Posted by thatpinguino (1844 posts) -

Earlier this week I discussed how Double Fine is taking a play out of Da Vinci’s playbook by utilizing a commission model of game development and financing. However, I did not mention how Double Fine came to be in the unique position they are in now. You see, Double Fine is far from the only company that has tried new and interesting economic models to finance their games, so it is worth looking at why they are so successful at adapting new financial models and creating new games. In this post I’m going to walk through the steps they took to get to the position they are in now and hopefully show how other studios can follow suit.

Ask this guy about commissions.

DF’s first step to success was the same as any good game studio’s: establish a fan base. Since they carried Tim Schafer’s legacy of great adventure games from his past at LucasArts, DF started with a leg up in the fan department. It certainly helped that they released Psychonauts as their first new IP; the game was released with much critical fanfare and adulation, and a bit of a meh from the game buying public. However, as would be the pattern for DF games, Psychonauts found a moderately large and fiercely loyal fanbase who loved the game’s sense of humor and unique subject matter. DF followed Psychonauts up with Brutal Legend, an RTS/ Action mashup that received mixed reviews, but followed in Psychonauts’ footsteps by gaining a cult following.

From this point on, DF took that fanbase they had established and began franticly testing different revenue models and team leaders. In what would be a short second-age of DF they tried small downloadable titles dreamt up by some non-Tim members of the team. This spurt of development produced Stacking, Costume Quest, Once upon a Monster, Double Fine Happy Action Theater, and TrenchedIron Brigade. During this phase DF established two important trends: first, they were happy making several small titles rather than one huge title and they were willing to allow different creative voices to lead teams. Second, they were willing to experiment with different mixtures of DLC, publisher involvement and price points when making their games. This mixture of tone, subject matter, team flexibility, and price flexibility prepped DF to rapidly iterate both in the games they were making and the economic models they were employing.

So I know that there are too many sequels in the gaming industry, but seriously Double Fine it is ok to make some.

Up until this point in DF’s journey they had operated as both a triple A game development studio and a downloadable game development studio; however, they had not done anything especially crazy. That was until the Double Fine Adventure Kickstarter. This Kickstarter campaign basically put Kickstarter on the gaming map and sent DF on the path of exploring alternative revenue streams to the traditional product model that most games employ. They were one of the first large game studios to embrace the Humble Indie Bundle and essentially allow users to pay what they wanted for access to Psychonauts. They embraced free to play games with Middle Manager of Justice. They took money from an angel investor to bring Psychonauts to Mac. They used Kickstarter again to get funding for Massive Chalice. They released The Cave as both a console dowloadable game and as a phone game. They sold some of their Amnesia Fortnight (an internal DF game jam) prototypes as a sort of mini game sampler. DF followed their pattern of never repeating IP while matching new financial models to the games they were making, rather than the other way around.

All of this experimentation and growth has led us to the present, where DF is helping to usher in another new financial model: the commission model. In their Amnesia Fortnight Humble Bundle DF is allowing users to vote on which prototypes they make before they make them. They are breaking down the barriers between developer and audience in a way that few studios are and that is legitimately exciting. Even more exciting is the fact that none of this is proprietary to DF. DF games do not have the fanbase of say a Call of Duty, but DF the studio has built up such a strong brand recognition and relationship with their fans that they are able to allow that relatively small audience keep them afloat. Any number of established developers can follow the breadcrumbs that DF has left behind. The only things that I believe are essential are financial model flexibility and intelligently scoped games; I don’t think you can go from blockbuster to blockbuster using the model’s DF has employed, at least not yet.

In short, DF has come quite some way in its journey to being one of the premier little-big developers out there, and they have left behind a defined roadmap for other developers to follow if they so choose. I am really excited to see how their venture into commissioned games goes and I think it will be a boon for the industry. I’ll close with a question: if DF offered a subscription service, like Giantbomb Gold, which offered access to every DF game made that year and some subscriber bonus swag would you consider signing up for it? Alternatively, would you continue paying upfront for DF games before a game is developed if they always offered a pre-development purchasing option?

#1 Posted by Noblenerf (352 posts) -

I sorta wish good game design was a prerequisite for a gaming renaissance, rather than charm. As a disclaimer, I've only played Psychonauts and Brutal Legend.

But, in response to your questions: no, I would not subscribe to a game developer, least of all Double Fine. I don't think subscribing to a game developer would ever be worthwhile in my case, because the sort of games I want to play take far longer than one year to develop. Bonus "swag" like wallpapers, music samples, game prototypes, or behind the scenes footage are of no interest to me.

Kickstarting games is also not enticing to me, because the finished products so often turn out differently than they initally propose. The RPS Verdict on Broken Age Part 1 highlights some of the problems I foresee with a system of patronage for game development: namely, using one fanbase to fund a game that targets a different fanbase. If kickstarting becomes true patronage rather than "donations," the problem could also end up being the opposite; one where games become more insular and exclusive as a developer attempts to appeal exclusively to their patrons.

#2 Posted by Mcfart (1847 posts) -

None of Double Fine's shit sells, and they are wasteful with their budget.

That's why they're so unconventional.

#3 Edited by Darji (5412 posts) -

@mcfart said:

None of Double Fine's shit sells, and they are wasteful with their budget.

That's why they're so unconventional.

Yeah and right now they really piss me off. They are a small team and still have like 4 projects running and yesterday or so I got a kickstarter message that they won't talk or do much about Broken age right now because of Fortnight or how this shitty thing is called. Broken Age was the last game I backed from them. I totally understand having a small team and delay their games and I have no problem with that. But to start like 5 kickstarter games and then even have the nerve to delay Broken Age even further is unacceptable....

Last game I ever bought from them.

#4 Edited by thatpinguino (1844 posts) -

@darji: They have 2 kickstarter games going right now and each are being worked on by separate teams that were not going to work together on broken age. Amnesia Fortnight is something they have been doing internally for years now and it is how they create new ips to start fully developing. Stacking, Costume Quest, and Trenched were all started during a fortnight. On top of that, we have no idea if other companies are having similar internal game jams, DF just happens to be transparent about their development processes. Broken Age is still on a reasonable schedule and i think part 1 showed that they are making a game that is worth waiting for.

@mcfart: If you have their budget info I would love to see it. And as far as their games not selling, they seem awfully solvent for not selling any games.

@noblenerf: I would say that Psychonauts is by and large exceptionally well designed, most of the problems with that game are elements of polish that did not get done because they were rushed to publish before the game was completely tested. The world in that game is exceptional, the level design is like nothing you can find anywhere else and the platforming is solid, outside of the game's final level. Brutal legend is also a well designed game, except it was marketed as an action game when it is really 10% action game and 90% action/rts hybrid. Double Fine did not run their marketing campaign. If so many people didn't come into that game with messed up expectations I don't think it would be as panned as it is. That is not to say that Brutal Legend was without flaw, but I think its perception problem was worse than its actual gameplay problems. The games they have made since are at worst a B in gameplay and their unique style is something that makes them worth playing.

#5 Edited by Noblenerf (352 posts) -

@thatpinguino: And I would say that without their setting, there's nothing remarkable about either Psychonauts or Brutal Legend. Strip away everything but their gameplay and you are left with a derivative platformer and an action brawler crossed with an attempt at a console RTS. They are not remembered or revered as games.

But to each their own.

#6 Edited by thatpinguino (1844 posts) -

@noblenerf: I think Brutal Legend is quite unique as an rts/ action game hybrid. There are not many of those out there. And I don't really understand the argument of tearing away a game's setting as if it is extraneous, that would be like arguing that Inception isn't a good movie if you strip away the audio or arguing that the Wizard of OZ doesn't look that good if you watch it in black and white, yeah it is true but that doesn't say a whole lot about the experience that is actually there. Setting is a crucial part of a game and it can carry an experience just as much as gameplay, and in the case of most adventure games it does.