Double Fine and the Death of Kickstarter Santa Claus

The cult of Kickstarter gives little leeway to its idols.

Kickstarter was supposed to be the answer to the game industry’s problems, offering an alternative for developers to fund their games without relying on IP-hungry publishers. Double Fine taught us that when it announced the Kickstarter campaign for a project it called Double Fine Adventure. We now know the game by it’s official name, Broken Age, which has turned out to be an oddly prophetic title in light of how quickly its reputation cracked.

Yesterday, Double Fine announced that its ambition and scope for Broken Age had ballooned far beyond the studio’s original plans. Continuing on its current track, the game wouldn't be completed until 2015 and would go way over budget in the process. To avoid that fate, Double Fine will instead target January 2014 to release the first half of the game in an unfinished form through Steam’s early access program. The solution will let Double Fine get at least part of the game out to fans sooner while continuing to work on Broken Age and raising additional funds from early access sales.

The fan response was overwhelmingly negative, running the gamut from confusion to anger. Broken Age wasn't just a game anymore, it was a symbol, a beacon that represented what Kickstarter could accomplish in the video game industry. When Broken Age went over budget that beacon flickered, even if only for a moment, and the cold realities of game development began to diminish the magic and wonder of Kickstarter that Double Fine had once cultivated.

Essentially, Double Fine just told gamers that the Santa Claus of Kickstarter doesn't exist.

It is important to keep in mind the climate in which Double Fine’s Kickstarter arrived. Tim Schafer had just reignited fan dreams for Psychonauts 2, while at the same time adding that the sequel wouldn't survive through a traditional game publisher model. Meanwhile, THQ teetered on the edge of collapse, raising alarm bells that the publisher model was not as secure as many in the industry had thought.

Then Double Fine announced a new adventure game through Kickstarter. Megaton dropped. Forget publishers, fans can directly fund the games they want. It became a rallying cry that spread across the games media and their comment sections.

Those sequels to cult classics you've been pining for, those neglected genres like space exploration and tactical shooters, any niche that only you and a dozen or so friends would care about suddenly seemed possible.

The questions started popping up. Could Psychonauts 2 be next? Or a new Grim Fandango? Or something entirely quirky and new? Before long funding wasn't even about Double Fine’s adventure game anymore, it was a cause that needed to be supported. The Kickstarter needed to succeed not just to create a new point-and-click adventure game with witty writing, but also to prove that crowdfunding was a viable alternative to signing a publisher contract.

It sounds like an exaggeration as I type these words, but when I think back on the palpable excitement that was coursing through the industry during that Kickstarter campaign, that is exactly how it felt when the topic came up in conversation.

The Double Fine Kickstarter had become an ideal - an ideal to the tune of $3,336,371 from 87,142 people, dwarfing the initial $400,000 goal. True, Double Fine wasn't the first game studio to use Kickstarter, or even the first to find success with crowdfunding, but the overwhelming degree of success coupled with publisher skepticism created a perfect storm for hype.

Kickstarter suddenly became a regular topic in the daily news cycle. Wasteland 2, the Ouya console, Oculus Rift, Shadowrun Returns, Star Command, Republique by Camoflaj, Shovel Knight, Peter Molyneux’s Project Godus, and countless others followed. Entire PR strategies formed around Kickstarter campaigns, with announcements scheduled at regular intervals to ensure the game stayed visible for the campaign’s duration and to build a fan base that could push the game through Steam’s Greenlight popularity contest. As news stories popped up for each new Kickstarter success, the articles continued to make token references to Double Fine for historical context.

When Double Fine announced that its ambition with Broken Age not only meant the game would arrive late, but that it would first only arrive as half the game, and not even a finished half at that, the general internet commentary was not exactly favorable.

Meanwhile, Twitter became a flurry of game developers expressing their sympathy for Double Fine. Those sympathies came from a place of understanding the realities of game development. In many cases, the support came from developers and studios that had experienced first-hand how easy it is to go over budget and past deadline, especially when there isn't a publisher breathing down your neck.

They rightfully pointed out that Broken Age isn't the first Kickstarter-funded project to need an extra push. Prominent crowdfunding successes like Star Command and the documentary Indie Game: The Movie returned to Kickstarter for a second round of donations from the gaming community. Though there were a few double-dipping nay-sayers, the second campaigns were still successful, thanks to legions of supporting fans.

Broken Age, however, was singled out with a much stronger response to news of a development hiccup. It wasn't anger because of the delay, or because the game had gone over-budget after raising eight times its initial funding target. The anger stems from a more primal fear, as the bitter realities of game development creep into the perceived magic of Kickstarter.

With Kickstarter studios could set their own timetables, which was supposed to mean smoother development cycles. It meant a developer’s vision for their game was unimpeded by publisher demands. It meant fan support providing developers with generously funded games and budgets that far exceeded the amount asked.

These expectations of what Kickstarter meant for games are ridiculous to those with even passing knowledge of how game development actually works. A feature may take longer to implement than expected, or a tremendously successful Kickstarter could provide the funds to expand the game’s scope in ways that cause unintended setbacks later on.

Unfortunately, the average gamer doesn't know much about what it takes to make a game. To many, Kickstarter offers an easy answer to the problems facing the video game industry’s established publisher model. At the very least it is considered a convenient way to pre-order games, requiring very little thought afterward aside from trusting that the developers will follow through.

Even when other Kickstarter games hit speed bumps, Double Fine’s Broken Age, the beacon, remained pure. That is, until word got out that the game was over budget. The beacon flickered, and people had to suddenly face the actual cost of game development. They had to confront the idea that what seemed like an excessively generous Kickstarter fund might actually be little more than a shoestring budget. The magic and wonder of Kickstarter suddenly diminished.

And just like that, no more Santa Claus.

In the long run, the fallout will likely be minimal. After all, few children refuse Christmas presents simply because a magical fat man and his flying reindeer didn’t delivered them.

There is a tangible sense of loss, though, even if the rituals themselves remain the same. Your parents lied to you - they are, in fact, flawed people instead of the paragons so many children hope their guardians to be. It is only a tiny sliver of bitter reality, but one large enough to change the tone of the holiday. A child writes a less ambitious wish list, knowing that their parents have to pay for the gifts. Knowing that Saint Nick isn’t actually watching, a child is less careful about their behavior when parents aren’t around. A child merely feels the disappointment that comes from knowing there is one less source of wonder in the world.

The same could prove true for Kickstarter. Perhaps potential backers will become pickier about the projects they support, mimicking the criteria of publishers. Perhaps others will become more skeptical of stretch goals, and less inclined to continue donating after the initial funding goal. Or, perhaps, the tiered rewards become the only object that can motivate funding, forcing developers to offer increasingly extravagant prizes that whittle the money they raise down to practically nothing.

Then again, maybe this will all kindle a sense of ownership and responsibility from potential Kickstarter backers, inspiring a renewed interest in game development’s inner workings. Maybe the gaming populace will become better informed and less cynical. Maybe the gaming populace will even see the irony in reacting to an ambitious studio’s Kickstarter game the way a particularly harsh publisher would, by chastising a reluctance to cut features for the sake of releasing within a certain timeframe.

It is hard for me to say for sure though. After all, I grew up celebrating Channukah and never believed in Santa Claus to begin with.