Tim Schafer was pretty nervous a week ago.
Just last month, an unannounced project had been cancelled at his studio, Double Fine Productions. Rather than laying anyone off, Schafer kept them on board, hoping a risk would pay off.
That risk was pitching a project to his fans that no publisher had ever seen. Schafer wanted to make a brand-new, traditional graphic adventure--the kind of game that made people fall in love with his sense of humor, long before they ever knew who he was.
Double Fine hoped to raise $400,000 through Kickstarter, a fairly new online service that allows anyone to pitch in their own money to make an idea a reality. The response was explosive. In one night, the Kickstarter hit $400,000. In 24 hours, it passed $1 million. As of right now, it's more than $1.6 million, with still a few weeks to go.
The Kickstarter launched while Schafer was attending the annual DICE Summit in Las Vegas with Double Fine producer Greg Rice and Iron Brigade project lead Brad Muir. Schafer had a few minutes on Friday afternoon, and was able to wrestle an iPad from Rice so he could chat with me about a roller coaster couple of days.
Naturally, because there were other people in the room, he had to talk to me from his hotel bathroom. Naturally.
Giant Bomb: How are you doing? I’m sure you’ve been asked that a million times, but I have to imagine your head space is changing every five minutes, considering your Kickstarter is changing every two seconds.
Tim Schafer: Now, I’m totally used to it, and I’m actually getting kind of upset that there’s money in the world that we don’t have. [laughs] I’m starting to think about all the money that’s not gone there yet because it’s easier to count.
It’s been incredible. It’s been amazing. I just wish I was at the office because every time I call the office, and I can tell from the emails, that everyone was just bouncing off the walls at Double Fine, and they had champagne and they were refreshing the screen and they crashed Kickstarter [from] refreshing it so much, and they hit a million and they all started screaming. I Skype’d in and I was listening to them, and the speaker just got all fuzzy because they were all screaming. It was exciting, it was really exciting.
GB: Was the plan always to do it this week, when you wouldn’t be around while all of this happened?
Schafer: No, no. We were just trying to get it done as soon as we could, and we wanted to get it done so we would be able to talk about it at GDC and stuff, because the thing goes for 30 days. We hadn’t realized it would become...like, I thought it would take all 30 days. I thought, in the first night, we’d be lucky if we hit $2,000--and we hit $400,000 in the first night. I didn’t expect for it to become a phenomenon while we were at DICE, but it’s fun because I know that everybody here, whenever they’re trying to plug their new games, has to answer questions about Kickstarter now. “I want to talk about Skyrim!” “Nooooo, are you going to fund the next Skyrim on Kickstarter?” People have to deal with that annoying question.
GB: You’re just trying to make Todd Howard’s life a living hell for the rest of DICE.
Schafer: [laughs] Yep.
GB: Did you actually think it would take 30 days?
Schafer: Yeah. Everybody told us that $400,000 was too high for our Kickstarter because most of the games on Kickstarter are a lot less expensive than that, and there have been Kickstarter projects that have approached a million dollars, but no one had hit a million dollars like that. The first one to hit a million dollars hit four hours before ours hit.
GB: The iPhone dock.
Schafer: But they were on the last day of their 30 days, right? They were at the end of their Kickstarter when they hit that, and we hit it on our first day. Not to be rubbing it in or anything! [laughs]
GB: It hits a million in 24 hours, but how far out did you scope where this could go? As you were planning this, was there a dream scenario where “What if we end up with a couple million dollars?”
Schafer: Uh, planning in advance...where is the microphone on this thing? Can you hear me okay? I just realized I was talking into the speaker. Ugh.
GB: I’m just imagining your face really close to the iPad, trying to speak sweet nothings into it.
Schafer: What was I saying? Oh, yeah. Planning ahead has never been a big forte of Double Fine. People were saying $400,000 was [too big]. Originally it was going to be $200,000, which is like an iPhone game. And I was like “Well, if we could just do something on Kickstarter for the fans, it would be fun, and it would be fun to make that documentary.” To go back to the beginning, people have talked about doing Kickstarters before, you know? A lot of people have brought this up.
GB: You guys have actually talked about it?
Schafer: It’s just been a buzz thing. For the past year, a lot of people have been talking about Kickstarter. Around our office, people have brought it up. At the time, our budgets for [games like] Stacking and Costume Quest were like $2 million, and Once Upon a Monster was more than that. I was like “We can’t make $2 million on Kickstarter, that’s crazy.” And then those guys from 2 Player Productions came to interview me for the Minecraft documentary they were filming. I got to know them, and they said “Hey, maybe we can do a documentary about Double Fine next,” and then we started talking about how they could fund the documentary on Kickstarter.
We were talking about what game we could have access to because if we were using one of the games in production, the publisher might not like that, they might not like their coverage of that being so broad. We were worried about secrets and unannounced stuff and all the hassles of getting approval for everything, so we thought: “Let’s just start a new project and we could have Kickstarter fund that, too.”
It was kind of out of necessity that we came up with a game--it was kind of as a sidenote. I was still nervous about, you know, if we just said “Hey, we’re making a game, give us $2 million.” That would have been hard. But then I thought about adventure games, and now that makes it an interesting proposition for fans because they’re able to fund something that we couldn’t have done without them. We could not have gone to a publisher and said we wanted to make a graphic adventure--at all. Maybe if we were only asking for $100,000 or something.
GB: Have you tried?
Schafer: I haven’t pitched a straight classic adventure. It’s just not worth it. I know, for a fact, [they would say no].
GB: You know the answer upfront, so it’s not even worth trying.
Schafer: Exactly. Maybe that leaves me open to all the publishers saying “Hey, we would have done this.” That relationship is all just something I didn’t really want, because when you have a publishing relationship, sometimes it works out great because you have aligned goals and you want to make the same thing, like with Happy Action Theater. Microsoft wanted to show what Kinect could do, and I was interested in that, too. That worked out great.
If we’re making an adventure game, you know a publisher would have mentioned “Maybe you should add an action sequence, or put a gun in it, or, I don’t know, maybe that character looks too old, you should make her younger.” These kinds of things. I don’t have to do any of that if I just go to the fans and have their trust and be like “Hey, I want to make something that’s really creative and cool, are you into it?” And they’re into it to a greater degree than I’d even hoped.
GB: Does the project change now that you have all this money? Do you start thinking you can do something larger, maybe it's episodic? Or is that something you figure out when you’re back at the office?
Schafer: We do, but we’ve been thinking about how...at first, at the earlier, smaller budget, it was going to be a cool, cute, little fun game, but it would probably be kind of hobbled as far as adventure games go. It wouldn’t have compared Day of the Tentacle or our old games because it was going to be a fraction of the price. But we’ve now passed the Day of the Tentacle budget, even if you’ve adjusted for inflation, we’ve passed Monkey Island 1 & 2 combined, we’ve passed the Happy Action Theater budget, and we’re almost, I haven’t checked recently, but we’re almost at $1.1--almost at $1.5, which is the Full Throttle budget. If we pass the Full Throttle budget, then the next thing we’re looking at is the Stacking and Costume Quest budgets and beyond that, Grim Fandango, at $3 [million].
Oh, I just told you all my secrets! [laughs]
GB: Well, I sent a note to Greg [Rice, producer at Double Fine] earlier saying “Hey, Tim’s tweeting all those budgets, just send me a list of the budgets!”
Schafer: Well, I do want to tweet those out, but go ahead, I told you.
GB: You didn’t give me all the numbers, so you can still have your fun. But as you go along this budget path, eventually you hit a pretty big gap, right? You probably get as high as Grim Fandango or something, but the jump to a Brutal Legend or a Psychonauts is huge. On Reddit, there’s an image of someone asking you about the gap to get to Psychonauts 2 from what you’re currently at with the Kickstarter, and you mentioned it being something like $19 million more dollars. How seriously do you entertain those thoughts? It’s really easy to see people start running away with this. How do you ground yourself?
Schafer: I’ve been very surprised by the success of it so far, so it’s taught me that maybe I’m not the best at predicting. Nobody was really good at predicting this one. I guess I assumed this [the Kickstarter] would be a good test. I couldn’t take the money and make Psychonauts with it because some people have backed the project based on a certain promise that it’s going to be an adventure game, so it wouldn’t be right to take it and make Psychonauts with it. Maybe we could put it up to a vote! But I actually want to make an old graphic adventure, so we keep it this way and use this as a test to see if we can go bigger.
I think people are asking a lot of publishers and developers out there. At DICE, you can tell people are asking these interview questions, “Well, has this changed everything? Are you going to do Kickstarters to fund all your development now?” I think it really has to be a special thing. I think it’s definitely a possibility to do it a lot more, but I think each time you do it, it has to be a good story for people to get behind. I think the story of us making a graphic adventure when we couldn’t have done it any other way is a good story. I think there are more stories to be done that way, and there might be one that is equal to $20 million dollars. I don’t know.
GB: I think that’s been interesting--the one pushback I’ve seen is extrapolating too much out of this. Double Fine making an adventure game, and having you make an adventure game is a very specific story to tell, and just saying “I’m gonna make a game” isn’t enough. But it’s, at least, encouraging to other developers that have a story. There are other stories that can be funded through this way.
Schafer: Exactly. It’s a good lesson because even when you’re pitching to a publisher, it’s a good lesson in how having a good story is the most important part of a pitch, whether you’re talking to fans or publishers. Having it make sense, why this developer is making game at this time, is always something you should have clear in your mind before you ask anybody for money. You can’t just go “I feel like making something. Gimme some money.”
GB: Do you consider this validation for what you’ve been doing your whole life? This is such a different scenario than the way you traditionally sell a game, where you get the money afterwards and hopefully it’s a success, but this is people, upfront, telling you how much they believe in what you’ve done before you’ve even produced anything.
Schafer: That’s been really flattering and touching. It’s been really emotional for the whole team, I think, because we’ve had a roller coaster ride in the last couple of years. Just last month we had a project cancelled, and it was really hard on us, and we were like “Are we going to have to lay people off?” But instead, we decided to keep everyone together, and having that at a time when we’ve been struggling, to have this huge outpouring of love from the community and the fans and other developers...it’s just been something that reminded everyone at the company that what they’re doing is noticed by people and matters to people.
GB: It’s a reflection of the enthusiasm. From my perspective, as someone who has watched Double Fine over the years, Double Fine has always come across as a studio that’s never caught that break. It’s a studio that should be much bigger and a much larger success, and the sales and the size don’t reflect people’s reverence for what comes out from the studio. Unlike buying a game at a GameStop or Amazon, this is a much more direct way for people to show their appreciation for what the studio has done over the years.
Schafer: I think so, it’s had that effect on us. It has been a perplexing question. There’s always been a really passionate community, and a really supportive community of Double Fine fans. Or when I walk around the Game Developers Conference and people come up and talk to me and they’re so appreciative about the games and I appreciate them playing them and there’s seems to be so much love out there. And then, when you release a game and the sales are underwhelming, you kind of wonder “How can there be so much love and so little money?” [laughs]
But I’ve always accepted that as the path we’ve chosen. We always want to make games that were experimental and unusual and risky and creative, and also realize there’s a lot of self-determination--own our IP, control our own business and not be told what to do, and that just makes your life harder. That means you don’t get money thrown at you. If you want to do what other people want you to do in life, it’s a lot easier. If you do what you want to do, it’s a lot harder. We’ve always accepted that.
Then, this Kickstarter thing happened, and people were able to express themselves and make themselves heard in a financial way, which is totally new and crazy. And if you look at the number of backers, it’s just like 40,000, which is the highest number of backers they’ve had on Kickstarter, but 40,000 is not high for the sales of a game, right? If you sold 40,000 copies of a game, that would be considered a flop. For a Kickstarter project, it’s considered the greatest success. Why is that? [sighs]
GB: It’s not too different from what we’ve been trying to do over at Giant Bomb. The traditional idea is that you need to dominate in order to be a success, but there has to be a way to be happy with what you’re creating, create something that other people enjoy, and do that without having to take over the world in the process. There has to be a way to make that balance, and we try to do that on the editorial side, but it seems like Kickstarter provides a way to maybe do that on the creative side.
Schafer: Yeah, I agree.
GB: I know you’re going to have the discussion board, but how influential are people going to be in the development process, and have you thought about the consequences of inviting 40,000 people to be involved in that process?
Schafer: [laughs] Well, I feel like it’s more about the openness. We’re opening the doors and letting them see the whole process and see the art and hearing what people feel about everything--even 40,000 people--that will be our job for a while. [knock at the door] Do you need to use the bathroom?
Greg Rice: Are you just sitting there?
Rice: Wrap it up--I’m sorry!
Schafer: I’m going to go stand in the shower now.
Listening to what they [backers] feel about it is not that different from what I do all the time at Double Fine. Double Fine is a very collaborative office, and everybody feels entitled to and is asked to contribute their ideas to the game. But at the end of the day, I’m responsible for my game and project leaders are responsible for their games and we have to make calls about whether we agree with all that feedback or not. We’re still on the hook for making a great game, so we have to listen to the feedback and filter it and make a great game out of it.
GB: Alright, Tim, I’ll let you go and let someone use the bathroom. I appreciate you taking a couple of minutes. Congratulations--it’s been really fun to watch.
Schafer: Thanks a lot.