Interview: Tim Schafer On Kickstarter, And Good Will

By John Walker on November 20th, 2012 at 10:00 pm.

Yesterday you’ll likely have noticed that Tim Schafer and Double Fine launched a new approach to a Humble Bundle, encouraging people to pay what they want for the chance to vote on what four prototypes the team would develop during their next Amnesia Fortnight. We then brought you his thoughts on why they were doing this, and what impact such things have on the studio. In the second part of our chat, we discuss how Schafer’s time is split between the Double Fine Adventure and running such a busy studio, the effect his project had on the Kickstarter phenomenon, why he thinks you make more money without DRM, and Schafer’s belief in what he calls the “good faith” of gamers.

RPS: So how is your time divided now between your Kickstarter adventure, and the rest of the company’s work?

Tim Schafer: My time is pretty much half-and-half, focused on Reds [codename for the Kickstarter project] and writing on that, with general company creative directorship. I still do things like – I’ll take home the Middle Manager Of Justice and The Cave, and play them all weekend, and I’ll write up a pages of notes for the guys. But for the most part I can do this because people can run their own teams. I trust them to get their games done. It’s not like another company where every game that comes out of here is going to have my name on it, so I’m going to put it in my style or something. It’s more like… Pixar. Not every picture that comes out of Pixar is a John Lassiter movie. But it started that way. There’s definitely a feeling of a Pixar movie, but there are these independent voices in there. People are starting to recognise that in Double Fine, and that’s the way I like it.

RPS: How does Ron Gilbert feel when this young upstart Tim Schafer starts giving him notes on his games?

Tim Schafer: [laughs] Well, I think he responds the same way I do, or anybody does. You say “thanks”, because you want your game to be as good as possible, and every time someone points out something like a bug, they’re giving you an opportunity to make your game a little bit better. I’m not giving him notes like, “Hey, change this! I demand that you change it!” It’s like, “Do you know there’s a character who’s head pops off when he walks through the door?”

RPS: It sounds like you’re having fun. Which strikes me as not always that common in games development – people seem to be stressed a lot of the time. Is this the case?

Tim Schafer: It’s a lot of work, but we are having fun. That was the goal. The ultimate product for me is in a sense this company. Making Double Fine, making a creativity machine, that just runs. And I’m helping to turn the crank on the creativity machine, but there’s a lot of other moving parts. And it outputs great games, but really it’s the living, breathing machine itself that’s the thing we care about and work on. And part of that’s because we want to have a great place to go to every day to work. To go to a place where ideas, creativity and originality are valued, where people have fun and have some balance between their work and their life. It’s led to some tough times, because we’ve chosen those priorities over, like, you know, making a lot of money. But there’s definitely a feeling that if we keep doing this, and get better and better and better at it, then we’ll have success on our terms.

RPS: Your Kickstarter project really does seem to have been a sort of defining moment for the concept. Have you had that feedback from other developers?

Tim Schafer: It was a big surprise for everybody, including us. We were just doing a little experiment, and it was just so big! It got everyone’s attention, obviously, but I think everyone was asking, “What does this mean?” I think it just means there’s another great option for people. We’ve had a really standard way of getting a game funded and made for a really long time, and it’s not that beneficial to the little guy, and it’s hard to get profitable when you’re working with those kinds of publishing contracts. Most publishing contracts are not a great deal. And then it’s, woah, there’s this other great way you can actually make money.

The feedback that’s actually made me the happiest is seeing that – well first I had people tweeting at me saying, “You’re sucking up all the air in the room. You’re taking all the money on Kickstarter.” I was, like, geurgh, I hope that’s not happening. But then when I saw the actual charts, it was more like a rising tide raises all boats. Because you’ve signed into Kickstarter, because you’re there, you’re like, “I’m going to back three more projects!” And most people did. They backed our project, and then looked what else was on there. The overall backing of projects on Kickstarter actually went up, and it showed what a connected community it is.

RPS: Are there any games you’ve been delighted to see on Kickstarter?

Tim Schafer: I was actually happy to see Al Lowe’s team! Seeing them, Al, and Brian, Jane Jensen – that was the batch of people that our Kickstarter was closest to. People whose situation was a lot closer to mine – the first wave of Kickstarters looked a lot like ours. Then there are other games that are original on there, which I think is even more exciting to see. But really, just seeing anybody, whether it’s somebody just starting out, or somebody who has been in the business for a long time, seeing that they have this way to take control of their own creative lives is very inspiring.

RPS: Do you think then something like the Humble Bundle idea is a thing others can do, or is it unique to Double Fine?

Tim Schafer: I think it’s definitely something other companies could work with. I would love to see this sort of “good faith” business practices grow. You know, where people are putting their money forward, supporting things like charities, and people are actually making money by giving things away. That was the big lesson for me – it was like, “Wow, you can actually make a DRM-free version of your game, and make more money than if you spend millions of dollars on copy protection.” You hear people all day complaining about big publishers and their crazy DRM schemes, or you can just invest no money in that at all, and be really successful just because of the good will of people.

It benefits us all. We’re all motivated to have things move more in this direction. Although I do miss codewheels.

RPS: I miss those unphotocopyable brown pieces of paper.

Tim Schafer: [laughs] Impossible! Foolproof! To this day Monkey Island’s never been pirated! That’s why we’re all rich!

RPS: Thanks for your time.

Cheers to The Scumm Bar for the codewheel pics.

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29 Comments »

  1. S Jay says:

    WOW, I felt DRM nostalgia, this is wrong, hehe.

    • subedii says:

      At least the code wheels were interesting. The only thing I can say about Ubisoft shoving in Starforce on their games is that it effectively annihilated my DVD Drive and forced me to do a complete re-format.

      • LionsPhil says:

        Seeing the spam above, perhaps we should use DRM schemes of old as the model for CAPTCHA schemes of new.

        Please enter the third word from paragraph five of John Walker’s “Gaming Made Me” to reply.

        • gloriaalbert6 says:

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    • cowardly says:

      The code wheels were not DRM but a copy protection scheme. There is a big difference:

      A copy protection works locally, independently of the developer, an activation server or similar. Meaning that it will still work even when the developing company or the store (like Steam) will eventually go bankrupt. Even in 50 or 100 years.

      DRM schemes on the other hand are non-local, and therefore constitute a built-in expiry date for a product. This may not be so serious for software (because who wants to use a ten year old Photoshop version anyway), but it IS serious for cultural products such as music or games.

      Imagine Cicero would have built in a mechanism that his works become unreadable as soon as the Roman Empire closes down…

      • dontnormally says:

        Or if half the paintings at the Louvre were replaced with broken-link icons.

  2. SuffixTreeMonkey says:

    John Lasseter, not John Lassiter.

  3. Pazguato says:

    About Amnesia Fortnight: Most of them seem highly derivative: Zelda, Ico, Minecraft, Dwarf Fortress, etc.

    Just like with Kickstarter I suppose that’s a good way to attract votes but sadly sounds like pitching Hollywood movies in Robert Altman’s The Player.

    • elderman says:

      Of course the people making these pitches are game players and game makers and they’re pitching the ideas to other gamers so maybe it’s not surprising that they refer to other games to explain their ideas.

      It’s hard to make a great pitch and the originality of an idea is in the eye of the beholder: everything’s derivative in one way or another.

    • Dances to Podcasts says:

      You’ll find that most creative efforts can be explained as ‘existing idea plus X’ or ‘existing idea upside down’ etc. It’s how you explain things to people, you give them context.

    • Caiman says:

      We should have a pitching competition on RPS, so people like Pazguato can let loose and come up with some wholly original ideas. I’d love to see them.

      No really, we should, just imagine what we could come up with…

  4. Flipao says:

    Apologies in advance for being Mr negative.

    It does bother me that after labelling them as “pirates” for years, developers are now basically asking PC gamers to fund their games, so they can be sold back to them.

    I think Kickstarter has gone from a way of getting projects off the ground, to basically being a business model. Double Fine didn’t need Kickstarter to fund their adventure game. We as customers are now being monetized before, during and after the development of a product, all the while being called thieves.

    • subedii says:

      Well let’s see here:

      - “Developers” plural is an exceptionally large group with a large number of varied opinions. Chief takeaway being that if they all thought we were pirates, DRM free gaming wouldn’t be a big part of this push today. Your beef is more with “Publishers” if anything.

      - Kickstarter is crowdfunding, and it’s always been a business model. In return for your money you get the game when it’s complete, should the project reach completion. If you don’t believe in the project or the people behind it, don’t fund it. I’m not saying that to be facetious. Seriously, DON’T fund anything you don’t trust. What you are doing is putting money towards titles you’re interested in seeing get worked on. That’s about it.

      - Regarding monetisation, if I’m paying now and getting the (eventual) product (and often a tonne of bonusses) for cheaper than when it gets released, I don’t see how I’m being monetised “during” and “after” development as well. You can pay for the game to kickstarter it (see the point above). Or you can wait until it’s released and buy it then if you feel like it.

      - Either way, kickstarter has already allowed a tonne of projects to exist, that for the past freaking decade, haven’t been possible simply because publishers kept saying “there’s no interest”, and otherwise weren’t interested in funding low budget titles with smaller returns.

      • Flipao says:

        I agree Kickstarter has allowed projects to exist that wouldn’t otherwise have been able to, but for me that’s the catch. Tim Schaffer already runs a successful studio, likewise Penny Arcade is already a successful site, and yet both ended up in Kickstarter asking for money, that’s money that could have gone to other projects that might have needed it more, that site simply funds those who shout the loudest.

        And then there’s the “Good Will” side. Let’s look at Schaffer’s game, it’s been funded, profitable from day one, yet it’ll retail for the usual price for an Indie release, it’ll most likely make its way to Xbox Live, iOS, etc… afterwards.

        So it’s not just a site to get projects funded, it’s also a way for people with large media exposure to get rich quickly, no risk involved, no strings attached.

        • lordcooper says:

          So what?

          If you don’t like Kickstarter, don’t use it. I like it, so I’ll use it. We can both be happy!

        • The Random One says:

          Tim is hardly rich; by the time the game goes gold he will have spent all the Kickstarter money on it (because that’s what the ‘funding’ part of ‘crowdfunding’ means.

        • tehfish says:

          It was mentioned in the article above, but this point:
          ” that’s money that could have gone to other projects that might have needed it more, that site simply funds those who shout the loudest.”
          Is untrue for me at least.

          I’d heard of kickstarter, but had ignored it.
          *DFA Kickstarter happens*
          A few months later, i’ve now helped fund 6 kickstarter projects, two of which were not even gaming related.

          I can guarantee i wouldn’t have funded any without the initial ‘boot up the arse’ from doublefine to sign up to kickstarter and start properly looking through it.
          It didn’t suck up all the available money, it’s infact attracted a lot of extra money to the funding pool, which is a good thing :)

        • subedii says:

          Tim Schaeffer’s studio has not been “successful” in the modern publishing sense, which is why they turned to kickstarter. Brutal Legend nearly didn’t get made as it is, and is largely considered to have been a flop on release. All their games since have been low budget indie titles.

          Kickstarter is not a means of funding modern large budget titles. High budget title Star Citizen, with its record breaking $6 million in funding (over the $2 million they were originally asking for too), is getting in another $14 million in venture capitalist funding, which was dependant on the KS campaign being successful and proving interest. Everyone else? They’re making low budget (in terms of presentation and scope) titles with what money they get from it, assuming they aren’t getting further outside funding.

          As for “profitable from day 1″, the money pays for the development resources in use over that development period. And after it gets released? Yeah, the game will be profitable from that point because people will be buying for full price. Sooo…. what?

          Seriously, I’m not sure why that is meant to be a problem. That’s how every game works. It does not get made purely to break even, it gets made to make a profit. If that were the case, Bobby Kotick wouldn’t be shoving millions in the direction of Call of Duty. If people want it, they buy it. KS just allows for titles that can’t get those publisher dollars in to get funded still. The only reason the people who kickstarted it get it for less is as an incentive to put the money forward for its development.

          In general, devs don’t turn to kickstarter if they’ve already got the money to hand to fully fund the title, otherwise they’re effectively losing money (future “full release price sales”, resources spent on the pitch, additional support to all the KS participants etc.). And it’s very much a risk as a result since, if the KS isn’t successful, the game doesn’t get made. At which point weeks of manpower and resources spent on the pitch? Down the drain. An example would be Planetary Annihilation. The pitch video alone took a small internal team a full month to even put together. That’s not cheap.

          The problem with the issues you have is that they’re only really issues if the games were going to be made anyway. Which they pretty much weren’t going to be, they simply weren’t feasible to create through the traditional publishing model, typically because the publisher doesn’t believe it’s worth the investment. If the converse were true, we wouldn’t have been waiting a decade for any of these titles to happen.

          Penny-Arcade is a side issue. Personally, I didn’t put any money towards it since I don’t care about the ads. But here’s a fun fact: They already make a tonne more from advertising than anything they were asking for from the KS.

          • SurprisedMan says:

            subedii:

            “As for “profitable from day 1″, the money pays for the development resources in use over that development period. And after it gets released? Yeah, the game will be profitable from that point because people will be buying for full price. Sooo…. what?”

            If the game had been published the sales revenue would initially pay back the publisher investment. And very often the publisher investment has to be paid back before a developer even sees a penny of the profits. That’s a pretty big difference!

            And that’s the reason why Kickstarter is increasingly not simply seen as a ‘last resort’, but actually as a better option in the first place. I mean, if your idea is scoped small enough that it might flourish on Kickstarter, why would you pitch to a publisher who will nearly always want the IP, may pull funding as soon as things aren’t going how they’d like, and so on?

            Because of the marketing power? Well, that’s getting less and less true every day. For AAA titles, sure – big publishers are needed to make those titles happen with their huge teams and high competition at the top. But for smaller projects, publishers are going to have to start coming up with better offers to stay relevant.

          • subedii says:

            I mean, if your idea is scoped small enough that it might flourish on Kickstarter, why would you pitch to a publisher who will nearly always want the IP, may pull funding as soon as things aren’t going how they’d like, and so on?

            Again, I fail to see the problem with that. Publishers have been giving devs a raw deal on this stuff for a long time. That an alternative model now exists which will allow them to keep control of their IP’s instead of being sold on is a good thing.

            Ultimately however, KS is still far too small scale to provide the funding for large titles, and publishers have proven time and again that they aren’t interested in the small ones. Which is why this whole thing even kicked (pardon the unintended pun) off in the first place.

        • somnolentsurfer says:

          I can’t think of a single other publishing model where the accepted practice would be to stop charging for something once it’s covered costs. If DFA turns out to be brilliant, and sells millions of copies on the App Store or something, that’s just more money that Doublefine can put into making their next game independent of a publisher. That’s money they’d traditionally barely see a penny of, and what maintains publishers rather than the people who actually make games as the power players in this industry. Don’t see how chipping away at that is a bad thing.

        • D3xter says:

          Before the KickStarter came along, Schafer was thinking about laying off people with heavy heart since they weren’t getting any more projects at that point and were running out of money to actually pay people. Not even something like “Happy Action Theater” or “Kinect Party”.
          He has shared his feelings on Routine Layoffs recently: http://www.wired.com/gamelife/2012/10/lionhead-layoffs/

          Even Obsidian, who are a much larger studio had to actually let go about 20-30 people before their KickStarter because a project fell through: http://www.joystiq.com/2012/03/14/report-obsidian-hit-with-layoffs-south-park-team-affected-fut/

          Developers as such largely aren’t rich and the Independent ones are surviving from day to day, unless they are Blizzard or the likes of Zynga. I believe what you are thinking of are Publishers.

    • Herzog says:

      I am Mr Positive.

      This interview made me use my credit card to give Mr.Schafers company some money. Plus it made me finally subscribe to this great webpage here!

      • Potocobe says:

        Welcome!

      • Armante says:

        I too am a recent subscriber to RPS. And that’s kinda cool, because I never thought I’d pay for something I can essentially get for free. I’m happy to pay, to support the team creating it.

        Kickstarter has been much the same for me. I’ve backed a number of big and small projects, some more than anything purely because I wanted someone to chase their dream and fulfill it :)

  5. D3xter says:

    I’ll mention this here again, since it fits once again :P
    “History of DRM & Copy Protection in Computer Games”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HjEbpMgiL7U

  6. purkis2009 says:

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