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A peek under Tim Schafer's Fig leaf

Double Fine founder talks about skipping Kickstarter for Psychonauts 2 campaign, and the "baggage" of Early Access

Double Fine Productions has launched Kickstarter campaigns for two games: Broken Age and Massive Chalice. Both were funded substantially above their target amount, and both saw release earlier this year to largely positive reviews. They were, by any metric except perhaps timeliness, successful.

Despite that, Double Fine is opting for a different platform for its third crowdfunding effort, turning to new site Fig to raise money for Psychonauts 2. Speaking with last week, Double Fine founder Tim Schafer explained the switch.

"We had a great experience with Kickstarter, but there was this nagging question," Schafer said. "I love the mission of Kickstarter in helping creative people get their works made, and that's what backers want. But with games, especially games with higher budgets, the question is, 'But what if this is a hit and makes a lot of money?' Is it OK to make a lot of money when you got the initial money for free from someone. And how will they feel if you get rich off a game that wouldn't exist without them?"

"It seemed like we had hit a ceiling [on Kickstarter], A lot of games having trouble getting past a certain mark. With the investment portion of Fig, there's a chance to go beyond that."

It probably doesn't hurt that Fig founder Justin Bailey was previously Double Fine's COO, and left earlier this year to launch the new site. Fig's big twist to the crowdfunding formula is that it allows a project's supporters to either back the project in the Kickstarter-like fashion--reaping copies of the game or t-shirts and the like as rewards--or as an investor who would be entitled to a share of the game's eventual revenues.

Schafer said letting supporters share in the potential success of a crowdfunded game was something he had always wanted to do, but until recently, investment laws in the US prevented it from being an option. He added that moving to the new format may help make larger projects viable.

"It seemed like we had hit a ceiling [on Kickstarter], a lot of games having trouble getting past a certain mark," Schafer said. "With the investment portion of Fig, there's a chance to go beyond that."

The way the Psychonauts 2 campaign is set up reflects that belief. Double Fine is seeking $3.3 million as a minimum amount for the project to go forward, and that amount doesn't even include significant amounts of money from Double Fine's own coffers as well as an as-yet-unnamed external partner. (Who apparently is not Markus "notch" Persson, despite the Minecraft creator's previous Twitter overtures for a Psychonauts sequel.) Not coincidentally, $3.3 million is how much the original Broken Age (nee Double Fine Adventure) Kickstarter campaign raised in total, after setting a goal of $400,000. Schafer said Double Fine picked that amount for Psychonauts 2's Fig campaign as a way of celebrating its original crowdfunding experiment.

"I feel like people are starting to see we have a lot of credibility with crowdfunded projects."

"It was a huge, watershed moment for the studio--I'm going to have to look that up later to see if I'm using the word right--where we realized the power of our community," Schafer said.

That power isn't inexhaustible, but it could possibly be renewed indefinitely.

"People talk about crowdfunding fatigue and then a project like Exploding Kittens comes along and does really well and it's like, I guess it just takes the right project," Schafer said. "There's fatigue for just doing the same thing over and over again, but that's one of the reasons we looked to Fig, because it allows us to add the investment twist to it. With our first campaign, there was a period where we got a lot of hate mail because people thought we were just going to take their money and run and the project was a failure. But all we were doing was making the game even bigger and investing our own money to make that happen. I think slowly that kind of misinformation is being diluted with the truth, which is that we've now successfully crowdfunded two projects, shipped them both, the backers have them and they're great games. I feel like people are starting to see we have a lot of credibility with crowdfunded projects."

Schafer doesn't anticipate that same kind of backlash this time around for a handful of reasons. For one, Psychonauts holds a unique place among Double Fine's fanbase, so much so that Schafer says he's seen some of the studio's vocal detractors grudgingly support the campaign for a sequel. On top of that, that crowdfunding audience has a much better understanding of how these sorts of projects go, and Double Fine itself has learned much about the transparency and communication necessary for running a smooth crowdfunding campaign.

As of this writing, the Psychonauts 2 campaign has raised more than $2.6 million, with investors representing slightly over half that amount. Of the more than 15,900 backers, 14,750 of them chose to support the project for the standard rewards. They're contributing an average of about $85, enough for a digital copy of the game and some other bonuses. There are far fewer investors involved--just 1,164--but they are putting in closer to $1,200 each.

Crowdfunding isn't the only experiment in alternative funding models Double Fine has embarked on. It has also tried its hand at free-to-play with the iOS game Middle Manager of Justice, as well as Steam Early Access with Broken Age Part 1, Massive Chalice, and Spacebase DF-9. Despite that, Schafer seems less than enthusiastic about pursuing those options further

"With free-to-play, I think there are ways to do it right but it didn't necessarily match with what we like to do," Schafer said. "We like to do premium content in games, something you pay once for and it's really good and worth the money. It's just a natural thing for us. We're not ruling it out for the future, but this is a more natural fit.

"With Early Access, we did it three times with different results. There's just so much baggage with that, and I feel like crowdfunding is something our community responds really positively to, and they feel the most empowered by it."

"With Early Access, we did it three times with different results. There's just so much baggage with that, and I feel like crowdfunding is something our community responds really positively to, and they feel the most empowered by it. I feel it's something we're going to use going forward a lot."

The company won't be relying exclusively on crowdfunding. It has announced Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin for PlayStation VR, a first-person game set immediately after the events of the original game, and is working on remastered versions of Schafer's old and long out-of-print adventure games Day of the Tentacle and Full Throttle. It has also left the door open to remastering other classic games, provided the original content creators are also involved to ensure faithful updates.

There's a certain irony to Double Fine's situation at the moment. Although it has long been an indie darling and champion of innovation, the studio's development slate includes two games in a pre-existing franchise and two games that are explicit retreads of Schafer's previous work. In an industry where it seems so common for developers to get stuck churning out an endless string of derivative takes on familiar brands, Schafer had to scratch and claw and crowdfund his way to his first attempt at making a sequel to one of his own games.

"It just seemed like everything had to align, what I was doing and what the team was doing," Schafer said. "I've always wanted to iterate on a game I've made, but we're usually doing something new... It's not just the industry; I've just personally often had something else I've wanted to do. But this is one I've wanted to do for a long time. I've been keeping a Google doc open with ideas for it for like 10 years, just putting in every idea I have for a mental world that would be fun to visit. So it's either make this game or that dam will burst."

[CORRECTION]: This article originally referred to Double Fine's slate of upcoming games as consisting entirely of two Psychonauts games and two remasters, neglecting to acknowledge the original Headlander. We regret the error.

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Brendan Sinclair avatar
Brendan Sinclair: Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot.
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