As you might recall, last year was kind of the Year of Kickstarter. Everywhere you looked, it seemed like another project was breaking funding records and more and more people were talking about the entire endeavor in a much more positive light. At the time, a lot of the weight could be placed on the shoulders of Tim Schafer and his new game at Double Fine Broken Age. Despite not even knowing the name yet (it was simply then called Double Fine Adventure), it shattered funding at over $3.3 million—834 percent of its original $400,000—and showed that studios and people that are known for great games can finally break free from the tyranny of publisher money.
Now, though, the project sits unfinished on a fount of existential quandaries. It has since been pushed out of the top funded spot by newer and more financially well-off projects like Project Eternity from Obsidian Entertainment and the freshly released Ouya console, so what value does it now bear for the Kickstarter hopeful? Two months after Adventure was funded, the Pebble watch absolutely destroyed the record, setting the bar way up high at over $10 million. In mere days within the waning moments of the campaign, Brian Fargo of inXile Entertainment both started and funded his $900,000 Wasteland 2 Kickstarter.
The game is also unabashedly unfinished, so what do we in the industry do with it? At what point does it become a “game” that you cover and not an exercise in fanatical crowdfunding and faith? We are long overdue on the original October 2012 delivery date, but we’re also beyond the original asking price and so unbelievably far past Broken Age being anything close to being a normal game. It, for the most part, is more of a symbol than a game, a shining light for all indies to flock to and follow. That doesn’t change the fact, however, that was soon twice delayed, once to Spring 2013 and then to September 2013.
Well, make that thrice now. Broken Age, it appears, has broken the piggy bank and needs both more money and more time. In Schafer’s words, “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.” It seems that with all the extra cash being thrown his way, Schafer let his mind run wild, dreaming up an elaborate project well beyond the scope of a $3.3 million Kickstarter, which, for scale, is roughly what it cost to make Costume Quest and Stacking and his LucasArts game Grim Fandango. Those are all relatively small games, so it’s easy to see how he let the scope get out of hand.
That doesn’t, however, excuse it, and Schafer knows it. So rather than go back to Kickstarter for more money (especially after Double Fine just wrapped up another campaign for Brad Muir’s Massive Chalice), Broken Age will go the Akaneiro: Demon Hunter route and try to earn more money from Steam’s Early Access program. This step, however, has quite a few folds to it.
At its current state, Broken Age won’t be finished until sometime in 2015, so to finish with the amount of money they have left (this is definitely more an issue of money than it is time at this point), they’d have to remove 75 percent of the game. Yes, that’s right. Seventy-god-damn-five percent. To put it lightly, that is drastic over-scope.
With Early Access, though, Schafer has decided to break the game up into two halves with Act 1 in its original design landing in the Finished Pile somewhere around July of next year. But by making “modest cuts,” they could wrap up this first half by January to get enough Steam money to see this all the way through.
He gets it, though. Schafer understands what it means to owe something to the public, his backers, and to the people working on the game. The industry gets to see what a developer removed from the publisher funding loop can do, backers will still get their game and their prototypes, and his developers and artists will get to ship a game they had a hand in. Here is what he had to say in his Kickstarter update:
Asking a publisher for the money was out of the question because it would violate the spirit of the Kickstarter, and also, publishers. Going back to Kickstarter for it seemed wrong. Clearly, any overages were going to have to be paid by Double Fine, with our own money from the sales of our other games. That actually makes a lot of sense and we feel good about it. We have been making more money since we began self-publishing our games, but unfortunately it still would not be enough.
Then we had a strange idea. What if we made some modest cuts in order to finish the first half of the game by January instead of July, and then released that finished, polished half of the game on Steam Early Access? Backers would still have the option of not looking at it, of course, but those who were sick of waiting wouldn’t have to wait any more. They could play the first half of the game in January!
No publishers and no going back to Kickstarter. This, outside of going into massive amounts of debt, personal or otherwise, seems like one of the few viable solutions, if not the only viable solution. Shipping the rooms they have now and selling an incomplete game wouldn’t work, nor would chopping out either the Boy or the Girl from the story. Rebooting the art for a simpler, faster, and cheaper look was also beyond reproach. All of these and many more ideas flitted through Schafer and Double Fine’s minds and all were summarily shut down.
The question to ask at this point is who is to blame. The answer won’t be clear until much later down the road, but a lot hinges on the success of Broken Age. Or rather, not even the success but the completion of Broken Age. Double Fine got by on funding this project almost entirely on name and faith alone. That kind of trust takes years and years to build up. That’s how they originally broke the funding record, that’s how they funded a second Kickstarter before they finished the first one, and that’s how people still believe Broken Age will get finished.
Kickstarter is still looking for its first massive failure. As with all new things, we must know what the extremes can be. We’ve had failings already, sure, but those were largely inconsequential. Big names attached to projects that didn’t get funded and smaller campaigns that had to give refunds to poor planning and budgeting. But the first big success and first big failure are still on the horizon.
And I don’t mean a failure like the Ouya is kind of a middle-of-the-road product and I don’t mean success in that FTL: Faster Than Light finished on time and within its budget to a rousing critical and commercial reception. We need a huge record breaker on par with Project Eternity exploding overnight into a pile of crowdfunding debris to where reputations and desires are irrevocably shattered. We need something like Star Citizen fulfilling every single outlandish promise and becoming Game of Ever material. Both fortunately and unfortunately, Broken Age could pave the way down either road.
Then there’s Schafer himself. While many hands are in the pie at this point, he is the project lead, so much of this falls on his head. How do you over-scope a project by 75 percent? I come from a development background and I know scope creep happens, but to nearly double the intended scale of a project is rather ridiculous.
But given his track record, Schafer knows both what he’s doing and how to do it. There’s yet to be a game with his name on it that doesn’t scream at almost every game-loving sensibility I have within me. But he will now at this point have gone through two different channels to procure that cash money, both of which are powered by fans but under disparate philosophies. Kickstarter gets you money with nothing more than a hope and a wish (and a well-produced video). Early Access lets you sell an unfinished product. Both of those used to be dirty practices when it came to interacting with consumers, but now it’s the new, disruptive thing to do.
This is all new for a lot of people. Both sides of the developer-consumer equation (with a bit of publisher rouge thrown in there) have no idea how this is supposed to work; they just know how they’d like it to work. But maybe this is the way. This could be the inevitable road that this entire crowdfunding exercise leads. The question, of course, is if it goes somewhere anybody wants to be. I guess Schafer will find out. In the end, we’ll all find out.