How to Lose Money and break the Publishing Model

Originally published in Exeposé – University of Exeter Student Newspaper

Marcus Beard tells the story of industry underdogs Double Fine

Double Fine, the development company behind Psychonauts and Brütal Legend raised over $1,000,000 in under 24 hours directly from the community to fund their new project; a point-and-click adventure. No publishers, no executives giving orders to ‘widen our demographic’ or ‘appeal to the Gears of War crowd’. Just Tim Schafer – the king of adventure games – heading up a brand new IP. Yet, Schafer and Double Fine have not always secured funding so easily. Let’s have a quick history lesson.

Before the release of the Star Wars prequels, George Lucas’ LucasArts developed and published games that weren’t exclusively Star Wars tie-ins as it does today. LucasArts pioneered the point-and-click adventure game – a genre that relied on developers creating clever puzzles, witty and creative storytelling. A far cry from the ‘point gun at man’ gameplay we see today.

In 1990, a team of young developers including Tim Schafer designed and co-wrote LucasArts’ The Secret of Monkey Island. It is widely regarded as one of the best and well-written games of all time, pioneering the adventure genre. A number of sequels spawned from this, and Schafer was given the responsibility of lead developer for a number of projects. 1998’s Grim Fandango, a black comedy noire-film-esque adventure game set in the Aztec-style Land of The Dead was universally praised for its inventive world and artistic design.

However, as it often the case, the critical acclaim did not lead to commercial success. It is estimated only 100,000 copies of the game have been sold to date (Modern Warfare 3 sold 6.5 million in 24 hours), and made a loss for LucasArts. While Schafer had already began working on new adventure games for the company, development of all adventure games was halted, with LucasArts citing “current market place realities and underlying economic considerations”. Now LucasArts was to exclusively utilise their oh-so-valuable Star Wars licence with the release of the prequels imminent.

While Schafer was actually credited with “never actively trying to sabotage this project” in Star Wars Episode 1 Racer, he had no place at company that didn’t allow him to create new worlds and stories. In 2000, Schafer founded Double Fine in an industry where adventure games were on the decline.

Their first project, Psychonauts (which takes places inside the mind of various residents at a summer camp), was initially picked up by Microsoft. Yet, just before release, Microsoft pulled out of the deal, and much a smaller firm Majesco stepped in.

Some hail Psychonauts as the greatest console game of all time, and it certainly saw massive critical acclaim on release. Yet, the original retail release only shifted 400,000 copies, and crippled Majesco financially. Hence why Majesco is known today for safe, low budget handheld titles such Cooking Mama.

Double Fine now had a track record for critically acclaimed, but poorly selling games. Their next open-world adventure game set in the land of heavy metal album covers, Brütal Legend was initially to be published by Activision, but the game was dropped to focus on releasing more Call of Duty and Guitar Hero sequels. When the game was finally released in 2009 by EA, (after a lawsuit in which Activision attempted to prevent the games’ release) sales, yet again, were disappointing, despite winning multiple awards.

In the following years Double Fine released a number of smaller-budget, downloadable games under publishers that were willing to take the risk with Schafer. Yet, all of them were designed with the modern market in mind; fans of 90s-era Schafer games called for a return to the point-and-click adventure. Yet, no publisher would ever publish such a game in today’s Call of Duty market.

Schafer then did something that developers and publishers today have consistently failed to do – gave fans exactly what they asked for. With the goal of raising $400,000 to fund the game and accompanying documentary (in case the game turns out to be terrible), Schafer asked fans to pre-purchase the game for $15. At the time of writing, the total is at $1,645,135 – almost four times the initial goal.

While this isn’t going change the publishing model forever – not everyone is a mature, informed, attractive gamer such as yourself – it proves the notion that there are viable alternative models in videogame production and distribution, and that attention to fans is what is most important when dealing with the devoted and impassioned crowd that is long-time gamers.

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