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.
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."
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.