God Mode: This money’s Double Fine

February 16, 2012

There is a rare class of entertainers who could ask their fans for cash and raise over $1 million in less than 24 hours. It would take a gravity-shifting megastar to generate that kind of outpouring of support, someone with a cultish following like Oprah or Justin Bieber—or, apparently, Tim Schafer.

Tim Schafer is a game designer and the founder of Double Fine Productions, an independent game developer best known for Psychonauts, a 2005 game as famous for its commercial failure as its critical success. Before starting his own studio, Schafer spent the 1990s cornering the market on a genre known as point-and-click adventure with games like Monkey Island and Day of the Tentacle for LucasArts.

In short, you’ve probably never played a Tim Schafer-designed game. At least 50,000 people have, though, because as of Wednesday night they’ve pledged over $1.8 million to Double Fine to develop a brand new ‘90s-style adventure game. It’s not exactly a charity case—for a $15 donation you’re promised a copy of the game when it’s finished—but contributors are giving up their money based on nothing more than a video message from Schafer and their own faith.

Double Fine is raising the money using Kickstarter, the crowdsourced financing site that allows companies and individuals to aggregate many small donations to fund large projects. Most Kickstarter projects look to raise thousands of dollars over the course of a month or two. The tentatively-titled Double Fine Adventure was only the second project on the site to pass $1 million, and it did it in less than a day.

No one expected that kind of enthusiasm, least of all Schafer. Double Fine was only looking to raise $400,000, and a quarter of that was to fund a documentary about the making of the game. In his video pitch for the project, Schafer said, “If I were to get a publisher right now and pitch an adventure game, they’d laugh in my face.” Now he’s amassed a budget that likely dwarfs any of his previous adventure games’ in less than a week. It will keep growing larger, too—people can still donate on Kickstarter for almost a month.

The immediate success of Double Fine Adventure is incredible. It’s not that $1 million is a lot of money to make a game—an average Xbox 360 or PS3 game costs tens of millions of dollars to make, with the biggest titles approaching the $100 million mark—but adventure games were never considered blockbusters even in their heyday. Now they’re an extremely niche genre. Their loyal fans have cried out their willingness to pay for a new take on the genre for years, but to see cheap message board talk translate into real money so quickly is shocking.

It’s hard to find a comparison across other media. Film saw a seemingly dead genre resurrected recently with The Artist, the Oscar-nominated silent film which has grossed more than $53 million at the box office. The production of Double Fine Adventure, however, is like if The Artist’s director financed the movie by selling tickets to audiences before shooting ever began. There have been plenty of successful Kickstarter projects for independent documentaries and music albums, but none with the clear commercial potential that the support for Double Fine Adventure seems to imply.

Maybe Double Fine will prove to be an entertainment industry pioneer, and more Schafer-like cult figures will go straight to their customers to finance new music, TV shows, and movies. At the very least, it shows that even large-scale projects can succeed using services like Kickstarter. Making the leap from $300,000 game to $50 million movie may be a stretch, but if I were someone like comedian Louis C.K., who recently said he would make a feature film if someone would give him $8 million, no strings attached, I’d give Tim Schafer a call in a few months and see how his experiment worked out.

Then again, Double Fine Adventure may just be the unique product of video game culture and a small group of acolytes with over a decade of pent-up demand. And the computer gamers who are backing the project are probably more comfortable than most navigating Kickstarter and making donations online—they clearly love to point-and-click.

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