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?


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.

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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.

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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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