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Schafer: Kickstarter won't take business from traditional publishers, yet
Schafer: Kickstarter won't take business from traditional publishers, yet
March 23, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander

March 23, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC, Business/Marketing, Design

With its record-breaking Kickstarter campaign, San Francisco-based Psychonauts and Stacking developer Double Fine has drawn a lot of eyes to the role the crowdfunding service can play in the future of how games are developed and funded. Some have even suggested that it could threaten the traditional publishing model in a very serious way.

Following his lecture Thursday night at the NYU Game Center, Double Fine's Tim Schafer talked about that Kickstarter adventure game project, and also shared his thoughts on how to address the needs of today's adventure gaming audience, as well as the scarcity of humor in the genre.

Schafer said that while Kickstarter offers interesting opportunities in specific cases, it doesn't look to be an immediate threat to the publisher format. "I think it is a great new way to make things happen that couldn't happen before, and I don't think it really takes things away from publishers," he said. "The things you can make with Kickstarter are often things that have a special story."

"[Projects like Brian Fargo's] Wasteland 2 -- these are things that publishers have already passed on," he continues. "It's not like you're going in and taking a bunch of business away from them, yet."

When it comes to the Double Fine Kickstarter game, the team has an interesting challenge in terms of balancing innovation with serving traditional fans. "It's an interesting question... with each of those old adventure games, we always did try to innovate on those games," Schafer points out. "Each game tried to do something different, so this is going to be interesting, because we really feel like we should be doing that again. What would one of those games look like now?"

But he acknowledges many Kickstarter backers may be supporting the project in the hopes of reviving a memory, or returning to forms they remember, so it's a tricky balance: "It's not like we can go and add, like, a lot of first-person action elements or something," Schafer notes.

It's a safe bet that players can expect more of the brand of humor for which Schafer is known; NYU Game Center's Frank Lantz, also creative director at Zynga New York, observed that the designer's work has a certain "emotional warmth" in its comedy that is somewhat rare in the game industry. The work of game design generally attracts people with a more clinical bent, an engineer's mentality that sometimes comes at the expense of the unique empathy necessary for good humor.

"The question of 'why aren't there funnier games' comes up a lot," says Schafer, who lists Katamari Damacy and LocoRoco as games that have stood out to him in terms of humor. "I think it's a very imitative industry, and if someone did make a huge hit comedy thing then suddenly you'd see a bunch more (horrible) comedy games."

With a bad action film or game, Schafer points out, audiences can still have fun - it may be poor, but the elements of action they enjoy will still be there. But if comedy audiences have an experience that isn't funny, there's nothing to redeem it. Perhaps there are fewer comedic video games because of how high the stakes are, he suggests.

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Matthew Mouras
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Should "clinical" be "cynical"? Just curious.

I'd be one of the folks that contributed "in hopes of reviving a memory." Leigh nailed it... There was a warmth to games like Grim Fandango that I enjoyed as a kid. The latest round of Double Fine games has been great, but I'm looking forward to this.

Arthur Tam
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I don't think it will take away business in the sense that they're directly attacking the same types of markets that publishers think they want, but it will start attracting players who want something more substantial when they are looking for deeper gaming options. The danger for publishers here is that one day the dark horse that can both satisfy the masses without driving them away with unfriendly interfaces but provide something inherently magnificent (minecraft comes close but it relies on the player's creativity) is the day they should be afraid of. With another means to get these types of projects funded through the general public, it's only a matter of time before it happens.

Of course, it'll just be the next wagon they'll jump onto in the hopes of striking it rich. I doubt publishers will ever really change.

john oconnell
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We just launched our Kickstarter project for Tug with Friends - social mobile game that puts you in the game. We are wondering where is the best place to advertise the project. Any specific sites? Banner ads? Thanks for feedback.