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Double Fine: Suits "don't always know best"

We talk with Tim Schafer and Brad Muir about Massive Chalice and why the company remains unsure about Xbox One

Over a year ago, Double Fine Productions finished a record-breaking funding drive on Kickstarter. The drive for the Double Fine Adventure finished at $3.3 million, far above the studio's funding goal of $400,000. The wild success was great for Double Fine, but it also put Kickstarter on the map for game developers everywhere. Since then, you can't go a single week without another new development team announcing another Kickstarter drive.

Now Double Fine is back with its second Kickstarter, the fantasy strategy game Massive Chalice, hoping to repeat the success of the Double Fine Adventure, now known as Broken Age. GamesIndustry International spoke with Double Fine founder Tim Schafer and Massive Chalice project lead Brad Muir about the game and returning to the crowdfunding service.

Broken Age is still in full development at Double Fine, but the studio really enjoyed the process of working for fans instead of a larger publisher. Double Fine decided to send a second game idea out on Kickstarter to see if lightning strikes twice, like it has for Brian Fargo's InXile Entertainment.

"Our first Kickstarter funded one of our teams here at Double Fine, and funded it really well. That's great, but we do have other teams. We have multiple projects going on at once, so we have these other teams that we could fund with publishing deals or some other way, but we had such a positive experience with Kickstarter. We really wanted to fund another project that same way," said Schafer.

"Broken Age is still ongoing and we have a level of transparency with our backers; we let them see weekly production updates and the whole documentary about the making of the game. So they know that the game is going well, it's underway, and we spent their money well. We felt that allowed us to gain their trust enough to back a second project even before the first one was shipped."

"I was really nervous going into it," admitted Muir. "There were a lot of risks with this project. It's a brand-new IP, it's not based on some legacy game or nostalgic property. It's not a Tim game. So, I was really nervous when we launched it, but it's been a pretty awesome day."

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Since Double Fine's first adventure finished funding, Kickstarter has evolved a bit. Now many developers present backers with titles in an alpha or pre-alpha state, with videos of gameplay or even a playable demo. Despite that shift, Double Fine has stuck with what worked the last time: an early concept pitch with only a few pieces of concept art.

"It was definitely a conscious choice to take the idea in its embryonic form," explained Muir. "It's like a pure concept pitch. I feel lot of Kickstarters have evolved in this direction where the game's been worked on a long time and it's sort of in this pre-alpha state. They show you a lot of footage and they show you all this stuff. I think that's cool, that's one way you can go. It makes the Kickstarter feel more like a pre-order and less like you're actually kickstarting the idea."

"With this, we really want people to feel like they're getting in from the very beginning. Their feedback will be listened to. We haven't made all of the decisions yet. It's cooler. They feel like they're more a part of the process and they can see it take shape, as opposed to a lot of these other games. They've already got their flags in the ground and the game isn't going to change a lot, you just have to decide as a backer, 'oh, would you play this actual game?' With this, it's about believing in the idea, believing in the studio."

"It worked great on our first project," added Schafer. "It showed us the value of transparency and letting people in early on, which is something we never used to do with games in the old days. Now we're actually showing you our first concepts with the game. I think that's more exciting to people."

Massive Chalice is not Muir's first game idea that was ready for development. He pitched the idea for another game, Brazen, for an entire year before calling it quits. The studio had difficulty convincing publishers that its idea would be popular with consumers. Muir's experiences that year also fed into the decision to run a Kickstarter for Massive Chalice.

"The previous game that I was working on, called Brazen, I had been pitching that game for an entire year. That was a tough sell, trying to pitch that game to publishers. I don't want to name any names, but the stop-motion aesthetic - that game was based on the Ray Harryhausen stop-motion animations - was always the sticking point. That people wouldn't relate to it or think it was cool," Muir told us.

"This was just a bunch of businessmen, like suits around a table. It was very hard for me to listen to their opinions of what gamers might actually like. It's a very weird thing, taking your ideas to a small group of businessmen and having them tell you whether they think it's going to sell or not. I don't think they always know best. That's the cool thing about this idea. This idea is brand-new. We haven't taken this idea to anyone. We developed it and took it straight to the backers," he continued.

"It's a very weird thing, taking your ideas to a small group of businessmen and having them tell you whether they think it's going to sell or not"

Massive Chalice project lead Brad Muir

"When Brad had this new idea and he was really excited about it; it was like, 'do we really want to throw this back to that same process again?' Watch Brad spend another year pitching and compromising his idea? Or do we want to go down this road where we just have to test this idea with the actual people who'll be buying the game. 'Hey, do you guys like this concept? If you like the concept we can do it.' Much simpler and much better. With money that comes with fewer strings attached," Schafer explained.

Over the past year, other studios have also experimented with other alternative funding options, like paid alphas, Steam Early Access, and even internal funding drives. Schafer said that these other options were "really interesting" to the studio and Double Fine has had discussions about using them for other projects, but the "excitement" of Kickstarter was undeniable.

Massive Chalice is being built with Double Fine's internal Buddha Engine, unlike Broken Age, which is using the cross-platform Moai engine for development. Massive Chalice is currently targeting a smaller set of platforms, so it made sense for Muir's team to work with an engine they understood down to the core.

"We've been working with this engine since Brutal Legend. One of the greatest things about it is that Brutal Legend had a lot of different kinds of gameplay in it. It's got open-world, it's got strategy, it's got brawling, it's got driving. The are so many aspects to that game, so the engine had to be very versatile. We've been using it for Iron Brigade, Stacking, Costume Quest, and Kinect Party," said Muir. "Plus, there's no licensing fees for it. It's all ours, so all of this money that we're raising on Kickstarter can go right into the game. It's doesn't have to go into a bunch of middleware."

"It's something that we've invested in and other big publishers have invested millions of dollars in and we've just been able to improve it and evolve it over the years," said Schafer. "Everyone knows how to use it really well. We can also make engine choices based on what's best for Massive Chalice. We can modify it to fit this game, we don't have worry about using an engine that was developed to make a different type of game."

Project lead Brad Muir is excited about not spending another year pitching a game

While Double Fine has previously been a studio that works on consoles and PCs, neither Kickstarter title is planned for current or future consoles. Schafer explained that the focus on PC, Mac, and Linux, was completely down to the ease of self-publishing on those platforms, as opposed to consoles.

"It's about flexibility in self-publishing," said Schafer. "When you do Kickstarter, you publish on your own. Steam is so reasonable about letting you self-publish. Some of the console owners like Nintendo and Sony have made a lot of advances in that as well. Double Fine is pretty platform agnostic. We want to be everywhere. It really is based on what platforms we can self-publish on. I think there's a lot more interest in PC, Mac, and Linux, as we start to bring our engines to those platforms."

Muir called the PC-like architecture of the upcoming Xbox One and PlayStation 4 a definite "step in the right direction," but said that there are currently too many unknown questions about how platform holders will interact with indies.

"We have this engine that already runs on PC. Those two machines are very similar to a PC. You're not going to have a PS3 Cell situation, where you've got to totally re-architect stuff in order to get it to work there. That's interesting, but I think there are still a lot of unknown questions about the walled gardens," said Muir.

"Are you going to be able to patch your game whenever you want to on the consoles? I would like that. Working with Valve and Steam has been incredible. We can patch multiple times a day if we needed to. They're just so flexible. I'm hoping that Microsoft and Sony will have that approach, where they're just really open and they really trust developers to fix the bugs in their game. I think that's better for everyone. I don't think they've really talked a lot about that. That will be something to see," he added.

Schafer said that Sony has reached out to them in its current drive to court independent developers for PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita development. He also said that Microsoft's intentions were completely unclear, leaving the studio in a wait-and-see position on the Xbox One.

"Double Fine is pretty platform agnostic. We want to be everywhere. It really is based on what platforms we can self-publish on"

Double Fine founder Tim Schafer

"[Sony] reached out to a lot of indies like us and wanted to talk about what our needs were for the next platform. What we'd like to see, if we'd like to do stuff for it. Sony has definitely been putting a lot of energy into getting to know indies. Nintendo has also been forthright about letting us know how we can get involved," he said.

"The optimistic part of me is thinking that [Microsoft is] holding off on announcing their new, indie-friendly platform policy and they're going to tell us all about it at E3. I'm going to reserve judgment until after E3."

Massive Chalice is well on its way to being completely funded, but we asked both gentlemen about contingency plans if the game somehow failed to reach its goal.

"We talked about this a lot leading up to yesterday," said Muir. "Tim's approach and the studio's approach is that this is the ultimate litmus test for a concept. The game's pretty early, we haven't put a lot of resources into it. If we bring it to the public and they're not into it, maybe we don't have the best idea. Maybe we should move on and try something else."

"It's not an automatic death sentence, but I think it's definitely something we'd have to think long and hard about: why the Kickstarter didn't work and what we can learn from that. Did we just miss the message? Or did people leave a bunch of comments saying 'stupid idea. we don't like it,' which saves us a lot of trouble, because then we didn't spend a year or so making that game."

Massive Chalice's Kickstarter funding drive is available here and the game has a planned release date of September 2014.

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Mike Williams avatar

Mike Williams

Reviews Editor, USgamer

M.H. Williams is new to the journalism game, but he's been a gamer since the NES first graced American shores. Third-person action-adventure games are his personal poison: Uncharted, Infamous, and Assassin's Creed just to name a few. If you see him around a convention, he's not hard to spot: Black guy, glasses, and a tie.