Kickstarter is a crowd-funding website where people ask others to contribute money to their creative projects. Recently, game developer Tim Schafer took in $3.3 million from fans for an untitled, undesigned video game he estimated it would cost $400k to make. Schafer talks to OTM producers and fanboys PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman about removing publishers from the process of making games.
You can listen to more of this interview by following this link!
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I’m Brooke Gladstone. Kickstarter is a crowdfunding website, where people ask others to contribute money to their creative projects. Recently, game developer Tim Schafer shattered a Kickstarter record by attracting the most backers and raising the most money in 24 hours. Schafer also happens to be a demigod to two of our producers, Alex Goldman and PJ Vogt. PJ, Alex, who is this guy to you?
ALEX GOLDMAN: Tim Schafer was sort of the king of making these games that had incredible depth and incredible character. They were much more narrative. It was more about puzzle solving.
PJ VOGT: I feel like the best way to explain this is to just give you one puzzle from one of the games. There’s this game called Day of the Tentacle, which is a Tim Schafer one, and you're these three time-traveling teenagers who have to save the world from a purple tentacle who’s trying to take it over. One of the kids is in the future. She’s in tentacle prison, so she has to pretend to be sick, steal a tentacle anatomical chart from the doctor’s office, flush it into the past, using the time-traveling port-a-potty, to the kid who’s in 1776. He has to convince Betsy Ross to make the tentacle body the American flag, so that she can, in the future, disguise as a tentacle using a flag and get out of jail. Does that make any sense?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sort of?
ALEX GOLDMAN: All of his games have the same sort of lunatic sense of humor, but they weren’t blockbusters. And the gaming industry figured out, much like the movie industry, how to make blockbusters. And the company that he worked for, LucasArts, once they started making games that were based on their hottest property, “Star Wars,” they basically never went back, and the point and click adventure was sort of lost to the sands of history.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So now we’ll hear Tim Schafer talking to you guys about his effort to kick a game off on Kickstarter.
PJ VOGT: Yeah.
TIM SCHAFER: Immediately we saw that I had $30, like as soon as we refreshed it. We’re like, “That’s interesting.” And then I was thinking, “I wonder how much it’ll be before I go to bed tonight.” If we hit $2,000 that would be exciting 'cause that would mean probably by the end of the thirty days, then we’ll have our goal of $400,000. But we hit the $400,000 before I went to sleep that night, and by the end of the project it was - about $3.3 million.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Whoa! [LAUGHS] I mean, have you had trouble with publishing in the past? Is this the culmination of sort of a - long and storied issues with publishing?
TIM SCHAFER: We’ve had good and bad experiences with publishers. I think the publishers are happy with the whole thing because this is a business they didn’t want anyway. They didn’t want to make this project, because if you look at the number of backers, you know, 90,000 backers, that’s not a lot for selling a game. Like if we were to sell a game today and only 90,000 people bought it, it would be considered a failure. But they’re giving money for a game that didn’t even have a title yet, didn’t even have a, a game design yet.
PJ VOGT: Are you giving people input on the, the shape of the game, on like what it’ll actually look like?
TIM SCHAFER: Yeah, we have this private - people can see. We’re gonna put up early concept art and, you know, early game play notes. And some things we’re even gonna put up to a vote, maybe, like here’s two possible ways this character could look. You know, how do you think he should look? We’re definitely letting them participate.
PJ VOGT: Customers have a lot of nostalgia for the games you’ve made, and so it feels like if people were weighing in, they’d say, what we really want is like what we’re used to. But part of the reason you’ve been really good at what you do is because you're surprising as a gamemaker. Are you worried that by opening up the process, you're going to sort of either frustrate people or be frustrated by people?
TIM SCHAFER: The big risk of including people in the process is they’re gonna see one of the scary things about doing creative work is that the creative work is not great the whole time. Games go through a long period where they’re, they’re not fun. Right now it’s the perfect game. It is all things to all people because it doesn’t exist yet. Some people wanted a, a game that was about cowboys, and we’re gonna make a game about frogs. That’s not what we’re doing.
But you know what I mean? Like it’s gonna be impossible to come up with one game that perfectly goes along with everyone’s expectations.
PJ VOGT: Is it different pitching to the sort of like wide Internet audience versus pitching to a publishing company?
TIM SCHAFER: Essentially, the pitch you're making when you pitch a publisher is a financial one. You're saying, “Here’s my argument for why, if you give me this many millions of dollars, I’ll return 35 times that.” That’s really the calculation they’re figuring out. If you're making a pitch to the fans, you're just saying, “Hey, I’m gonna do this creative thing that’s gonna be awesome, and who wants to help me?” That’s a very different – it’s not even an argument. It’s more just like an invitation to a party, “Hey, [LAUGHS] who wants to come join this fun, happy party with me?”
ALEX GOLDMAN: [LAUGHS] How do I put this delicately? Let’s say that people don’t like the game as much as [LAUGHS] you would like them to, are you worried about the sustainability of this model in the future?
TIM SCHAFER: So you're saying if the Double Fine venture comes out and it’s horrible –
[PJ and ALEX LAUGH]
TIM SCHAFER: - will that, will that bring down Kickstarter?
ALEX GOLDMAN: I was trying to sugarcoat it a bit.
TIM SCHAFER: Is that what you're dancing around? Oh, we’re taking everybody down with us - Kickstarter, Double Fine, On the Media, everyone.
[PJ AND ALEX LAUGH]
You know, my worst-case scenario is actually not that a project will come out that will be bad, but that someone might pull a con essentially and they’ll just take all the money and, “Oh, the game got canceled” [LAUGHS] or something weird like that –
ALEX GOLDMAN: Right, right.
TIM SCHAFER: - just actually take the money. And well, I don’t think that would kill what’s going on, 'cause I think it’s about reputation now, and anyone who pulls that kind of fraud on, you know, in a very public way w - won’t be able to do it again.
PJ VOGT: Not only are your games set apart in terms of game mechanics, in some ways, I mean, the subject matter of your games is so far afield - I mean, you know, psychic summer camps and time-traveling tentacles and things, but what is it that you think resonates so much with people?
TIM SCHAFER: I think there is a, a contingent of people who love games but think they could be more. For me, that just means that we see games as art and we see that they could talk about any topic under the sun. I think games, especially mainstream games, have focused on what would be, if we were talking about movies, summer blockbuster action movies. That’s what most games are.
But when you see movies there’s, there’s a whole range of genres, and there’s a movie for your grandma and there’s a movie for your mom and dad, there’s a movie for the kids, and there’s, there’s a movie about, you know, romance. And we just want games to go there; we want games to go into all of these places that they haven’t gone before.
PJ VOGT: I still think about – there’s like LucasArts adventure games and they have like a richness for me that a lot of fiction doesn’t have, that most games I play, even if I really enjoy ‘em, like certainly don’t have. You don’t always necessarily know why something you make that is good, is good. But why do you think those felt richer?
ALEX GOLDMAN: Oh, you’re – so you’re asking him why he’s so awesome, basically. [LAUGHS]
PJ VOGT: Yeah, why are you so – why are you so great?
TIM SCHAFER: I mean, can I turn that back on you? [LAUGHS] Did you have any idea why you liked those games so much? I would love to know.
PJ VOGT: There were these really amazing worlds that they created. Growing up, I’d read stuff like Pynchon or like David Foster Wallace stuff that was absurdist, and it would remind me of those games, like, like that they felt blown-out and funny but with like real people in them? In “Grim Fandango,” like Jesus, like I think about shots from that game. Like, I think about when he’s like mopping the café and there’s like a crane shot and then it comes back and it’s like a nightclub that he owns.
TIM SCHAFER: I think that games have the potential to be not just equal but like one of the most powerful art forms out there, because of the way that you feel invested in it, 'cause you're actually – you're in it. You are living in that world. There’s a lot of power there that has not even fully been explored yet, you know, that you're transforming a player into an alternate state of mind.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
And that’s a really powerful place to have somebody. You know, movies definitely transport you, but you're watching it in a passive way. If you can transport people to that other world and actually have them active in that world, that’s – that has the potential to be much, much deeper.
[MUSIC/MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: Tim Schafer is the founder of Double Fine Productions.