Why Double Fine's Kickstarter project matters

The Post-Publisher Era

As with all industries, the internet has turned the video game economy on its head. Ask anybody with a broadband connection and an internet-ready entertainment device how they consume most of their entertainment and it’s pretty likely that they’re getting a good chunk of their media through direct-download systems. Whether it’s movies and television through Netflix or Hulu or game downloads via Xbox Live or PlayStation Network, content providers are quickly learning just how lucrative a direct point-of-sale connection to their consumer base can be.

An entire new subset of the games industry has come to thrive in this new marketplace — the mid-budget indie game. Tiny developers like Playdead and Number None were able to have a dramatic effect on the gaming space with their stunningly creative and highly polished games. And in looking at the mobile space, there’s a much more diverse and, in my opinion, profound transformation taking place in gaming with an inexpensive, low-friction ecosystem for consumers to dive into.

But there’s an even more profound transformation taking place in the PC-gaming space. Indie poster-child Mojang has seen an unprecedented success with Minecraft, which has sold nearly five million copies at a going rate of nearly $27 as of this writing. Considering this is the work of just a handful of people, the return on a game like Minecraft is dizzying to anyone who follows the machinations of the games industry — and nothing short of inspiring to an up-and-coming developer.

So What About Double Fine?

Double Fine’s no stranger to the downloadable space, having released a quartet of creative, fun titles over the various digital distros in the last year or so, but this latest venture with Kickstarter is something else entirely.

The project is simply known as Double Fine Adventure. The details are relatively sparse, but if you’re familiar with Double Fine’s history and the track record of veteran designers Tim Schafer and Ron Gilbert, the premise is damn exciting:

  • A classic point-and-click adventure game developed by Tim Schafer and a small team within Double fine
  • An ongoing documentary covering the game’s production produced by 2 Player Productions, famous for producing the first season of Penny Arcade: The Series and the upcoming Minecraft documentary
  • An entirely fan-funded endeavor that bypasses the traditional developer-publisher system; instead, the fans cover the costs and Double Fine releases directly through Steam

Personally, I can’t wait to play this game and to follow along with the documentary-style updates. But what’s got me most excited is how a relatively well-established game developer has decided to eschew the traditional publisher relationship and all the benefits that come along with it in favor of charting its own course. The barrier to releasing a game on Steam is relatively small, so much so that it’s probably a safe wager that people would be willing to fork over $15 directly to a developer in exchange for a cool new game that targets a “dead” genre with a small but highly devoted band of supporters.

Double Fine’s initial goal: $400,000, with $300,000 going to the game’s development and $100,000 funding the documentary. And now, less than a week since the Kickstarter went live, they’ve more than quadrupled that fundraising target with a month left to go.

I have a feeling Double Fine knew they’d hit the $400,000 mark with some time to spare. But I don’t think anyone saw this happening. As an idealist and as somebody who tends to sympathize with the sort of people who give a shit about supporting high-quality work, it’s been wonderful watching the dollar total rise daily. I couldn’t have been happier to fork over $30 to guarantee a copy of the game and its soundtrack as well as a high-definition download of the documentary series. As a kid who grew up playing Schafer’s classic point-and-click adventures until I’d nearly memorized their entire scripts, there’s something so comforting to know there are throngs of people out there who remember just how great an experience that style of play can be.

So Now What?

I don’t know. I guess we’ll see what happens. Double Fine certainly isn’t the first company to raise money for a game on Kickstarter, but it’s by far the most visible — and it’s had what has to be the greatest financial success in doing so.

There’s been a lot of talk about what this means for the future of games, such as:

* Are publishers necessary any more? (Yeah, probably)

* Will we see more well-known game devs reaching out to fans directly to finance games? (Absolutely)

* Is this a good thing for game developers? (I think so)

The social internet is a wildly transformative beast, and Double Fine’s Kickstarter experiment is solid proof of that. This sort of thing never could have happened even four years ago. But today it’s 2012, and more than ever, people have the power to share the things they care about with the people they know. Word-of-mouth has always been a force to be reckoned with, but as this Kickstarter shows, it’s now moving with unprecedented virality. There’s a nimbleness to the way that word about this game spread that no publisher could ever hope to replicate, even with a multimillion-dollar advertising budget and countless purchased cover stories in the gaming press.

It’s only going to get more interesting from here.