MICHAEL BELLMORE — Staff Writer
Video games don’t get the attention they deserve. In the dailies, they share no space beside film and TV. In the weeklies, they have no place alongside music and the arts. The best a humble game could ever hope for is an occasional review or holiday buyer’s guide.
I have a bit of a chip on my shoulder when it comes to games. I love them. I love playing them and reading about them and talking about them. I listen to gaming podcasts and frequent gaming forums. I am to video games as a sommelier is to wine. I love video games like hip, mustachioed young men who wear ironic T-shirts under their flannel love craft beer.
So I rejoice when video games butt their way into the mainstream, especially when they do so for a positive reason. This month, video game development studio Double Fine made their way into the news. They popped up in the usual game/ tech site circuit, but were also covered by Popular Science and USA Today.
What Double Fine did was cut out the middleman. They used the website Kickstarter to ask fans to directly fund the development of a new game, instead of going the usual route and looking for a publisher like Electronic Arts or Activision. For those of you who don’t know, Kickstarter is a website that allows the public to invest relatively small sums of money in a project that’s still in gestation. Creative individuals or organizations write up a pitch, make a video, and then ask the public for cash to make it happen. And the public happily pays, getting in return the satisfaction helping along a creative project, as well as receiving different perks, depending on the amount donated (T-shirts, a nod in the credits, the final product, etc.).
Tim Schafer heads Double Fine. He’s gaming royalty who has had a hand in some of the most beloved games in PC gaming history: “Monkey Island” and “Maniac Mansion: Day of the Tentacle,” to name a few. The games he’s most famous for are adventure games, a genre that puts storytelling first and usually emphasizes humor. Unfortunately for Schafer and fans of the genre, adventure games are at best considered niche in the current market, where games like “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3” sell more than six million copies the day they go on sale. Adventure games are dinosaurs. Hyper-active, first-person shooters are comets, and they’ve continued to pummel the landscape into a homogeneous goo. Asking Activision, the publisher of “Call of Duty,” to fund an adventure game would be like asking HBO to fund a radio drama.
But there are still those out there who love adventure games, myself included. And they have been beating their war drums. They want Tim Schafer and Double Fine to make an adventure title. So, in his Kickstarter pitch, Schafer essentially asked fans to put their money where their mouths are. Double Fine asked for $400,000 to fund the game and a serialized video documentary to accompany its creation. As of yesterday, the Kickstarter drive is over — Double fine made $3,336,371. Fans have given this studio $3 million on good faith — once the game is complete, backers will receive a copy. Until then, that’s a lot of money for nothing.
This is the most lucrative project in Kickstarter’s history. Double Fine earned more in less time than any project to come before. But I think they did more than secure cash to make a game. They may well have changed the way games are made.
Major publishers are timid. They only fund games that will make buckets of money, so they throw buckets of money at games they think will accomplish this. This means endless reiterations of tired, safe ideas. Double Fine has demonstrated that it’s possible for a major studio to fund a very unsure thing, all without the help of a publisher — if help is even the right word.
This Kickstarter project is a milestone in how people make stuff. It shows there might be a 21st century solution to media giants like Activision and Warner Brothers and EMI that trample creativity and bake the bones of artists into their bread. On Kickstarter, if an idea is good and it gets attention, the public — myself included — will pay to see that idea come to fruition. We don’t need board rooms and executives and focus groups to tell us what we want anymore.
As of yesterday, another big budget Kickstarter project was pitched. Brian Fargo, the founder of Interplay, is asking fans to back “Wasteland 2,” a sequel to the 1988 game that inspired a spiritual sequel, “Fallout.” Fargo is asking for $900,000. As I write, $596,479 is pledged, but I’m sure by the time I post this that figure will have risen. Looks like Double Fine’s big adventure isn’t just a fluke.