3 July, 2013
I've been super-busy with work, but I was putting together a more design-focused blog post. However,recent news has cried out for a response. It's a tale of woe in the business of game development, when a company ignores the business realities in the tumultuous reality of game development.
Let's see what happens when a developer used to working with publishers instead tries goes indie.
The big news
Double Fine, darling game developers and champions of the "dead" genre of point-and-click adventures, had the biggest indie success story last year with their super-duper successful Kickstarter campaign. They got about $3.3 million after asking for $400k. There was celebration as developers embraced a new era of the players funding games directly.
But, wait. What's that delivery date? October 2012, and here we are in July 2013. Then the bad news comes.
I'm going to take look at things from a critical angle. I don't have any special insider information here. I wasn't a backer so I haven't even seen the documentaries they're producing. And, I'm not here to say that game development should be a perfectly predictable process; I'm the first to defend game development by explaining that fun can't be easily measured, and "there's no unit test for fun".
And, while the general courtesy is that a developer shouldn't criticize other developers, remaining silent will do more harm than good. The game industry really needs to focus on figuring out good project management methodologies that work for our industry, rather than just throwing our hands up in the air and claiming it's all black magic.
As you may know, I helped write a book on business and legal issues in the game industry. As I've said before, i didn't do this because I had a strong passion for business or legal issues, but because I realize the vital importance of these issues. Making a cool game but not running a tight business means that cool game will languish or even die; we can see this from the sad fate of 38 Studios. Business is a vital part of the creative process, and you ignore it at your own peril.
What went wrong?
Here's what I see: a game developer used to working with publishers. It decides to try something crazy, and go directly to the fans to see if they'll support a "dead" genre. The fans respond overwhelmingly, and again a second time. Money comes pouring in.
Tim Schafer described the problem in a letter to the backers as, " getting excited and designing a game so big that it would need even more money." This is a problem of scope, something that a lot of game developer struggle with. We see it with MMOs, where games try to provide a variety of systems that end up being mediocre instead of a few systems that really shine. Now, it's not always the fault of the developer; sometimes the audience expectations are important. Going back to MMOs, there are some people who very vocally say that an MMO better be a MASSIVELY multiplayer game and needs at least X players to really be considered that.
Double Fine is a company that is used to dealing with publishers. If the publisher cuts you a check for $3.3 million, you don't give them a $400k game. Since they raised so much money on Kickstarter, the internal attitude was probably that they needed to expand the game to match that budget. But, unfortunately, that means that any original plans got scrapped, and we're in a situation where 9 months after the original promised date the game has slipped and only the first half will be released over a year late. Or, maybe Double Fine expected to have a publisher pick up the original game. At any rate, I see a developer in the mindset of having a publisher not changing its ways.
The shame of needing publishers
So, what's the problem? Games slip, Double Fine announced a plan to get on track, and the backers seem willing to be patient.
The problem is that it shows that publishers are still a needed part of the process.
Tim Schafer has a game design pedigree most developers (including me) can only dream about. He's probably the world's expert on the professional development of point-and-click adventure games. He's worked on a number of tremendously popular games. But, even his experience failed when it came to determining a proper scope to the game.
For all their sins, a publisher would likely have avoided this situation. First, they'd probably ask for more plans than, "Hey, we're going to do a game!" even from someone as experienced as Double Fine. They would have wanted some planning documentation, even if things are expected to slip. They would have worked to contain the scope and budget, through direct management and milestones.
What would I have done differently if I were leading Double Fine? The easiest answer would have been to expand the budget of the game from $400k to $1M, then used the other $2.3 as buffer and operating profit to fund a future game. This would have been a tremendous opportunity for Double Fine to be truly independent, and focus on making cool games to an enthusiastic audience.
I think there are some other consequences of Double Fine's problems. The first is that it puts a further strain on Kickstarter campaigns. If Broken Age is having financial problems, what does that mean for Massive Chalice? Is this the start of a Ponzi-like scheme, where they take money from one project to finish another? (I've already seen something like this happen with a tabletop RPG game I backed on Kickstarter, where the designer then did that IndieGoGo campaign to cover more costs.)
What happens to other KS campaigns from other developers without the reputation of Double Fine? Will people continue to pour money into KS campaigns if more of them fail? How many people treat their money like a pre-order instead of a donation with the hope of getting a reward?
Finally, this also puts the Indie Fund investment into Double Fine into perspective. I wondered at the time why a company with such successful KS campaigns needed money from a fund intended to promote otherwise unpublishable games. It still feels like Double Fine took money from other projects, and the people who argued that Double Fine was a "sure bet to increase the Indie Fund coffers" are perhaps looking a little less certain now.
Life will go on
This isn't the end of games as we know it. But, it means that the transition away from publishers isn't quite as close as some of us had hoped. I hope that Double Fine's backers get the games they wanted and they exceed their expectations. I hope Double Fine has a long, glorious, and highly profitable future in front of it.
Now, pardon me, I need to get ready when September rolls around and we see this story, with different actors, repeated all over again.