How Double Fine’s open and honest policy turned them from indie darlings to despised sausage makers.
When Double Fine launched its Kickstarter in 2012 for what would become Broken Age, they promised to produce a documentary detailing the process of making the game. “Show you how the sausage is made”, Tim Schafer proclaimed. And show the sausage making they have. In both the documentary and forum posts they shared with the world, or Kickstarter backers at least, all the highs of pumping mystery meat into plastic tubes, and all the lows of grinding up pig intestines to form said mystery meat.
The move was hailed as a big step for the gaming industry, as game production isn’t typically done in the open. However, after years of delays and admitted money troubles, only half of Broken Age has been produced. I’m willing to bet many of you read 2012 earlier and thought, “Wow, it’s been that long?”
Yes, it has been that long, and with nearly $3.5 million dollars, Double Fine only has half a game to show for it.
Double Fine announced they were having financial troubles not long into development. Tim Schafer himself said he was paying money out of his own pocket to cover costs. We also saw their older games, such as Brutal Legend and Costume Quest get releases on newer platforms to help with those costs. They even split the game in two acts, hoping the money made off Act I would finish funding Act II. By all accounts, it worked. Broken Age Act I received fairly good reviews and sold as well as it had to. According to one episode of the documentary it hit just below its estimated numbers, but not low enough to cause a major issue.
But still, industry pundits accused Schafer and Double Fine of aiming too high, sticking with industry trends of building a rocket ship when you only have the budget for a tricycle.
Because of this, people somehow felt slighted. It’s perfectly understandable to be upset when a game you were anticipating is delayed and even cut in half. As unorthodox a method as it is, splitting the game in two was the only option to release Schafer’s vision. If Schafer came out and said they had to scale back the game in order to release it as one full product, the amount of hate wouldn’t have been any different, perhaps even more severe.
Anger was magnified by the frequency of updates. When production began, there were new episodes of the documentary every month, and weekly forum posts updating backers on the game. As the months went on, these posts came to a halt and the episode release date was in flux. Things got even worse when Act I was released, as the documentary series became bi-monthly, now so many months behind they’re almost irrelevant now. A new episode came only last week, but the overall theme of the episode was “can we launch Act II by December?” and never getting an answer, as if it were still possible.
Unfortunately, the trouble doesn’t stop at its most widely known game. Spacebase DF9 was originally a prototype released to the public in Amnesia Fortnight 2012. When the decision was made to produce a full game, Double Fine continued its new tradition of sharing production details and updates with the public. This included releasing an Early Access alpha build of the game, and detailing a long list of planned updates, bug fixes, and new features to be added in the future.
However, it was this open door policy that would ultimately doom the project, in conjecture with the Early Access release. The game was costing too much money, and as a result the project was cancelled and lead designer JP LeBreton was let go. The game was given one last tiny update and was moved out of Early Access alpha, and released as a fully finished game.
The people who already spent their money expecting updates and new features that would never come were angry. Granted it was Early Access, and we already knew of Double Fine’s troubles with Broken Age, but Double Fine is an established company with a sterling reputation. They never shared any difficult with this project the same way they did with Broken Age, and given the long list of updates and planned new features, one could hardly blame anyone for wanting to jump in early.
There are the more low profile issues as well. Double Fine continues to sell Iron Brigade on Steam, despite it requiring Games for Windows Live, a service that is no longer supported. Multiple complaints on the Steam forum, and Double Fine’s own forums saying the game is literally unplayable go unanswered to this day.
I have been heavily pestering Double Fine for the Blu-Ray Collector’s Edition of Amnesia Fortnight 2014, which was posted for pre-order in February 2014. Yes, it’s nearly been a full year now and we have yet to receive our copies. The last update came in October 2014 promising a release for November. Needless to say, that never happened.
It would be easy to get angry (which I am), especially considering Double Fine is working with 2 Player Productions (whom they’re working with on the Double Fine Adventure documentary and the Amnesia Fortnight 2014 documentary) on a new YouTube series called Dev’s Play, in which developers sit down and play games they designed years ago. Truth is, at least according to the last update, they just finished work on the menu design and are waiting for the printers, so it’s out of their hands.
But what kind of message does it send when you ignore multiple inquiries and launch a new series? What signals are you sending to your fans when you promise to “show the sausage getting made” when the sausage has already been made, frozen, sent to stores across the country, purchased, eaten, and shat out?
I have to be honest, it’s hard for me to write this article without getting unreasonably angry. You tend to get angrier at things you love, and I do love Double Fine. I love their wacky games, I love the people that work there, and I love how they’re willing to open up game development for all to see. I’m definitely going to by Grim Fandango Remastered, and possibly Day of the Tentacle Special Edition as well. However there’s no denying they’ve made some silly mistakes, mistakes most other companies don’t make.
Perhaps the problem comes down to Kickstarter, and the way we view our own investment in games and companies. But this feels more and more like a one way relationship, and I need reassuring that you still love me Double Fine, because lately, you’ve been a bit cold, and I see how you’ve been eying that girl across the street. Always looking at her, brushing me off when I say something about it. We need to have a talk, right now!