own destiny mirrors Double Fine's efforts to break free of the publishing system and release this game on their own terms.

But it's not just their terms anymore. In the wake of their successful Kickstarter, millions more dollars have been crowdsourced for other games, including another Double Fine title Massive Chalice, Obsidian's Pillars of Eternity, which collected $4 million for its D&D inspired game, and inXile's RPG Torment: Tides of Numenera, which raised even more.

Clearly games made by cult creators or targeting underserved niches can find funding without the meddling, middleman publisher. It's like a band selling direct to its fans, except that making videogames costs much more than making albums. Using crowdsourcing to bypass the admittedly broken publisher model lets publishers get away with not backing innovative, experimental or niche projects, unintentionally entrenching their risk-averse nature rather than encouraging them to fund more interesting games.

To get back to the Joss Whedon analogy, after Buffy, Angel and Firefly were all cancelled, he put his own money into the amazing but relatively little-seen Dr. Horrible. Eventually, though, he went back to the traditional business model and the result was a little movie called The Avengers. That's what can happen when everyone works together. Or think of how many people Nirvana was able to reach with their major label debut Nevermind compared to their Sub Pop release Bleach — and how that success allowed the band to release In Utero, too.

It's great that fans were able to help Schafer make Broken Age without compromise, even if he's struggled with the financials and isn't able to release the game on consoles, where most gamers still play. But ultimately, publishers should be investing more, not less, money in indie developers. Really, if any industry should understand the necessity — and benefits — of risk-taking, it's the gaming industry.