The short story is that a small studio run by a game development luminary employing other game development legends managed to secure a great deal of fan and game developer funding in a very short span of time. Crazier still is that the KickStarter project remains open for another 28 days. Included in this whole production is one that is particularly appealing to me, as an ethnographer of game development, that of a documentary team focused on those developing this game. No longer will I ever fear being asked of my anthropological presence, “will this distract my employees?” Now I can reply, “Double Fine had an entire documentary team.” Of course this wont be “normal” development either, it will be a team focused on a project that was KickStarted, not funded by an external publisher, to whom they are accountable.
As someone that looks at the political economy of the game industry as well, this signals a very strange shift in the game industry that I don’t think (and neither does Tim Schafer) fits into the kinds of questions being asked currently. For many, the question has been primarily, “Did Tim Schafer just break the game industry?” I’d say it was already broken. Steam, The Apple App Store and Android Market saw to that. It doesn’t mean that traditional form publishing is dead, but it was already undergoing a sea change. The old models that once dominated the game industry, rooted in high-priced media and distribution channels hamstrung by large retailers is now changing.
Rather, this is about the maturation of game development and games as a form of media still attempting to find itself. Recently, Ian Bogost on Gamasutra wrote about Game Bundles as a form of entertainment and patronage (among other things). That is certainly part of it, but I’m interested in it as a form of co-production. Many of these recent KickStarter campaigns at the upper echelons offer the opportunity to act as a co-developer, designer or character. It offers another avenue into the game industry, or an avenue to demonstrate one’s existing success as an opportunity to influence or partake in the projects of others with little risk. Or it is an opportunity to get to know a famous game developer who one might not otherwise have the chance to interact with. In an industry so dependent upon social networks, it allows those with enough money to insert themselves into those networks.
Thus, it is part co-production, part entertainment, part patronage and something else. It is the ability to buy your way into a game’s credits, design process or even development team. Isn’t that precisely what so angers gamers about gold-farming? Yet, there has not been the same reaction to these activities for small developers. There has been some negative backlash against Double Fine’s initiatives, but the majority have seen this as a win for game developers. As senior designers leave established studios to begin their own, many will likely explore the KickStarter option as it taps into their fan’s desire to be part of the action and willing to fork over the money for that experience.
I also wonder what this means, long term, for game development projects on KickStarter. I’ve funded several small projects by people new to the game industry, many working on their very first game. KickStarter is used as a means to justify the adventure capital necessary for creating a first game. In many cases the primary fans tapped for these projects are friends and family. In many cases these projects go unfunded or are funded near their deadline with a great deal of the support not from the “crowd,” but rather from those closest to the individuals proposing the project.
For me? I backed it so I could get the documentary.