Steven Dengler has money, and he wants to spend it on cool stuff.
Dengler is the co-founder of universal currency converter website XE.com, an early Internet success and an entrepreneurial endeavour that made him rather comfortable financially, and allows him to use his money in a way that most of us might only dream of.
“I’ve seen a lot of people become very unhappy as they got financially successful because the money goes to their head,” said Dengler to me last year. “It changes who they are. Their whole existence starts to be about the accumulation of things. [...] I really didn’t want to do that, I really did not want to become that person.”
I spoke with Dengler in early November, not long after the first two Double Fine projects he’d been involved in had launched.
In moments, it became clear he's an enormously passionate fan, just one who also happens to be the day-to-day CEO at a seriously focused web enterprise like XE.com. Unfortunately, not long after our Skype call had ended, the busy holiday review season arrived in force, and I never had a chance to write anything about our conversation.
In light of Minecraft creator Markus Persson making an offer to help bankroll Psychonauts 2 and Double Fine launching a $400,000 Kickstarter project to possibly develop a brand-new adventure game, it made sense to revisit my time with Dengler. It’s not like Double Fine is opposed to funding for otherwise impossible projects in crazy ways.
Double Fine founder Tim Schafer made a jokey comment on Twitter in March 2011 about how much money the studio would need to port some of its existing games onto other platforms. Dengler took notice of this, and joked back about what that number might be. Schafer responded with a number, which may or may not have been real. Schafer then pointed Dengler in the direction of Double Fine’s business manager. The whole exchange was tongue-in-cheek.
And this is where most stories like this would reach their logical end--joke’s over! Instead, Dengler really did email Zach Karlsson, Double Fine’s VP of business development at the time. Karlsson has since moved on to Capcom.
“The early couple of exchanges, they were just humoring me,” he said, “but in a couple of emails, I was asking relevant business questions and we were talking about specific numbers for specific things and suddenly it became clear that we were actually having a real conversation about this.”
From start to finish, transitioning from jokes over Twitter to actually writing a check, the process took just 18 days.
This is not charity, however. Sure, it comes from a place of passion, but this was (and is) a very real thing.
“This is something that’s an actual commercial, business deal, where there’s money involved and I do expect to get my money back and then some,” explained Dengler, “but quite frankly, I’m not a video game publisher, I’m not looking for obscene amounts of long-term ownership or profit or anything like that. I asked them to pitch me a proposal and I accepted what they pitched me--I didn’t negotiate it. That’s what I wanted to do. ‘You tell me, because I’m a stranger to your industry, you tell me what an ideal situation would be like for you, that would let you accomplish your goals.’”
Ironically, Dengler and Schafer initially joked about the idea of more Psychonauts, as well, but it was just that: a joke. When the parties involved actually talking, it morphed into ports of Costume Quest and Psychonauts.
Dengler has spent his money on many other personal interests, all collected under the Dracogen Strategic Investments banner. He contributed $5,000 to help make Fallout fan film Fallout: Nuka Break happen, and decided to bankroll his sister’s artistic aspirations with the webcomic MegaCynics. He's active on Kickstarter and IndieGoGo.
“In the worst case scenario, we have fun for a couple of years,” he said.
Even though Dengler had no real involvement past the investment stage, his financial contribution meant he was credited at the start of the versions of the game he helped make possible. When he started to talk about the animated Dracogen logo that appears when you boot Costume Quest on PC, his voice elevated in both pitch and speed. For a moment, it’s almost squeaky. He was so, so excited.
“You go from something that’s just an idea in your head, or a joke on Twitter, and then you think ‘Yeah, I can make this happen.’” he said. “I find that immensely satisfying, and that’s where I get my kick out of it. Maybe in the fullness of time this will be proved to be a really good business decision or a really bad business decision or a break-even business decision. Well, okay, we’ll see how that goes. I have my expectations, but in many ways, my goals have already been met just by making it happen--helping it happen.”
During our conversation, Dengler mentioned that he’d be willing to work with Double Fine again, if the stars happened to align--and they did. The reason Stacking exists on the PC is because of Dengler.
With that in mind, maybe the idea of Notch helping make Psychonauts 2 a possibility isn’t that far fetched, after all. And when I asked Dengler about Psychonauts 2, he expressed the optimism you’d expect from a big fan.
“It’s been such a pleasure to work with Double Fine,” he said in an email last night. “I'm really happy to see Markus interested in helping out now. It looks like Markus will be a very positive force in this as well. My fingers are crossed, as are those of many, many gamers, I suspect.”