Free from the chains: how crowdfunding is changing game development

April 11th, 2012 by

microtask_kickstarter_doublefineFor most new ventures, the funding process is the most malignant of the many necessary evils they have to overcome. For months, if not years, they must devote a huge portion of their resources towards one single goal: getting enough cash to carry on operations. When funders are enlightened and things go right, the payback can be huge. But when innovative, good ideas are met with wariness – for whatever reason – they must be sacrificed on the altar of the mighty dollar.

The gaming business was no exception to this process, with triple A games only funded when the people with the money could understand them (which usually meant they were based on earlier games that were financially successful). Over time, some veterans of the industry and many players started to develop an honest dislike for such products, which felt like the outcome of focus groups rather than inspired innovation.

As recent fundraising for gaming company Double Fine has shown, crowdfunding site Kickstarter is now changing these rules.

Traditional publishers vs the crowd
Funding is a big issue for game developers because making good games costs money. A lot of money. Developing a decent downloadable game can cost up to $2M, while a high class retail product can easily blow out the budget to $40-50M. That’s not the kind of money you can ask the crowd for, right? Wrong. Apparently now, it is ($2m that is, not quite $40m… yet).

Double Fine, a company founded by Tim Schafer and employing Ron Gilbert –
both known mostly for their work on the Monkey Island series – is a well established software house with a bunch of good minor games covering various genres.

Despite Schafer’s more recent work, people stubbornly kept asking him to go back to the genre in which he excels: point-and-click adventure games. The problem is that these games are on the blacklist of traditional publishers: they’re slow-paced, old fashioned and usually don’t feature enough guns or explosions to be considered “sellable”.

Schafer thought long and hard about a solution to this situation, until he decided, half-jokingly, to set up a Kickstarter fundraising appeal and ask his stubborn fans to put their money where their mouths are. The response has been staggering: with the idea of developing a small adventure game, the set goal of $400k was met within the first few hours, reaching a total of $3.4M after a 30 day period. Needless to say, the Double Fine guys seem to be pretty happy with the result (it’s an all-time Kickstarter record), and have started to consider many new features for their “small” game.

Is this only the beginning?
After the first days of excitement, market analysts appeared to agree that this exploit was only possible because of the respect gamers still hold for Schafer as a person and for his mastery of a certain style of games. In other words: a lucky coincidence.

Other people think differently. Invigorated by his success, developers such as InXile (captained by Brian Fargo, creator of the original Fallout) and Stoic (a team of ex-Bioware employees) have started campaigns which have met with a similar level of excitement.

Should traditional publishers now fear the rise of niches? Could Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail theories somehow also apply to a big-bucks market like gaming? But most importantly, is funding shifting from the deep pockets of the “elite” to the not-so-deep-pockets of a vast crowd of gamers who want to be included in the decision process?

It’s maybe a bit early to pop the champagne, as consumers are not blindly funding projects just to send signals to evil corporations. However, a move has been made and the outcome of this game might see the smaller players triumph. Hopefully, in future, this will mean that the most malignant of the necessary evils that game designers deal with will be the nasty characters they dream up for the final level of their games. (No doubt they will still draw inspiration for these characters from their experience with the “old fashioned” funding process.)