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Small video game raises big money from consumer donations

Published: Friday, Aug. 10 2012 4:46 p.m. MDT

www.doublefine.com (www.doublefine.com) www.doublefine.com (www.doublefine.com)

Video games are not cheap to make. If you ever find yourself wondering why you’re paying $60 for a cheap plastic disc, it’s because of just how much money went into making that disc.

There is a laundry list of costs that go into making a game. Paying salaries of talented employees is a big one. Paying other companies for software to make a game better is another. Marketing, community management and public relations (often hired from outside sources) also factor in, making the production of just one game an expensive and arduous project.

For the longest time, video game developers who wanted to make a game needed to turn to a publisher to fund their game. This made for games that fit into a publisher’s strict guidelines. Publishers had to know, will the game be good? Will the game offend anyone? And most importantly, will the game make us any money?

For many developing studios, this is a high hurdle that presents some restrictions. In the past, independent game studios have managed to make great titles without the help of a publisher, but these titles are doubtlessly limited by the lack of funding. This model hasn’t changed since the days of Atari and Pac-Man.

So when Tim Schafer (the mastermind behind "Sesame Street: Once Upon a Monster") and Ron Gilbert (responsible for the family friendly Monkey Island games) decided to turn to Kickstarter — a website that allows donors to fund causes they support — for funding of their new game, they didn’t expect quite the response they received. Their small company of 65, Double Fine Productions, was in no way prepared for the influx of cash they were to receive.

Fans become donors

The two ex-LucasArts employees set a goal of $400,000, to be raised in 30 days — an ambitious plan based on the limited success of other game studios on Kickstarter. However, within nine hours the tentatively named game, "Double Fine Adventure," had surpassed the $400,000 goal. After 24 hours, the game passed the $1 million mark. On March 13, the end of the 30 days of fundraising, with more than 87,000 backers, the game had raised more than $3.3 million.

Now to be fair, these donors weren’t simply donating out of the kindness of their hearts. At each level of donation, donors were given certain incentives, ranging from a game poster to a lunch with the makers of the game — and all of the donors received a free copy of the game.

An unassuming game, "Adventure" aims to return to point-and-click adventure games of long ago. In these games, you were presented a scene and a number of commands. Say your character was in a kitchen investigating a mystery. You could command him to look in the breadbox, for example, or turn on the sink. As a result, you may find certain clues that would aid you in your quest of solving the mystery and beating the game.

Gilbert in particular cut his teeth on such games, and spent a decade trying to improve the genre before hardware improvements made such games obsolete. However, as titles such as "Angry Birds" and "Farmville" have proven, simple titles can be just as addictive as triple-A games.

So when Schafer took his new game to Kickstarter to fund it, there was a small hope that they could reach their $400,000 goal. Those first few days, Schafer was enjoying the exclusive D.I.C.E. Summit (a super concentrated gathering of video game professionals) and missed the celebrations in his office back home. But he in no way missed the gut-turning excitement and pressure offered by so many expectant fans.

Perhaps the most interesting takeaway from this astounding story is the potential for video game developers to create games for fans and fans alone.

A new wave of crowd-funded games?

So is this the end of huge publishing studios such as EA, Activision-Blizzard and Ubisoft? All signs point to no.

Publishing studios aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. While $3.3 million is no small sum, it is nowhere near the estimated $40-50 million it cost to make "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2" or the more than $60 million it cost to make "Gran Turismo 5."

These larger, more faceless studios produce hit games but lack the fanatical following that smaller developers like Double Fine enjoy. Further, they also lay the occasional egg — something that would prevent donors from donating the game’s cost just to see it made. For now, huge wealthy studios will continue to be a mainstay as long as ambitious titles like "BioShock" and "Red Dead Redemption" are still being made.

But supporting a game before the first code has been written could certainly inspire a new wave of crowd-funded video games. That is, if studios make sure to follow Schafer and Gilbert’s example.

Schafer and Gilbert both have proven track records and huge followings of loyal fans. Schafer also worked on the heavy metal-inspired "Brutal Legend," (rated "Mature" for good reason) which starred the voice talent of rambunctious actor Jack Black. Undoubtedly, their deep fanbase was the force driving most — if not all — donations, and other developers probably cannot expect such an astounding showing of support unless they share a similar fanbase.

Further, the duo were involved in the minute-to-minute funding efforts of the game, updating promised features as they gained the money to add them in. For example, as funding reached completely ridiculous levels, they promised to offer it on more and more platforms, including iOS, Android and Linux.

However, even if developers follow all of these moves, they probably won’t find the amount of support that the Double Fine team has. Schafer acknowledged that “I think it really has to be a special thing,” and is probably not easy to replicate.

Expecting $3.3 million is a tall order, and it’s unlikely that even Double Fine could generate that type of money on Kickstarter again, but most small games can be created on budgets much smaller.

Most of the games you play on your iPhone or on Facebook were likely made with a budget of under $200,000. These are the games that stand to benefit most from Kickstarter support. So if you like to root for the little guy, keep an eye on Kickstarter — you could be a producer on the next "Angry Birds."

Nationally unacclaimed freelance writer Jonathan Deesing loves puppies and video games.

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