Game Changer: Can Tim Schafer's Kickstarter Project change the way games are funded?

It's unclear if Grim Fandango creator Tim Schafer intended to change the way games are financed or not, but his latest venture could have long-lasting repercussions on the hobby we all know and love.

Schafer, who's one of elder statesmen of the medium, has chosen to fund his latest creation solely through contributions gathered by crowd-sourcing site Kickstarter. While indie developers have been using the popular web destination to find backers for quite some time, it's highly unusual to see an industry luminary of Schafer's stature utilizing the service. Should the developer and his San Francisco-based crew at Double Fine Productions manage to raise $400,000 in funds before March 13th, he will not only create a new point-and-click adventure title, but he'll allow gamers to see inside the development process—promising unprecedented access to what happens behind closed doors.

That's all interesting, but what's really captivating about the Double Fine Kickstarter campaign is the response. In a mere 12 hours, fans have already pledged more than the $400,000 Schafer needs to make his game. To say the response has been amazing is an understatement. There's an air of excitement surrounding this project, and some gamers and industry pundits are already postulating that this could be a "game changer" when it comes to how games will be funded moving forward—but should the Activisions and Electronic Arts of the world lose sleep over it? Probably not.

There's no denying that Schafer has tapped into something with his Kickstarter campaign, but it remains to be seen whether it's a gaming fanbase fed up with the industry's status quo or simply a lot of very rabid Tim Schafer fans wanting a new game from the man responsible for some of the medium's most revered titles. Even if we assume the answer to that question lies somewhere in the middle, calling this a "game changer" seems at least somewhat premature.

Maniac Mansion: Day of the Tentacle Screenshot

Instead, Schafer may well be a pioneer—the first major studio boss to show other developers that the old business model of depending on publishers for funding and distribution doesn't have to be the only way to conduct business. If his move is successful, perhaps other developers will follow suit. Maybe this will even lead to a gaming utopia where developers, funded by patrons just like artists in the Renaissance era, are free to create their best work without worrying about the interference of middle men more interested in commerce than art. It could be the beginning of a golden age of gaming…

If we take off the rose-colored glasses, we see the reality is that most things will likely stay exactly as they are—and even if they did change, it might not be the Shangri-La we're all envisioning anyway.

First off, Double Fine is looking for $400,000 to make a new game. That's a lot of scratch to most of us, but in the realm of game development? It's pocket change. Schafer says as much on his Kickstarter page, noting "even something as "simple" as an Xbox Live Arcade title can cost upwards of two or three million dollars.  For disc-based games, it can be over ten times that amount."

Raising that kind of money from people who're simply fans of good games is still impressive, but there's arguably a threshold to the amount of funds one can realistically expect to raise using something like Kickstarter—and I'm willing to bet it's well below the "two or three million dollars" for an Xbox Live Arcade title, let alone the $30 million of a big budget retail disc release. So, with that in mind, it seems likely that crowd-sourcing will remain a viable tool for small projects for the foreseeable future. Big budget games are going to still need deep pocket publishers.

Even moving past that, the bigger question becomes "do we really want this as gamers?" I suspect in the long run that the answer would be "no."

Psychonauts Screenshot

In a worst case scenario situation, it's easy to see crowd-sourced funding turning into the new pre-order campaign with developers continually trying to sell gamers on investing in their project in much the same way GameStop harasses us for an extra five bucks every time we try to check out. What's worse is that games still get made if people don't pre-order, but developers could constantly hold the threat of not making a game at all over our heads if their funding demands weren't met. That's not a good thing, particularly since it forces gamers to invest real money in projects without knowing much of anything about them. Sure, the pitch might be great and the pieces of concept art look cool, but there's no way of knowing what a finished product will look and play like when it's not even in the alpha stage.

There's also the potential issue of "investors." If a person donates money to fund a product designed to make a profit and that product makes vast amounts of money, does the "investor" have a right to share in those profits? A publisher certainly does—and it's not a stretch to imagine that people who ponied up the cash to fund "Generic Space Marine Shooter #4518" will expect a cut of the proceeds when it pulls in a billion bucks in its first week of release. We're not at that point now, because this is still a novelty to most people, and no one expects the projects on sites like Kickstarter to make millions of dollars. If we start funding mid-level and AAA titles? That all changes—and so will people's attitudes and expectations.

None of that even factors in the important services publishers do provide (marketing, public relations, production, etc.) that would now have to be handled by the developer, because the patrons who donated surely aren't going to come up with TV spots and press releases. Even if those things are part of the funding, dealing with them takes time—time that could be spent making the game better. Publishers don't always have our best interests at heart, but they do provide some valuable support that developers wouldn't have in a consumer-funded environment.

The idea of a game community where developers are free to be creative and try new things without worrying about publisher bean counters sounds great, and maybe some day we'll get there. Only time will tell if what Double Fine is trying to do will go down in history as the start of a new era in game development or as an interesting historical footnote. If I were a gambling man, I'd put my money on the latter.


Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken is a 43-year-old writer and bohemian living in Florida with a mountain of movies, books, and video games.

A film critic by trade, specializing in Euro-horror, cult exploitation, and Asian action cinema, Mike has written reviews for a diverse group of print and online publications. He covers horror news, movies, books, and games at TheHorrorGeek.com and Horrorsquad.com and spent two seasons as The Horror Geek on Comedy Central's pop-culture game show, Beat the Geeks.

Mike's childhood was spent playing videogames any time he got a chance. His parents had a Pong console and his grandmother had an Atari 2600, where Mike cultivated his skills by playing hour upon hour of games like Space Invaders, Berserk, and Asteroids. From those early experiences Mike learned one thing: he loved games.

In 1999, Mike became a staff reviewer at Cinescape Magazine's website where he spent a year learning the craft of game criticism. After internal changes led to Mike leaving Cinescape in late 2000, he joined up with RPGFan in 2001 and spent several years writing reviews for them. Happy, but looking for an opportunity to expound on a wider variety of titles, Mike joined GameCritics.com and hopes to help Chi, Dale, and the rest of the GC staff bring a higher level of respect to the field of game criticism.
Mike Bracken

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12 Comments on "Game Changer: Can Tim Schafer’s Kickstarter Project change the way games are funded?"

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Mike Bracken
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Hi Mousse, I do think the potential for more auteur-driven games is there, and that’s what’s ultimately exciting about the idea of more developers crowd-sourcing their games. I guess I’m just more of a “worst case scenario” guy (George Carlin once said that deep inside of every bitter cynic is a disappointed idealist — that sums me up pretty well) and see some issues that could arise if this system took off. Publishers have become a lot like studios in the movie biz — a necessary evil because they have access to nearly unlimited funds, but more of a hindrance… Read more »
crackajack
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Psychonauts is a favorite of mine, Grim Fandango had great characters and i really liked Brutal Legend, certainly much more than the average RTS was terrible basher. (Full throttle was only ok.)
But spending money on a game based on some vague information who will be involved and what genre it will be?
I could imagine giving money for an alpha, an already sort of playable alpha, where i see a clear vision were it is going. But buying a name without any content, hope for something good?
No way!

Mousse Effect
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Hi Mike and thanks for talking about his story. While I agree with most of your points, I am more excited than you by all of this (by the way, there is now almost 1,7m$ pledged). Don’t you think that if this picks up as a trend, we could finally see more auteur-driven games instead of publisher-driven ones ? Auteurs like David Jaffe, Tetsuya Takahashi, Swery65, Hidetaka Miyazaki, Yokoo Taro, and such could have what this medium really needs: more creative freedom. In the Internet age, publishers are less useful as they used to be, but they still take the… Read more »
Mike Bracken
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I’m curious if it will actually trickle down to the indies — I think a huge part of this is attributable to Schafer and Double Fine being famous in the community already.

That being said, I think it would be great if it gets more people to check out Kickstarter and fund indie projects — I’m just not 100% convinced that will really happen.

Thanks for the comment.

Chris Johnson
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It’s definitely interesting, but what you didn’t mention was the possible impact this could have on the indie scene. This much buzz around kickstarter is good – especially for other games on the site which don’t have the cloud (ie, all the rest). As someone who has funded games on kickstarter before, I think the largest barrier for those devs is simply foot traffic – enough people who are aware that this is an option and find themselves feeling good about supporting what they love. I think your assessment for AAA devs is about right, but this could have repercussions… Read more »
Anonymous
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I love kickstarter, i’ve funded over a dozen different projects. Double Fine is blowing up the current records, but many small ios/android projects have been successful. One of the hurdles is just getting the word out, and the Double Fine kickstarter program has done that. You may not get a kickstarter for Mass Effect 4. But you could get for a Collector Edition, or as a direct to consumer business model. A company with a loyal fanbase, like Nis or Atlus or xseed could definitely have a preorder campaign as they are doing similar stuff on their own webstores now.… Read more »
Li-Ion
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I think this is a really exciting project and what comes out of it we’ll see by the end of this year. I threw $30 in the hat myself. Being a big fan of old-school Lucas Arts adventures this was a no-brainer for me. I don’t think AAA-titles will ever be funded like this. We will still have Activision dropping a Call of Duty each year and EA throwing yearly iterations of Fifa, Madden et al around. But for small developers in the awkward position between AAA and Indie this is a new frontier. For A to C-grade developers this… Read more »
Spokker
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There are many angles to this. I have seen the comment, “If you donate $15 you get the game for free!” many times. It seems more to me as if this is a pre-order for a game that doesn’t exist yet. The “investment” is based on name recognition alone, which isn’t always wise. Whether we are talking about longtime brands or prolific developers, they are not immune to bad games. Imagine backing a John Romero venture before we discovered that he’s a scoundrel. There are two competing ideologies inside of me right now. On one hand, I want to see… Read more »
Mike Bracken
Guest

He’s a big fan of the podcast. He told me he’d only do it if you stay on as host, though — so I guess you’re stuck. Seemed like a small price to pay.

Tim Spaeth
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Nice work getting Tim Schafer to pose for a picture in the middle of all this!

Mike Bracken
Guest

Yep — very true. An upstart developer wouldn’t get that kind of funding, and if they did, it wouldn’t be overnight.

I think the whole thing is fascinating, and I’m not opposed to something like this catching on. I just don’t see it happening yet and not without many of the potential issues addressed along the way.

It’s certainly been something exciting to watch.

Richard Naik
Guest
It has to be stated that Tim Schafer is, as you said, one of the medium’s elder statesman. He has a fanbase that will be happy to support his project, but a smaller startup or anyone else that would try something like this won’t have that, and probably wouldn’t get even a small fraction of what Schafer was able to raise. That doesn’t mean I think it’s bad, I think it’s great that Schafer is able to do this. But we need to be realistic here. Hell, I’d gladly donate to an effort to get Grim Fandango released on GoG… Read more »
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