Everyone loves a good story
Who could forget the great Kickstarter boom of 2012? You remember, right? Out of nowhere, this website called Kickstarter suddenly became a focal point for established developers and indies looking to crowdfund the next big title. Though there were certainly game projects that got funded before the boom, the one that really started the trend was from the developers at Double Fine Productions. After their somewhat modest goal was eclipsed several times over, they found themselves at the forefront for the crowdfunding movement. And now three years later, they’ve finally got their anticipated and hotly debated title Broken Age out to fans and newcomers alike.
Just a few days before the release of Broken Age: Act II, completing the final part of its development, Double Fine Productions invited members of the press to have a chat with Tim Schafer himself, and Destructoid was lucky enough to attend to check out the full game prior to its release. During our talk, the founder of Double Fine had some time to reflect on the challenges of developing the first high-profile crowdfunded game project under the gaze of many fans and critics alike. Though many assume it was the legacy he and the studio had for adventure titles that made the campaign a success, he credits the power of community and relatability for their triumph.
With the adventure genre now in a renaissance of sorts, the future for the once-forgotten genre looks to be quite bright.
“It seems like there’s been so many people talking about adventure games, people crowdfunding new adventure games,” recalled Tim Schafer, the founder of Double Fine Productions and game director on Broken Age. “It’s just that everyone felt that it’s okay to talk about it again. We don’t have to talk about it like a dead genre anymore, people just throw that word around casually, like ‘Oh, you’re doing an adventure game?’ — it’s become normalized now.”
With the renewed interest for adventure games in recent years, there’s never been a better time to become invested in the once-dormant genre. There was a time when adventure titles were common, and full of optimism, but with a steep decline after the ’90s, traditional point-and-click games seemed to have gone by the wayside. But recently, these games have seen a reawakening, thanks in part to developers like Telltale Games and Double Fine outputting a steady flow of titles. And with titles spread across so many platforms (including mobile), they’re now more accessible than ever.
The development of Broken Age, which is easily the studio’s highest-profile project, has been a unique case to watch. Tim Schafer and the team aimed to create a title that was a true throwback to classic LucasArts titles like Day of the Tentacle, The Secret of Monkey Island, and Grim Fandango — while also taking advantage of today’s technology to illustrate visually vibrant and diverse worlds to explore. With the pretty positive reception the first act received last year, people have been anxious to get their on the final part of the game.
During my session, I had some time to play the PlayStation 4 version of Broken Age along with Tim Schafer. Though I went in mostly blind, as I opted to wait until the full release was ready to play, I still had a wonderful time experiencing it this way. It felt great with the PS4 on a big screen, and adding to this was a sense of playing with a community that chimed in with thoughts and helped with clues for puzzles. It really added to the fun. Schafer hopes that players who’ve already cleared Act I will start from scratch now that Act II is out, as he believes many of the references and characters from the first half of the game may have been forgotten by players by now.
Though the developers have launched other titles during the three years of Broken Age‘s development — such as Grim Fandango Remastered, Costume Quest II, The Cave, and the beta for their second crowdfunded project, Massive Chalice — firm interest has still been kept on their work for Broken Age. And with good reason. I mean, how many other games in active development have a film crew following them around recording all their successes and missteps for the masses to see?
While they had the challenges of their own project to manage, they also had to deal with the high-profile nature of it following the success of the funding campaign. With everyone watching, the developers wanted to ensure they’d knock it out of the park with the completed title and not only live up to expectations but also to set a good example for the future of crowdfunded titles. Because whether they wanted to or not, they essentially became the people to follow and emulate.
“We were like, ‘We can’t obviously walk away from [the Kickstarter project], we made a commitment to fans and to our backers,” said the director of Broken Age. “It did feel like the beginning of something, and it did feel like the responsibility to not mess it up, because our game, our studio, and other people’s games kind of were depending on it now, and if done well could lead to a whole bunch of things being funded, that couldn’t have been funded otherwise. So we definitely felt like there was a lot riding on our shoulders, but we would’ve stuck with it anyway, because we always finish our games.”
The success of the Kickstarter certainly felt like a watershed moment for many. During my interview with Brian Fargo last year for Wasteland 2, the success of Double Fine’s project sparked a lot of enthusiasm among many of the “old-school” designers looking to explore forgotten genres and franchises. In our chat, Fargo spoke about trust being the cornerstone of the relationship between developers and their community. And I definitely got a sense of that from my visit to Double Fine. There was not only a clear respect for the genre that many of the developers were returning to, but also for the many of backers and fans who have contributed to the title as well.
For better or worse, however, the level of transparency has also contributed to scrutiny over the project. While there have been many successes with crowdfunding over the years, there are also many projects that missed the mark, or outright failed to deliver. During our talk, I felt that Schafer was humbled by the process, and even spoke honestly about their own stumbles with limiting content and details to backers only, leaving everyone else out of the loop. One of the important things they wanted viewers of the documentary to see is what exactly the process is like for game creation — to give them an understanding of the challenges they often faced.
“A lot of people make games, and they care so much about what they make,” he said while discussing the challenges of development. “There are so many hard tradeoffs they have to make, there are features in the game they wanted but couldn’t because there are these other things they wanted even more, and I want everyone to see that process, because I do think that when you ship a game everything you see in it is an active choice by someone, and it is, but sometimes it’s a miracle the game got done. […] I don’t know if they need to think about that stuff, but I like to know that at least some people out there know how hard people work, how amazingly difficult or complicated problems are solved everyday, and all the choices they have to make while making a videogame.”
This definitely struck a chord with me. I’m inclined to think that there are many gamers out there who are unfamiliar with the actual process of game development, and assume many features and key aspects of development can be added in and removed as if they were text on a document. It felt very refreshing to see so much openness about game creation. Though that may be in part to due to the needs of transparency for operating a crowdfunded project, I found that it helped to not only give the developers their own chance to tell their side of the story, but also to humanize the actual process of game creation.
While the added publicity of their project added pressure to make sure they did right by fans, it was the kind of pressure they were more than familiar with during their time on past titles from the LucasArts era and in recent years at Double Fine. Over the years, they’ve developed games that inspire a lot of love and respect from fans, and making sure they deliver was something that kept them on track.
“It’s definitely pleasurable to succeed and fulfill all those promises, and anyone who’s kinda hoping we would fail, it’s nice to hear their quiet tears in the night. If you listen quietly you can hear them cry into the night,” Schafer said while joking about the messages they get from cynical commentators. “But we always have this pressure of trying to do things that the fans would like anyway, now that the fans are actually funding the game, so it’s the same group. But you put that kid of pressure on you anyway so you’d make a good game.”
With the complete Broken Age experience available now, this marks the end of a long and unique development period for the studio. Though it has still got another crowdfunded title in the wings, its first is now out in the wild, ready to be experienced by fans and newcomers alike. But as we’ve seen in the years since Double Fine’s success on Kickstarter, there’s no shortage of campaigns looking to reignite the same fire that only a few projects can attain. Schafer definitely believes the future is bright for crowdfunded titles.
“I think crowdfunding is here to stay,” said a confident Schafer. “I think when people realized you could get organized and make things happen that couldn’t be made by the old gate-keeper system, I think that’ll always be the case. […] Basically I think things always go crazy on Kickstarter when there’s a great story. I think we had a good story that was new, and also people were saying ‘Here’s this thing we wanted to happen for a while.’ Like this new adventure game, and it hasn’t happened, but we could fix that and make it ourselves — and that’s really powerful.”
“But there are a lot of other different kinds of stories, besides old-timers like me going back and doing the genre again. Just people doing projects no one has ever thought of before, but instantly want to happen, I think there’ll be these spikes whenever that happens and continue to be more popular. I mean the things about crowdfunding will change and improve, but I don’t think it’ll ever go away.”
A good story is important. Whether it comes from a struggling developer looking to strike out on its own with a project that was rejected by countless publishers, or from a group of veteran creators seeking to return to a classic franchise all while doing it their way — crowdfunding has inspired a lot of people with an idea to put themselves out there and hope to find others who share their vision, and to ultimately realize it. And with Broken Age out now, we’re approaching the end of another story from the folks at Double Fine Productions.
But as the genre goes, there are always more adventures to be had. It’s not often you get to be a part of the revival of a once-dead genre that inspired many to create their own titles, bond with friends and family over the complexity of puzzles, or get caught up in heated debates about what the real ending is for contentious titles. As the name of the genre states, an adventure is an exciting and hazardous journey into the unknown, and the developers of Broken Age experienced just that with their first foray into crowdfunded game development.
Regardless of how you feel about Broken Age as a whole, or whether the developers at Double Fine made the right choices, it’s hard to deny that it all made for one of the most interesting development periods for a game in years. Whether you view Double Fine Productions as the underdog or not, it still made for an engaging story. And aren’t those the ones worth telling?