The Secret to Double Fine's $1 Million Success

Did the creators of Psychonauts and Brutal Legend just Kickstart a new way to make games?

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Wednesday night, Double Fine Productions launched a Kickstarter project to raise $400,000 for an old-school adventure game. Within 24 hours, the project had more than 28,000 backers contributing a total of more than $1 million. It set Kickstarter records for the largest number of backers and the most money raised, and sparked speculation about whether this could change the way games are made in the future.

There are certainly reasons to think the answer is "no," that this is an aberration, an almost unique set of conditions that won't be replicated often, if ever.

First of all, Double Fine Productions is a beloved developer with decades of good will built up by developers like Tim Schafer and Ron Gilbert, a devoted (and apparently generous) fan base, the freedom to pursue projects of their own choosing, and a flexible structure that will allow them to take on this extra game.

To see what happens without all those components, take a look at Robomodo's failed Kickstarter project for a Kinect-exclusive game called Bodoink. In November, the Tony Hawk: Ride developer attempted to raise a relatively paltry $35,000 to help the studio finish up the game. It attracted 75 backers, and raised just $5,547.

The type of game is also key to Double Fine's success. A budget of $1 million (or however much the Kickstarter page winds up raising) is enough money for a throwback point-and-click graphic adventure, but it won't cover the sort of games that have earned Blizzard and Valve their dedicated fans. The project size is also limited by the time it takes to make a game. Double Fine may be able to crank out a graphic adventure in eight months, but most games are likely to have significantly longer development cycles, and funders are going to be less likely to pony up their money if they have to wait years to see the finished product.

To sum it up in the most appalling terms possible, the Double Fine feel-good story was made possible because of a tremendous amount of value in the Double Fine brand. And there are very few companies out there with that level of adoration who would ever go to their fans with hat in hand. (Picture Blizzard starting a Kickstarter page for Warcraft IV, if you will.) I'm not sure how many other entities are in that sweet spot of being successful enough to attract attention and dollars, but not so successful that people resent them for asking.

So clearly this isn't going to change the way blockbusters are made, but how about indie development? There's more reason to think that games with smaller budgets and development teams would be able to turn to Kickstarter to get funding. But the thing is, they already do. The two guys behind No Time To Explain went looking for $7,000 to finish the game and found $26,000 in support on Kickstarter. Robert Boyd asked backers for $3,000 to make Cthulu Saves the World, and they came through with nearly $7,000. The only thing the Double Fine project will do is raise awareness of Kickstarter as an avenue to get funding for game development.

But here's where I hope the longer-term impact of this will be felt. By raising $1 million based essentially on the value of its brand alone, Double Fine could provide talented mainstream developers with an avenue to indie game making. As the big-budget gaming industry becomes depressingly risk-averse and sequel-driven, it's bound to lose the interest of talented creators who have higher aspirations than beating sales of last year's installment by 15 percent. And while those creators may not be able to carry the brands and series they worked on into the independent realm, Kickstarter gives them a chance to leverage their previous work in a way that they don't seem to be able to do as easily now.

I want this to lead to more stories like that of Bastion developer Supergiant Games, a group of EA employees who decided they wanted to make their own games instead of more Command & Conquer titles. I want more stories like that of Chris Hecker, who worked at EA and Maxis but is now working on his own title, Spy Party. I want an example of a non-EA developer who went indie so it doesn't seem like I'm picking on them (but none are springing to mind, unfortunately). I want to see Kickstarter projects from key people involved in Diablo III, Battlefield 3, Mass Effect 3, Resistance 3, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, Gears of War 3, and every other reliable hit franchise out there.

I want to know what happens when gamers take the most talented creative minds in this field and empower them to do what they want, assuming that isn't cranking out sequels year after year. And taking it a step further than that, I want developers and publishers to live in constant fear that if they aren't putting their best and brightest to work on challenging, novel, and possibly even risky projects, they're going to risk losing them to Kickstarter-fueled independence.

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Discussion

78 comments
Nzilla
Nzilla

@NeoJ4K3 Brutal legends was pretty awesome. Sort of a hybrid of RTS, action, and a bit of rhythm gaming. You definitely get a lot more out of it if you are into rock. Several of the characters are voiced by famous rockers (my personal favorite was Ozzy). The whole game is catered to heavy metal fans. If you like that kind of music, go find it and be happy. If you aren't you might want to try something more main stream, because really if you don't like rock you aren't going to enjoy that game since it is FILLED with rock and rock references and general badassness.

Mega_Loser
Mega_Loser

@NeoJ4K3 hi there, unfortunately, as i recently read, it takes more funding that notch can assist with to make psychonauts 2. it's all a blur, did i hear schaffer say it in his GS featured video, or was it a notch twitter message.

Xenrathe
Xenrathe

@bbagnall There is no viable, mass-produceable alternative to oil and that's a fact. You really believe that when oil demand begins to greatly outstrip production that a developer is going to pay a greatly increased cost to create a plastic case from soy beans when digital distribution (excepting its infrastructure) consumes zero physical resources? I hardly think peak oil is the doom n gloom scenario some make it out to be. Nuclear power is viable and westerners will just have to get used to having a distance-limited electric car. BUT in this case - the completely unnecessary physical packaging of video games - the digital-distribution alternative is better in every way and will be adopted by studios/publishers (y'know, lawl, BECAUSE IT ALREADY IS and there's not even a crisis). So I have to respond: it really irks me when people are contrarian for no reason.

TJ_Hooker15
TJ_Hooker15

I'd be willing to break the bank for sequel to Planescape: Torment. It wouldn't be a direct sequel, but a "spiritual successor" (or whatever you want to call it) would be great. Or like Warshock said, another Baldur's Gate-esque game from Bioware. Maybe fire up the Infinty Engine one more time...

bbagnall
bbagnall

@Xenrathe You can make plastic out of soy beans and other substances. In the future if oil runs out, we'll just use something else. It really irks me when Malthusians say their misinformed predictions as though it was fact.

shanethewolf
shanethewolf

To be honest I'd be happy with a remake of Grim Fandango. That was such an awesome game, yet so dated now.

jimbo6524
jimbo6524

To quote futurama; Kaboom? KABOOMBOOM!

Skargamer
Skargamer

@KaBo0m Why are you on gamespot?

Gurzociurlo
Gurzociurlo

I came here for Manny Calavera... They should re-release Grim Fandango!

ALLoY1717
ALLoY1717

@KaBo0m How dare you buy a computer for which to view this website. Think of all the meals for starving people you could have bought with that money. How dare you buy a chair for which to sit on while using your computer to view this site. How dare you have an internet subscription to view this site while on your pc sat on your chair. How dare you view this site on your PC on the internet while sat on your chair tucked into your desk.

inaka_rob
inaka_rob

I would like to tell a little story. There was this band once. Some might even say SUPER GROUP. They called them selves Mettalica. They thought the entire music industry would crumble and musicians like themselves would be broke and homeless because of the internet, mp3's and Napster! well it never happened! and better yet you have In Rainbows and Niggy Tardust and Trent Reznor who have released albums for what ever you want to pay, or a few dollars, or for FREE!!! The music industry is better for what people like Trent and Radiohead have done! The video game world is DIRE need of somethings like this. SOMETHING for others who do not want to SLAVE for activision making Tony Hawk 11 or Madden 32 or COD 9. Gamers need this because I dont know about you, but as a gamer I feel like companies don't give a $$$$ about me anymore. They only care about little kids and causal gamers and sheeples who play nothing but COD (which USED to be oh so amazing). IMO Activision is the Mettalica of the video game industry. selling zillions of records, but always want 1 more dollars, dont care about the individual fan because they know 10 more will line up when one turns their back. Double Fine is our Radio Head our Trent Reznor. people in it because they love it. They dont fight change they embrace it!

Banefire76
Banefire76

@KaBo0m Im impressed that you have time in your busy humanitarian/ volunteer schedule to make disparaging comments here. I certainly hope you complain about the Federal reserve, corrupt congress and pollution of our planet as well, not to forget the corruption and inhumane rulership in the country you propose the money would be better spent feeding starving kids. If donating 2 million dollars was going to stop hunger in africa for good by changing the way the country is run than i assure you people would contribute immediately, but the way the country works there makes such efforts a bandaid approach at the best since not all of that money would be used for its intended purpose but would rather go to the country's richest people. Rather this project sees gamers supporting something that they know is going to have an actual positive outcome. You really need to develop a "big picture" view on the world before you go around trying to discourage others from making a difference. All you are doing is making yourself sound foolish and narrow minded. I feel sorry for your lack of understanding

aj_marquez
aj_marquez

"And taking it a step further than that, I want developers and publishers to live in constant fear that if they aren't putting their best and brightest to work on challenging, novel, and possibly even risky projects, they're going to risk losing them to Kickstarter-fueled independence." Many of us want to see this.

rann89
rann89

To sum it up in the most appalling terms possible, the Double Fine feel-good story was made possible because with the people they have, they're practically a legitimate gaming company already anyway. There's nothing "indie" about it.

jaik
jaik

Wow, im amazed that people are loving DF for Psychonauts and Brutal Legend which is fine because those are good games but im worried that they didnt played previous games. You should play Grim Fandango which is my all time favourite game. Not to mention experience Monkey Island series back in the 90's. I miss adventure games a lot. Come on Sierra lets do another old school adventure game too.

KaBo0m
KaBo0m

Wow it's almost up to 2 million. Think of all the starving kids in africa could have been fed with that money. Instead enjoy your meaningless point and click adventure game(that became outdated over 10 years ago) The greed of humans is simply astounding. Every single one of you should be ashamed.

eyerok
eyerok

why, it seems like you have something against all the 3's :(

Gamer_4_Fun
Gamer_4_Fun

I don't care! Just give me and my fellow metal heads: Brutal legend 2!

Warshock
Warshock

You know Bethesda and Bioware, I'm pretty sure there are tons of fans that would LOVE to pay for an "old school" RPG. Or hell, Bethesda, see how much it would cost to remake Daggerfall or Morrowind with the Creation Engine. (Keep the text and no voice acting. It's ok, we can read!) Bioware, care to make another "old school" Baldur's Gate huh?!? JUST saying...

selbie
selbie

That photo makes me feel old :( I almost didn't recognise Brad Muir.

ALLoY1717
ALLoY1717

@StarWatchers You too, do a little research before making stupid comments. $15 and you get the game on Steam at no extra cost upon release. Also read the article, it is all about how this has only really worked because of a very specific set of circumstances, not every studio could just up and do this.

ALLoY1717
ALLoY1717

@KaBo0m $15 nets you the game on Steam upon release. You could then think of it as a pre-order. With that in mind, taking your comment to the extreme. You are saying I cannot have nice things because there are other people worse off than me.

Lhomity
Lhomity

My only concern with this method, particularly in regards to Double Fine, is actual sales, and the fact that this is not a sustainable business model. Its a nice gimmick, and decent PR, but its never going to guarantee long-term revenue sufficient for actual employees with families who need to eat. I respect Schafer and Double Fine, and I loved Brutal Legend, but their games do not sell too well, and they never have. So how is this game going to sell at all when $15 donators are getting it for free? Sure, the funding to get the project off the ground is there, but there's too little potential for actual sales that generate profit. Much of the potential audience are getting free copies. So then what? Double Fine are back on Kickstarter next year looking to fund another point-and-click game? inb4 trolls say i'm just trolling. Thumbs down all you like. You know its the truth.

gameguy182
gameguy182

I just gave them $15. I suggest more do the same, because i think we all know this is a great new way to make games that fans want.

asmoddeuss
asmoddeuss

@KaBo0m I have two monthly subsctiption to help unicef and people with cancer. If people help Double Fine it doesn't mean we are not helping others causes. Also I donated to developers for plugins etc. Give me a break. Instead of complaining here, go and do something good.

Fandango_Letho
Fandango_Letho

@KaBo0m Someone peed in your cereals this morning? Unlike you, I think it shows how great people can be.

KaBo0m
KaBo0m

This is truly pathetic and shows just how sad humanity is. Instead of donating your money to a GOOD cause people instead donate it to a company to make a video game. Horrible.

Wedran1950
Wedran1950

May i say just one thing?....YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEESH! GUESS WHOS BACK FROM THE DEAD?!

coop36
coop36

Never got to play Psychonauts (yet!). Loved Brutal Legend and especially Costume Quest though. Double Fine is a company worthy of donating to. They strive for fun, unique, and creative products. Im glad people are supporting them.

Dante2710
Dante2710

@StarWatchers Every person who gave $15 gets the game for free (steam key). Do some research next time prior posting.

deathtrooper31
deathtrooper31

Better not let EA see this! They'll buy you out and destroy anything that you have accomplished. -_-

StarWatchers
StarWatchers

so cover the cost of some game with a kickstarter from the community and get them to pay full price for it.. yep I can see activision getting right on this one.

Fiscaldeal
Fiscaldeal

@redder1111 $1.5 million is a remarkable success considering Double Fine set out thinking it would maybe get enough donations to make a $400,000 niche game + documentary. In the grand scheme of game making; no it isn't much, but this fundraiser as a whole is certainly enough to make some sort of statement in this money-hungry publisher-driven industry.

heroesfan261
heroesfan261

double fine hasn't been able to make much because of funding. They've been producing some kiddie kinect games which really surprised me at last e3. Hopefully now they can get back to making good games like psychonauts or stacking.

heroesfan261
heroesfan261

it's already up to 1,570,466 with an entire month left to go.

redder1111
redder1111

is 1 million $ really a success for a whole studio in this age when studios/publishers like IW,Rocksteady,Dice,Rockstar etc have billion dollars of successes just with one game ?!!! I'm a fan of double fine. I LOVE their games. but they should hire more powerful programmers to make better and updater game engines. today, gameplay and graphics are more important than nice stories and being funny IF you want to have more income. just imagine how brutal legend could be successful with better graphics, better gameplay and a little more time to working on it.

travisstaggs
travisstaggs

So many fans and developers have respect for Tim Schafter and Double Fine studios in general. The guy and his studio have made A LOT of fantastic games, and you have to respect Double Fine for doing things differently and how much work and charm is put into their games.

mutley89
mutley89

This was a success because the people behind double fine have made some of the best games ever made. People are not going to go out of there way for the next boring 3D same-as-everything-else type game but they will for people like Tim Schafer with a back catalogue such as Grim Fandango....end of.

Hurvl
Hurvl

I especially want that last paragraph of this article to become true, that we'll see a kind of evolution where the best companies with the most talented people making the most quality-based games will succeed instead of today's "we sell crap, but we make a living".

SauhlGood
SauhlGood

awesome, i luv indie devs, the ONLY people creating new games, expanding genres, and making genuinely new and unique games.... somthing the major publishing houses just dont do anymore.

dxBIGBOSSxb
dxBIGBOSSxb

@Mega_Loser Not at all. In fact, I'm here hoping for a Brutal Legends 2, and an Iron Brigade 2.

Unfallen_Satan
Unfallen_Satan

Well said, well said. In addition to the hopes expressed in the article, I also hope this success story empowers gamers. There is a great deal of dissatisfaction among gamers over how big publishers are making games. There is also a fair amount of resignation, ironically because most gamers rightly recognize publishers are in the business of making money. This kickstart effort gives gamers some ownership in the game. Supporters have made a conscious choice, and if the game succeeds, the success is as much theirs as it is Double Fine's. These gamers, and non-gamer supporters, have become publishers of sorts. That may help to solve one of the biggest problems facing the gaming industry today. Why are big publishers risk averse? They are predominantly business people. They care about sales numbers and market share and a lot of other data. They don't play games in any significant amount. How can they if they are serious about their day jobs? They can't innovate because their only source of reliable data is in the past. If devs answered to gamers, if they made games for people who ultimately buy and play them, if they are free to bring their ideas to the public and let interested gamers support them, we'll have the real answer to who is ultimately responsible for the dearth of new IP. How do we get there? That requires the effort of a lot more people a lot smarter than I. Hopefully DF's small stone will have ripples that extend far into the future. By gamers, for gamers.

Nodashi
Nodashi

IMHO alpha funding is already present and will be more often than not the best way to develop games without selling your soul to a risk adverse publisher. But it requires a great relation with the fans. Everything big companies do that fans don't like is forbidden, from the dreaded DRM to lack of support or comunication, etc.

Magnaxilorius
Magnaxilorius

I'm pro Tim Schaffer and whatever he wants to do with video-games.

FedCom
FedCom

Yeah I don't see this as affecting how to many other games are made, it's seems often it's akin to preordering the game even further in advance (if they offer it for the funding specifically). Which in that case you're trading money up front, for money later. To me this was a non-story in a way. Yeah the guy raised a lot of money, but people had some idea who he was too. Though if it raises some awareness that there are people looking for help there that could help them get it. Which would be awesome.

hitechgraphs
hitechgraphs

Whoa,I'm seeing a lot of negativity from GS meanwhile Double Fine have done 1k dls and counting(...*silence*).I think this a very good idea because sometimes(most of it) publishers are more focused in making money that the art and enjoyment of developing videogames.Let's take an example:The sims.The sims 3 wasn't all that good in relation of the 2 because something was lost in the way,the same goes for dirt2,the darkness,Soul calibur, and soo on.Cutting out publishers would benefit not only programmers but we the gamers.The videogames would be cheaper and we wouln't see a lot of ads in EA average sports videogames with no reflection in our pockets.No more squeezing an old name just in the name of money,Mario for example just expecting deception after deception.Well certainly not all cases would apply like the case of Bethesda,with all ammount of money they have earned with Skyrim ,they don't need to go indy,but for a lot of developers who are chained to a desk and a endlessly franchise who they don't feel more love,I think they should try.

NeoJ4K3
NeoJ4K3

@Nzilla I never got to play the game...and I never trust reviews...How is it? RTS?