Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

3 July, 2013

Double Fine stuck in the publisher mindset
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 4:42 PM
(This post has been viewed 5875 times.)

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.

The caveats

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.

Secondary effects

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.

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7 Comments »

  1. I think you're right that if developers really want to successfully shed the yoke of publishers, then they must be able to self-regulate budgets and scope. If they can do this, then they can rightfully say "See, all we needed publishers for was to get our boxes on the shelf, and now they're completely obsolete."

    If it turns out that developers can't enforce basic project management principles without the oversight of publishers, then game development hasn't matured at all and deserves having grown-ups in suits overseeing the mess.

    The modern developer needs to know when it's time for unfettered creativity and when it's necessary to buckle down and lock in on the game that can be made with the time and resources available. You can't have one without the other anymore (if you ever could at all).

    Comment by Steve Danuser — 3 July, 2013 @ 5:04 PM

  2. This is why so many developers have failed and failed again.

    Even Michaelangelo was a businessman. The only reason we know about Van Gough is his businessman brother.

    When is the next edition coming?

    Comment by Steven Davis — 3 July, 2013 @ 5:42 PM

  3. Having backed both Massive Chalice and DF Adventure what disappoints me most in this is that they waited to communicate this news till several days after the end of the Massive Chalice Kickstarted ended. While I hope this doesn't end up in a ponzi scheme type of situation it does raise the alarm bells. While I can guess and understand the reasoning on waiting it still disappoints me that they pushed ahead with the Massive Chalice project despite the issues with DFA. Pne can only hope they take the lessons learned and apply them to better planning and scoping of Massive Chalice.

    On the Original point, to me this seems like not only poor planning on the Producers part but makes one wonder if the producers were to wrapped up in the project planning to say no when and where needed. It's almost as though there was no one at the helm while the ship plowed in to the sea burning up it's precious load of fuel leaving to little to get home. As a backer I really hope they can get this worked out so that others might try this in the future but I am also going to hold off giving them any more money till I see more than documentaries produced (and not even those are by them).

    On a side note I do hope that when the dust settles from this we see a postmortem of what went wrong and how they ended up over scoping the project so massively.

    Comment by Adam Baker-Siroty — 3 July, 2013 @ 6:54 PM

  4. I am a late backer of this project, but I didn't do it strictly for the game. There are roughly 12 hours + of highly polished videos cataloging the entire scenario as it plays out monthly in their game developement so far, and it looks just like Indie Game The Movie in quality. They keep adding more and more, and it's like a soap opera + documentary all in one. I would have backed this project for the insightful and inspirational docudrama alone. I also backed the space venture game by the andromeda guys, and can honestly say that Tim and his team sincerely went above what others have similarly done in terms of keeping backers in the loop. I'm not defending his scope creep... But if you watch the videos, you'll see why it unfolds in part, and its an amazing lesson to watch each month or so. I'm almost glad the story isn't over just yet, it's been that good.

    Comment by Rick Hill — 3 July, 2013 @ 10:23 PM

  5. In defense of developers, it takes almost entirely different skill sets to be a good developer and to be a good business man. They messed up on the business part of things.

    My favourite example for this conflict is tech focus vs. release focus. Of course you can rewrite the tech to accommodate new features, and it might make for the better product. But the business needs a product out ASAP, so what's the minimal change required to implement the new feature? There is quite often no right answer here, just the answer that lets you progress with minimal pain.

    Comment by unwesen — 5 July, 2013 @ 2:35 AM

  6. Bookmarks for July 8th through July 9th

    [...] Psychochild’s Blog » Double Fine stuck in the publisher mindset – [...]

    Pingback by Extenuating Circumstances — 9 July, 2013 @ 11:00 AM

  7. Kickstander: The Doom That Came To Kickstarter, And The Transference of Risk

    [...] gamers want to hear that a game has gotten BIGGER, even if it delays the release of a title. Publishers want to know annoying details and may actually constrain a title’s scope. It would also seem that crowdfunding passes the financial risk for development onto the end-user, [...]

    Pingback by Vicarious Existence — 28 July, 2013 @ 10:01 AM

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