Thought Bubble: Gaming Needs to Crowdfund Failure

Double Fine and Blizzard made headlines recently with the abrupt termination of two relatively high profile projects. Blizzard cancelled Titan, a next-gen MMO seven years in the making, while Double Fine announced that development of Spacebase DF-9 would be cut short after roughly a year and a half.

While the scope of the projects differed, the logic that led to the two decisions is remarkably similar. Blizzard and Double Fine hold themselves up to exceptionally high standards. They pulled their respective plugs because they no longer felt they could meet those standards without spending more than could be recovered.

Though both studios did more or less the same thing for more or less the same reasons, the backlash has been much greater for Double Fine than it has been for Blizzard, which is understandable. Spacebase was funded partially through Early Access sales, which means fans paid money for a game that they will not be getting in full. Blizzard, meanwhile, has absorbed its losses internally, sacrificing millions in sunk costs without burdening its clientele.

So yeah, I get it. Early Access establishes a far more personal relationship with the finished product. We’ll gleefully mock an expensive studio flop like The Lone Ranger but we’re much less forgiving when we’re the ones footing the bill.

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I still dislike the entitlement that seems to spring up around crowdfunded projects. The complaints lobbed at Double Fine fundamentally misunderstand the importance of failure in the creative process, and that leads to unreasonable expectations for developers and audiences alike.

I think our relationship with crowdfunding would be much healthier with a more lenient arrangement. Regardless of the source, no investment – no matter how large and no matter when it was made – guarantees a great gaming experience, for the simple reason that nobody can keep such a subjective promise. Game development is too difficult and has far too many variables for a fixed cost-to-quality ratio. Some projects will prove more ambitious than practical.

And if you’re backing a video game, then you are an investor rather than a consumer and you accept all of the risk the term implies. There’s a world of difference between a scam and an honest effort that ultimately comes up short. I have no reason to suspect that Double Fine has deliberately misled its backers, so as far as I’m concerned, the studio has upheld its end of the bargain as long as it releases any finished product (which is still the plan).

If anything, Blizzard and Double Fine’s recent misadventures have only reinforced the notion that failure is integral to the creative process, and that video game developers experience the same malaise that afflicts artists in other media. Blizzard CEO Mike Morhaime made the argument explicit when he compared his studio’s struggles to internal conflicts that nearly torpedoed bands like U2. Sometimes you just don’t have it, and you’re better off salvaging the relationship than you are losing collaborators fighting over a doomed project.

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The difference between Double Fine and Blizzard is that Blizzard has a massive war chest to cushion the impact of its failures. It also has the clout to determine when and how they happen. The lengthier development time needed for blockbuster games makes it possible to contain one, two, or seven years of bad ideas within one cycle, which in turn allows Blizzard to sweep those false starts under the rug without impacting its schedule.

Double Fine takes just as much pride in its work, but it no longer has the luxury of handling disappointment privately now that every project has to generate some kind of return. Where once the studio could have pulled a Titan – namely, cancelling a project that was never formally announced – now the studio is faced with the unenviable task of having all of its shortcomings made public.

That doesn’t mean that Double Fine should be free from criticism. The studio chose its path and has to be accountable. It’s to Tim Schafer’s credit that he’s handled every pitfall with admirable forthrightness and integrity, and you don’t have to fund the next game if you feel like you’ve been burned.

Just remember that there were bad games before crowdfunding and there will be just as many bad games after, not because of any inherent flaw in the business model but because not every game can be a classic. Money doesn’t make developers come up with good ideas, not even for a studio as well regarded as Double Fine. Great art requires diligence and inspiration. Sometimes teams have more of the former than the latter.

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That hasn’t changed now that Double Fine has turned to public funding. We should calibrate our expectations accordingly. We have to be willing to let Double Fine fail on our dime so it can come back stronger with the next Costume Quest or Stacking, especially since it’s wildly unfair to expect perfection from every outing. Blizzard is afforded the leeway for mistakes. As long as it doesn’t become a trend, crowdfunded developers like Double Fine deserve the same.

If you do back a developer, you have the right to expect a finished video game, but there’s never a guarantee that it will be a good one. Sometimes failure is inevitable and we’re much less likely to be disappointed once we recognize that reality.

 

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