Tim Schafer announced that Double Fine’s Kickstarter game now known as Broken Age won’t ship on time, it had to be split in half, and that they’re on a trajectory so that the $3.3 million in donations won’t cut it (and a good rule of thumb to remember is that $330k went to KS and another $660k goes to the cost of manufacturing and shipping donor gifts leaving $2.3 million to make the game). Am I worried yet? No. Is this a fiasco? Nope. Not yet anyways.

Being late is the norm in game development. While it’s still a let down to give an audience an estimated delivery date, I’ve never worked on anything great that delivered late where people remembered if it was late. They only remember if it was bad. If the Kickstarter donors feel bad about getting a great game late, think of how much worse it would be to get a bad game on time and on budget. Schafer is making the right sacrifices as an artistic game designer, and we should be encouraging him to double down, not second guess himself. His business practices aren’t dishonest, he’s going late and over budget in the most ethical way possible… designing a game that is admittedly too huge.

Failure in games are almost standard procedure. Making a game is like pouring cement around jelly to find it’s form. It’s hard to imagine anything concrete at the start, and with $3.3 million to dream big, I could easily have made the same mistake. “What CAN’T we make for that amount of money?!” Suddenly, every decision becomes a “yes” instead of a “no.” But when an artist is getting permission to say “yes” by funding, it’s a liberating feeling.

Reality is unfortunately expensive, cumbersome and difficult to navigate compared to dreaming big. But every game ever made begins with a lot of optimism and dreaming and ends in cruel beta-testing, bug fixing and red alert problem solving. Finishing a game is a white-knucked experience, often full of fighting and tears as an exhausted team have spent all they have left. We sacrifice our family relationships, sometimes friendships and it’s all because games are just flat out hard to make, even for seasoned veterans like the Double Fine gang.

People outside of games are understandably upset, but don’t likely have an accurate view of what’s happening on the inside of Double Fine. I don’t know of many people working in games who are criticizing Schafer, it’s nearly all coming from the outside. Those working in games largely have compassion and understanding for what they’re going through. I say, “You can do it! It’s worth your fight! Make a fist and do it!” But it’s not the critics or gaming press that concerns me, it’s the donors that have me concerned.

Kickstarter Backers are a unique institution. I’ve had a lot of fans support my work, but the Kickstarter donors are just a different kind of fan. They’re philanthropic and more charitable than the average fan. They are full of faith and hope and put their good money into trusting others. As an artist working in mass media, that trust is sacred to us. We give a pitch that has no monetary value, and they put in dollar one of real money. If a bunch of Broken Age backers lose hope or worse, feel burned by the process, then it will damage the spirit of the Kickstarter backer. And we all need to maintain their enthusiasm, not only for Schafer’s game but for countless other games being aimed at Kickstarter right now. Just like I encourage Schafer to keep fighting for his game, I encourage the donors to keep fighting for what Kickstarter stands for in games. Kickstarter can’t fail. We can’t let it fail or the bad guys, the anti artists, will win.

So far, the Double Fine backers are hanging tough… and it’s a credit to their generosity and vision. I know from my own successful campaign for the Sketchbook Archives that treating backers as full fledged team members, instead of mere consumers, always produces better results. They don’t betray you for being transparent about the good and the bad news regarding the project.

As for our own game Armikrog, we’re doubly cautious about our funding and our game design. But like all game development, the problem we’re going to face toward the end is unknown to us. I only know that something always does come up that shakes our confidence and seems insurmountable. But we’re in good company with every other art project that ever needed real life funding to get made. Kickstarter is still liquid magic in a bottle, and Broken Age’s very normal problems don’t change that fact.

Mark Twain said, “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” and I wouldn’t bet my money against Schafer… he had the good eye to support Armikrog, after all! Let’s play the game when it comes out and judge his decisions based on that. If the game is terrible then we can talk about who let who down. But if it’s got scope, vision and wonder then how can we criticize that?! 

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Though much of the game has been loosely designed the team needs something concrete and productive to work on. We need a goal to strive for that represents real progress on the game, so a good start is the first playable level.

A first playable level doesn’t have to be pretty, but it has to be functional. The main character Tommynaut should be able to walk on a floor, push a button and collect an item. The Unity engine will be up and working as we apply temp sound effects and make sure music plays, character animation can load, and the camera presents the best point of view for the player to experience the game.

While my designs are still images, it’s the magicians Mike and Ed at Pencil Test Studios who do the animation. The first playable level might have some puppet animate visible, but most of it is “pencil test” animation, which consists of roughly drawn, loose animation sequences that aren’t even cleaned up. The drawings still represent correct proportions and snappy timing, so they act as a playable proof of concept before we pull the trigger and devote expensive resources to final puppet animation.

We’ve got about a month to make the first playable level, but if it succeeds we’ll have a huge, reliable and definitive tool kit to make about 75% of the game! While Mike and Ed are working on this first playable level, I’m working on a super-tight design for the first 1/2 of the game. So if the first playable works out, we’ll be ready to go into production on the first half of the game, and the work being done will be very close to finish when it gets dropped into the working engine.

Though I had a variety of gaming press and bloggers trying to stop the creation of this game, I got generous help from over 18,000 amazing people… and no, you can’t put them in a box.

This isn’t a Christians vs. Homosexuals victory because many of the people who boycotted let me know that they were Christians. My work has never had a lot of support from evangelicals, and the PC Pharisees regularly line up to make sure I know how un-Christ like I am. We probably agree on that conclusion, though attribute it to different reasons.

Ah, but the other reason why this wasn’t a Christians vs. Homosexuals victory is because many of our donors are outspoken LGBTs and a majority of them are for same sex marriage. Liberals everywhere wish the lovers of my work would just go back in the closet. Out of 18,000 donors we are going to have every world view imaginable. Every one of them is a legitimate member of the team, even the donors who dislike me. That’s not unique to Armikrog, that’s a normal part of life.

I learned early on to not give in peer pressure.  Get in line with every other force in my life that says I can’t create art, I can’t make, I can’t write, I can’t do a game…. You’re just this week’s excuse and it’s not gonna work.

I’d like to dedicate today’s work designing Armikrog to the following gamers:

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One of the most common questions I get is “How do you come up with your ideas?” They are no doubt talking about my bigger successes like Earthworm Jim, The Neverhood, Nickelodeon’s Catscratch or any one of my 13 graphic novels. But while a broad variety of my work is out there, people don’t see my ideas that don’t make it to the public. I’ve created HUNDREDS of ideas and only a handful of them have made it to where the public can see them. That’s right, for every Earthworm Jim you’ve seen there are twenty Earthworm Jims you haven’t.

The truth is that ideas are easy to come up with, but execution of any idea is near impossible. Earthworm Jim had so much working against it that it boggles my mind how it ever got made. My job at Shiny was offered to two other people who turned it down and if either of them went for it I wouldn’t have been hired and wouldn’t have created Earthworm Jim. When young designers ask how to make it in the gaming industry it’s hard to tell them, “Be incredibly lucky, and hope that two other people better qualified to do your job turn it down.”

Getting the opportunity to make Earthworm Jim was a complete freak accident of coincidences and lucky breaks. Not just for me, but Shiny just-so-happened to have an open invitation to create a unique title by our investor Playmates Toys. The Neverhood was created solely because Dreamworks was aggressively trying to start their gaming division and gave me an open invitation to create something unique and interesting. I didn’t go to business school, I was a fine art major and Dreamworks funded my company. No other company in the world would have greenlit The Neverhood, a clay animated puppet animation adventure game.

But opportunity is a fickle lover and my game projects could get no heat for fifteen years. People ask why I left games and I say, “I didn’t leave games. Games left me.” I’ve pitched plenty of games, at least as viable as Earthworm Jim and Neverhood and I got the sound of chirping crickets. Rejected by disinterested publishers, I always assumed that the gaming medium would be dead forever to my work. Then came Kickstarter. Then came Tim Schafer’s appeal directly to players for funding, circumventing the usual publisher route. After his DoubleFine game got over 3 million dollars in funding, Brian Fargo blew the door wide open with the crowd-funding of his games Wasteland 2 (edit) and Torment.

My old pals Mike Dietz and Ed Schofield were running their animation studio Pencil Test on fumes. We were trying to find a project that would be appropriate to Kickstart and we were spinning our wheels trying to make a 2D animated movie make sense. Finally, Mike said, “Why don’t we just make another puppet animated point and click adventure game?” Within a few hours, Armikrog was born. There was no way I could have predicted that Kickstarter would exist one day, or that if we proposed a game that it would get successfully funded. Once again, if a young designer asks how to make an Armikrog, I would say, “Wait for fifteen years after you’ve become a gaming has-been and hope for some new invention known as crowd-funding to come along and rescue your idea.” Just five days before our campaign funded, many were still betting against our success. Even Mike, Ed and I had regular Skype sessions where we went over the principles of crowd funding to try to look for any positive hope, a fool’s hope, to see the thing through.

Now that Armikrog is funded, people will play the game, and like so many of my other projects it will seem like they couldn’t do anything but exist. But now you know the truth. My punctuated string of successes are an unforeseeable stroke of luck, coincidence, and perhaps even miracle, one after another.

There are better creators than me working in game companies right now and they can’t get a break. There are amazing artists, designers and idea men who have the world’s best ideas that can’t reach that unachievable goal of execution. Your lack of opportunity is not necessarily because of your idea. It could be because of the normal problem of how difficult it is to have any idea executed.

It’s my great hope that the successful funding of Armikrog will only make more ideas by more people become a reality. But it’s not a given that you can follow the exact trajectory of Armikrog, it may not be Kickstarter that makes your idea become real but there are more options than ever available to my fellow artists. There’s always hope… a fool’s hope.Image
Ed Schofield, Brian Belfield, Doug TenNapel and Mark Lorenzen work on The Neverhood (Photo by Joe Sanabria, circa 1996).

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