When we look back at the history of crowdfunding, the success of Double Fine’s Broken Age will undoubtedly be a pivotal chapter. Studio founder Tim Schafer will go down as the man who stood at the helm of such a groundbreaking campaign.
Any list of well-regarded video game developers is likely to include Schafer. He’s earned himself something of a cult following with his vivid imagination and anarchic sense of humor over his quarter-century of creating games. Having made his name at LucasArts in the 90’s working on classic titles like The Secret of Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, and Grim Fandango, Tim branched out on his own and founded Double Fine Productions in 2000. The first title released by the new studio was Psychonauts, a critically acclaimed action-platformer. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite find as wide an audience as it deserved, and the studio was on shaky ground because of it.
For Two Weeks Only, Forget Your Troubles
Similarly subdued sales for their next game, Brütal Legend, as well as the sudden cancellation of its sequel seemed to spell doom for the beloved studio — but some critical lateral thinking would change their fortunes. Inspired by Chinese film director Wong Kar-wai, Schafer used an “Amnesia Fortnight” to rejuvenate the creative juices of his team.
Splitting his workforce into four groups, Double Fine dropped work on their projects. They split off into several small groups to work on multiple prototypes for two weeks. These prototypes were created by people within the company who had pitched their ideas to Schafer. Eventually, the studio’s next four games would come out of these small groups.
Driven by his company’s success at disrupting the normal creative process, Schafer sought out other ways he could get games made. He had an interview with 2 Player Productions, a documentary team, for Minecraft: The Story of Majong which planted the seed of an idea. The Minecraft documentary was funded on Kickstarter, so why not make a video game using the same platform?
A funding goal of $400,000 was set — much lower than the budgets that Double Fine was accustomed to. Still, it was the highest at that time for a video game on Kickstarter.
Why Double Fine Adventure Was So Compelling
The genius of the campaign was in the pitch video. It began by explaining clearly and humorously how Kickstarter works to a then largely uninitiated audience. He spoke of how the platform would be a new venture for creators to connect with their audience, and allow them to make the games they always wanted which AAA publishers wouldn’t touch. Their own game, not even titled yet, would be less a game and more a journey taking backers through the process of game development, and this new medium of crowdfunding.
It worked. Just eight hours into the campaign, the $400,000 goal was met and then some. For the next five weeks, fans and the team at Double Fine shared in the jubilation of a dream project coming to fruition. Every further update from Schafer and company had the same enthusiasm that’s evident in every title that he and the studio have produced.
The campaign soon began receiving mainstream news coverage and continued passing major milestones. Fans could celebrate its success alongside the people behind the project. Schafer hadn’t just brought crowdfunding to the fore. He set a precedent for the sort of direct engagement with the audience that such a project should strive for. The walls between the game-makers and the game-players were no more.
After the campaign’s success, that feeling of glee subsided in backers. As the years went by in development, fans grew more angry at delays, and what they saw as mismanagement. The double-edged nature of an open development process became obvious. But as Double Fine Adventure morphed into Broken Age, Kickstarter itself grew in popularity.
Beyond Broken Age
While Broken Age was still in development, another small team within Double Fine launched their own Kickstarter campaign. Massive Chalice would be developed by Double Fine, and while Tim Schafer was in the pitch video, his involvement with development of this game would be limited.
One game that would involve him more was their next crowdfunding endeavor. After years of development on Broken Age, and over a decade of eager anticipation, Double Fine finally did it. They announced Psychonauts 2 in December 2015, to be written and directed by Schafer himself. The campaign would be radically different from their previous two, however.
Rather than use the tried and tested Kickstarter, Psychonauts 2 was instead funded through equity crowdfunding site Fig. Tim Schafer is on Fig’s Advisory Board, and Fig itself was funded by ex-Double Fine COO Justin Bailey. The company has also been extremely quiet compared to their previous crowdfunding attempts, likely due to the backlash they got during them. They have wrapped up their first public Amnesia Fortnight in years recently, though it’s a far cry from the monthly hour long documentaries, detailed campaign updates, and team members actively posting in the Double Fine forums that we’re so used to.
That’s the Sound of Silence
You can hardly blame Schafer or anyone at Double Fine for wanting to keep silent. The backlash they received was unprecedented in the games industry, at least at the time. They wanted to be open about game development, including it’s trials and tribulations. For the most part, the community wasn’t ready to see that, or they didn’t care. Still, it was courageous for Schafer to stick his neck out, and we need more of that in this industry.
If Double Fine wasn’t the big company to test the waters of crowdfunding, then someone else undoubtedly would have. However, it’s difficult to argue that Schafer and his team were anything but the perfect fit for this watershed moment. They were willing to take an even greater risk than just crowdfunding. Hats off to you, Tim Schafer.
Be sure to check out our other Crowdfunding Hall of Fame honorees.