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Double Fine's Kickstarter Windfall: Will Patronage Supplant Traditional Game Publishing?
by Ryan Creighton on 02/09/12 11:55:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


[this article by Ryan Henson Creighton is re-posted from the Untold Entertainment blog, which is awesome]

There's one photograph from my past i desperately want to find, but i fear it was lost to the voracious pagan god of bits and bytes years ago - another case for printing your digital photos as soon as you take them. It's a picture of a fresh-faced young me, Ryan Henson Creighton, posing next to Tim Schafer, almost ten years ago. Tim has his jaw twisted up in his best Bill Murray impression, possibly trying to hide the fact that he's uncomfortable being in the photo. i'm standing there with my best" OH MY GOD I'M GETTING MY PICTURE TAKEN WITH TIM SCHAFER" face on. i can't find the photo, but i scoured the internet for the closest thing to it:

(except that neither one of us was wearing a hat)

It was E3 circa 2003, during the little-known GDC-like conference portion of the event. Shamelessly geeking out by taking pictures with your long-time game design heroes was NOT the order of the day, but friends ... i just couldn't help myself. If you've seen pictures of the Untold Entertainment offices, you'll know it's a veritable shrine to the glory days of LucasArts graphic adventure games, back when story and character development and humour ruled the day (in stark contrast to today, when all three of those elements are routinely botched and butchered - almost deliberately, it sometimes seems).

Untold Entertainment Offices

No, visitor, i didn't create those two games. But thank you for asking.

Untold Entertainment Offices

Ron Gilbert signed my original Monkey Island game boxes in a similar surprise geek attack at GDC last year.

Before i accosted Tim, he was on a panel talking about the difficulty of financing video games in his new venture, Double Fine. This was pre-Psychonauts. i asked him a question from the gallery: "The graphic adventure genre had clearly tanked, and action games ruled the day. But if you look at the free-to-play Flash game ecosystem, you'll see a lot of young designers creating graphic adventure games, and they're quite popular with a certain niche. Would you ever consider building another one?"

Tim screwed up his face in thought. i paraphrase: "I ... yeah, I've seen that. Those little adventure games are great. And it's tempting, but ... I think we need to move on from that genre, and do something different. We can make games with graphic adventure-like elements, like character dialogue and picking up items, but as for those old-school adventure games, i ... i don't think we can go back."

Tim Goes Back

On Wednesday February 8 2012, Tim went back. Double Fine Productions launched a Kickstarter project asking for $400k to produce an old-school graphic adventure game and a making-of documentary, with creative involvement from Monkey Island creator Ron Gilbert. In 2 hours, the project had crossed the $100k mark, and Tim remarked on Twitter that that was more than the budget of the original Secret of Monkey Island. In just under 12 hours, donated funding had shot up past $500k: half a million bucks in good will and high hopes, built on a legacy of some of the most enjoyable and fondly-remembered moments in video game history.

These games, friends - these games are why i am in the industry today. The graphic adventure genre is far from dead, and i hope this groundbreaking experiment proves it. It's a great comfort to me to see these guys pump life and attention and revival into the genre, even as we work to release Sissy's Magical Ponycorn Adventure on new platforms, and toil away on Spellirium, our trashpunk graphic adventure/word puzzle game mash-up.

Untold Entertainment Offices

God bless you, Timothy.

Fame = Money. Who Knew?

But what does this all actually mean? Have Double Fine proven that the standard publishing model for funding video games is dead and buried? It's certainly coughing its death rattle, but i don't think that's the take-away here.

Is it that graphic adventure games are alive and well, and that we're going to see a huge resurgence in the genre? Selfishly, i hope so. But the fact remains that the problems that sunk the genre to begin with are still present: lack of replayability, high cost of development for content players can chew through in a chicken minute, pixel hunting, nonsensical puzzle design, verbosity, randomly rubbing items together in the hopes of discovering a solution, and just plain ol' getting stuck with no hope of moving the game forward. Imagine if, in a first-person shooter, your gun jammed, and you couldn't keep killing Nazis unless you learned how to take your whole rifle apart and put it back together, which inexplicably required some knowledge of colour theory. That's what we're dealing with.

"You can't do that - at least not now."

i think the take-away here is that the video games industry has honest-to-goodness celebrities, and that we will pay those celebrities money to build games for us. It's the dawning of a new age during which the video games studio system, a la the Hollywood studio system, is finally born, and personality becomes a business model. Here's a short list of personalities and games that i would personally help fund:

  • Rand Miller, creator of MYST, and one of the other heroes i accosted at E3 2003. Go create a Kickstarter and create a new IP, and i will give you my money.
  • Cliff Johnson. Your game The Fool's Errand was awesome, and it made me feel smart whenever i solved one of your puzzles. You've been accepting pre-orders for the sequel, A Fool and His Money, since 2003, presumably to help you fund the game. You say you're launching September of this year, but Wikipedia maintains a chart of your scheduling slips, and it's embarrassing. What's the problem, Cliff? Money? If so, then i think we've found your solution.
  • Ken and Roberta Williams. Come out of retirement and do something non-King's Quest-related. i'll toss you some dough.
  • Jane Jensen. Old Man Murray blames Gabriel Knight 3 for sounding the graphic adventure games death knell. Why not work on a fourth adventure, with help on game and puzzle design from someone else, while you take care of the story, characters and atmosphere that you write so well? (Check out Jane's Gray Matter to see what she's been up to lately)
  • Brian Moriarty. You're teaching at Worcester Polytechnic, and from the brief response to the fan email i sent you a year ago, it seems like you feel your game development days are over? LOOM was a major influence on Spellirium, and it shows - from the robed protagonist, to the post-apocalyptic-but-it-looks-medieval setting, to the weaving and shearing puzzles (i actually made my hero a tailor, in honour of LOOM). LOOM ended on a down note. It was supposed to be a trilogy, taking us through the Guild of Shepherds and the Guild of Blacksmiths in the next two installments. Go build a Kickstarter project. Buy the sequel rights from LucasArts, and MAKE ME MAH GAMES.
  • Ron Gilbert. You left us with one Hell of a cliffhanger with Monkey Island 2, before the franchise went in a different direction without you. How much money do you think it would cost to wrest the MI rights from TellTale, treat Monkey Island 3 and every game thereafter like Guybrush Threepwood's fever dream, and built a direct sequel to your game? Put that amount of money on your Kickstarter project, and witness how much fans will pay to discover the real secret of Monkey Island.

Game designers are my celebrities. i'm far more interested in the work of Al Lowe, Jordan Mechner or Eric Chahi than i am in Michael Bay, Charlie Kaufman or Steven Spielberg (The Dig/Boom Blox notwithstanding). And just as Joe Public will pay money for tabloids full of photos of their favourite celebrities, will pay to see their movies, will pay to buy their clothing lines, i will pay you to build games for me.

Who are your game design heroes? What do you want them to create for you, and how much will you pay? Thanks to Double Fine blazing the trail, you may well get your wish.

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k s
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I'd love to see funding methods like the one Tim Schafer is employing to completely or near completely replace the publisher model.

Bart Stewart
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Agreed in full. "Celebrity" was the first thing that came to mind when I saw the Schafer Kickstarter results. Geek cred probably matters, but being known seals the deal.

A YouTube endorsement from Felicia Day for a Kickstarter project would probably be worth $500K. A Kickstarter announcement from Notch would probably score $1M in a day, easy.

I'd really like to think the type of game being proposed would matter. But it's just too hard to believe that.

As long as the celebrity was earned through actual talent and accomplishment, though... is this a Bad Thing? I don't know.

Keith Nemitz
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Celebs need to continue to deliver, or their fame level will drop. If Tim and Ron hit two bases with their next adventure, contributers will be happy, but if they hit a home-run, contributors will return in the same and greater numbers.

+1 for Jordan Mechner and Eric Chahi!

-1 for Roberta, Al, and Jane. They made good games, but Sierra's titles are slowly being forgotten. The stories were too derivative of popular genres. They were lucky to be early industry. That said, I would still play a new Larry game made by Al (or Josh), even though they weren't more than dick and fart jokes well packaged in a game that men and women could enjoy.

What about Steve Meretsky? "Hey, STEVE, time to escape the Disney suspended animation tank and get back to storytelling!!!!"

Also, a call out to Noah and Hal. "It's worth a shot!"

Ryan Creighton
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i agree that King's Quest was derivative, but i think they did some really interesting stuff toward the end. The Colonel's Bequest was really fun. Phreddy Pharkas identified a whole aspect of history (19th century medicine in the Wild West) that was ripe for exploring.

i was more excited about Gabriel Knight when it was set in New Orleans, and had Tim Curry voicing Gabriel and that AWESOME Cajun lady as the narrator ("Gabriel cannot open de do'!"). Some inspired stuff there. But when they took it to Europe with bad Silliwood acting and tread on familiar vampire/werewolf lore, i was less enthusiastic about it.

Roger Tober
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I disagree with the complaints about the adventure genre. There have been greats like Siberia and The Longest Journey fairly recently. They're not for everyone, but neither are shooters or rpg's. They don't score a big enough profit for publishers. That's the problem. This might be the shot in the arm they need.

Jakub Majewski
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Uh... Siberia and The Longest Journey are "fairly recently"? What exactly is your definition of "fairly recently"? :)

Keith Nemitz
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I second Jakub. Look at Machinarium for a recent, fabulous example of the adventure genre. Also Mata Hari, perhaps not as great, but it contains a lot of wonderfulness.

Jakub Majewski
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The thing I find myself wondering now is whether this is limited to low-budget projects. I mean, I can't see anyone getting more than about $2 million from Kickstarter (but hey, here's hoping that Tim Schafer proves me wrong in the next few days!), but I can certainly imagine someone using Kickstarter to get the attention of publishers and secure cash for the rest of the project. A project with that kind of free publicity is potentially a very promising one.

As for the list of people you mentioned... oh, come on, why do people keep talking about Ron Gilbert resetting the Monkey Island series? His ending of Monkey Island 2 was absolutely horribly awful. The impression I got at the time was that he had simply decided that he doesn't want to do any more MI games, so he came up with an ending that utterly shut off any possibility of a sequel. The way LucasArts worked around this ending in MI3 was pretty smart, and in general MI3 had some of the best writing (and by far, far the best graphics and music) in the series. I don't know why people lump MI3 with the terribleness that came afterwards - is it just to maintain this myth that "an MI without Ron Gilbert must suck"? Seriously, I think MI2 proved that Ron Gilbert is just as good at screwing games up as anyone else, and I don't understand why people keep pretending there was some deep special meaning behind that game's ending.

Ryan Creighton
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Wow! We see it really differently. To me, the ending of MI2 was an obvious setup for a sequel. After an ending like that, Ron had a lot of 'splaining to do, which we've missed out on. i wasn't big on MI3's "it was all a dream" explanation ... that, to me, was the dismissive write-off.

i found MI3 to be a big disappointment. Most of all, i disliked the way Guybrush went from looking like a slightly aged Jim Hawkins from Treasure Island, to a cartoonified version of Don Knotts.

Rob didn't screw up MI2. In fact, it's my most favourite game of all time in the history of ever. i've even said so in television interviews. Just ... too bad about that ending.

Jakub Majewski
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I must admit, I tend to be harsh on MI2 because I intensely disliked the graphics. MI1 was nice and clean, and then MI2 went for more colours, but at the price of graininess. The game, in my opinion, was just plain ugly - and I looooved MI3's graphics. To me, they represent the pinnacle of 2d gaming.

That said, the ending of MI2 really weighs heavily on my opinion of it - just like with any movie or book, a bad ending can ruin the whole experience. Right up until you fall into LeChuck's underground bunker thing, it's great. And then it just all goes utterly stupid on you. I mean, the Star Wars parody was fantastically funny... but it turned the whole game into a parody, and then things just got worse and worse. I really, really think that Ron Gilbert had no intention of ever explaining this - he wanted to put the series out of commission.

And MI3 didn't dismiss it as all being a dream - they went out of their way to acknowledge the ending, and then kinda winked to the player saying "let's not talk about it any more". But you know, the player starts off in an amusement park ride car, and the ending refers back to MI2 as well. Which, incidentally, didn't help the series either - I honestly feel that the Monkey Island series would have been a lot better had they stuck to the Pirates of the Carribean tone set in the first game: tongue-in-cheek, but staying more or less faithful to the setting.

Bernardo Del Castillo
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Yay another oportunity to bring a different point of view here.

OK, as I've mentioned before, I have (had) huge respect for doublefine and what their team has done for gaming, in my younger days, I used to love the old lucas arts point and click games, and part of me is still enamoured by the notion of bringing them back. However the more contemporary me knows this is rather silly today, mimicking the past is good for a while but it becomes an empty exercise after a while. I believe that what we should be looking at today as far as adventure games go, is HEAVY RAIN, and not monkey island, Day of the tentacle or grim fandango. They were good in the day, but they were limited by the technology and our own lack of expertise in what the medium could offer (You can start throwing stones at me now).

I personally don't see a point in clinging to a style in such a stubborn manner, learn from today, make a game that appeals to old and new. This whole thing seems like a tantrum "I don't want the publisher telling me what to do! I want to do what I want to do! I'm gonna go ask my fans to give me money cuz I can!"

Now running along with the program, the phenomenon we've seen in the last few days really disappoints me. That doublefine would adopt that attitude would run into the small kid's playground and take their lunch money like this is shocking (and everyone included the school teacher is applauding). It is possible that noone thought of this, but to me it seems like a painfully obvious circle of bullying.

So, I repeat, I believe this is very bad news for the indie community looking for funding in places like kickstarter and such. I think that this phenomenon can completely destroy the original ideas of MassiveOnlineFundingModels MOFMs (haha).

As I understand it, the whole point of this internet spaces was giving people funding to projects that couldn't get notice any other way, but the rude intrusion of fame and trajectory rips this noble principle to replace it with HYPE. What is stopping CelebrityA from dropping their producers and saying they're starting a kickstarter to fund their intimate indie product, when we all know they could perfectly get at least a AA funding elsewhere.

I find almost offensive that the kickstarter double fine adventure game project says nothing of the project itself other than "We're cool, and funny and we will make an old school graphic adventure game". While other projects are specific and detail things such as plot, gameplay and technology ideas to allure investors, Doublefine is absolutely confident (cocky) about them getting the complete funding and more, they know that they will be featured in steam and know that people will pay more than enough to get their game going. They didn't need this kickstarter fund to make their game, they needed it to add bejewelled rims on their already functional humvee. (But its funny guys, its a really funny humane appeal! It has a cool video and all!)

So yeah! congratulations double-fine team, well done opening the door for celebrities to overshadow all the projects that actually need kickstarter funds. It really disappoints me to see this happening to be honest. I hope I'm wrong, and this will only open up kickstarter as a viable financing option to the world, and we will all dance and be merry forever, but I think I can't be so naive.

If I saw some interest from their part to help out smaller developers, like extra credits did on Rocket Hub, I'd be happy. But I don't think it ever crossed their mind. A shame.

The many other projects with a great ideas that now sit collecting dust in the gutter because none of their members are famous salute you, you've proven that in the end, the bigger dog barks louder, Doublefine.

Glenn McMath
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I can't help but to disagree with your conclusions about this situation. You seem to be inferring a lot of negative intent/motivations onto Double Fine, and I don't really think that's fair. As far as I've seen, there's no evidence to support these sorts of assertions. You aren't the only one to take this stance, I'm just struggling to understand it.

The main area where I think you missed the mark is in Double Fine's status in the industry. You paint a picture like they could just waltz into any publisher's office and saunter back out with a stack of money and the creative freedom to make whatever they want, but history shows us this isn't the case. They've clearly had issues with publisher support, as both of their larger projects (Psychonauts and Brutal Legend) had publishers abandon them halfway through. Tim Schafer, for all the nerd love he gets in our community (including from myself) has spoken multiple times in the past about having difficulty finding publishers to back the ideas he wanted to make. He's all but said that it would be impossible to get a publisher to fund an adventure game in this day and age. And yet he wanted to make one, and thousands of his fans wanted him to make one. He found a way around the roadblock of publisher disinterest by appealing directly to the people who wanted to see the game made in the first place. I really don't see how this is a bad thing, and I don't think it's fair to categorize it as a "temper tantrum." Do you think that the only games they should make are the ones publishers are interested in?

I also don't get your analogy about them bullying other kids out of their lunch money. Is Double Fine taking anything from other indie projects? Is is stealing the food out of the mouth of smaller developers? No. Not in any way shape or form. It's not like people have a "Kickstarter budget" where they can only spend so much on the service, and Double Fine has taken it all. If anything, this has increased the number of people who are aware of Kickstarter and what they do. I was actually surprised in talking to my friends how many of them weren't even aware that Kickstarter existed until I mentioned this project. If this project increases the awareness of Kickstarter (even by a small amount), or gets people to make a donation who haven't before, this could (potentially) benefit smaller indies who use the site in the future.

The bottom line is that people have invested exactly as much into this project as they felt was worthwhile. I agree that they didn't give people as much information as many Kickstarter projects do, but that's understandable when you look at their plans. They're developing the game in conjunction with their supporters, so it makes sense that much of the game doesn't exist yet. The fact that they're able to get support without much to show yet is certainly unique to their situation, but I don't think it should be held against them. If the names "Tim Schafer" and "Ron Gilbert" aren't enough to get you to invest in an adventure game, then don't invest. Obviously there are many others who have enough faith in them to put in the cash upfront (myself included).

So in short while I respect that you are coming at this from a different standpoint, I'm struggling to understand what exactly the basis of your standpoint is. I disagree with your assertion that Double Fine has somehow taken all of the Kickstarter donations. I think it's far more likely that they largely brought their own supporters to Kickstarter. Whether those people will contribute to anything else now that they've used the site remains to be seen, but your characterizing Double Fine as some titan (they're actually a pretty small, entirely independent developer) who has stomped all over the little guy's hopes and dreams seems off base to me.

Maybe I'm missing something?