"Look, we just made $70,000! Not that I have it up on auto-refresh or anything…"
That was beloved game designer and Double Fine Games founder Tim Schafer watching the growing total for Massive Chalice, less than an hour into the company's latest Kickstarter game development funding campaign. Double Fine, of course, helped birth the onslaught of crowdfunded video game projects with last year's record-setting campaign that netted them more than 3 million dollars. So why go back again? And what were the hopes and fears associated with returning to Kickstarter and crowd-funding?
"The first time we did it," Schafer said, "you try really hard not to let yourself hope for anything. People ask you, 'what do you think it's going to do?' And you can only answer, 'I don't know.' I don't want to know. I want to be surprised."
This time, there could be different surprises waiting for the folks at Double Fine. Massive Chalice aims to tackle a new genre of game and, besides that, the funding campaign for the title has launched at a time when hundreds of game development crowdfunding campaigns are trying to grab people's attention every day. And some people are probably wondering why Double Fine needs more money from them a year after the significant success of their first round of passing the collection basket around.
Today, I talked to Schafer and Massive Chalice project lead Brad Muir about going back to Kickstarter, what it would take for Double Fine to accept publisher funding again and whether the company's games will wind up on the PS4. Their answers were honest and enlightening.
Is there an element of wanting to top what you guys have done before—or others have done—since in terms of Kickstarter totals? Like, "Screw you, Brian Fargo! I'll show what real crowdfunding looks like! I'm coming back for my crown!" Is there a competitiveness to it or are you too neurotic to even go there?
Tim Schafer: My long-term goal is that I hope I want every Kickstarter to do better than the last, just because I want Kickstarter projects to grow and grow to the point where we're making pretty big games using crowdfunding. I want each Kickstarter to do better than the last, in general. So, that's why I'd be super-happy if this Kickstarter was even bigger than our last one.
But, I also know that it was really new and had this novelty the first time we did it . I'm just happy that we had the ability to do this again and fund games like this in the future, because we love the relationship that [crowdfunding] establishes with our players and our fans.
If there's any competition, it's definitely very friendly, because when Brian Fargo does really good with his Kickstarter, that brings more people to Kickstarter. That means there's more people there to back our project. That definitely helps us and it helps him when we do well and all around.
Cyclical crowd-funding—where you go back for more than one project—is still relatively unmapped territory. inXile's been doing it. Now you are. Given how unpredictable people's whims are, do you think you can keep doing things this way? It seems like there's a magic lamp quality to it, where you get three wishes and that's it. Do you feel that there's a way around the idea of crowdfunding as a limited resource?
Schafer: I don't think it's limited, really. I see a big future for it. It only feels like a magic lamp now because it's new and people haven't really figured out all the different ways to make it work. I think we're collectively figuring that out now. We definitely have to treat each one like an original story. Each Kickstarter pitch is a story and I think we have a different one this time, with having a fresh-faced project leader like Brad Muir doing it. And he's doing it with a new IP that's not a sequel or an old genre like I was doing [with Double Fine Adventure].
Brad Muir: I think the whole 'rising tide raises all ships '… is that the right saying? I think that's applicable. Kickstarter's drawing more people to it and it's better for everyone.
What would it take for you to accept publisher or platform-holder funding again? Have there been offers? If so, why have you rejected them?
Schafer: We still work with publishing partners that we like and who are good. The difference now is that we get to choose to only work with the good ones. We don't have to take a bad deal just to stay in business. We have this other funding option. The deals are going to have to get better in order to lure us back to a situation like that. The things you have to give up are often, like, IP rights and you don't get any royalties until you recoup, say, three times the investment for us to except them. All these nasty things. It'd have to be a pretty sweet upside to compensate for all of those. Or maybe the development deals that publishers will offer won't have requirements like that anymore. That's what I hope. They're not good for anybody.
"Each Kickstarter pitch is a story and I think we have a different one this time..."
It seems like the expectation and reception gap might be a bit more difficult to navigate with crowd-funded projects. There's more faith given to a project creator without the bureaucracy that's so easy to blame. But there's more backlash, too, if a project doesn't hit a funding goal or winds up being not what people wanted. Can you talk about the risk/reward there?
Schafer: You mean for Double Fine or for Brad?
Schafer: I think we're definitely putting ourselves out there saying, 'hey, we wanna do this thing.' If this didn't work out, we'd do another thing. Brad had, like, five different ideas this year for games. If this didn't work out, we'd try to learn the lessons why and try to apply them to the next thing we're interested in and then pursue that with just as much excitement.
At least we didn't have to make the game and find out at the end of it that no one liked it. We could find out that no one liked it now! At least 2,000 people like it now.
Muir: And that's really nice and validating, to see the numbers going upwards right now. If it didn't work out, then I'd take a week off and get really drunk. A lot of projectile vomiting.
Schafer: You're probably gonna do that anyway…
Muir: But there are a lot of ups and downs trying to get a project off the ground in this industry. It's pretty volatile and weird how things work out. There's a lot of projectile vomiting that happens. You've got to try to be resilient about it and roll with it and hopefully the next one works.
Schafer: There's a lot of risk with this but there's a lot of risk when you go with a traditional funding deal, too. Those are set-in-stone known risks. Like, you know you're going to get screwed on royalties. You risk not making any money because they took it all. And so I think it's less risky this way. It's more publicly embarrassing if you fail. We had long talks where people were worried about even doing another Kickstarter. I just had this feeling [we could count on] the great relationship that we have with our backers. It feels a little bit like a trust fall. Or stage diving. I feel like the fans will catch us.
Where's Broken Age at, in terms of development?
Schafer: It's coming together very well. I think it's really beautiful. It's got some really funny cutscenes in it. I like that it's an adventure game that's not just nostalgic; it's modern and pretty and I think it's going to be great. We're currently re-adjusting our schedule and talking about when exactly it's going to come out. But the backers who are watching us have this great level of transparency. If people want to know how the game is doing they can just find out from us. We do a weekly update on our production and it's going well.
"We still work with publishing partners that we like and who are good. The difference now is that we get to choose to only work with the good ones. We don't have to take a bad deal just to stay in business."
What about the Amnesia Fortnight games?
Schafer: We did a bunch of great prototypes the we included in the Humble Bundle that we just made. People really enjoyed them and responded to a lot of them. We're pursuing our option with those and we don't have anything yet to announce. But they all turned out really great. We'd be proud to make any of them.
Double Fine is stretching its legs with Massive Chalice, in that it's the studio's first turn-based strategy game. Was there a sense that fans only want you to hit their nostalgic sweet spot? It's something that I personally observe with a lot of these Kickstarters. It's like a nostalgia carousel, where people just want the thing that they liked re-packaged and remade by the people who made it the first time so it'll run on modern hardware.
Schafer: The thing to remember is that Kickstarter isn't just one homogenous community. The people who got into Torment, those were the Torment fans. And they weren't necessarily the people who got into Double Fine Adventure. There are people who back projects like FTL that are brand-new and they got the game that they wanted. The people who really like turn-based strategy and are excited by Brad's pitch will back this one. So, I don't think that all of our 'adventure games only' fans are a lock for this one.
Muir: Also, I think that there are a lot of people waving the new IP flag but publishers aren't necessarily listening to them. It feels cool that we can bring this new game to a potential audience and go, 'Hey do you like this? Does this sound awesome? This is a game I really want to make.' If people are excited about it and excited about the newness, then that's just another avenue to take Kickstarter down. I don't think it has to be a nostalgic thing. There's all sorts of stuff that you can do on Kickstarter.
Schafer: Yeah, I think most of the projects outside of games aren't nostalgic…
Muir: And hopefully this is one of them.
Does self-publishing on the PS4 mean that you'll be bringing Double Fine games to that platform?
Schafer: We'll definitely be real interested in the PS4. We've already talked to them about the console and our expectations and hopes for it. They've been really open to indies like us and I think that bodes well for our games being on that platform. But right now, for Massive Chalice, we're talking about PC, Mac and Linux.
That was part of a larger meta-question I had about the back-catalog as an asset. Finding new audiences for older works is something that book publishers and music companies have done for a while and it seems like game creators are beginning to do that more, too. They're tapping into their older games as a reple replenishable asset. Are you going to put Double Fine games anywhere where they'll run? The catalog-as-asset paradigm? Do you have resources for that? Or will you wait to see what the install bases for upcoming platforms look like?
Schafer: The great thing about having ownership over most of our IP is that we care about it and we put the energy into keeping it alive and fresh and re-packaging it. Keeping things like Costume Quest, Stacking, Psychonauts and Brutal Legend out there for people to enjoy on new platforms. Because our base technology is everywhere—or aspiring to be everywhere—it doesn't take too much to bring new games to new platforms in the future.
"It's very frustrating to hear people how they want something old like Grim Fandango to run [on modern hardware] and I have to say 'I can't do anything about that.'"
We're on PC, Mac, Linux, tablets, iOS and all three consoles now. It might not make sense for the bottom line of a big publisher to port any one of those particular games to any one of those particular platforms. If it makes $200,000 or something, it's not enough for a big publisher. But that's a reasonable amount of money for us. So we're really motivated to keep those games around. And we care about them!
Doing that also tackles the archiving dilemma that plagues older games. You have a game that you loved 10, 15 years ago that ran on specific hardware that can't be emulated now because of some weird quirk of code… It seems like you guys are a lot more likely to dodge that bullet than some other developers…
Schafer: It's very frustrating to hear people how they want something old like Grim Fandango to run [on modern hardware] and I have to say 'I can't do anything about that.' Our games, we can keep them running, maybe even with—down the road—some help from the crowd.
Do you ever yearn for the days when the company and the dev process were less transparent? It seems like the power of surprise is lessened by being a more open company now? Today's announcement was a surprise but it wasn't entirely out of the blue with regard to Double Fine going back to Kickstarter.
Schafer: Yeah, but if it wasn't a surprise that's because people were just following some sort of reasonable chain of thought, not necessarily because of transparency. The transparency we've experienced ever since Double Fine Adventure has been really great. It's sometimes uncomfortable when you're talking about schedule and budget and cutting something from the game and you know that players are going to watch that. They talk about it and it's definitely a lively discussion on our forums. In the balance, they're always really supportive. We had one big meeting where we talked about needing more money and were thinking about what we were going to do and what we were going to cut. We expected people to freak out and most of the people just said 'how can we help?' 'Can we buy more stuff from the store? How can we send you guys more money?' So, it's just been a positive thing.
Brad, it's Tim's company and he's very much the face of Double Fine but this project is very much on your shoulders. You've been at the head of a project before with Iron Brigade but this is on a different sort of stage with more visibility. How nervous are you and how are you managing that?
Muir: I'm probably going to spend a lot of time throwing up right after this phone call. In terms of Kickstarter, I'm actually really nervous. Watching the numbers right now is super distracting. But if it does get funded, I'm excited to have that transparency and work with the community. One thing that I loved that happened during the Amnesia Fortnight stuff was this great reflection with the community. It was the kind of thing where I'm excited about the game and I'm posting stuff on the forums—or we did some livestreams through Twitch where I was coding and designing—and it was just so cool. I'm excited and they're excited and they're excited that I'm excited and it's just this great back-and-forth thing. I haven't done anything like this before, in terms of having the process of development be out in the open and getting other people's involvement and feedback. It sounds like a lot less pressure because you know that all these people are behind you already.
Working on Iron Brigade, we just went underground to work on it. With all the games we previously worked on—and in a more typical development process—you work on them and you hope that people will like them. But you're not even sure if people like the core idea…
Schafer: Here, the risk is settled up front.
Muir: Here, we have the core idea of Massive Chalice and we're putting it out there. If people are willing to take a little bit of a chance and put their money up front, man, that's amazing. That tells me that they're along for the ride, that they're into it and that they love the concept. It just removes that [uncertainty of] working on it underground and building up to the announce and not knowing how it's going to go over. That is nerve-racking. So I really like that this way, it's like, 'Man, I already told everybody my idea. That's out of the way!' Hopefully, they like it enough to put their money upfront and we'll just make this thing for them. That part—the making it—just sounds super exciting. I'm looking forward to that.
Schafer: I think since we launched it and it didn't read 'zero' for very long, that instantly took a huge amount of stress off both of our shoulders. Now we didn't have the record-breaking worst Kickstarter of all time.
Muir: An hour after we launched it, it is not at zero.
Schafer: I think if you keep talking, it'll hit $100,000…
Like an inverse filibuster? There's an interesting psychological component to what you guys have been talking about. This could be a burnout-resistant method of development, right?
The light bulb went over my head when I realized that we should Kickstart this thing, instead of all the other options we had for Brad. There was some thought to trying to find a publisher or going out and pitching some more. But, part of it was wanting Brad to experience what I experienced, which is that our community has a ton of love and energy to give us. That was something that I maybe knew in the abstract but I experienced it every day when we launched that first Kickstarter. The comments from people about how they feel when they backed it… they're just the best. Our fans are just the best.
Muir: And I'm jealous watching the Broken Age team work with the community and they're super-open about what they're working on. We have some journalist friends and it always sucks when they ask 'what're you working on?' and we can't tell them. Now, it's like 'Tim, what're you working on?' 'Well, Broken Age.' We're talking about Spaceboy [the nickname for one of the Broken Age protagonists] and other stuff and everyone can know that in the community. Or they can know about it if they want to.
Schafer: It's a relief when you realize you don't have to keep it a secret.