Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

A New Legend Forms Around Legendary Adventure Game Designer

Posted by Rampant Coyote on February 10, 2012

So file this one away under “Adventure Games Are Dead and Other B.S. the Games Industry Tries to Sell Us.”

There’s really only one topic I could comment on today, and that is the amazing crowdfunding success experienced by Double Fine Productions. In case you missed it (it’s sort of the top story everywhere in the games-related biz right now), here’s the run-down. Tim Schafer, a game designer who’s known more for his games than for his name (he worked on Day of the Tentacle, the Monkey Island series, and was lead designer for Grim Fandango, Full Throttle, Psychonauts, Brutal Legend, etc.), decided that he wanted to do a good-old-fashioned point-and-click adventure game again with a small team from his studio. But to do that, he needed funding, and — well, the publishing world isn’t interested in giving (good) terms for that kind of thing anymore. ‘Cuz, you know, Adventure Games Are Dead. It’s been repeated often enough by marketing guys and many gaming “journalists” for over a decade, so it must be true.

There’s a little side-story out there about how Schafer complained in an interview that no publisher would fund a sequel to Psychonauts, to which Minecraft developer Markus “Notch” Persson offered to do just that, which he could pay for in something like one week’s worth of income from Minecraft‘s sales. But Schafer decided to try and “crowd-fund” a traditional adventure game instead, using the money not only to fund the game itself, but to fund an “open process” to document what really goes into making a game like this.

So could he do it? Could he get $400,000 in funding in just over a month through Kickstarter? Well, it was worth a try.

The results were a little better than expected. They hit the $400,000 goal in just under eight hours. After twenty-four hours, they’d blown all of Kickstarter’s previous records, hitting over $1 million in funding, with over 30,000 contributors.

Someone on reddit created this little image to the right illustrate what happened.

So I guess they will be able to afford to make a little adventure game. Woot!

I also have little doubt that Notch’s name and cheerleading was just as important as the reputation of the team involved. And I enjoyed his own little artistic contribution to commemorate the event:

So what should we take away from this? Besides a totally awesome new point-and-click adventure game coming soon from Schafer & co?

Here are my thoughts:

Adventure Games Aren’t Dead: They are only “not as profitable as major AAA publishers would like.” But then, we indies have known that, and we’ve been enjoying new, decent-quality adventure games for frickin’ years now. I actually get a laugh whenever I read somewhere about how the genre is long-buried. It didn’t die, it just retired young and is partying it up on the beach in Acapulco. But it is super-cool to see the genre get big headlines again.

The Era of the Giant Middleman is Over: See the above picture by Notch. Now, this doesn’t mean that the behemoths are going to go extinct, or that we don’t need these guys at all. I mean, you only need look at the difference between sales figures for Games Sold On Steam versus Games Not Sold On Steam to realize that these guys aren’t going anywhere. But the giant, all-powerful gatekeeping middleman publisher / studio model is really an artifact of the 19th and 20th centuries, the entry-level optimizations made possible by the combination of technology and the industrial revolution. A historical blip while technology caught up with ideas. Alternative models are popping up weekly, and the traditional publisher-developer system which was the one true way to sell games for three decades is becoming just one of many.

Tim Schafer Can Do It, But You Probably Can’t.  Or as former Gamepro senior editor Sid Shuman comments, “Indies who see Kickstarter as an ATM are asking for trouble.”  Indie developer Dave Toulouse writes, “It’s not a recipe. It’s just the story of the week. Tomorrow we’ll all be back to doing the best we can with the resources we have. That’s the only true way to do things.” I don’t share Dave’s disappointment that the money didn’t get redistributed to fund lots of indie games – I would rather see a game succeed because of a truly impassioned community, and I’ve never been a fan of redistribution for the sake of “fairness.” I would like to see more opportunities for indies to get visibility and succeed on merits other than “luck,” however. While luck isn’t everything, there’s still too great of a dependency on it. The bottom line here is that this whole thing happened because of several factors: The right team with a proven track record coming up with the right “story” at the right time and getting viral attention. Luck was a factor, no doubt. But that’s not a repeatable process, and even far more modest expectations from Kickstarter by relatively unknown indies are likely to be met with grave disappointment. It is what it is. But for now, I’m happy to celebrate the successes of fellow game developers and the indie process. Like Minecraft, this is a a special example of what is possible, not what is likely.

And the possibilities are endless.

The “One Size Fits All” Sales Model Is Dead. The bizarro thing that many Kickstarter projects have shown (I’m also thinking Rich Burlew’s Order of the Stick reprint funding, and more…) is that is almost seems that many people are more willing to contribute to a future project than to pay for an existing product. And it’s not limited to crowdfunding. I’m talking indie bundles, paid betas, DLC, Pay-What-You-Want, “freemium”, sponsorships, subscriptions, collectors editions, and everything else. It’s clear that the old way (which I’ve admittedly clung to with my own releases) of selling a product at a fixed price is often NOT the best way to go. It will always be an option, and a popular one, but its era of dominance is at an end. Indies need to be more creative. And yes, I mean me, too.  With a global economy (especially for digital downloads), customers and fans are just too friggin’ diverse in their tastes and means. While $25 for a “big” indie game in a niche genre is pretty reasonable for a middle-class American,  it’s far too expensive for many potential fans, and is leaving money on the table for a few others who would be happy to contribute more.

This is a great time to be a gamer. Seriously.  It’s the new frickin’ golden age as far as I am concerned. I am overwhelmed with games to play – both indie and mainstream – and time is a far more limiting factor than money. We’re still getting plenty of high-end AAA games with incredible graphics and streamlined gameplay; retro-gaming has made a pretty nice resurgence; and the indies are on fire. Life is good.

Have fun!

Filed Under: Adventure Games, Biz, Indie Evangelism - Comments: 13 Comments to Read

  • Demiath said,

    Although the actual gameplay mechanics of adventure games as a genre don’t appeal to me (though some of their stories, dialogue and other presentional aspects just might), it’s hard to not be enthusiastic about what the indie power of Kickstarter can mean for at least a select few really awesome projects, and this is indeed a great time to be a gamer.

    I’ve definitely been willing to spend money on air than an actual, fully developed game, as I’ve invested in quite a few (intentionally) unfinished games besides Minecraft during the last few years. It’s difficult to put a finger on what’s so appealing about spending money on a promise rather than on something tangible and finished, but I guess Vogel’s point about the act of buying games being functionally equivalent to charity work (due to the ease with which most people could pirate a game if they wanted to) applies here too. It simply feels even better to know that one’s investment truly means something to the active development of a game; as opposed to the considerably less glamorous result of merely increasing whatever perceived profit margin a finished product has. That, and the aforementioned flexible “pay what you feel like” pricing of many such funding projects…

  • jwmeep said,

    Definitely have mixed feelings about this. First I think it’s a very, very good thing for Tim Schafer. He’s currently got about a million and a half dollars to make a game in a “Dead genre” that was originally announced for a “dead platform”. He’s been given an unprecedented amount of good will by the internet, for a potential idea. I hope he can at very least deliver a game as good as Grim Fandago.

    On the other hand, what does that mean for the indies who have been trying to crank out adventure games all along and have been ignored? Can’t feel to constantly trying to advertise your niche game, for a niche audience, only picking up a hand full of sales, while Tim Schafer can get a million dollars, for just the mere idea of a game. Granted it’s Legendary game designer, vs obscure indie dev.

    That said I wonder if it’s possible to pull something like this off for old school RPGs. Though I wonder if any names in the RPG could have the same kind of effect. If Richard Garriot say did something like this, I know I probably wouldn’t donate. (His comments about the future of RPGs, and some comments about single player CRPGs don’t set well with me.)

  • skavenhorde said,

    I’m still surprised by how fast he got the funding. If adventure games can do it then old-school RPGs can do it too. We already have a lot of indies putting out RPGs without this kind of backing. Eschalon, Frayed Knights (of course), Age of Decadence, Dead State Knights of the Chalice and many many more. So now this might give some big names from the past another chance at making RPGs, if they wanted to. I’d back a game by D.W. Bradly just to see what he could do without a publisher. I’d give more money for a RPG made by Brenda Brathwaite. You know what nevermind about D.W. just get Brenda 😀

  • Automata said,

    Actually, I don’t think old-school RPGs would be able to manage it. First, they’re a lot more complicated mechanically from how adventure games are (at least, the style I’m assuming they’ll be making the game in). To comparatively compete would require a lot more money.

    Second (and not my point, someone on the RPG Codex brought it up; I can’t remember who, unfortunately), that there already are something like RPGs on the market. Nothing old school, but a lot of people will be satisfied with Dragon Age and Mass Effect and Skyrim, even amongst the old school crowd.

    Third, what sort of old school RPG are we talking about? Wizardry? Ultima? Might and Magic? Bard’s Tale? Baldur’s Gate? Fallout? Daggerfall? Final Fantasy 7? There’s just way too much variety, and sure there’s a lot of overlap in players, but people do have their preferences, and what any maker picks is potentially going to affect how much they get funded. Granted, we know by the developer what to expect, but the likely candidate (Obsidian, at the moment) isn’t going to be catering to the old, old school. Unless they go a more Ultima-ish route, but then do they have any experience in making such a game? I don’t think so.

    Even with adventure games (though markedly less so) is this an issue; puzzle-heavy, or story-heavy? We know by who’s making it that it’s going to be story-heavy; which even within itself has variations. If you were more of a Myst fan, then this probably isn’t really going to be your cup of tea. I think it’s going to matter more to RPG fans, though, since there’s far more disparity of mechanic preferences.

  • Felix Pleșoianu said,

    During an interview, Katharine Hepburn was famously asked what was the secret of her success. Her answer?

    “I had luck and money.”

  • Andy said,

    We’ll probably soon learn about old school RPGs because it looks like Chris Avellone is thinking of a Kickstarter project and is soliciting ideas from the Obsidian forums.

  • Dave Toulouse said,

    About the “redistribution” part let me explain a bit. It’s not that I’m against in any way that huge pile of money they received and I surely don’t ask them to “share” it. It took them years of work and reputation to make this happen and I’m glad for them they’ve been able to get to this point.

    But I don’t see any “indie phenomenon” here. In fact the only occurence of the word “indie” on their Kickstarter page is directed toward Minecraft but I’ll give you that this is anecdotic.

    When I said “In that million dollars I see at least 50 great indie games” I was merely saying that it’d be great if people would be as enthusiast to support indies that don’t need $400,000 to create great games just like they were so pumped to help Tim Schafer.

    I know it doesn’t work that way and people are free to spend their money the way they want to. It was just my way of saying “yeah we now know for sure the money is there but it’s still very hard to get for most of us”.

    On the other hand this kind of story helps to dream and it is from dreams that come inspiration, perseverance and creativity. So while it doesn’t mean much on the financial level for indies there’s still a lot of positive stuff we can get from it.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I enjoyed your comments anyway, but I did see how it could be taken a few different ways. The main way I took it is exactly what I noted – this doesn’t mean that gamers are waiting to shower indies with gold if we go onto Kickstarter. I think this has been suitably demonstrated in the past. It changes little. Guys like you and me still have to fight tooth and nail for every dime. If anything, we’re going to have to start explaining things to people when they ask, “Why don’t you just put your project on Kickstarter?” the same way we have to answer the question, “Why don’t you just put your game on Steam?”

  • Dave Toulouse said,

    “we’re going to have to start explaining things to people when they ask, “Why don’t you just put your project on Kickstarter?””

    Indeed. I got my answer prepared for this one though: “I live in Canada and that Amazon Payments thing is preventing me for using Kickstarter” That should be enough for me to dodge some discussions on the topic 😉

  • Robert Basler said,

    Why does everyone keep saying the middleman is dead, then in the same breath say how great Steam is. STEAM IS A MIDDLEMAN. And a big one.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    That was exactly my point, Robert. But it is a redefined role.

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