Setho10 / Member

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Double Fine Kickstarter Delay: The Gamer Publisher

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Yesterday news hit that Double Fine's Kickstarter Adeventure game, Broken Age, was not going to be finished within the current budget. To complete the game as envisioned, Double Fine was going to have to release the first half of the game on Steam and use the sales to fund the completion of the second half. [EDIT: I wanted to clarify since many people seem confused that the second half of the game will be released as free DLC for those who buy the first half. If you backed the game at a level where you received the game as a reward you will get BOTH HALVES for free. They are doing what Steam refers to as Eary Access, which lets developers sell unfinished games with the promise to update the game for free as more content is completed. Think of this like Minecraft. People are getting the pre release build with half the game and will receive the second half when it is done] Many backers accepted this as the best solution in the situation, but probably a majority were extremely upset to not get the game they were promised when they were promised on the budget they promised. Their responses were, unsurprisingly, the exact same responses a publisher would have given in the situation. It is a beautiful irony that will hopefully really improve the relationship between publishers and gamers.

Why does Activision rarely change Call of Duty? Why are they still using an updated version of the engine Infinity Ward made  in 2007, which was itself just an adapted version of the engine used in Call of Duty 1 and 2, which was itself just an adapted version of the Quake 3 engine? Why is this also true of a fair number of other engines? Why do developers make the same game over and over? The answer is that making a new engine, a completely new gameplay style, or a completely new world takes time and money, and it will go wrong. That's not it might go wrong. It will. Without a doubt. That doesn't mean the final product won't be great. But it does mean that to reach that great point the budget is going to have to increase. Maybe a piece of tech doesn't work as planned. Maybe a new gameplay mehcnanic isn't as fun as expected. Maybe there were just too many ideas being thrown around for too long before the developers could find the exact set of mechanics they wanted. Whatever the reason, making a new IP is tough and no matter how safe your schedule seems, it is never going to be safe enough.

The average game developer gets paid about $80,000 a year. For a Call of Duty sized team of 150 people or so, an extra year of development costs around $12 million. For a small indie team of 10 people or so you are talking about $70,000 a month or $800,000 a year. Now every time a game is delayed there is a common response from gamers. "Take as much time as you want. Just make the best game you can." They don't care that investors lose $1 million every month the game is delayed. They don't care that for each month of delay a game has to sell as many as 50,000 more units to make the investment worth it. They just want the best game possible. And that is fair.

What isn't fair, though, is when publishers are villified when they choose not to spend $10 million more on a game to improve its quality. After all, what Double Fine is talking about is asking for a good 3x increase in funding to release the game they want. Now I don't know this for certain, but I would say at least 90% of backers would choose to receive a worse game over increasing their backing by 3x. That is a logical thing to say. As an investor you don't want the best product possible. You want the best product possible for your investment. And those two things are never, ever, the same thing. Yet gamers constantly demand that publishers take major risks on games that may go millions, or even tens of millions, of dollars over budget. Ask them if they would have supported this game if they had known it would go millions over budget, almost all of them would say no. It's a two faced standard. The consumer isn't meant to care about the cost of making a product. At the same time, it is wrong for them to assume that a publisher is "evil" if it doesn't take the risks that the average person would never take themselves.

People have said that Double Fine should know better. But that simply isn't true. Virtually all of the best games of all time were delayed at least to a degree. Just this generation I can name Half Life 2, Portal 2, Bioshock, Bioshock Infinite, Red Dead Redemption, GTAIV, Assassin's Creed, The Last of Us, Braid, Mass Effect, and countless more. Back in the 90's Halo was not only delayed, but it changed genres three times, started out as a Mac exclusive before moving to PC and finally Xbox, and went from being self published to being published by Rockstar to being published by Microsoft. And Bungie had been making games for over a decade by that point. The fact is that new IP's never go as planned and sometimes, like in the case of Bioshock or Halo, the game can go through numerous entirely different iterations before the developer settles on a setting, platform, or even genre. And that happens to people like Miyamoto (Hell Pikmin 3 isn't even a new IP and is has been delayed by nearly a year) who has been doing this for 30 years, as well as people who are making their very first game. It just happens. And it is not the fault of the developer or the publisher. It is just part of the game making process. The only difference here is that this process has suddenly been exposed to the public like never before.

Call of Duty is the same every year because the less you change the less chance there is that something will go wrong. That's why Call of Duty is generally much more polished than, say, Battlefield or Medal of Honor. By making major changes every iteration, the final product is not as polished as it could have been if the scope was less ambitious. So we end up with massive Day One patches, and bugs that persist for months after the game is released. And people complain. But that is the sacrifice that EA makes to get out a more ambitious game. It is also arguably why their single player games are less fun. See for most games the first 60-80% of development is spent making the game work. The rest of the time is spent making the game fun. The lower that former number is, the better the game will be. For Call of Duty, the game will work almost immediately. Their number is probably closer to 30% or 40%. That way they can spend 60% of the time or more balancing and polishing. And that is literally the difference between a good game and a bad one. The folks at Activision have the time to redo something if it isn't fun enough. They can rearrange a level over and over until it flows perfectly. At EA parts of the game aren't even functional until 80% of the way through development. That gives them almost no time to change something when it isn't as fun as it seemed.

And that right there is the challenge of making a new IP off of a new engine. Because it is going to take a long time for the engine to even be at a point where you can start really testing the stuff you make. And it is going to take even longer to make that stuff work. And at that point you've probably already spent a couple years and you haven't even tried to make the game fun yet. That's why new IP's on new consoles often end up more as proof of concepts than fully realized games. Assassin's Creed, Gears of War and so on and so forth all required a couple iterations before they found their stride. And that's because by the time they made the game work they had to focus on just a small amount of content if they were going to have time to make that content fun.

Anyways, the end result of all this is that most of the time the final product is drastically cut from the initial vision. But normally the public has no idea what that initial vision was because we don't see the game until it is at the working stage. With Kickstarter, though, we suddenly get to see how a game goes from its initial vision to the final product. And let me tell you, the final product is very rarely as cool as the initial promise unless you are willing to invest insane amounts of money to make it so. And most publishers aren't. And that doesn't make them evil. It doesn't make them heartless. It makes them the same as any other person who invests in a project and expects results based on the initial funding amount not 3x more than that. Sometimes you get at Take Two who will delay a game by half a decade to make it work. For them that pays off half the time (Bioshock or Red Dead Redemption for example) and sometimes it doesn't (Spec Ops: The Line or Max Payne 3). Luckily for Take Two, when they have a hit they usually have a major hit. And that lets them take big swings at risky products and miss. It is also why Take Two is considered the riskiest investment in gaming. Because if they miss too many times then it is all over for them as they don't have any sort of yearly release to keep them afloat.

So before you next call a publisher evil for cancelling a game or releasing it before it is ready, imagine you were an investor in the company, and imagine if you were told that you would have to invest 3x more money to release the game as initially envisioned. Would you agree to that, or would you try to reach a point where the game was good enough. Because that point where a game is good enough is where every publisher is going to stop spending money on it. And for a publisher, good enough is the point where additional investment in the game will not increase sales enough to offset that investment. And that isn't an evil thing to do. It is what any of us would do in the same situation as has been proven today with Double Fine.