A bit more than a year ago, Double Fine Productions put Kickstarter on the map for game developers around the world. It was never the studio's intention to. It had launched a campaign to raise funds for an adventure game — a game it knew publishers wouldn't want, but fans might — and asked for $400,000, a modest amount by game development standards.
Within 24 hours, the studio established a Kickstarter record, raising more than $1 million in its first day and becoming (at the time) the highest-funded video game in Kickstarter history. The Kickstarter campaign for Double Fine Adventure — now officially named Broken Age — closed at $3,336,371.
With Broken Age due to launch soon, the studio is going back for more. Developer Brad Muir is leading a different team within Double Fine to make a fantasy turn-based strategy game for Windows PC, Mac and Linux called Massive Chalice. They're taking the project to Kickstarter and are asking for $725,000.
With Double Fine having raised more than eight times what it asked for in its original Kickstarter campaign, it would be easy to assume that the studio is confident that Massive Chalice will meet and smash its funding goal. But a lot has changed in a year, and the studio knows it. When Broken Age's Kickstarter launched, the campaign page contained no trailer, no gameplay footage, no prototype, no concept art and no concrete plans. Even the reward tiers were basic. In the year since the campaign was successfully funded, Kickstarter has evolved into a different beast, with developers preparing detailed presentations complete with stretch goals, multi-tiered rewards and, often, a near-complete game.
Double Fine has nothing of the sort for Massive Chalice. The studio's VP of business development, Justin Bailey, says this is a huge risk for the studio. But it's a risk the studio is willing to take.
THE PUBLISHER PITCH
In February 2012, Double Fine founder Tim Schafer, brand manager Greg Rice and developer Brad Muir launched the Broken Age Kickstarter campaign from their hotel room in Las Vegas. The three were in town for the DICE Summit, an event where video game executives gathered to learn about the industry's latest trends and talk business. The Double Fine developers were there to pitch game ideas to people in expensive suits.
"We were talking to a bunch of publishers in the hotel room and trying to get our ideas signed and off the ground, and we thought it would be the perfect time to launch it because it was going to end during GDC," Muir says. "We launched it from the hotel room and it immediately blew up. It was so weird walking around DICE the rest of the weekend — people would see Tim [Schafer] and they'd be like, 'Holy shit, $1 million in 24 hours? What the hell?' It was amazing.
"It felt like this huge cultural shift where, at DICE, where it's all about big publishers and suits drinking and gambling together, all of a sudden they were really paying attention to what we were doing and what was happening."
When the project was successfully funded, a third of Double Fine's 60-person studio set to work on Broken Age while the rest of the studio worked on other projects.
"It's kind of funny because Tim [Schafer] and Greg [Rice] went on this Kickstarter, and it was a lot of fun, and then Brad [Muir] took a different turn and he kept doing the publisher thing," Bailey says. "Brad has literally, for a year now, been going around pitching to publishers and watching these [Broken Age] guys, who are almost in Candyland.
"They would sit there and were able to talk to the community and get direct feedback and make the game, while we were banging our heads against these publishers who basically act as a wall between us and our community."
The $3.3 million raised through the Kickstarter campaign was not enough to fund every project the studio wanted to make. According to Bailey, after Kickstarter rewards were fulfilled and 2 Player Productions was paid for the documentary it made, the game's budget was a bit more than $2 million, which he says isn't much bigger than the budgets for Iron Brigade, Costume Quest and Stacking. The Kickstarter funds were enough to prop up a portion of the studio, but in order for everyone else to make games, they needed publisher funding.
Muir spent almost a year pitching to publishers, often feeling uncomfortable about the compromises he had to make, and always feeling awkward about talking business instead of game design.
"When you go into a boardroom, it's first about the business and secondarily about the fans," Bailey says. "For us, it's about the fans first and secondarily business. It's about control and visibility. When you have publishers, they have control and they exercise that control. We're kind of throwing that out the door. If anybody has control and visibility, we want it to be our fans."
As the studio was about to reach an agreement with a publisher, Muir and Bailey paused. Neither felt comfortable about what they were doing. So they thought back to what the studio did a year earlier.
"It was like, why are we doing this?" Bailey says. "Why don't we go ahead and Kickstart a new idea? Instead of pitching to publishers, we pitch it directly to the community."
The team had some reservations — it was well aware that Broken Age was not out yet, and Kickstarting a second game when the first was not released could potentially reflect poorly on the studio. Schafer told Polygon that the studio wanted to do a second Kickstarter campaign for a long time, but was held back because he felt that he should finish his game before the studio asked for more money.
"The reason we wanted to do it is because it's obviously such a great thing for us financially, but the company also turned this corner when we did our first Kickstarter," Schafer says. "It was totally unexpected. We developed this whole different relationship with our fans. Instead of it being this one-way relationship, we got engaged to them.
"They backed us, and it was this moment where it didn't just feel good for us, it felt good for the people who were backing us because they were making a statement about their own power."
It made no sense for the studio to wait until Broken Age's release. If Double Fine waited, it would mean the rest of the studio would need to either go to publishers, find an alternative form of funding or, in the worst case, face losing their jobs. Muir already had what he and the studio believed to be a solid game idea, and there was a team within the studio ready to work on it.
"We are making this for our fans," Bailey said. "So why are we waiting? That is how it started."
Massive Chalice is a fantasy strategy game that project lead Brad Muir describes as a cross between the original XCOM and Final Fantasy Tactics with Double Fine's own twists. It's an idea he's had for years.
The game, which is in pre-production, adopts the structure of XCOM, where players can make strategic decisions at a high level before entering a different tactical view where they take the characters and fight demons.
"You're this immortal king and you're managing this entire kingdom on a strategic map," Muir says. "You'll speed up time — very similar to what you'd do in XCOM — then when things happen, the concept is, there's a demonic invasion and you're going to be defending this realm against it."
The tactical combat feeds back into the strategic layer, where players will take demonic technology and research it.
The main twist to the XCOM structure lies in what Muir calls an epic timeline — the invasion takes place over hundreds of years, and the player's characters will age over time.
"I really love the emotional attachment that you have to your soldiers in XCOM, and I think it's so awesome that those soldiers are not really involved in the actual narrative of the game, but I care way more about these soldiers that I'm actually moving around on the map," he says. "And when one of them dies, it feels like this devastating blow, like I screwed up and now this guy is dead and I have to replace him with a rookie.
"I really want to bring that feeling to people."
Early concept of the game's strategic map
Massive Chalice will see players' heroes age over time and, as they get older, players will feel it through the mechanics. Eventually, the heroes will weaken and pass away. Players will be able to make the strategic decision to either keep them on the battlefield as they get older, or to retire them so they become lords and have children, who will grow up to fight in the next generation. Muir says that players will fight up to eight generations, and he hopes players will form an attachment to the bloodlines and house names.
Muir also wants to introduce a bloodline system, that is inspired by Final Fantasy Tactics' job system. Players will be able to introduce male and female characters to each other, put them in the same keep and this might lead to them marrying and having children. The children will then have the abilities of both parents, and players will be able to unlock and create hybrid classes that may be useful down the line.
"We have to walk a fine line with that because I don't want it to be like breeding chocobos," Muir says. "We have to be very careful with it, and I think it's definitely possible to get people attached to these characters and not treat them like game objects or animals."
The game has a darker tone than what Double Fine games are usually known for, dealing with themes like aging and dying. But Muir says it's a ridiculous work that is self-serious, in a similar way that Iron Brigade is over-the-top without ever really acknowledging it.
"It's going to be a hardcore game for sure," Muir says. "I feel like the audience of the Iron man XCOM players — those are the first people I want to convert and get excited about this game."
Massive Chalice's Kickstarter campaign launched today with no gameplay footage, no complicated reward tiers and only a few pieces of concept art. Muir says they have what they would normally take to publishers, except they're now pitching the game directly to potential backers in the hope of making it a collaborative effort.
The team wants to bring the game to Kickstarter in a very early state so it can get the community involved right away. Muir says the reason they are bringing such a bare bones pitch to Kickstarter isn't because they have an under-developed idea — it's because they want their community's feedback on even the earliest game ideas.
"One of the things I love about being a game designer is there's this cool reflective thing that happens where you're excited about the game, and people get excited about the game, and they get excited about you getting excited about them getting excited, and it's just this awesome loop that happens," Muir says. "We're not going to have a Kickstarter page that goes on and on and on about the game. It's more 'Hey, here's the core seed of this idea — do you think this is cool?'"
Rather than present potential backers with a game where all the design decisions have already been made, Muir wants to get feedback from backers before any flags are stuck in the ground.
Schafer believes now is a good time for the studio to take the game to Kickstarter because Double Fine's fans understand that it's not a one-game studio, and other teams within the studio also need funding in order to continue their work. But it also has to do with his confidence in Muir.
Double Fine's office
"A lot of it has to do with making a bet on Brad himself," Schafer says. "I feel like Brad's got a lot of great ideas, he's smart, he knows how to make great games like Iron Brigade. Seeing how passionate he was about Massive Chalice and how excited other people got when they talked about it with him, I could see that this was the one."
If the project meets its funding goal, the team dedicated to working on Massive Chalice will ramp up to 12 people. The time frame Muir has in mind is 14 months, with the possibility of the game coming to other platforms if there is demand and if the studio has the resources for it.
If the project doesn't meet its funding goal, Muir imagines he'd need a week alone with some whiskey.
"I don't know if it's going to work — it's a risk," he says. "I try to go with the Tim Schafer way of thinking, which is the 'It's totally going to work' mentality, but I do have a fear that we're going to press the big red button and there's just going to be a goose egg there for hours.
"I don't want to be so presumptuous to buy a [celebratory] cake because that could be the saddest cake ever, and nobody likes sad cake. But it will be exciting. I just want to do whatever we can to make sure we reach the goal so we can make this game and I get to lead another project again," he says.
"That's what I really want to do: make this game, lead a project, work with the community. That part excites me a lot."