Earlier this month, celebrated development studio, Double Fine Productions, announced plans to design and subsequently release a brand new and largely mysterious adventure game, but with a unique catch. Instead of pitching an idea to prospective publishers, the company made a heartfelt plea to its fans via Kickstarter, the online site that lets people donate money to fund projects.
The goal? $400,000, a mark Double Fine quickly exceeded. In fact, as of this writing, over 60,000 backers have kicked in $2 million plus with more than 15 days to go. With resources like that, we can only imagine the sorts of things Double Fine founder Tim Schafer will be able to achieve.
What's especially interesting about this is the impact it may have on video game development at large, specifically smartphones. Aspiring iOS developers often have big ideas, but not enough money to realize their visions. Kickstarter stands to change that.
"The Kickstarter ecosystem requires that inventors create a good pitch and hone their ideas into a form that potential customers can easily understand, and that can only be a good thing," said Paul O'Connor, brand director at Appy Entertainment. "Even if your idea doesn't get traction, your project will be better for going through the process."
Ilari Kuittinen, CEO of Housemarque, agrees.
"I think it's a great initiative that encourage even more discussion between game creators and fans, so it allows at least some developers a luxury to go out and create a game they want and a game their fans want as well."
Interacting with fans is an idea NASA Trained Monkey's Carlos Sessa can get behind.
"I remember buying DOOM II and playing it on my 486," said Sessa. "I never got an update, nor could I easily provide feedback. Nowadays, I download a game, I can rate it, send emails to developers, ask for fixes and submit feature requests. Users want to get involved."
"While Kickstarter gives developers with a track record one more way to fund their next game, I do not think it signals a wild swing away from the traditional publisher/developer model."
"Kickstarter shows how important users are," he said. "Users can decide what game they want to buy and play. Making users happy should be our first priority.
Scott Zerby, president of Gamers Digital chimed in.
"As developers, we're excited about this sort of business model. It is extremely favorable, since you make your project public and give a chance to include people, mostly gamers and fellow developers. The Kickstarter program can also give you an idea of the possibility of success of your game considering the response of support it gets."
"It can totally turn around the way games are created," Zerby continued. "What better way to pitch your ideas and let people believe in it and support by donating? Funding the project with the help of thousands of people who feel your idea for the game can also facilitate its distribution. Why? We bet most of the people who help with the fundraising will brag about the project they supported, and word of mouth can be considered an important factor when distributing a game, with the influence of social media to share it."
Perks may also play a key role. Double Fine, for example, will reward people depending on how much they donate. Pledge $100, and gamers will receive a Double Fine Adventure poster, as well as a thank you in the game's credits.
On a different level, this would give studios more creative freedom to do what they want, instead of regularly dealing with publishers.
"It's great for the industry," said Dave Castelnuovo, co-founder of Bolt Creative. "A lot of these big name developers are between a rock and a hard place. They see all the fun that's being had in the app space with people creating their dream projects without interference from a publisher."
Beyond that, The Game Baker's Emeric Thoa feels Double Fine's use of Kickstarter will encourage more developers to use it, and more players to get involved.
"Maybe an indie dev will have a better chance to reach $50k now that everyone has heard about Kickstarter," said Thoa.
At the same time, he also feels this may not work as well for everyone, which is true. After all, Double Fine is a well known company within the gaming community.
"I wouldn't expect Double Fine's recent success to radically change the current system," said Thoa. "They can make it thanks to their legitimacy as Monkey Island creators."
O'Connor shares this opinion.
"Double Fine," he said, "has built an enormous reservoir of goodwill through their quality offerings in the past, and now they can draw on that to fund their projects. Good for them. Now they have to deliver. Answering to fans is different than answering to publishers."
Developers also have to make sure they deliver on their end.
"It would be quite a gamble to give up working on AAA titles and start a game for the iPhone," said Castelnuovo. "I'm sure that we will see more of this as time goes on, but I can't quite predict if this will change the way games are made for everyone. Big name game designers can probably use Kickstarter to get a couple million to develop a project, which I feel is a fair amount for the types of games they are looking to create. But for inexperienced devs, I have a feeling they probably won't be able to get nearly as much money, and even if they do, I'm sure you will see many of them fail to finish their ambitious projects with the funds they raised.
With this in mind, the companies that may succeed the most are the ones that excelled long before Kickstarter existed.
"Double Fine's Kickstarter success will change the content creation/distribution model only for a minority of developers who are already successful without Kickstarter," said Ernest Woo, founder and CEO of Woo Games.
"It's similar in many ways to Louis CK's 'experiment': an artist with an established fan base leverages a unique funding mechanic in order to deliver a new piece of content. Both Double Fine and Louis CK are (rightfully) taking advantage of years of effort put into building their audience. While Kickstarter gives developers with a track record one more way to fund their next game, I do not think it signals a wild swing away from the traditional publisher/developer model."
For now, it remains to be seen whether Double Fine's grand experiment will impact gaming at large, much less iOS and Android development.
That said, we'll find out soon enough, thanks to Mighty Rabbit Studios. In a strange twist, the company began a Kickstarter campaign for its Saturday Morning RPG title two hours before Double Fine, with a more modest goal of $6,000, which it recently achieved. With the game set to arrive this spring, its critical and commercial reception could inspire other developers to follow its lead.
Said Mighty Rabbit's Ben Moore, "Already today, companies are announcing interest in looking at Kickstarter as a possible platform to gain funding for new projects, which in turn could spur a 'developer gold rush', as our president Josh Fairhurst puts it. Only time can tell what ultimate effect this will have on smaller developers, whether positive or negative, but either way, things will certainly change."
On that note, 2012 just became even more interesting.