Double Fine’s Kickstarter Windfall: Will Patronage Supplant Traditional Game Publishing?

There’s one photograph from my past i desperately want to find, but i fear it was lost to the voracious pagan god of bits and bytes years ago – another case for printing your digital photos as soon as you take them. It’s a picture of a fresh-faced young me, Ryan Henson Creighton, posing next to Tim Schafer, almost ten years ago. Tim has his jaw twisted up in his best Bill Murray impression, possibly trying to hide the fact that he’s uncomfortable being in the photo. i’m standing there with my best” OH MY GOD I’M GETTING MY PICTURE TAKEN WITH TIM SCHAFER” face on.

i can’t find the photo, but i scoured the internet for the closest thing to it:

Two young black guys

(except that neither one of us was wearing a hat)

It was E3 circa 2003, during the little-known GDC-like conference portion of the event. Shamelessly geeking out by taking pictures with your long-time game design heroes was NOT the order of the day, but friends … i just couldn’t help myself. If you’ve seen pictures of the Untold Entertainment offices, you’ll know it’s a veritable shrine to the glory days of LucasArts graphic adventure games, back when story and character development and humour ruled the day (in stark contrast to today, when all three of those elements are routinely botched and butchered – almost deliberately, it sometimes seems).

Untold Entertainment Offices

No, visitor, i didn’t create those two games. But thank you for asking.

Untold Entertainment Offices

Ron Gilbert signed my original Monkey Island game boxes in a similar surprise geek attack at GDC last year.

Before i accosted Tim, he was on a panel talking about the difficulty of financing video games in his new venture, Double Fine. This was pre-Psychonauts. i asked him a question from the gallery: “The graphic adventure genre had clearly tanked, and action games ruled the day. But if you look at the free-to-play Flash game ecosystem, you’ll see a lot of young designers creating graphic adventure games, and they’re quite popular with a certain niche. Would you ever consider building another one?”

Tim screwed up his face in thought. i paraphrase: “I … yeah, I’ve seen that. Those little adventure games are great. And it’s tempting, but … I think we need to move on from that genre, and do something different. We can make games with graphic adventure-like elements, like character dialogue and picking up items, but as for those old-school adventure games, i … i don’t think we can go back.”

Tim Goes Back

On Wednesday February 8 2012, Tim went back. Double Fine Productions launched a Kickstarter project asking for $400k to produce an old-school graphic adventure game and a making-of documentary, with creative involvement from Monkey Island creator Ron Gilbert. In 2 hours, the project had crossed the $100k mark, and Tim remarked on Twitter that that was more than the budget of the original Secret of Monkey Island. In just under 12 hours, donated funding had shot up past $500k: half a million bucks in good will and high hopes, built on a legacy of some of the most enjoyable and fondly-remembered moments in video game history.

These games, friends – these games are why i am in the industry today. The graphic adventure genre is far from dead, and i hope this groundbreaking experiment proves it. It’s a great comfort to me to see these guys pump life and attention and revival into the genre, even as we work to release Sissy’s Magical Ponycorn Adventure on new platforms, and toil away on Spellirium, our trashpunk graphic adventure/word puzzle game mash-up.

Untold Entertainment Offices

God bless you, Timothy.

Fame = Money. Who Knew?

But what does this all actually mean? Have Double Fine proven that the standard publishing model for funding video games is dead and buried? It’s certainly coughing its death rattle, but i don’t think that’s the take-away here.

Is it that graphic adventure games are alive and well, and that we’re going to see a huge resurgence in the genre? Selfishly, i hope so. But the fact remains that the problems that sunk the genre to begin with are still present: lack of replayability, high cost of development for content players can chew through in a chicken minute, pixel hunting, nonsensical puzzle design, verbosity, randomly rubbing items together in the hopes of discovering a solution, and just plain ol’ getting stuck with no hope of moving the game forward. Imagine if, in a first-person shooter, your gun jammed, and you couldn’t keep killing Nazis unless you learned how to take your whole rifle apart and put it back together, which inexplicably required some knowledge of colour theory. That’s what we’re dealing with.

Untold Entertainment Offices

“You can’t do that – at least not now.”

i think the take-away here is that the video games industry has honest-to-goodness celebrities, and that we will pay those celebrities money to build games for us. It’s the dawning of a new age during which the video games studio system, a la the Hollywood studio system, is finally born, and personality becomes a business model. Here’s a short list of personalities and games that i would personally help fund:

  • Rand Miller, creator of MYST, and one of the other heroes i accosted at E3 2003. Go create a Kickstarter and create a new IP, and i will give you my money.
  • Cliff Johnson. Your game The Fool’s Errand was awesome, and it made me feel smart whenever i solved one of your puzzles. You’ve been accepting pre-orders for the sequel, A Fool and His Money, since 2003, presumably to help you fund the game. You say you’re launching September of this year, but Wikipedia maintains a chart of your scheduling slips, and it’s embarrassing. What’s the problem, Cliff? Money? If so, then i think we’ve found your solution.
  • Ken and Roberta Williams. Come out of retirement and do something non-King’s Quest-related. i’ll toss you some dough.
  • Jane Jensen. Old Man Murray blames Gabriel Knight 3 for sounding the graphic adventure games death knell. Why not work on a fourth adventure, with help on game and puzzle design from someone else, while you take care of the story, characters and atmosphere that you write so well? (Check out Jane’s Gray Matterto see what she’s been up to lately)
  • Brian Moriarty. You’re teaching at Worcester Polytechnic, and from the brief response to the fan email i sent you a year ago, it seems like you feel your game development days are over? LOOMwas a major influence on Spellirium, and it shows – from the robed protagonist, to the post-apocalyptic-but-it-looks-medieval setting, to the weaving and shearing puzzles (i actually made my hero a tailor, in honour of LOOM). LOOM ended on a down note. It was supposed to be a trilogy, taking us through the Guild of Shepherds and the Guild of Blacksmiths in the next two installments. Go build a Kickstarter project. Buy the sequel rights from LucasArts, and MAKE ME MAH GAMES.
  • Ron Gilbert. You left us with one Hell of a cliffhanger with Monkey Island 2, before the franchise went in a different direction without you. How much money do you think it would cost to wrest the MI rights from TellTale, treat Monkey Island 3 and every game thereafter like Guybrush Threepwood’s fever dream, and built a direct sequel to your game? Put that amount of money on your Kickstarter project, and witness how much fans will pay to discover the real secret of Monkey Island.

Game designers are my celebrities. i’m far more interested in the work of Al Lowe, Jordan Mechner or Eric Chahi than i am in Michael Bay, Charlie Kaufman or Steven Spielberg (The Dig/Boom Blox notwithstanding). And just as Joe Public will pay money for tabloids full of photos of their favourite celebrities, will pay to see their movies, will pay to buy their clothing lines, i will pay you to build games for me.

Who are your game design heroes? What do you want them to create for you, and how much will you pay? Thanks to Double Fine blazing the trail, you may well get your wish.

7 thoughts on “Double Fine’s Kickstarter Windfall: Will Patronage Supplant Traditional Game Publishing?

  1. dendritejungle

    Ragnar Tørnquist a.k.a. Mr. Longest Journey. Eric Dallaire, David Flanagan and Tommy Yune of “The Journeyman Project 3: Legacy of Time” fame.

    thatgamecompany, if it would HURRY THEM THE HELL UP TO RELEASE MOAR GAMES FASTERRRRR!

    *longing sigh*

    Reply
    1. Ryan Henson Creighton

      To me, the longest journey was sitting through the reams of dialogue they threw at me. i didn’t even get to the interesting stuff in the alternate realm. i really like the world, though – how the richer you are, the higher up in the city you live, and the super-wealthy never set foot on solid ground their whole lives.

      i never played The Journeyman games because i read a review talking about how you’d catch 80 diseases in the first one, and constantly had to monitor your food levels. Didn’t sound like fun.

      i love That Game Company too!

      Reply
  2. Dan Spiler

    Since I’m of the younger generation and most of my idolic designers are at studios with money to spend, what I would like to see is the “dream games” from designers like Will Wright, American McGee, Tim Schafer (wait, nevermind). Imagine if Will Wright had the chance to make any game he wanted. Not being stuck with Sims, I’d imagine that Pirates was probably as close as we’ll get (and that was awesome).

    That being said, I find that a lot of the indie talent nowadays is bringing enough to the table to satisfy me.

    Reply

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