Can Transparency Produce Better Games? Double Fine Talk Openness at PAX Prime
Kickstarter has, in recent years, become a bit of a bore. Almost anyone and everyone with any sort of idea, can ingloriously beg for cash. It has led towards some great things, like a new installment of Broken Sword series. But then there's the not so great, and the swathes of mediocrity.
But when Tim Schafer of Double Fine Productions, the company behind games such as Psychonauts and Brütal Legend, started Kickstarter funding for Broken Age, not only was the response from backers phenomenal raising $3.3 million, it seems to have unwittingly changed the way he and his company approach video game making. By allowing backers unprecedented access to the game from conception right through to completion and direct involvement in its development, they believe they're making better products.
Today, at PAX Prime, Schafer, and several of his development team, took the opportunity to discuss just what opening up to being more open has meant for them and the games that they make.
It All Began With Amnesia
Schafer's font of imagination has seldom run dry, running all the way back to his LucasArts days of Grim Fandango and Full Throttle, to the recent mad and quirky Stacking and Costume Quest games.
But at some point he also realised that his employees also have some great ideas, and thus Amnesia Fortnight was born. Here, the company split up into several teams and would build a game within just two weeks to compete for a green light from Schafer himself. Soon, Schafer decided it would be a good idea to open up the voting to the public too. Thus, the involvement of Double Fine's consumers began to gather momentum.
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Breaking Down Broken Age
Broken Age saw backers not merely showered with cheap trinkets such as a signed photos or their name scribbled on the back of an in-game handkerchief, as seen in so many other projects promise. What Schafer and his team did was allow exclusive access to a bespoke episodic documentary on the game's development, and access to a private forum to hear first-hand how the game was going, and to physically respond to its growth. But the real impact was just how much input the backers would end up having.
A good deal of what Broken Age is now, was put to Double Fine through this process; from approving and disapproving concept art, to even directly suggesting environments for the story to take place within, such as a world made entirely of sand castles.
But more so, it's really changed the game in "a tangible way". Schafer admits that Broken Age it's now a very different project from the one that they had first envisaged when setting out on Kickstarter. Most noticeably in that there was a clear demand for it to evolve into a much bigger title. Although this meant releasing a paid alpha on Steam to raise the extra funds to complete it, which drew much criticism and cynicism about Schafer's competency and Kickstarter's viability as a legitimate funding vehicle, it demonstrated the positive power players can have over a game's creation.
A Problem Shared Is A Problem Solved
One of the other things Schafer talked about is how discussing some of the narrative snags or game mechanic grumbles on the forums can sometimes help the developers overcome issues and work them out. "They're people who have a lot to offer, too," says Schafer.
Furthermore, it has given developers to acknowledge things that, in a closed development environment, would not necessarily get considered. Brad Muir, the mastermind behind Massive Chalice, which is taking the same transparent development approach as Broken Age, talked about how the topic of allowing same-sex couples in gameplay was raised through the forums; something that he would not have otherwise thought to consider so spontaneously otherwise. Muir mentions that it's really great to have a direct response from several faucets of the gaming community in making the game inclusive, and crafting something that all walks of gamers would like to play.
Most interestingly, though, is just how dramatic the change within the walls of the company itself has been, really setting them apart from the rest of the gaming industry. This open and transparent environment is something the staff really enjoy. "I really love working this way," admits Muir.
It also means that with everything already out in the open, leaks are not an issue anymore, unlike the embarrassment Sony are having with the hacking of content from the pre-loaded version of Rockstar's upcoming Grand Theft Auto V on PlayStation Store. "It's OK to talk about your secrets," Schafer marks out as an epiphanic realisation. In fact, Schafer admits that, if the decision behind Broken Age's paid alpha had been wholly open and not just divulged to its backers on the private forums, the misunderstandings and misinformation of the decision might not have been so damning.
The Proof Of The Pudding Will Be In Its Playing
It's really interesting to see the team speak so enthusiastically about this new way of working, and how well consumers have responded to this approach. But whether this trailblazing method will result in two great games, is something only sales and criticism will decide. It won't just be about how well the games' funders praise the finished products, but how those who've had very little or nothing to do with this access-all-areas development process.
But given what we've already seen of these games' development, they certainly look great so far. If this synergy proves successful, Double Fine could well revolutionise how players and studios interact with each other.