Double Fine’s Kickstarter provides a Radiohead moment

Thursday, 9 February 2012 20:02 GMT By Johnny Cullen

It’s not the first studio to go down the Kickstarter route, but it’s the biggest one to do so yet. Double Fine gave the games industry its Radiohead moment today. Johnny Cullen explains.

We saw an indie drag in close to $1 million in a matter of hours today by directly engaging the community and dropping publishers completely. It won’t work for everyone, but it did for Double Fine, as it did for Radiohead. And, like Yorke and the gang, Schafer is unlikely to look back.

Eight hours. It took just eight hours after it was first announced for Double Fine to reach its Kickstarter goal of $400,000 for a brand new click-and-point adventure title. This is a game bought not by a big-name publisher, but by fans and gamers around the world.

In going down the Kickstarter route, as it says on the fundraising page, Double Fine can “make the game they want to make, promote it in whatever manner they deem appropriate, and release the finished product on their own terms,” instead of being set to a publisher’s goals as it has before with the likes of THQ, Microsoft and EA.

The truth, though, is that Double Fine’s success is about much more than fundraising. In 2007, Jonny Greenwood posted on Dead Air Space, Radiohead’s blog, to say the band’s seventh album was finished and would release within a week. The LP, known as In Rainbows, would launch as a pay-as-you-like affair, the first time anything of the sort had been attempted by a major name in the entertainment industry.

Double Fine today gave to games what Thom Yorke and friends gave to music nearly five-and-a-half years ago.

House of cards

Double Fine’s not the first studio to go down the Kickstarter route. For one, Tony Hawk developer Robomodo has attempted to use it to fund development for an Xbox Live Arcade Kinect pinball title called Bodoink, seeking $35,000.

Unfortunately, that ultimately failed; the studio only attracted $5,547.

And while it hasn’t used Kickstarter for its efforts, Slightly Mad, the UK-based developer on Need for Speed: Shift and Shift 2, has relied on community donations and feedback for its upcoming racing sim Project CARS.

So far, that’s held up reliably well. Those involved on the highest level get access to weekly development builds and have serious input towards development. The game’s set to come out for PC, Wii U, Xbox 360 and PS3, although a date is yet to be set.

But Double Fine is the first established games studio to genuinely succeed with the model. The middleman publisher has been entirely removed in the same way Radiohead managed to eschew record companies for the making of In Rainbows.

The band handled the record’s release, made the album at its own pace, and wasn’t pushed to deadlines as would have been likely had it still been with EMI Parlophone.

Go slowly

So far, the funds keep pouring in. As of writing this piece, the total has passed $820,000. The excess will be used to make the game better and possibly bring it to more platforms. Happy ending?

Yes, but there are potential downsides. Since the announcement, there’s been a peer debate on Twitter and Facebook as to the objectivity of writers covering the game if they’ve donated.

One of those journalists whose donated is our own Brenna Hillier, who summed up my thoughts on the situation in the comments of the original story.

“You don’t get any kind of profit from Kickstarter,” she said. “It’s like pre-ordering and donating.”

And then there’s the prickly issue of user entitlement. We’re fully aware it’s a user-driven fundraiser for a much-loved game studio, but does Double Fine really know what it’s getting itself into? Yes, it’s fully disclosed the game will be a point-and-click adventure on the Kickstarter page, but we’re in a world where gamers can get really fussy over the slightest detail. And this time, they’re paying for the game to be made.

Ex-GamePro editor Julian Rignall said in a tweet just before Double Fine hit its $400,000 target: “Kickstarter’s fab bar one teensy potential entitlement issue: ‘I dun put muny in ur pokets + u dint maek the game wot I payded u 4 u ahoels.’”

The gaming community is a jungle. Sense of entitlement is a lion. But maybe with Double Fine’s community backers are of a better breed.

Maybe.

Down is the New Up

So. Is this the end of the world as we know it? Or to be more specific, the end of traditional publishing efforts, even for partner schemes like EA Partners or THQ?

Absolutely not.

For, as well known as Double Fine is, one studio isn’t going to shake the current publishing model, at least in the short-term. Double Fine is exceptionally well-liked, and the games it makes don’t fit into the traditional model any more. The gamers putting up money today are saying, “We want this studio to keep making games, and we’re prepared to pay for it.” Could any old studio attempt the same and hope to succeed on this level? There are some – imagine if Valve tried this for Half-Life 3? – but there are many that would fail.

This was the right choice for Schafer. He told Digital Spy this week that he’d pitched Psychonauts 2 to publishers “several times,” but no one wants to do it. He’s well aware of how many people want that game.

Mojang co-founder Notch is also less than stupid, and immediately said to Schafer on Twitter: “Let’s make Psychonauts 2 happen,” adding in a later tweet he was “serious” about the offer.

Whether anything will come of that is anyone’s guess right now, but that’s besides the point. We saw an indie drag in close to $1 million in a matter of hours today by directly engaging the community and dropping publishers completely. It won’t work for everyone, but it did for Double Fine, as it did for Radiohead. And, like Yorke and the gang, Schafer is unlikely to look back.

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