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RANT: The Future?

So this will be old news by internet standards, but yesterday Tim Schafer and Double Fine scored a home run as they got over double the funding needed for a new project in just over 8 hours, all paid for by loyal internet fans. If this is not an example of the public putting its money where its mouth is, then I don't know what a mouth is. Coming from someone who works in the gaming industry, for an independent developer, I must say it is truly invigorating to see that there are other potential ways to make a game that break away from the shackles of publisher dependency. Of course with the good comes the bad. Let's pontificate.

Hats off to you guys!

Now I know a lot of you will probably think "but MURDERNATOR, it's so easy to make games now. Anyone can do it, you can just do it in your garage with 2 people, LOL." Yes this is true. You can do that. But while you are doing that you need to pay for the garage, the electricity, and unless you're a total badass, find someone else in a similar situation that also is willing to work for the uncertain potential of making money. Basically, start ups and self published smaller projects are ideal for a very specific type of person: the well off, and rookies starting out with nothing to lose. And that's fine. More power to them. But it is a game of the rich who can afford to lose, and the poor with nothing to lose. For everyone else in the middle, well it gets a little harder to justify.

Unfortunately, as you get older and progress through life's stages, Biggie's words become more and more profound. When you get used to the basics, such as a house, food, a car, and childcare, you sort of lock yourself into a situation that requires a certain level of income. Salary, health care, and some extra money for retirement all start to become very deciding factors in where you chose to work. That being said, it's tough to want to risk it all on a start up or self published game when you could irresponsibly lead your family to ruin. So you kind of run into a cycle where the guys who have been at it for a while are stuck relying on the traditional roles of employer and employee that are offered at larger studios. Leaving all the risk/reward to the people who can afford the risk. This is perfectly fine, but it removes a good chunk of the games industry talent from the potential pool.

What Double Fine has done is basically remove all the risk of the start up, yet avoid any sort of publisher meddling. At the same time they have kept all the benefits of the traditional employment model, and actually been given a free pass to make whatever game they want. It definitely seems like the perfect situation, and one that after yesterday I think we will see a lot more of. So lets break it down and see some of the pros and cons of this business model.

It sounds stupid and far fetched until someone does it. Then it makes perfect sense.

No way to lose money. There seems to be no way to actually lose money in this sort of scenario. You basically say "we need x amount to make this". If you get that amount, make the game. If not, there is no loss. You are getting your payment up front, so if the market changes the project won't get canceled. You have the money already.

Freedom. With regular development you have to deliver milestones, make changes as a publisher sees fit, alter design, and redo art at the whims of people who often times really aren't qualified to make those decisions. If you get a bunch of money and say "we'll make a game" you pretty much can do what you like...maybe. More on that later.

Stick it to the publishers.

Profits. As with the Double Fine example it looks like over shooting your goal budget can result in a nice nest egg that can be used at the developers discretion. More features, sure. Employee bonuses? Why not. We all love making games, but making money isn't bad either. As long as the dev is up front with where the money is going.

Community Feel. Just knowing that before you even make a game, you have people who want to play it, is not a bad thought to have in your head as you go into work every day.

Lower Price of Games? This one is sort of debatable. The idea is that a lot of people pay a small amount and get a game for relatively cheap. If you look at the numbers for the Double Fine game at time of this writing though, they have raised $990,000 from about 25,000 people. Some quick math shows that averages to about $40 a person, which is considerably more than most indie games cost. Granted people have been paying more and less, but it's sort of surprising to see the average. It kind of makes a good real world point for about where games should priced.

No more excuses. One of the best excuses a developer has for a shitty game is "it was the publisher". The publisher can also use this excuse to blame the developer for an under performing title. Take away this love hate marriage though, and you start to see who truly can make a good game. It's an interesting thought. Imagine, the studios who have been toiling over getting the latest Summer blockbuster tie in game to shelves, actually having the chance to spread their wings and make a game free of all the marketing, and Thor. Balls in your court.

Risky games. This can swing both ways. On one hand we can get awesome games that no publisher would have deemed "safe" enough to be profitable. On the other hand, if enough nuts with money get together, we could get real murder simulators, and games about dog shows. It sort of opens it up quite a bit.

I was honestly praying that a image search for "dog show game" would come back empty...

Democracy. A wise man once said, "I've said it before, and I'll say it again. Democracy simply doesn't work." While it's true that the market right now panders to the masses, there are still those break-out, shining stars of games, that come out of nowhere and blow us all away. The thing is, more often than not, we don't know that the game is going to be good. And we are the people who follow games. While I know traditional publishing is not going away anytime soon, it seems that if this method of community publishing were to catch on, we would see a lot of the same trends. Call of Duty is successful year after year because that is what the majority of people who buy games want to play. Those numbers are hard to argue with. People have the option to decide with their money, and they do: COD is champ. This probably won't change. What may change is that publishers will no longer need to take any risks on new IP or more niche games. They can let the community fund those types of games. And not to sound to elitist, but I enjoy my new IP games that still have tripple A production values. Something like a Dead Space, or Uncharted obviously took quite a bit of manpower and money to realize. The thing is both of those games looked like a total snooze-fest to me, and I would never have wanted to pony up to fund them. It wasn't until I actually played them that I enjoyed them and saw them for what they were. Basically there just might be a point where a game doesn't get made anymore because the masses can't conceive of what the game would be. Without the publishers taking risks to start new franchises, the Kickstarter approach could end up being only as forward thinking as the masses, which if COD sales is to be a guide, is not very forward thinking at all.

Entitlement. There is an ongoing tug of war between what the gaming public feels they are owed by the developer, and what the developer can reasonably deliver. With the developer being solely reliant on the end user, there is a lot of power that can be swayed into the hands of the people who end up buying the game. Again, this isn't all bad, but there are definitely some games that would be very different if 25,000 people had a say in the design choices. By the end you would all be playing a sandbox FPS with light RPG elements and 4 player co-op. Every time.

Street Cred. It is worth noting that while we use the Double Fine example here to springboard into the topic, many other games have been made, or not made, this way. The PC community has had modding groups that take donations through pay pal since those things existed. Something to think about is that while people are willing to donate to certain developers they feel can handle a certain genre, it may be much more cut throat for lesser known devs. While publishers usually won't give games to a dev without first knowing they have the staff, tech, and know-how to pull it off, there is no way for the public to know how competent a developer who promises a game via Kickstarter actually is. And again without milestones or other check ins a game could get horribly out of scope, budget, or schedule really fast if not handled correctly. It's a risk all games run, the only difference is that with a publisher , devs are responsible until the end, or you won't get paid.

Solid as the Rock

I am not trying to be down on this whole thing. It is actually really exciting to see such a big name pulling in this much attention, and money, in such a short time frame. It definitely seems like a good avenue to explore for smaller studios. Here's hoping for a bright future for developers who will be even more at the mercy of publishers when the next gen, and its 100 million plus budget games start rolling in.

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