Filmed and released in 2012, the first installment of the Double Fine Adventure documentary series chronicles the studio’s excitement following the unprecedented success of their first Kickstarter. Double Fine’s funding goal of $400,000 was reached within hours of the campaign launch, and the company ultimately raised more than $3.3 million for Broken age and accompanying documentary. That introductory episode makes it clear how overwhelmed the team was by the amount of support it has received. Founder Tim Schafer sums up the general feeling towards the end of the episode: “It’s just so liberating, liberating to think that all I have to worry about is how good the game is and almost nothing else.”
Those who have followed Broken age‘s development know that this turned out not to be entirely true. After a series of internal and external obstacles, Double Fine decided that the funding he received from Kickstarter would not be enough to finish the game as it was designed. The team decided to split the game into two parts; the sale of Act 1, released in January 2014, would fund the development of Act 2, released in April this year.
Naturally, this was a controversial decision that made headlines. But as is usual with these sorts of developments, the press coverage could only scratch the surface of what was really going on internally.
Fortunately, in this case, we have a much deeper internal chronicle of what happened with the Kickstarter that became Broken age. Now complete and available for free on YouTube, the Double Fine Adventure Documentary Series (DFAD) is notable for its transparency and candor. In an industry that favors secrecy, the work of 2 Player Productions stands out for its willingness to show the full spectrum of triumphs and difficulties during game development. The goal is to get as close as possible to the reality of life at Double Fine while working on a major project. In the process, it introduces the public to the real people affected by the work environment and the expectations common to the industry.
Reality is not pretty
The highest mark of DFAD’s success is the way it documents a reality in all its sometimes uneasy glory. The series doesn’t shy away from showing the extreme pressure that game development puts on people. Conflicts over design choices, scheduling and finances are highlighted and underlined throughout the series’ 12.5 hours of running time (spread over 20 episodes).
For example, the aforementioned decision to split the game in two features prominently in a few episodes, which explicitly address budget crises, sales figures, missed deadlines and financial consequences, among other things. Then there are the sections that focus on the weeks leading up to each Act’s release, providing a detailed and unique opportunity to witness the impact crisis times have on developers. While the issue of 18 hours a day has been discussed endlessly in autopsy interviews and investigative reports leading up to its release, it’s quite another to watch the issue play out in the eyes and faces of affected developers as it unfolds .
The status of Double Fine within the game industry gives the documentary series a special significance. The company established itself with releases like Psychonauts and Brutal legend before the emergence of the current indie game scene. These releases were funded and backed by publishers, so the studio seemed, at least to outside observers, to exist in a sort of middle-class ideal between big-budget AAA studios and the indies that came later. While Double Fine’s releases didn’t break sales records, the name was well known in gaming circles, and Schafer’s history with LucasArts gave the company an enviable pedigree. It seemed to have both creative flexibility and financial stability.
Appearances can be deceiving, as the DFAD series aptly demonstrates. Fame does not always reflect a company’s financial security, and Double Fine struggled to make ends meet between major publishing contracts. During what was arguably the toughest period on record, Double Fine faced a number of cash flow problems. Within a week, a third-party publisher canceled an unannounced contract project, and Majesco revealed it was unable to pay money owed to Double Fine, in what then-COO Justin Bailey called a “perfect storm.”
The studio responded by laying off 12 employees in an effort to stay afloat. It’s likely these were the same employees Schafer was referring to in the very first episode when he stated that the success of their Kickstarter allowed him to detain 12 employees whose positions could otherwise be jeopardized.
Unforeseen circumstances turned that moment of gratitude into a terrible foreshadowing, an event that is unfortunately common in the games industry. Without a project lined up, studios often struggle to make payroll, leading to cyclical layoffs between major releases. This has a direct effect on job security and employee turnover throughout the gaming industry. The DFAD series serves as a reminder of the precarious situation many studios face.
Plus, the series gives us a chance to continue the conversation about the value of work. Not just value in terms of how difficult or time consuming it is to produce an asset or line of code, but also the value of a programmer, artist, or tester in their own right. In watching it, it’s hard not to recognize that real people are affected when we talk about efficiency and cost cutting and crunches and meager budgets. Hopefully, the series can foster an understanding of media production that focuses less on the strict math of input versus output and more on the human element that makes these projects worthwhile in the first place.
A lasting legacy
The DFAD series makes these game development stories much more visible and tangible. The stress, pressure and potential successes the studio faced are presented unalloyed by the typical PR language that filters most industry reports. It’s a bold and risky choice on the studio’s part, but it means the DFAD series makes a meaningful contribution to the discussions taking place around industry practices, transparency and consumer expectations.
The series isn’t all grim either. It also shows the passion the studio has for all the projects it works on. A real sense of community is apparent throughout each episode, informing Double Fine’s work even during conflict. It’s really inspiring to see this pay off at certain moments, like when Schafer sits down to watch people livestream the game’s first act in the first few minutes after release. It’s clear he just appreciates how much fun people are having with the game.
Something similar happens for the whole team after the release of Act 2, when they set up a hint hotline that players can call and end up listening to an unexpected marathon of compliments and admiration. It’s great to hear the team talk, in tired but enthusiastic terms, about their own experiences playing the completed game for the first time. These moments make it clear why they put themselves through so much hardship in the first place: they love making games for people.
More than the game itself, this documentary could end up becoming the lasting legacy of Double Fine’s Kickstarter efforts. I don’t mean to suggest that Broken age is a bad game; I think it’s a beautiful title and I enjoyed it. But Kickstarter’s success was so groundbreaking that it will always compete with the game itself for attention.
The campaign was a major change for game financing, but it also attracted attention outside the games industry. It was one of a number of high-profile campaigns that showcased Kickstarter’s potential to people previously unaware or unimpressed with the platform. It would have been nearly impossible for a single game to outsmart that sort of story. However, a series as extensive as this one also brings something bigger to the conversation than most games alone can.
In the final installment of the series, Lead Animator Raymond Crook reflects on his past three years at Double Fine, both as a contributor and as a documentary subject. “For a video game to be finished is kind of a miracle,” he says. “We’re lucky to be inside [the games industry]and I’m thankful to be in it, but it’s not always easy, and I’m glad we were able to show that in an honest way.”
Crook, Schafer, 2 Player Productions and the rest of the Double Fine team are to be commended for creating a series that showcases the ugliness of game development in addition to glamor. If this documentary makes anyone think about what goes into making the games – and movies, TV shows, music, software, etc. – then the whole venture, both game and series, will have been a real success.