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Stateside: Double Fine debacle threatens legitimacy of entire crowdfunding model

Hitting your funding goal is just the start

Stateside: Double Fine debacle threatens legitimacy of entire crowdfunding model
Chicago-based Carter Dotson is a senior writer at 148Apps.com, which was acquired by PocketGamer.biz publisher Steel Media in 2012.

Crowdfunding remains a hot-button issue in the world of gaming, both among gamers looking for opportunities to fund interesting games and developers eager for backers to support their ideas.

The whole model, however, relies on the trust the public has in the ability of developers to deliver on what they promise.

When this trust is violated, it hurts the crowdfunding model as a whole, and risks harming the chance other outfits have of amassing cash in the same way.

Enter the latest controversy surrounding crowdfunding: the delays and budget over-runs surrounding Broken Age, Double Fine's adventure game that kicked off the widespread popularity of crowdfunding among video games, making it especially lucrative in the process.

Double trouble

Initially, the game formerly known as Double Fine Adventure asked backers for $400,000. In the end, however, the studio smashed said target and pooled together a total of $3.3 million, minus fees, non-paying backers, and taxes.

It was a turn of events that caused Tim Schafer to "[design] a game so big that it would need even more money."

Indeed, Double Fine has now been forced to step back from its initial plan, and will now launch a half-complete-but-polished version on Steam Early Access in early 2014. The money generated from those sales will they fund the rest of the game's development, with a full and final release projected for the following Spring.

Response to the news has largely been split down the middle. There is the public that backed the project in the process, which has expressed concern (to put it lightly) about the delays and the need for additional money despite Double Fine having raised more than eight times its original target.

Then there's the reaction from the development community, which – on the whole – has been sympathetic to the studio and the situation it's found itself in.

Vlambeer's Rami Ismail took to his blog to point out that Double Fine, despite facing issues of over-scoping, is still within 15 percent of its re-scoped budget.

He added, "Isn't this exactly the beautiful thing about Kickstarter? That developers don't have to compromise, like they would've if they'd been beholden to a publisher? That we can find new, creative solutions to problems like these?"

Ismail has a point, but it doesn't allay the concerns raised about whether Double Fine's actions have damaged wider trust in the crowdfunding model.

'No harm, no foul'

Craig Stern of Sinister Design, who earlier this year crowdfunded his one-person studio's upcoming strategy-RPG Telepath Tactics, said in reaction to the Double Fine news that he is "both sympathetic and concerned."

"Games are incredibly complex to make; it's oftentimes nearly impossible to predict how much time or money they will take," he said.

"Tim Schafer made it sound like they overscoped Broken Age pretty dramatically, which is surprising for such a veteran developer, but as long as the game comes out, we're in 'no harm, no foul' territory."

This is true – Broken Age is far from canceled. Rather, it's plan of attack in terms of delivery has been altered.

But Stern continues. When asked about if the public's reaction will have an adverse reaction on other crowdfunding efforts, he stated that his "only concern is that Doublefine have put themselves in a precarious position here; they could really poison the Kickstarter well for other developers if they don't pull through and release this game.

"Crowdfunding depends on trust; if one of the biggest, highest profile Kickstartered games harms that trust, it is going to have a ripple effect throughout the game development community," he concluded.

He is exactly right. When backers fund a project, they're not just paying in money, they're also offering up their trust to the project creator.

If Double Fine - a studio of industry veterans, no less - can't be trusted to deliver, why should the public trust a relatively-unknown developer with comparatively limited resources?

Breakdown

Developers and others looking to utilise crowdfunding need to realise that they need to uphold a greater standard than if they were working on a title for a traditional publisher.

So much skepticism already surrounds crowdfunding model because of its relative infancy, that high profile issues such as the Double Fine debacle threaten the viability of the model longterm. It can't just be business as usual with budgets, scope, and timing.

Developers who crowdfund need to be as honest and realistic as possible with their projects and goals because they owe it, not just to the people supporting them to deliver on what they promise, but to the crowdfunding model as a whole.

As well, developers need to be prepared for success as well as failure. It's unlikely that, for the average developer taking to Kickstarter et al, they'll achieve eight times the level of funding what they initially ask for. Therefore, project creators need to be sure that they can deliver on the stretch goals they offer, as well as any backer rewards detailed.

That's what sunk the first Star Command Kickstarter and, further down the line, resulted in a second Kickstarter that delivered a game representative of just 30 percent of War Balloon Games' original vision.

If crowdfunding has a longterm future as a viable model for developers – not just mobile, but across the scale – developers need to focus on both validating and rewarding the trust the gaming public place in projects.

Gamers simply won't tolerate all too many more breakdowns on the scale of Double Fine's.
Stateside columnist

Freelance writer covering mobile and gaming for @toucharcade, @Gamezebo, and more!

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StarCommandGame
How about just a making of Star Command piece - we're working on something right that's basically how we made the game, all the mistakes we made, what we learned and what worked. Its a pretty big story though.
Keith Andrew
There's a column in that if you're interested, StarCommand.
StarCommandGame
We feel their pain (as you alluded to).

There's a weird thing that kicks in when you go over your Kickstarter goal - you feel a pressure to deliver more and more. You're super grateful for the opportunity and you just want to make everyone feel like their contribution is being taken care of and making the most product possible.

Stretch goals should probably go away. It is one piece of advice we would give other kickstarters. Stay with your original scope and just be happy with the extra money if you get it.
Andrew Bryant
Don't forget the 'success' that was the Defense Grid 2 Kickstarter.

Success, in that case, meaning some DLC for Defense Grid and the possibility of DG2 getting funded sometime in the future (maybe).