Last month, Double Fine Productions officially launched Act 1 of its Kickstarted adventure game Broken Age. While the developer is still working on the second and final act of the game (to be released as a free update once completed), Double Fine founder Tim Schafer told GamesIndustry International earlier this month that a weight has already come off his shoulders.
"We've shipped enough that people can see we weren't kidding, and that's a big relief. Because I think there's a lot of pressure on Kickstarter projects, especially the really big Kickstarter projects, to just not screw it up for everybody else. It's such a great, positive thing for us, and being able to be funded by our fans opens so many doors for us to do original, creative things that we just wanted to live up to [expectations]."
Schafer knows it's not the first time he's had expectations to meet. But the stakes here, and the repercussions for failure, were distinctly different.
"If you take money from a publisher, it's a contract you fulfill or they'll sue you. Here it was just a moral contract with the backers to do right by them, and that felt in some ways a lot stronger. If you found a loophole in a business contract, you could get out of it and not really feel that bad. But here, if the backers were happy, we succeeded. And if they weren't happy, we didn't."
"If you take money from a publisher, it's a contract you fulfill or they'll sue you. Here it was just a moral contract with the backers to do right by them, and that felt in some ways a lot stronger."
One way Double Fine tried to keep backers happy was by making sure they were well-informed on the team's progress with exclusive ongoing updates and documentary videos tracking the game's development. While that may have worked for backers, there was a downside made clear after Schafer announced the decision to split Broken Age into two parts because the original Kickstarter funding wasn't sufficient to see the game to completion.
"People who hadn't been following us all along thought we were out of money and going under," Schafer said. "No, no, no. We were just expanding the game and paying for it ourselves, not asking for more money. Seeing that difference between backers' and non-backers' perspective on the whole thing was illuminating."
Schafer called the backlash to that announcement a "wave of anti-Kickstarter hate" and "the hardest part" of his first experience with crowdfunded development.
That was really a lesson for us, learning that even though our backers are really well informed, the rest of the world hadn't really heard of us since the Kickstarter happened," Schafer said. "It's weird because the Kickstarter experience had been wading in a sea of love from the fans. Because you don't just get money. You get all this positive support from the backers who believe in what you're doing. They hang around and cheer you on. And it was like being dumped from that into this cold pool of Internet Twitter hate. And that was crazy. It was like, 'Oh yeah, right! There's a bunch of people who hate the idea of what we're doing and are waiting to pounce on us if we make a single mistake.'"
To deal with the hate, Schafer considered what some of his celebrity voice acting talent (Jack Black and Elijah Wood among them) has gone through. The bigger you get, Schafer said, the more support you receive from fans. But at the same time, that scope also increases the negativity you get from the other end of the spectrum.
"It was like, 'Oh yeah, right! There's a bunch of people who hate the idea of what we're doing and are waiting to pounce on us if we make a single mistake.'"
"What is it like for Jack Black?" Schafer wondered. "And I think the answer is he can't possibly sit there and read what people write because he gets love and hate. And it must start to just not mean anything in a weird way. It does mean a lot when you get positive notes, but the negative ones, you just start to see them as all coming from this one angry little hole that usually doesn't represent the vast majority of what people are thinking. I really don't know who they are. It's kind of a mystery to me."
Ultimately, Schafer said he took a cue from the horror movie Paranormal Activity, about a demon that thrives on people's efforts to get rid of it.
As Schafer explained, "The demon expert is like, 'Stop doing this. Stop paying attention to it. Stop filming it. The more you engage with this demon, the more you call it into this world.' Twitter haters are the same way. If you start to pay attention to them, the demon grows and gets bigger and starts to become real."
Ultimately, Schafer's takeaway from his first go-around with Kickstarter-funded development has been to be even more transparent. For the company's second Kickstarter project, Massive Chalice, it is doing just that. The game's forums are open to the public, the team has been livestreaming the executable of the game in public ever since it was executable, and Schafer said there's been no worry with showing people "the ugly, pizza box version of the game."
Of course, there's still Broken Age Act 2 to finish. While Schafer wouldn't discuss sales figures, the good news for Double Fine fans is that the plan to split the game in two as a way of funding the final stretch of development worked.
"We've made enough that we can make the second half of the game for sure," Schafer said. "And we're not done making it to all the platforms because we haven't released it on iPad yet. I feel that's going to be a really interesting platform for adventure games. It's such a fun place to play point-and-click graphic adventures, and so many people have them. That's exciting to me."