This week, a prominent game designer went rogue and destroyed the videogame publishing business model. Tim Schafer posted his "Double Fine Adventure" project on Kickstarter with a goal of $400,000 and in less than 24 hours raised that and much, much more than just money. Schafer's amazing Kickstarter success story raised questions for the future viability of the publisher/developer model, as well as raising concerns over how far the crowd-funding trend can continue. Naysayers be damned, I predict we'll see a lot more game-makers leaping to self-publishing through Kickstarter in the next few years. Which I think is great.
Since games transitioned into a big business somewhere in the 1990s, the system has mirrored the Hollywood model of creating content. Games, like movies, are risky propositions. Developers could spend millions of dollars on a game, but there's almost no way to predict what will be a hit and what won't cover expenses. That risk is transferred to big companies like EA and Activision, and they ultimately decide what games get made and which do not based on the sole criteria of what will sell. Yes, publishers do fund crazy or original games sometimes - otherwise we wouldn't have Mirror's Edge or the first Psychonauts - but always with the hope they will move enough copies.
The margins of profitability for game companies are slim, all you have to do is look at how many publishers post losses for this quarter or that. I understand that making videogames is a business, and the shareholders of publicly-traded publishing companies demand that profits are a major concern for every decision its CEO makes. That's why we have cycles of sequels and the endless parade of the same game mechanics, because the publishers who bankroll games for hundreds of millions of dollars know that a shooter will make at least X and might even make Y gazillion. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but because publishers shoulder most of the rick, they get to decide which games get made, and tightly control how they are presented, marketed or even designed to so that games are as profitable as possible for their shareholders.
Then Minecraft happened. When Markus "Notch" Persson put his unfinished game up on the web for $10 and thousands of people bought it, he changed everything. No publisher would have invested the money needed to finish developing Notch's game, but because he was able to prove Minecraft had an audience, publishers started knocking on his door. Notch famously entertained these offers, but ultimately decided he didn't need them. Minecraft was already funded, so why should he make himself beholden to the whims of EA or Activision?
Earlier this week, Notch found out Tim Schafer had shopped around an idea for Psychonauts 2 with no bites from traditional publishers. The quirky original from 2005 is a critical darling, but just didn't sell that well, so no publisher was interested in bankrolling another flop. Notch mentioned over Twitter - everything happens on Twitter, doesn't it? - that Mojang could fund Psychonauts 2, simply for the joy of being able to play it.
A day later, the Double Fine Adventure pops up on Kickstarter. Now, this could have been sheer coincidence, but I bet that Notch at least made the suggestion that the brands of Tim Schafer and Double Fine have a lot more power than Schafer might have realized. You don't need the middle man anymore. Why chain yourself to the likes of Activision's shareholders when you have a loyal fanbase ready to buy your game before you have even made it? Dollars to donuts, the Kickstarter was Notch's idea. Even if it wasn't, Minecraft proved it is possible to sell an idea before there is even a product.