The relationship between developers and publishers in the video game industry has always been awkward. Many great game developers such as Bizzare Creations, Clover Studio, and Bullfrog Productions have been disbanded due to corporate shenanigans involving their publishers and owners. The indie game movement has risen largely as a response to this.
Double Fine Productions, one of the largest and most successful indie game developers, nearly suffered the same fate in recent years. But one clever idea from their visionary founder changed the company's direction, pulled them back from the brink, and led to the creation of four games that are not only great, but epitomize everything Double Fine and indie games in general stand for.
Throughout the '90s, LucasArts was one of the most highly regarded game developers in the world, and Tim Schafer was one of its brightest minds. He wrote large chunks of The Secret of Monkey Island and led development of the award winning point-and-click adventure games Full Throttle and Grim Fandango, among others.
In 2000, with LucasArts and point-and-click adventure games entering decline, Schafer left the studio to start Double Fine Productions. They released their first game in 2005, the startlingly good but commerically disappointing Psychonauts. Their next project was a heavy metal action/strategy game deemed Brutal Legend, and it was during its development that the company's troubles started.
Viviendi Games originally owned the rights to publish Brutal Legend. Activision, the second largest game publisher in the world, merged with Vivendi in 2008, gaining the rights to the game in the process. They didn't like what they saw and cancelled the game's funding. This was a crushing blow for the company. The game had reached Alpha, too far along to scrap but too far from completion to finish without publisher money. Morale was low. There was open talk of mutiny among the scurvy riddled crew.
Fortunately for gamers everywhere, Schafer had an idea for how to raise their spirits.
He called a two week hiatus from all non-essential work at the company for an event he deemed the Amnesia Fortnight (mentioned in yesterday's review roundup). The whole company was split into four teams, each tasked with creating an idea for a smaller game and presenting it to the other groups at the end of the fortnight. All involved are reported to have enjoyed the experience, and the four ideas they crafted would become vitally important for Double Fine and the indie games genre in general.
Not quite yet though. EA Partners picked up the rights to Brutal Legend in late 2008, and work on completing the game began in earnest—despite a fresh round of legal disputes between Activision and EA. It finally came out in late 2009 riding a tsunami of media hype, promotional campaigns, and high expectations. It failed to meet them, both critically and commercially. Work began on a sequel, but after a short time EA informed Double Fine that they were cancelling Brutal Legend 2, leaving the 50-person company with no stream of income and nothing to work on.
Enter the Amnesia Fortnight Four.
Schafer decided to use this downtime to shop the Amenesia Fortnight games around to other publishers. Within a relatively short period of time, he was able to find deals for all four, greenlight their production, and stop worrying about paychecks for the time being. Three of the four have been released to date: Costume Quest, Stacking, and just last week, Trenched. All are available on XBLA and PSN for between $5 and $15, and have met both critical and commercial success. The fourth game, Sesame Street: Once Upon a Monster, is their first licensed game and will come out later this year for Xbox 360 with Kinect support. It could be a revolution in childrens' video games if the preview coverage is any good indication.
What does all of this mean? The video game world is changing. For 15 years, Tim Shafer made AAA games. They each took several years and a large team to develop. They came out in boxes at retail stores for $50 a piece. In that era, he could make the irreverent, offbeat, blatantly weird games that have defined his style and still make money off them because development costs were low enough that a game didn't have to sell 3 million units to turn a profit.
Those development costs and expectations for returns in the AAA game space have risen dramatically in the last decade, leaving less room for originality and mistakes. This trend has been mirrored by the rise of free and cheap digitally distributed games, which has allowed developers to take some of the power back and continue to make their most brilliant, but unconventional ideas available to gamers without having to compromise for the sake of a publisher.
No developer better exemplifies these two concurrent trends than Double Fine. They started as a lauded AAA developer, were nearly destroyed by the limitations of that system in today's market, and managed to maneuver themselves into a newer, better space for their utterly unique work. They have created three of the best XBLA/PSN games made to date and show no signs of stopping.
One last good sign for the company's future: late last year Schafer hired Ron Gilbert to work for Double Fine. Gilbert is the other main designer from the glory days of LucasArts, having led production of the Monkey Island series and other classics (most recently the excellent pair of DeathSpank games). He is reportedly working with Double Fine on his own game idea similar in scope and style to the four Amnesia Fortnight games.
There isn't another company in the world whose future excites me more than Double Fine.