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Is Kickstarter a new way to cut game publishers out of the picture? [Updated

Concept art for Wasteland 2, a soon-to-be-made role-playing game that has received $1.5-million in funding (and counting) from 30,000 people on crowd-funding site Kickstarter

inXile Entertainment

Middle men. Who needs them?

Not Brian Fargo, founder of inXile Entertainment. His studio has raised $1.5-million and counting from nearly 30,000 people on popular crowd-funding site Kickstarter to create a sequel to quarter-century-old post-apocalypse role-playing game Wasteland. He requested only $900,000 to start, and still has three weeks left in his five-week campaign.

"I'd known about the Kickstarter concept for a while," said Mr. Fargo, "but the budgets other game makers had raised were pretty small, and certainly wouldn't have done justice to something like Wasteland 2."

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Then came Tim Schafer's Kickstarter experiment back in February.

The chief of Double Fine Productions, makers of cult hits including Psychonauts and Brütal Legend, created a Kickstarter campaign to raise $400,000 for a mysterious point-and-click adventure game under the working title Double Fine Adventure. It hit its goal in just nine hours, surpassed $1-million in 24 hours, and went on to earn $3.3-million in total donor investment.

It was, by far, the most successful fundraising campaign Kickstarter had ever seen. And when Mr. Fargo heard about its Double Fine's success his mind spun with possibilities.

"Before I could even react and talk to my guys here at inXile, fans started sending me messages on Facebook and Twitter," he said. "Between Tim's success and fan reaction, I just jumped on it. I thought it would be the perfect way to finance Wasteland 2."

The 49-year-old video game veteran had been trying unsuccessfully to fund the game via traditional means, and had grown increasingly disillusioned with publishers in the process. The people he spoke with saw no market for a sequel to a quarter-century-old game and dismissed his pitches out of hand.

"This industry can disrespect developers and their experience," said Mr. Fargo. "A lot of the people I talk to are new to the business and have no memory of older titles. It's almost like I'm in the music business talking about songs from the 1950s."

Kickstarter created an opportunity for Mr. Fargo to rid himself of his frustration, to cut the publisher out of the picture while simultaneously proving with cold, hard cash that there was a market for the game he wanted to make.

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He dropped everything he was doing and focused all his efforts on researching and developing his Kickstarter project. He knew that in order to make the game he wanted to make he would need at least a million dollars – more money than anyone had ever campaigned for in the history of the site.

But when the project met half its minimum target in just 24 hours, he knew he'd done it: He'd finally found the perfect means to fund a game that publishers wouldn't touch.

And in doing so he confirmed something else: Tim Schafer's Kickstarter experiment wasn't just some random fluke. People who make games – and not just little basement studios, but full-blown developers who undertake multimillion-dollar projects — now have a viable means of severing the ties that bind them to publishers.

Mr. Fargo thinks this turn of events is likely to send shivers down the spines of game industry executives.

"We already have online distribution, which skips the retailer," said Mr. Fargo. "And now we have fan funding, which skips the publisher. Now the dynamic is purely between the creators and the fans. That's a real threat for publishers."

And while the rise of crowd-funded games is unlikely to give rise to massive franchises like Call of Duty, which require an upfront investment of more than $100-million per game once development, marketing and production costs are accounted for, it could impact existing triple-A franchises in a subtler way.

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"The threat crowd-funding poses to major publishers is that talent may leave and set up their own companies where they can have direct relationships with their customers and do development their way," said Mr. Fargo.

But that's not Mr. Fargo's concern. Kickstarter will release the funds raised in his Wasteland 2 campaign to inXile Entertainment on April 17th. When that happens, his team will get busy spending the next 18 months making the game they've always wanted to make for the people they want to make it for without a boardroom of grey suits second-guessing each decision they make.

And Mr. Fargo isn't concerned that having fans involved in the development process will compromise his team's artistic integrity. In fact, he's looking forward to having a closer working relationship with the people who will eventually consume his product.

"My instincts are pretty good, but I'm really happy that we've gone to the fans to receive their input," said Mr. Fargo. "If 85 per cent of your customers hate the colour red, then don't put red in your game. That's valuable information. If you're flying blind, there's a chance you may miss that."

Indeed, he's keenly aware of the way the balance of power in the industry has shifted toward consumers, most recently demonstrated by the fan-initiated fiasco in which Mass Effect 3 developer BioWare currently finds itself embroiled.

"Gamers rule the day in this business," said Mr. Fargo. "They have so much more power than they even know."

[ Update: Double Fine Productions wasn't available for interview prior to deadline, but we were able to chat with Double Fine Adventure producer Greg Rice by email shortly after this story went live. Our brief discussion is posted below.]/i>

What led you to try Kickstarter as a source of funding? What where your expectations?

We have wanted to make another adventure game for a long time, but knew that it would be really difficult to find a publisher willing to put money behind one. Luckily Kickstarter gave us the ability to reach out to a really rabid fan base that was begging for something like this to be done. We really didn't know what to expect, but it definitely was nothing like what ended up happening. We thought we would be pushing to reach our goal during the final week. Instead, we reached it in around 8 hours and eclipsed $1 million in less than 24 hours. It was a really great surprise.

What does Kickstarter represent to game makers? Do you think publishers, the traditional source of development investment, feel threatened by Kickstarter after your success?

To us, it's means we get to make a game the way we want to make it and then ultimately be the ones who benefit from sales. It's a really great position to be in. I don't think that publishers are scared, though. Three-million dollars is a lot to us, but it's not much in comparison to the amount of money they put into a project.

How about donor involvement? Is there potential for fan input to compromise your artistic vision? How do you draw the line, keeping fans/donors happy while making the game you really want to make?

This has been a really important part of the project from the start. The idea from the very beginning was to have a film crew document the development of a game from the very beginning so that fans can watch the process as it takes place and help provide feedback on the game's development. Our backers have been really kind so far, and while they're eager to offer up ideas, they also understand that we've done this before and want to make sure that we're happy with the game we're creating.

Why does Kickstarter seem to work so well with game projects? Is it simply because gamers tend to be more connected, more likely to participate in online experiments?

Yeah I think that definitely helps. The folks that are backing our project are doing it on a device that will likely be used to play the game. Games and gamers have always been something that drives technology and this is just another case of that. Ultimately though, I think it's a really interesting snapshot of the industry in that people are fed up with current funding models and are reaching out trying to find new opportunities.

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About the Author
Game and Gadget Reporter

Chad Sapieha has been writing about video games and consumer gadgets for the Globe and Mail since 2003. His work has been published in magazines, newspapers, and Web sites across North America, and he has appeared as an expert on television and radio newscasts. More

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