Posted on February 15, 2012, Jim Sterling Why You Should be Excited About Double Fine’s Kickstarter Success
(This is another edition of </RANT>, a weekly opinion piece column on GameFront. Check back every week for more. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not reflect those of GameFront.)
Last week, Double Fine made headlines and dropped jaws with the announcement that it would fund its next project — a traditional PC adventure game — solely through donations (or rather, glorified pre-orders) on Kickstarter. It was an unconventional move for a studio so used to relying on publishers, but it was the wildfire of consumer support that truly turned heads. Tim Schafer and his team cleared the $400,000 funding goal within eight hours, and the money didn’t stop flowing. In well under 24-hours, the company was sitting on a cool million. Even now, with the hype having died down somewhat, the money is still coming in, and the team should be able to make a game above and beyond even Double Fine’s most optimistic expectations before the deadline in March.
This is a beautiful, exciting thing, and I think even the most hard-bitten cynic can at least be impressed by watching a studio fully fund its game based on nothing but the goodwill it’s earned from fans. That’s an amazing achievement, and a testament to the trust and love that Double Fine has won from gamers around the world. Still though, the cynics among us have plenty of holes to pick, and reasons why we shouldn’t get excited about what happened. If you choose to look at this Kickstarter fund through blinkers, you can be forgiven for thinking that this situation isn’t the future of videogames as some would have us believe. However, when you look at the big picture and see what Double Fine’s achievement really means, you should be able to see what’s so exciting about this.
Every time I’ve discussed Double Fine’s scheme with a group of gamers, the same argument has cropped up: “This isn’t really a big deal. It’s not like Kickstarter will be able to fund every single game from now on.” The consensus among the detractors is that what Double Fine did was unique, possibly an anomaly, and that one successful Kickstarter fund doesn’t mean that any old studio can duplicate the success. Now, this argument is not wrong. In fact, there are plenty of indie games already looking for funding on Kickstarter, many of which have sat stagnant without a single pledge. It takes a developer with the prestige and love of Double Fine to fully fund an ambitious project through goodwill alone, so it’s absolutely true that Kickstarter is not going to be the indie holy grail that will fund any old project.
However, I’m sick of this argument because it ignores the bigger picture. Simply focusing on Kickstarter isn’t what we need to be doing. What we need to be doing is focusing on what Double Fine’s achievement really means for the industry — that there are alternatives to the developer/publisher dynamic that has ruled over every aspect of this industry for far, far too long. Kickstarter might not be the answer for a lot of studios, but it should be evidence that those developers with ingenuity and an ability to think for themselves can find other ways of making money without signing their intellectual property rights over to a parasitic corporation that may or may not fulfill its end of the bargain.
Digital distribution has only grown in popularity over the course of this generation, and it looks set to continue doing so. Thanks to this, independent games can be distributed online without the need of a manufacturer, and can be promoted virally without the need for a marketing department. The beauty of the Internet is that a notable product can spread like flame on an oil spill, propagated simply by interested human beings rather than paid advertisements and retail shelf space. Just look at the success of Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Independently made and distributed online without the need for a publisher, the game captured imaginations thanks to a mixture of positive reviews and Youtube videos of regular gamers playing it and freaking out over its terrifying atmosphere. At absolutely no cost to the developer, Amnesia gained tons and tons of marketing and promotion, just because gamers loved what it did and had the ability to share that love with millions of other Internet users. As with Double Fine’s Kickstarter fund, Amnesia succeeded through word of mouth and sheer goodwill.
A smart developer will look at Double Fine’s story and not think, “I should copy it” or “I wouldn’t be able to do that,” but instead be thinking, “Now what I can do to cut out the unnecessary corporate middle man?” Kickstarter is not the ultimate answer, but it’s a gateway to other answers. It’s evidence that there are whole new ways to fund games, and whole new ways to distribute them, many of which are just waiting to be discovered. Once upon a time, the only way to make a really successful game was to pitch it to a publisher and hope they buy it. Nowadays, that’s just not true. There are tons of possibilities, and relying on a publisher’s favor is just one option in a world of other, possibly far better, choices.
Games that publishers won’t touch anymore, such as Double Fine’s adventure game, can get made on a studio’s own terms and be delivered directly to the niche market they’re designed for. THAT is the message that this whole situation sends. Not that “Kickstarter is how you make money,” but that “The Internet cuts out the middle man.” We’re looking at a potential digital age where studios get to keep their own intellectual property, get to make the games they want to make, and give them straight to the consumers that want to buy them. No major company sitting in the middle, taking a cut and erecting barriers between the product and the consumer. Double Fine demonstrated that gamers will pay top dollar for a game they believe in, and that it’s possible to make any type of game you want on your own terms — provided you’re smart enough to find a new way of doing things.
That’s why we should be excited about this. Because the game industry isn’t what it was, and it can now be anything we want it to be.