The story of Double Fine is such a feel-good story, but it almost wasn't.
A few years ago, if you said the name Double Fine aloud, you were talking about what could have been, or what should have been. You were talking about how you fell in love with games all over again because of the quirky, creative risk-taking in the ahead-of-its-time Psychonauts. Or you were talking about how you learned to loathe the major blockbuster game machine all over again because of the stunted promises of Brutal Legend. Or you were talking about how you used to love the games Tim Schafer made with LucasArts and wished he could make more of those, or modern games that were more like those, or something — anything — that would be both fun and successful.
What you weren't talking about — until very recently — was success.
Today, if you are talking about Double Fine, you are talking about a small company with big dreams that finally figured out how to make that work. You're talking about massive Kickstarter success, and games that are creatively ambitious, but on such a limited scale that they don't even have to succeed to be considered a success. And you're talking about great, big things on the horizon that could turn those stories of yesterday on their ear for once and for all.
Today, you're talking about a feel-good story. You're talking about passionate creators who stuck to their guns, made hard decisions and came out, if not on top, then at least on their way to it.
That's not a simple story. And it's not just one person's. It's not even two people's, but there are two people at the center of it.
One person is the anarchic Tim Schafer, whose wild-eyed dreams have fueled so much of Double Fine's success — and a lot of its failures.
The other is Steve Dengler, the financier known as "Dracogen" who, in spite of playing such a huge role in Double Fine's current success, is somewhat of a mystery man.
These men are two halves of one whole, in a way. The creative talent and the money-maker. The right brain and the left brain.
We wanted to tell the story of Double Fine, so we talked to both men. We decided that to tell their story properly, it should be presented as two halves of a whole, like the men themselves. And so here they are: two men, one story. Two stories, one page. We hope you enjoy.
Photo credit: Andrew Ferguson
By Arthur Gies
It's the second day of PAX, and Tim Schafer is signing Psychonauts posters at Double Fine's booth. He's talking to fans that have been playing his games since they were kids and he was working on titles at LucasArts. He's here showing the successor to Double Fine Happy Action Theater, known more simply now as Kinect Party.
"To really appreciate Kinect Party," Schafer says, "you have to turn it on when there are people over, or when there are kids in your house. And when you see that game, you'll see it's the greatest thing that's ever been done in front of people." Schafer seems excited about the game, and about Double Fine in general. "After you make three million dollars off the internet, you feel like you're not in a tunnel anymore, that's for sure," he jokes. "Having a million dollars in the bank is definitely a new chapter for Double Fine."
Three years ago things seemed different. After a prolonged squabble with Activision, Double Fine's second title, Brutal Legend, had just been released, and publisher Electronic Arts, which had taken the game on as part of its Partners program, concluded that sales had not met expectations. The planned sequel was subsequently canceled. "It was like being thrown into a pool after standing on the side for a long time," Schafer says. Double Fine was on the brink, without a publishing deal or a game in active development. And, as Schafer goes on to explain, it was probably the best thing that ever happened to them.
Motivations and obstacles
The Penny Arcade Expo is as loud as you might expect from a convention that tests the capacity of the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle. There are tens of thousands of attendees wandering in search of games of all stripes, and maybe even a chance to say hello to the people who make the games they've played for years; decades, even.
Given that, it's difficult enough to find a quiet place to talk at PAX, but when you were the lead writer on Day of the Tentacle and created Full Throttle and Grim Fandango — to say nothing of Double Fine's output over the last decade — things get more complicated. At one point, an excited fan who had contributed to Double Fine's wildly successful Kickstarter campaign for Double Fine Adventure interrupts Schafer, asking how she can follow the project's development. Schafer patiently explains how to find the DFA progress online, even reciting the URL, and thanks her for supporting it.
"For me, ideas are entertainment," Schafer says. "I love the act of them. It's like seeing a great acrobat, except they're doing it with creativity. I think that makes us have a certain kind of fan — all our fans are pretty creative themselves."
Double Fine wasn't always intended to focus so specifically on games. "Originally we talked about Double Fine as an [intellectual property] creation company," Schafer says, going so far as to explain how he wrote a sort of founding charter for the company in a notebook. "[We wanted] to make characters and worlds and turn them into different things, games and things like that. So it was funny to look back and think we'd have this really broad mission."
That's not quite what happened. While Psychonauts was a new IP and a new world, the production process was marked by the turmoil of an exclusive relationship with then-console newcomer Microsoft and its Xbox. Psychonauts and Double Fine were courted by then-vice president of game publishing at Microsoft Ed Fries, who was assembling a portfolio of exclusive titles aimed at defining the Xbox with consumers as the home of creative, interesting first-party games.
"We lucked out," Schafer says, recalling the situation in 2001. "When I leapt into it, I had just quit [LucasArts]. I figured it would work out." But Schafer is frank about how important the original deal was to Double Fine. "If we hadn't gotten that first game signed, I don't know what would have happened."
The deal with Fries and Microsoft to bring Psychonauts to the Xbox seems to have eased Schafer and his team's transition to the non-PC space after years of making PC adventure titles. "Ed Fries was pushing games as art," says Schafer. "But we always imagined, you know, being inspired by Super Mario 64, that Psychonauts would be a console-style game. It always would have been that."
Schafer is sanguine about the disintegration of the exclusivity agreement with Microsoft — after all, new publisher Majesco struggled to properly market or distribute Psychonauts when the platformer was finally released in mid-2005. "In a lot of those [first-party] relationships, you don't deal with Microsoft. You're really just dealing with people you know there. When Ed Fries is there, we really had a relationship with Ed Fries." Double Fine's "in" at Microsoft was gone when Fries left the company in early 2004. "When he left, all of a sudden we didn't have a relationship with Microsoft anymore. Each of those games has a relationship with a small subset of Microsoft, and a lot of these companies are shifting all the time."
After Psychonauts tiptoed to market with little commercial fanfare, Double Fine began work on Brutal Legend with publisher Vivendi's subsidiary Sierra Entertainment. But in 2008, as Vivendi's studios were absorbed by the formation of the Activision-Blizzard holding company, Double Fine faced new publisher difficulties. Activision reviewed its publishing slate and cut Brutal Legend from its lineup, and when competitor Electronic Arts picked up Brutal Legend for its Partners program, Activision balked, stating it considered negotiations with Double Fine ongoing. Activision filed suit against Double Fine and EA in June of 2009, which was met by a countersuit from Double Fine which alleged that the publisher had made an abortive attempt to transform Brutal Legend into a Guitar Hero title.
The lawsuit was settled in August of that year, amidst later retracted speculation by the Los Angeles Times that Activision had settled to avoid the embarrassment of losing their case in open court.
"I mean, it does work out for some people," Schafer says, regarding the publisher-developer relationship for AAA titles. "They get a real sweetheart deal, and they become family with the publisher." But Schafer later elaborated on his view of the importance of perspective for developers with regard to their publishing agreements. "Here's the hazard of even a good relationship with a publisher — there's an illusion that they're your parents," he says. "You think, 'They're taking care of me, they're paying my salary and they love me. They would never let me die, they'll protect me, because they're my parents.'
"IF YOU'RE NOT IMPORTANT TO A PUBLISHER'S BOTTOM LINE, THEY WILL CUT YOU LOOSE AND LET YOU DIE."
"And that's not what a publisher is. A publisher is a business. If you're making money they'll be in business with you, and if you're not important to their bottom line, they will cut you loose and let you die." Schafer doesn't begrudge Activision or other major publishing partners for their focus on the bottom line as such, stating, "That's what businesses should do. They're not here for emotions; they're here to make money. So as long as you can not fall for that illusion, that the publisher relationship is a parent-child relationship, then you're better off."
Kickstarter and direct contact with fans
Double Fine is the kind of developer that makes "favorite" games. While Psychonauts wasn't a Madden or a Call of Duty, more than many other more financially successful titles, Double Fine's titles seem to resonate with particular audiences in a very meaningful way. People get tattoos of their characters. At PAX, merch bearing the lead characters of Psychonauts sells briskly. This includes Brutal Legend, which despite its faults has found an audience that loves it passionately. "Brutal Legend is actually our best-selling game," Schafer says, though it wasn't enough to sustain the company.
"I loved making Psychonauts and Brutal Legend," Schafer says, "but I had this feeling that we were swinging from one big vine in the jungle, hoping that there would be another vine for us to catch. Right before we'd go out of business, we'd catch another vine." Schafer compares the big-game-or-bust mode to a 747 flight, "with moments of intense terror with a lot of peace in between."
Hearkening back to Double Fine's original mission statement, it wasn't what Schafer and his team had intended for the company. "I really didn't like that model. I wanted it to be like a business, where there's money coming in from lots of different sources. A cycle, like a four-stroke engine, instead of swinging vine to vine. Mixed metaphors." Some time after Brutal Legend launched in October of 2009, EA didn't pick up Brutal Legend 2 and Double Fine didn't have a vine to grab.
Double Fine did manage to catch a branch, however, thanks to a mid-project team sanity check during Brutal Legend's development that the team labeled the "Amnesia Fortnight." In an interview with Gamasutra, Schafer described the concept. "We took two weeks off and forgot about what we were working on — hence the title 'Amnesia Fortnight.' And we split the company into four teams and each team had two weeks to make a game."
Schafer explains to Polygon that the process was in keeping with Double Fine's strengths as a company. "I … wanted Double Fine to be about the creativity of everyone who works there, not just be labeled as my games. There were a lot of creative people there, there were a lot of great ideas, and I wanted to get out of their way." After the Brutal Legend sequel fell through, Double Fine turned to the four prototypes that came from the "Fortnight." "We thought, 'These would work in the downloadable space.'"
"So we had four teams going at once," Schafer says, "and that meant we could try anything."
If not for those four prototypes, Double Fine might be a very different company. "It would have been huge after Brutal Legend to say, 'Now we're going to focus on mobile.' That would have been a complete rebranding of our company, of our mission statement. Everyone at the company would have been really confused [about] what we were." Instead, Schafer says, "having multiple teams means that one group can say, 'OK, we're going to try a licensed product,' and another group can say, 'OK, we're going to do a kids-and-family game. We're going to try Kinect, we're going to try mobile, we're going to try free-to-play."
The games that resulted differed fundamentally in design philosophy from Double Fine's previous games, according to Schafer. "Brutal Legend came from a sort of top-down design," Schafer says. "It was a fantasy of a guy who's really into heavy metal who went into a fantasy land. So there was a series of questions: Should he have a guitar? Yes. Should he have a double-sided broadaxe? Yes. Should he be able to fly with great big bloody demon wings? Yes."
"I ... wanted Double Fine to be about the creativity of everyone who works there, not just be labeled as my games."
"All of this came from a sort of top-down 'let's build this fantasy and we have a lot of money to do it.'" In contrast, games like Stacking, Costume Quest and Iron Brigade resulted from specific conceits. "We had this reporting process where one person would have two weeks' time and they would say, 'OK, I'm going to have one mechanic, which is Russian stacking dolls which stack onto each other and take on the ability of the outer doll,' and that's all he got done in that two weeks. It was interesting for us as a company seeing the advantage of one mechanic pushed that way. Iron Brigade came out of that the same way, and Costume Quest.
"Our company doesn't have a rule about doing story first," Schafer says. "It's really that everybody who likes a game is empowered, and even required to own it. Lee Petty owned Stacking. And Nathan Martz was on Once Upon a Monster. They were reflections of who those people are." This is as much practical as philosophical, according to Schafer. "If I tried to run the company like all the games are 'Tim Schafer' games, and I was doing all the press for them, I would be spread too thin to help on those projects, you know, so we really decentralized that. But there's a tight bond and a culture, that really says what our values are."
The release of Costume Quest, Stacking and Iron Brigade proved to be something of a second renaissance for Double Fine. The company was quickly able to secure publishers for its four prototypes, and each game was received well critically. Within the course of about a year, the studio had doubled its number of shipped titles. But Double Fine remained a company depending upon new vines to swing from, albeit lower to the ground than the $40 million budget of Brutal Legend. The culprit was the same publishing model that complicated the development and release cycles for Psychonauts and Brutal Legend. Adding a licensed title to the mix with the Sesame Street-based game Once Upon a Monster added new wrinkles.
"I think even though I loved working with Sesame Street, and I learned a lot about the cost of working with licensed properties, I don't think that's right for Double Fine," Schafer says. "But," he quickly adds, "I'm glad we tried it once." He speaks about the virtues of Double Fine's then-newfound diversification. "We can try these things without totally committing our entire company to it and putting all our bets on one thing. And then if something works out, we can go grow that branch, or we can retreat and say that was a nice effort."
The real eye-opener for Double Fine turned out to be something that almost seems obvious in hindsight: self-publishing. After the lack of a deal for Brutal Legend 2, "our main business goal was to self-publish," Schafer says. "Our angel investor, Dracogen, has helped us fund PC ports of our games. When we published those, all of the sudden we started making money on our games. Which was an unusual thing for us."
Schafer is quick to explain the realities of Double Fine's business until recently. "Usually," he says, "when you have a big hit game, like a band with a hit record, your band gets rich. But no other bands get rich, right? The same with games." He spells out the fate of every game Double Fine released through an external publisher. "If you have a moderate-selling game, a game that breaks even or does well, you don't get any money from publishers."
Still, Schafer's responsibilities as the head of his own studio have shifted what's acceptable for Double Fine as a business. "In my younger years, it was OK," he says. "I was lucky enough to be creating these ideas, and that was the end goal. I want to be creative, and for every game I look at to be able to say, 'Wow, that's the game I want to make.' And in some ways I'm the luckiest person in the industry," Schafer admits. "[But] it was just lately when we started self-publishing that we actually prospered from some of our creations.
"We actually got the publishing rights back to Psychonauts. We got the PC rights to a lot of our games, and published them, and we instantly started making money. And we realized how much money we're losing out on by not controlling our own destiny. So, through the help of angel investors, and looking at things like Kickstarter, we're looking to get away from publishers, and to get better deals for ourselves."
"They have to make their money back," he
explains almost apologetically, "to cover what they perceive as their risk."
Schafer explains that one of Brutal Legend's main hurdles was directly related to its publisher difficulties, presenting a what-if example. "We had a strong messaging problem with Brutal Legend's launch," he says, perhaps referencing the bewilderment in some corners of the gaming press and audience at the game's shift around a third of the way through to a sort of real-time strategy title, from what seemed to be a fairly traditional third-person action title. "If we had done Brutal Legend the way we're doing this Kickstarter project, if they had seen it as we were making it, seen the characters, and seen the insights into our design choices that we were making and felt like a part of it … I think people would have understood what we were going after, and would have seen the cool part of that game.
"I think Kickstarter is just a whole new way in general of doing business. I mean, if the fans fund it, it's not a risky thing. Kickstarter is sort of a self-selecting ecosystem." While other beneficiaries of massive Kickstarter campaigns have expressed an element of caution in the months after their success, Schafer seems more optimistic. "It feels like you're out in the sunshine and you're working with the fans … a big question for me is how do we do something big like the Kickstarter thing again successfully."
Life after Kickstarter
As successful as Kickstarter has been for Double Fine, Schafer seems to recognize that it is just another vine. Depending on Kickstarter probably isn't a reliable enough means of keeping multiple projects swinging, which is where self-publishing comes in. Self-publishing has given Double Fine the kind of income that had always eluded it, even for its first project. "We've looked at the numbers on stuff like Steam," Schafer says. "We made more on Psychonauts this year than we ever have before.
"We had good relationships with our publishers, and we got along for the most part," Schafer says. "It's just that they've got a lot of stuff going on. If you're not going to be the number one thing they put money on, you can't get on the floor of the trade show in their booth." Working with so many publishers over the last decade has been an effective education for Schafer and Double Fine in the business of games. "By being kicked out of the nest a few times, we've learned that every business is essentially on their own."
The could-have-beens for Double Fine if Brutal Legend had been enough of a success for EA to keep the sequel in development paint a picture of a very different Double Fine. "I think we'd be all about Brutal Legend in a way," Schafer admits, "which would be great, but we wouldn't have done all these other things. Things would be totally different, or maybe we would have had enough people and have put away enough extra money to look into projects. Maybe we would have started a side project.
"It's weird to say, but I'm glad it didn't work out that way. We're in a much better place right now. I mean, we've always responded well to adversity. We're a company that could survive. And what was really inspiring to me, was what saved us, and why we didn't go out of business after Brutal Legend, was that not me but the team had a lot of great ideas. And we made our salaries off of those great ideas for the next two years. And so that creativity saved the day. Which is a great sign. So, not that I'd want to have continual amounts of adversity, you know. But being forced to jump out of the nest and fly on our own was good for us, and might be good for a lot of people."
"Our fear was that next generation was going to be only big, AAA games. It was only going to be a place for Call of Duty and Halo."
Double Fine seems better positioned for the future than it's ever been. Just last week, it announced its first iOS title in conjunction with Dracogen, Middle Manager of Justice. "We don't know where [our mobile initiative] is going to go; it could be huge." Schafer says that Double Fine is exploring other forms of free-to-play games in addition to Middle Manager of Justice, the first of three free-to-play iOS titles scheduled. "I think you can start small. Looking at the free-to-play stuff happening on PC — not so much Zynga as League of Legends, and games making millions of dollars that you've never heard about. A lot of them start small, but provide a big world to explore that you grow to understand."
Larger projects seem unlikely for the time being, though Schafer isn't closing the door completely on the idea. "I don't think that we'll go back to that risk of putting 40 million dollars into something and cross our fingers and hope that it works," he says. Schafer does go on to say that "we're still talking about things like Psychonauts 2, which," he adds slyly, "we talked about last year with various Twitter experiences ... I do think that if we were to work with a partner on Psychonauts 2, I think that would be a game where [a higher budget] would be appropriate."
With the current console generation drawing to a close, is it likely that Double Fine will continue to develop for consoles, given the windfall via Steam? Schafer thinks he's aware of the obstacles that have stood in the way of smaller publishers on consoles — particularly the realities of releasing games on Xbox Live Arcade.
"Our fear was that next generation was going to be only big, AAA games. It was only going to be a place for Call of Duty and Halo. But we've talked to them, and told people what things would be hard for teams our size with regards to consoles," Schafer says. "Especially self-publishing, in terms of the cost of certification and patches and TCRs [technical certification requirements] and cost of even being considered a developer, you know. We'd still like to be active in that space, we care about consoles, but unless they open things up a lot more like what we have on Steam … if they opened things up more it would be a more friendly place from our perspective.
"We've talked to them about this stuff, and you know, they hear us. They're big companies and they can't make changes overnight, but I think they're taking all of that stuff into consideration. We'll have to see what happens. "
By Chris Plante
Steve Dengler is the closest an angel investor comes to being an actual angel.
Across North America, dozens of game designers, artists, web video directors and geek craftsmen have received hundreds of thousands of dollars in investment funds from the Canadian entrepreneur. The angelic twist: Dengler often doesn't expect to turn a hefty profit. Sometimes, he's not even repaid.
The millionaire invests in experiences, drawing up contracts that favor the artist over the investor. It's not a traditional model, and listening to Dengler, you'd think he's solved life's great mystery. He's proud, and, creatively speaking, more energized than ever before. He attributes the shift to a couple of years spent helping people like him — just with less money.
Now the investor is eager to direct that accumulated enthusiasm and vigor back into his own business, XE.com, a currency website that, over the past two decades, made his millions.
But before Dengler returns to relative anonymity, shouldn't the gaming community he helped know who he is? Altruistic and modest, the entrepreneur speaks at a rapid-fire pace, diverting our conversation to others, the people he's helped, the people he loves. To know Steve Dengler, it turns out, is to know the people he's affected.
In 1982, a small, introspective 14-year-old named Beric Farmer enrolled in a summer computer course at Aurora High School in Aurora, Ontario. The boy was eager to get his hands on the first computers to arrive in the school district, a collection of Commodore PETs.
This course was more advanced than the one he'd taken the previous summer, and the teacher's plans to teach assembly language made Farmer nervous. He couldn't have known the class and one of its students would shape his entire life.
One of the other students in the course, 14-year-old Steve Dengler, was loud and ambitious. From the first day of class onward, he'd regale classmates with his plans to make a text game called the "Kubla Adventure," and at break time he'd eat Lolas, frozen popsicles that would stain his lips bright colors. Farmer would watch Dengler perform his pitches for the entire class, thunderstruck.
Dengler and Farmer didn't speak. They had different friends and different personalities. "[But] he was unforgettable," Farmer says.
On the first day of high school, Farmer heard a boisterous, familiar voice rolling down the hall. "We were milling about waiting for classes to begin," says Farmer. "[The voice] turned out to be Steve, who ended up being in my class. We spent the next five years of our lives together, developing a very strong friendship," from high school on to college.
In 1993, more than a decade after they'd first met, the two friends formed Xenon Laboratories, which in the next two decades would become XE.com, one of the oldest and most successful foreign exchange services online, ranking somewhere in the top 400 most trafficked websites.
Farmer was the pragmatic half, Dengler the spontaneous counterpart. The duo made millions. By the 2000s, they faced that blessed question of the world's elite: what to do with a whole lot of money?
Dengler had traditional, practical investment ideas, investing in Wifarer, an indoor positioning technology. But he wanted to try something else. Something that captured the excitement of talking text adventures in that summer school classroom.
Dengler's first geek-tinted project was Fallout: Nuka Break, a Fallout-inspired webseries released in early 2011. The investment, he says, changed the way he perceived investing.
"I was on set [of Nuka Break]. Seeing very passionate people making something really impressive with what anyone else in the industry would consider to be tiny resources [...] After I realized how transformative what, to me, is a small amount of money, I couldn't see these opportunities the same way."
A fan with money
If you are a fervent consumer of video game media, it's possible you may faintly recall Dengler's name. In March 2011, Dengler struck up a strange and surreptitious Twitter conversation with video game creator and Double Fine founder Tim Schafer.
After Schafer joked about the financial improbability of bringing some of the studio's catalogue to PC and Mac, Dengler asked for an exact price. Schafer responded with $300,000, a number that may or may not have been the actual cost. Dengler pressed for more information, and Schafer jokingly directed the bold tweeter to the company's then-vice president of business development, Zach Karlsson.
Like Schafer, Karlsson humored Dengler's conversation, until, at some unplaceable point, the conversation stopped being a joke and started being a strategy. Dengler would invest in the ports of Psychonauts for Mac and Costume Quest and Stacking for PC under his new company, Dracogen Strategic Investments.
"He took a big leap of faith with us the first time to know that I wouldn't take all of his money and run with it," Schafer says. According to the game creator, the leap has paid off for both sides.
Following the initial investment, Dengler has helped to fund three iOS mobile games, the first of which, Middle Manager of Justice, is expected to be released soon. To date, Dengler has delivered $1 million of game financing to the company.
He started as a fan, Schafer tells me, but soon became a partner, helping the company reimagine its financing. Before Dengler, Double Fine was a known commodity with a number of beloved titles, but it still lived from project to project, contract to contract.
"He took a big leap of faith with us the first time to know that I wouldn't take all of his money and run with it"
"We were in a cycle," Schafer says. "Doing a game with a publisher, you get a certain amount of money, you spend that on development, and then you've got nothing again — unless you have a big, hit game. That leaves you in a hole, so, you have to take that next deal, and the next deal has the publisher taking most of the money. You always have to take that bad deal because you don't have the money of your own, because you don't have enough money of your own."
Dengler helped them break that cycle. The terms were friendlier, allowing for Double Fine to self-publish and to make a profit. The first effort was small, but Double Fine's self-published projects have grown since, most notably with the public investment in Double Fine Adventure on Kickstarter.
"The first investment was kicked off with Steve," Schafer says. Now, Schafer can see Double Fine self-publishing something as large as the studio's previous AAA title, Brutal Legend.
When asked about Dengler's involvement, Schafer says he's trying to find ways to involve the investor, to give him more of a role beyond moneyman. For example, Dengler's kids drew superheroes for Middle Manager of Justice. But it's what Dengler doesn't do that makes the deal so sweet. He doesn't withhold payment to get what he wants added or changed. He doesn't demand an absurdly high return on investment. He doesn't get in the way.
It was months after the first investment before the two even met in person, grabbing beers at one of Dengler's favorite bars in San Francisco. They talked games, not deadlines.
"He's just like a fan with money who wants to make cool things happen," Schafer says. "I want him to get to participate in the fun side of things [...] We obviously get something out of it, and I hope he does too."
Projects, products and people
Dengler's number of investments has grown exponentially since the initial deal with Double Fine. Dracogen Strategic Investments has helped fund a Fallout-inspired web series, a re-imagining of classic role-playing games and a niche fantasy novel, along with dozens of other nerdy endeavors. These smaller projects have relaxed contracts and expectations. Unlike from Double Fine, there's little, if any, expectation for a return on investment. Dengler prefers avoiding the legalese all together, relishing how Kickstarter allows him to invest large amounts of money with minimal fuss. If you've ever wondered who commits to that top tier of a Kickstarter project, Dengler's the answer.
Like the Double Fine project, Dengler rarely dwells on the machinations of his investments, nor does that busy work excite him. He cares about the people and the final product.
"For a relatively small amount of resources I get to participate in your dream project," Dengler says. "Sometimes you're giving me a part of it. I don't let too many people into my dream."
Dengler sends me a digital folder full of photos of him from a recent investment-related trip across North America. Alongside him are many members of the nerderati: Gabe Newell, Felicia Day, Seth Green. Then there are faces I don't recognize, men and women without the pristine skin and expensive clothes afforded the wealthy and privileged. These latter photos have been snapped on scrappy film sets and in small apartments. The constant in all of the images is Dengler: usually slightly to the side of the frame, always beaming with pride.
"For a relatively small amount of resources I get to participate in your dream project."
Dengler loves creative types, a sect of people he compares to a secret society, or "a fraternity of people who willed something to exist," a moment he discusses with near-reverence.
"It's like getting into a time machine and going back to the early days of XE," he says, "where we had dreams and fire. We still do, but then we had no resources. Then it was all theoretical. We only had our dreams and passion. It's neat being around those types of people. It takes you back to those days in a positive way. And you get to contribute. To continue the time machine analogy, when you step out of the time machine you kind of are from the future. You can tell them how their business might proceed. They have something to give to you, but you have something to give to them."
By funding these people, Dengler explains, he can vicariously experience that moment of creation over and over again. "It's almost like I'm ripping these people off," he says.
Friend and family
In Dengler's photos, you might note one other person that continues to appear, often in the center of a shot: a young woman, with dark hair and darker eyeliner, named Ash Vickers.
In 2008, Dengler met Vickers at a family reunion. Vickers, it turned out, was his long-lost sister (they share a biological father). The two clicked immediately, sharing an interest in geek culture.
At the time, Vickers worked retail. Dengler asked what she really wanted to do, and she told him about her ambitions as an artist. In early 2011, Dengler funded Vickers' webcomic, MegaCynics. As Vickers puts it, her brother is the co-founder, financier, co-writer and editor. And also the biggest fan.
"It's definitely brought us closer together and kept a constant link between the two of us," Vickers says. "It's given me the big brother that I never grew up with when I was younger and also the coolest boss on the planet."
The investment obligations, Dengler tells me, can't surpass the threshold of free time he has in a day. They can't trump his work, his wife and his children.
Much of the comedy is pulled from the dichotomy of their lifestyles. Vickers points to the comic "You Call that Hate?" "[It] embodies how we talk to one another," Vickers says. "It's always been a favorite of mine."
The comic is funny and honest, and speaks to the different world Dengler lives in. The humor and the conflict of Steve Dengler's life comes from the collision of his two identities — normal geek and wealthy entrepreneur. I ask what the worst part of investment is, and Dengler tells me it's that he can't help everyone who needs it.
At first, Dengler was picky about who and what he helped, but increasingly, the reason he can't help is the resources — not just money, but time. Dengler runs the math for me: the discussions plus the legal paperwork plus the logistics of transferring money multiplied by the number of projects. As he puts it, investments have a way of expanding. A lot of the stuff you invest in that you think is a one-off, says Dengler, isn't a one-off at all.
"Sometimes people need a bridge loan or they follow up with another project." Then there are the number of requests for help. At first, Dengler was getting one or two email pitches a week. Now he says he can get upwards of 200 a week. "On one hand," Dengler says, "I feel bad that I'm saying no. On the other hand, I can easily admit I don’t have the capability to do all of this anymore … I'm already at my limit here."
The investment obligations, Dengler tells me, can't surpass the threshold of free time he has in a day. They can't trump his work, his wife and his children.
"XE really is my passion," Dengler says. "The company I started with my best friend is doing better than ever. We've got huge plans for it. And it's in short the reason I'm in the position I'm in."
Dengler and Farmer share a combustible enthusiasm for XE. They remind me of being in college, working through all this new information you've acquired, looking confidently towards the future. The topic of their business makes the men talk louder, faster and happier. They become energized, like two freshly wound automatons ready to be set loose on the world.
Next year, Dengler plans to calm down, taking a couple small things. "I have to focus on what's running," he says. "Eat what you kill. Look after your family. That sort of thing." Though, as a enthusiast and lover of games, he admits he'll probably continue to do more Kickstarters. They require no involvement, which is perfect for his schedule.
"I guess the mission was accomplished," Dengler says. "I've been really excited about XE, especially in the last six months."
"Let's say you're a person who's had some success, and you're saying, 'Should I buy the Ferrari or the second or third home?' Go ahead if you want to do that. You could also consider richer rewards, which are interfacing with people."
"I think he'll be less active outside of XE," Farmer says, "but I think and hope he won't slow down. He once came back from vacation with a document that was probably about 2,000 words long outlining his thoughts on some aspect of XE, which he composed on a BlackBerry while on the beach. I've never done that."
I ask Dengler if he’s concerned an article about him will mean more emails and calls for help. And that they'll arrive when he's more busy than ever. He recognizes that his inbox and voicemail are likely to be overloaded.
So what then does he hope to gain from sharing his story?
"One person can't help everybody," says Dengler. "Let's say you're a person who’s had some success, and you’re saying, 'Should I buy the Ferrari or the second or third home?' Go ahead if you want to do that. You could also consider richer rewards, which are interfacing with people. Helping other people get their dreams off the ground. Everybody started somewhere. … Most people had a struggle in their lives. Most people built something. There’s other people out there doing that, and interfacing with those people … is way more satisfying than whatever trinket or sports car you can by. In my experience, anyway."
At least one person thinks more people will want to be like Steve Dengler.
"Steve's the rich guy we'd like to to be if we become a rich guy someday," Tim Schafer says. "I don't want to go to a country club. I don't want to hang out in places that only rich people hang out in. I want my life, but cooler."