After finally carving away a little down time at work, I hopped onto Twitter and saw something unexpected. Double Fine had gone back to the Kickstarter well that had funded their impending release, Broken Age; this time with a turn-based strategy game called Massive Chalice. Last I checked, the game has already raised $535,000 of it’s $750,000 goal, as I write this article it currently sits at $608,000. The numbers are shocking.
I was of mixed opinions when I saw Massive Chalice hit Kickstarter. I watched Double Fine’s promotional video with a skepticism that begged for them to make a mistake and give me a legitimate reason to hate their game. At first I felt vindicated as Tim Schafer and two cronies starred in a corny video explaining that they had more than one team at Double Fine thus more than one Kickstarter Project was justified. They then gave some background on Brad Muir in a semi-interesting way, but it wasn’t until they finally got out of the way and let Muir explain the game that I got hooked.
The concept of Massive Chalice is really, really, really cool. Half turn-based strategy, half god-game, Massive Chalice gives you command over a realm beset by conflict. In these conflicts, players will create a roster of knights and champions to defend their realm. As time goes on, these knights will slowly dissolve to the decay of time, either retiring to father sons or dying on the field of battle. When your knights die, you will have to raise up their children to become your new champions, bearing the lineage of their fathers and legendary equipment of the fallen warriors who came before them. It is almost like lore creator, as your kingdom’s tale will expand over multiple generations.
While the idea is undeniably cool, I felt the same tug at my heart any time I see these kinds of projects on Kickstarter. Double Fine is a studio that is so large it can afford to employ three teams of people to work on various titles. In an age where money is so important, it is undeniable that while people are donating their $20 or $50 to Massive Chalice, some other developer is out there, working out of their basement through the night to try and create the next big thing, going unfunded. It also remains true that as Double Fine continues to revisist the Kickstarter well, how long is it before the vultures set in? What if thatgamecompany comes asking for $800,000 for their next game, then Super Giant wants $600,000 to finish Transistor? If you leave a loaf bread in the street, you’re bound to attract more than one pigeon.
My fears on Kickstarter are well documented, so I will spare you the further details. In fact, I am surprised to find myself on the other side of the coin. The first thing that got me to sway on my black and white vision of Kickstarter was when Double Fine explained why they wanted money from Kickstarter. Much like Obsidian’s Eternity project or Lord British’s Shroud of the Avatar, Double Fine wanted to make the game they wanted, without having to rely on publishers who would insist they change the game for commercial reasons. As someone who has been spending the last week with Insomniac’s painfully vanilla Fuse, I could understand why developers would want to escape the shadow of a publisher. While I wish there was world where publishers would step out from their curtain of focus testing and put their money behind daring and inventive projects, it is becoming clear that simply is not the world we live in.
The second thing that changed my mind was Sandra O’Connor’s interview with gameological.com. O’Connor, who has worked in the writing room on such titles as BioShock, Tomb Raider, and Gear of War 2, spoke out against video game’s current development cycle that kills the storytelling in process and focuses around hyper-violent gunplay, shown off in new technical brilliance. O’Connor’s feelings and statements are damning as she basically uses the interview to do her best Princess Leia impression, begging Obi-Wan Kenobi to take her far from this oppressive world of video games and bring her someplace where creativity flourishes, like TV and film. (I got bad news for you O’Connor, writers are pretty low on the TV and film totem poles as well.) However clumsily made, O’Connor’s point rings true, AAA video games, narratively, are often a confusing mess.
What O’Connor seems obtusely ignorant about is that there is a section of video games that doing amazing things with narrative, telling impressive, subtle stories in their own way that challenge players and ignite creativity. Maybe she isn’t aware of them because they are in the independent space. Of course Gear of War 2 and Tomb Raider are going to be spectacle first, I hope she doesn’t expect anything different when she’s penning the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie or NCIS: Dallas. However, games like Cart Life, Dear Esther, Republia Times, and The Unfinished Swan tell intriguing stories in their own rights. Writing for them may be different than Woody Allen or Aaron Sorkin, but it’s a different medium.
How does this relate to Massive Chalice? Because Massive Chalice is different. Not earth-shatteringly different, but no one can say they’ve played that exact game before. Double Fine is attempting to break free of the publisher chains for good. They want to make a fantasy game and they don’t want to play in the world of Tolkien, Martin, or Tamriel. It is becoming more apparent with each year, that if we want to look for games that are going to change the industry, they will come from the bottom up. Call of Duty: Ghosts isn’t going to spark change, games like Journey, Fez, and Papers, Please will do it. It is important that those games get made and that is where Kickstarter can play a role.
We are arriving at an impasse where independent developers are tired of having to choose between being enslaved to a system that routinely demoralizes its employees and having to watch their family nervously fret over each paycheck. I don’t think that the answer to this question is going to the Kickstarter well time and time again, but I don’t believe we need to wallow in hopelessness like Susan O’Connor. The answer is somewhere in the middle, in a world where publishers take risks with unproven ideas and players buy games with a higher IQ count than death toll. Unfortunately, that world is little more than a pipe dream. In the meantime we have Kickstarter or Publishers, so I guess I’m gonna take Kickstarter and donate to Massive Chalice.