Is Double Fine's KICKSTARTER Success an Indie Game-Changer?

Is KICKSTARTER an Indie Game-Changer?

This week the fundraising project for a video game currently known as Double Fine Adventure went from rags to riches with the kind of speed previously only seen in a movie montage sequence. Via crowd-sourced funding website Kickstarter, the project raised over 1.3 million dollars in less than 72 hours — well over its goal of $400,000 — and in the process stunned both the petitioners and the larger gaming community. The concept of soliciting funds for an artistic endeavor (or any kind of project) is centuries old, but the technology available today is bringing patronage to the people, with all of its attendant benefits and ills.

Double Fine Productions wants to make a "classic point-and-click adventure," the kind of game Double Fine founder Tim Schafer first made his name developing like Day of the Tentacle and Grim Fandango. But as they state on their donor solicitation page, "Big games cost big money… To finance the production, promotion, and distribution of these massive undertakings, companies like Double Fine have to rely on external sources like publishers, investment firms, or loans." As they continue to explain, these large-scale single sources of funds often come with "strings attached" that can interfere with the vision of the developers.

Double Fine turned to Kickstarter and the general public to try to free itself from the traditional publishing system, but instead of metaphorically painting the ceiling of their Sistine Chapel for one Pope, they are now working for tens of thousands of individuals who have paid for the right to feel invested in the outcome of the project. As per custom, solicitors for funds on sites like Kickstarter offer premiums to their donors akin to public television tote bags, but for a small percentage of donors, this might not be enough.

"We got plenty of well-meaning but crazy emails," explains Max Temkin, referring to the early feedback he received when he turned to Kickstarter to fund the printing of his card game Cards Against Humanity, and came away with almost four times his fundraising target. Such feedback, both positive and negative, turned into a benefit.

"A single great email that gives us a new idea is rare, but getting feedback from users in aggregate is an important part of how we created the game and continue to improve it," Temkin said.

Further illustrating Schafer’s point about crowd-sourced funding seekers looking to take the power back from the large purse-string holders is proven in Temkin’s potential response to an overzealous donor. “If one of our backers tried to leverage their support to force us to change our idea," Temkin says, "We would simply say, 'Sorry to lose your support.'"

A great deal of Double Fine Productions’ success with their fundraising project comes from the their impressive success at making critically acclaimed games like Psychonauts and Costume Quest via the traditional publishing system, and from Schafer’s legacy at LucasArts.

"Their previous success drove their Kickstarter. On the other hand, they aren't the only Kickstarter to blow through their goal. Womanthology did huge, over 400% of their goal too," muses Jean Michel and Michael Vuolo of the independent comics label Megabrain Comics. "But then again, they're also jam packed with already successful comic creators, so I guess I just talked myself out of my counterpoint!"

The men of Megabrain don’t begrudge others’ success; they themselves have already successfully funded via Kickstarter the first issue of their comic American Dark Age.  Described as taking place in a world where "all of the electricity, guns, cars, planes, cell phones, and everything else that keeps our ADHD driven society moving at full tilt just stops working."

Rather than using it to free themselves from the "system" Michel and Vuolo see crowd-based funding as an important stepping stone to future success, "We turned to Kickstarter because it's a great way to get the project off the ground. We're not looking to fund the entire run this way, but like the [site's] name says, it's a way to give it a good start. Starting a project like this takes more money than we had on hand. Also, it's a great way to generate more buzz, Kickstarter does a great job of exposing our project to people who wouldn't have heard of it otherwise."

The men of Megabrain perhaps see what is at the core of both the traditional and crowd-sourced funding system in all media, the democratization of risk. Where in the current model huge cash layouts for projects all but require what they would call "careful shepherding" of that investment, but on the other hand, "With crowd based funding, you take a little of the risk out, because your product has a paying customer base before it's fully funded. Risk is all well and good, builds character, yada yada yada. But it's a big stumbling block for small publishers who don't have the option of mortgaging their home and selling their kids to put out their dream project that maybe no one will buy."

Utilizing democratized fundraising powered by their reputation Double Fine has successfully overcome what was once "the hard part" when it came game production. Now with over 20,000 copies of the game essentially pre-purchased without a single pixel laid down, its is up to them to put everyone’s money where their mouth is in order to discover if a new trend in game development is dawning.

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