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The Double Fine Dilemma.


No doubt you've already heard of Double Fine's... Fiscal management problems, if not, here's a link to the recent article that inspired this post to start you out.

Now I've been a backer of Double Fine's Kickstarter from the start, and I've been along the ride with them through the rather entertaining (and often inspiring)  2 Player Productions documentary, so since I know their stuff quite well, and I've just returned from a Software Development Management course, I feel like showing off my new found knowledge everywhere, so here goes.

First, let me start by showing you this:

This is commonly known as the project management triangle, and it contains the three basic measurements of a project, the idea is that this triangle represents the relationship between these three aspects; when you increase the cost, quality and time will respond accordingly, e.g. quality [or scope] might increase with the new possibilities, time required to complete it might increase or decrease depending on which way the scope heads.

By the same logic if time allowed increases the quality SHOULD rise with it, but so does the cost, the concept is a very simple yet deep one, we'll get back to this later.

The next thing that I feel requires mentioning mentioning the unfortunate fact that no, more money on your kickstarter does NOT mean you will have an easier time making your game, go back to our triangle, Double Fine just got more cash than they anticipated, now everyone might be all glad when that first happened, but the real insidious side effect was that, consider the following:

Your parent/spouse/significant other/aerobics instructor asks you to get milk for them, now you've done this many times already, they give you ten bucks and you go out to buy the best milk you can with Mr.Hamilton:

But surprise of all surprises, you see that your shopping buddy this time is none other than the very distinguished Dr. Benjamin Franklin:

Now your parent/spouse/significant other/aerobics instructor tells you that no, you should just do as you always do, buy as much and as high quality milk as possible with that $100 bill.

You're certainly befuddled by your parent/spouse/significant other/aerobics instructor's sudden and uncannily large craving for milk, but you just shrug and go to the store, where you have one of two choices:

A) Buy as much of the milk you usually get with the hundred, resulting in you going out with an entire shopping cart full of milk cartons and gallons (or bags, if you're Canadian),  which means you're barely able to push it to the clerk (who gives you one hell of an evil eye as he tiredly scans a year's supply of milk for you), and your car (which seems to be running on its two back wheels like a bad Herby the Love Bug impersonation), or...

B) You buy a couple of cartons of that weird tasting artisan milk which costs about $40 a pop, you're not even sure how good it tastes, the stuff's for hipsters and smells kinda funny, after all.

This is a rather long-winded and exaggerated representation of the mechanics of the the triangle, the money Double Fine got over their initial $400k to make the game didn't make their lives simpler, it made it much, much more complex, now their small niche adventure game has turned into a gigantic endeavor of adventure game trail-blazing, AAA proportion experience, you can see how the time and scale of the game shot right through the roof.

Now, you might be saying to yourself: "Well okay, the game will take longer but it'll be a better one, right? But wait, how come they're over budget so much?" Well, here's the SECOND caveat with getting so much more money than you asked from Kickstarter, and it ties to one of the oldest and scariest parts of project Management:

See, if you've just started your project, you've got a better chance going all out on the number zero in a fixed roulette game than you do accurately estimating the cost of your project while it's still in the pre-production stages, and the bigger the project (thus bigger scope and farther away release date) the harder it becomes, especially when you don't have any experience with something similar.

"Wait, what? Tim Schafer doesn't have experience making adventure games? Are you by any chance high, Viredae?" You might ask me.

And I'd answer no, no I'm not high, and yes, technically speaking, Tim Schafer doesn't really have any experience making point-and-click adventure games, nothing relevant at least.

While he hasn't been absent from the game industry in general, the last legitimate adventure game he made, he made it 13 years ago, that means none of the tools he's currently using has been used to make point-and-click adventure games before, none of the people he's currently hiring have any experience making point-and-click adventure games before, and to compound the matter, he went ahead with designing a new engine to fit around the art style of one specific illustrator (who happened to be working long-distance with them most of the time).

And that means our friends at Double Fine ended up in completely uncharted territory to them, with extremely ambitious  goals, and a project big enough to make it impossible to judge how much money or time it needs to finish... At least not until they're up to their wazoos in development.

Now in the end you might be asking me "Well Viredae, is there a solution to any of this?" And I'd reply probably, they've already been trying to augment their budget with funds from other projects' earnings, that's a good start, they're also trying to use the Steam early access feature to draw more consumers and thus more money to the game.

An idea I've had (and it's possible they've had it as well) is that they could license out and re-use the engine of the game (which is finished at the moment), much like the SCUMM and GrimE engines which were built in the golden age of Lucas Arts.

And for Kickstarter, there's a solution to minimizing this sort of rampant bloating, simply by adding a pledge cap to their projects, which would end the project at a certain amount even if there was time left on it, though I doubt Kickstarter themselves would like that suggestion since it would eat into their own profits, on the flip side it might mean that there would be more successful projects that would raise trust in the platform and keep people coming back for more.

Welp, I hope you enjoyed this long lesson about cost, quality and time constraints in projects in general (and video games specifically), till next time.
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About Viredaeone of us since 11:51 AM on 10.13.2011

(sung to the tune of Jonathan Coulton's "Code Monkey")

Viredae get up get coffee. Viredae go to job. Viredae have boring meeting, with boring manager Rob. Rob say: "Viredae very diligent, but his output stinks. His designs not functional or elegant, what do Viredae think?"

Viredae think maybe goddamn manager wanna draw UML himself. Viredae not say it out loud. Viredae not crazy, just proud. Viredae like Wiimotes, Viredae like gamepads and keyboards too. Viredae very simple man, with big, full, precious memory cards. Viredae thinks games are real cool!
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