Crowd-Funding and Transparency: Where Did the Money Go?

(I wrote this article on the Sunday before the below video hit YouTube, I swear.  Still, Adam Sessler is, well, actually respected in some circles, and we’re Chainsaw Buffet, the website responsible for this.  In any case, it’s worth a watch:)


Crowd-funding can be a wonderful thing.  Want to pursue a dream that you otherwise couldn’t?  Have an idea and the know-how, but not the means?  Want to get in on the ground-floor of someone else’s idea, or just want to support the arts?  Sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo are just the thing.  Sure, it’s nice to see the creative process taken out of the hands of big money-minded corporations and executives, who typically are only willing to back a “sure thing” (i.e., something that’s already been done before), but as with everything else in the History of Ever, people have found a way to fuck it up.

Last year, Tim Schafer (most recently of Psychonauts and Brutal Legend fame) began a Kickstarter campaign for Double Fine’s newest project, “Broken Age”.  At the time, I hated the idea, questioning why a high-profile and well-respected game developer would need to fund a game through the general public rather than finding a publisher willing to take on the project.  Despite my misgivings, I ceded that crowd-funding could be used in an attempt to produce long-awaited sequels or other games that publishers found to be questionable ventures (Mega Man X9, anyone?).  Still, I was a little turned off by the idea that Kickstarter might have well been Mr. Schafer’s first choice in getting “Broken Age” made, though whether or not it was, who’s to say?

As of today, funding for “Broken Age” has well exceeded its modest $400,000 expectations, raising over $3.3 million.  You’d think that the project would be well in hand now, right?  Well, not so much.  According to an article from GamesRadar, Tim Schafer now says that the game will now have to be broken in half, hoping that the first part of "Broken Age” will sell well enough that Double Fine can provide backers and buyers with the rest of the game for free.  While the article says that Double Fine is simply “over-delivering” on its promise, and Shafer says, "Even though we received much more money from our Kickstarter than we, or anybody anticipated, that didn’t stop me from getting excited and designing a game so big that it would need even more money,” this sort of scenario seems to validate the misgivings I had about Shafer turning to Kickstarter in the first place.

At best, needing still more money after raising over eight times what you originally asked for seems wildly irresponsible and perhaps more than a little indicative of why publishers might not want to work with Schafer, despite his reputation as a more-than-capable game maker.  At worst, you could call it outright fraud.  Either way, it’s representative of all that’s wrong with crowd-funding: you place your trust and money in someone, with no real avenue for recourse should things go awry.  People who pledged a minimum of $15 to the project were promised, “The finished game in all of its awesome glory DRM free on PC, Mac, and Linux, or via Steam for PC and Mac, exclusive access to the Beta on Steam, access to the video series, and access the private discussion community.”  Should Double Fine proceed as planned and “Broken Age: Part 1” doesn’t sell as well as they hoped (which if “Brutal Legend” and “Psychonauts” are any indication, it very well might not), they’ll be forced to renege on that promise.  The alternative, at least as Schafer tells it, is that most of the game’s features would have to be scrapped in order to release the full game on budget, which also doesn’t live up to that rather ambitious promise the Kickstarter made to its backers.

The ironic thing about crowd-funding is that, despite ostensibly being a platform that’s supposed to help independent artists find support, these platforms provide precious little protection to the very people who made the platform successful in the first place.  For every worthy cause, there’s someone else trying to use the platform to fund a glorified vacation, with the backers basically paying to watch the slideshow.  What crowd-funding needs is a lot more transparency.  I, for one, would love to know not just how over-budget “Broken Age” is, but where did all the money go in the first place?  How much is being paid to Double Fine’s employees?  How much did they make on their previous projects?  What would be considered average pay for a comparable video game project?  What’s Schafer’s cut? 

Of course, the answer to those questions opens Pandora’s Box and could possibly subject the video game industry to a lot of very difficult questions that it’s been desperately trying to avoid.  You hear about AAA titles breaking sales records, and you also hear about rising development costs, but no one outside of the industry knows what it really costs to make a game and who’s making the most profit off of which games, and video game companies would really rather keep things the way they are.

Still, if crowd-funding is going to continue to be an avenue used by game developers with the level of clout that Double Fine has, we, as prospective supporters, have a right to know how our money is being used.  The willingness of said developers to commit to being transparent in order to receive a cash-advance on their projects is another matter entirely.  Ideally, crowd-funding could be used in conjunction with digital distribution to bring “niche” titles and hardcore fans’ desires into reality at a lower price than consumers pay now.  If Double Fine is teaching us anything, however, it’s that no matter how successful a project is with its fund raising, you don’t always get what you pay for.

About The Busboy

The Busboy (a.k.a. John Robbins) is best known for being a regular co-host on the Chainsaw Buffet podcast. Aside from his work for the site, John is an avid fighting game player with a current competitive focus on Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3. You can follow him on Twitter at "@_JohnnyFive".