Simon Pulman works for Starlight Runner Entertainment in New York City, specializing in digital strategy and business development. He explores the emerging world of transmedia storytelling and digital business models on his blog at Transmythology.com, and can be followed on twitter at @simonpulman.
If you follow the video game industry, you’ll doubtless have seen news of Double Fine’s outstandingly successful Kickstarter campaign. Seeking to raise $400,000 for a new adventure game, Double Fine has so far raised $520,000 (from almost 12,000 backers) in less than two days. With 33 days of the campaign to go, it’s not unforeseeable that it could exceed a million dollars in total donations by its end.
Part of the reason that Double Fine’s campaign is so exceptional is because it is the first major games studio to finance a game (a new IP at that) through Kickstarter. As such, it sets the stage for an entirely new paradigm in the industry that eschews traditional publishers almost entirely. As Double Fine puts it:
Big games cost big money. Even something as “simple” as an Xbox LIVE Arcade title can cost upwards of two or three million dollars. For disc-based games, it can be over ten times that amount. To finance the production, promotion, and distribution of these massive undertakings, companies like Double Fine have to rely on external sources like publishers, investment firms, or loans. And while they fulfill an important role in the process, their involvement also comes with significant strings attached that can pull the game in the wrong directions or even cancel its production altogether.
Crowd-sourced fundraising sites like Kickstarter have been an incredible boon to the independent development community. They democratize the process by allowing consumers to support the games they want to see developed and give the developers the freedom to experiment, take risks, and design without anyone else compromising their vision. It’s the kind of creative luxury that most major, established studios simply can’t afford. At least, not until now.
A Bonus for Fans
It is important to note that Double Fine is not merely pre-selling copies of its game at $15 a pop. It’s selling something critically important in the digital age: intimacy. When players donate to the project, they are granted access to an unprecedented “behind-the-scenes” experience:
2 Player Productions will be documenting the creative process and releasing monthly video updates exclusively to the Kickstarter backers. This documentary series will strive to make the viewer as much a part of the process as possible by showing a game grow from start to finish, with all the passion, humor, and heartbreak that happens along the way. Double Fine is committed to total transparency with this project, ensuring it is one of the most honest depictions of game development ever conceived.
This level of increased transparency through the development process is something I’ve been in favor of for some time, across all parts of the entertainment industry. I applaud Double Fine wholeheartedly for understanding that, in an age of instant feedback and fan communities, the relationship you have with your audience is the most important asset you possess. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the video Double Fine produced to accompany its campaign is both refreshingly candid and – crucially – consistent with the established humorous tone of the company’s games.
Building a Community
The other important element here is the relationship that fans have with each other. In the age of social media, people who like things will immediately and automatically seek out others who like it. This is no longer a niche activity – look at the communities around creative content that have been generated by tools like Pinterest. Again, Double Fine does not merely acknowledge the importance of fan community – it embraces it:
There will be a private online community set up for the backers to discuss the project with the devs and submit their thoughts and feelings about the game’s content and direction, sometimes even voting on decisions when the dev team can’t decide. Backers will also have access to help test the game once a beta is available. Once the game is finished, backers will receive the completed version in the available format of their choice.
This is a staggering development that blows the traditional testing/focus group model to pieces. In the past, I’ve admired the willingness of companies like Naughty Dog to acknowledge fan feedback. However, this takes it to a new level by empowering fans to exchange ideas with each other during the development process and even weigh in with valuable feedback. Kudos to Double Fine for understanding that when fans feel appreciated and listened to, their loyalty to the underlying brand and creator grows exponentially.
The Power of Pedigree
Of course, it’s impossible to look at the success of the Double Fine campaign in isolation from the company’s long-term pedigree. Double Fine and its employees have spent an enormous amount of time creating a first-class reputation and body of work that encourages fans to react instantly like this. Double Fine principle Tim Schafer created Day of the Tentacle, Full Throttle, and Grim Fandango – three of the most beloved adventure games of all time – while the company’s game Psychonauts is now widely considered one of the most underrated games of all time. Of course, Double Fine will have to ensure that the product they release fulfills fans’ expectations.
Thus, there can be no denying that tools such as Kickstarter currently benefit established creators and brands most. While we have seen some fantastic successes by emerging artists on the platform, none have touched the immediacy of Double Fine’s campaign.
Thus, it could be considered that the optimal long-term plan for success for most artists and creative teams currently looks like something like this:
- Establish reputation through products championed by traditional media and distribution.
- Nurture fan community and build relationship with fans.
- Leverage reputation and relationships into a direct distribution paradigm with managed costs and greater control of IP and revenue streams.
The Next Questions
I have two principle questions for the future of services like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo (notwithstanding the issue of allowing small investment/equity participation, which is another can of worms).
The first is whether Kickstarter could be used to fund something with a much bigger budget, escalating into the millions. Could you fund a “mini-major” feeling feature film of the kind Miramax used to specialize in the ’90s? (although you could argue that with falling production costs, you shouldn’t need to). Or would attempting something so big effectively destroy the spirit of what makes Kickstarter unique? As Double Fine says:
Keeping the scale of the project this small accomplishes two things. First and foremost, Double Fine gets to make the game they want to make, promote it in whatever manner they deem appropriate, and release the finished product on their own terms. Secondly, since they’re only accountable to themselves, there’s an unprecedented opportunity to show the public what game development of this caliber looks like from the inside. Not the sanitized commercials-posing-as-interviews that marketing teams only value for their ability to boost sales, but an honest, in-depth insight into a modern art form that will both entertain and educate gamers and non-gamers alike.
The second question is more important. While an established company like Double Fine understandably sees fans immediately flocking to donate, things become much more difficult for an emerging artist working on his or her first project. While you could argue that it is the responsibility of that artist to earn his or her reputation over time, I can’t help but wonder what kinds of tools Kickstarter could introduce to facilitate discovery and fundraising for less visible names. This will become increasingly important as more established names and studios see the success of the platform and begin migrating to it. So, I suppose, my second question is this:
How can Kickstarter ensure that it remains a platform for the best ideas and projects, not merely the biggest names?
I’m fascinating to see what the next couple of years brings.
UPDATE: The Double Fine Kickstarter campaign just passed $1 million, becoming a phenomenon in its own right. A true watershed moment for Kickstarter, although it will surely spawn debate about to what degree it’s replicable by other projects.
Originally published on Transmythology.com