How a film crew helped begin Double Fine’s Kickstarter revolution: the story of 2 Player Productions
Even before Markus “Notch” Persson made the now infamous offer to fund Psychonauts 2, the worlds of Minecraft and Double Fine were linked. In a conversation with the men behind 2 Player Productions, the team that will be creating the documentary about Double Fine’s Kickstarter-funded adventure game, the team remembered interviewing Tim Schafer for a Minecraft documentary they were shooting. “You got the sense that Tim had been put through the ringer of the experiences he had with Psychonauts and Brutal Legend, and he’s a very expressive guy who cares a lot about the things he makes, and it was very painful for him to deal with that stuff,” Paul Levering said. Schafer seemed to be envious of Persson’s newfound freedom to pursue what he’d like due to the success of Minecraft. 2 Player Productions was founded in 2005 by Paul Owens, Paul Levering, and Asif Siddiky. Their goal was to get people to look at games in a serious way, and the team has created documentaries about the New York chiptunes scene and Minecraft, in addition to shooting promotional videos for Sony titles and the first season of Penny Arcade TV. The Minecraft documentary had been funded with a Kickstarter campaign, so they had an idea or two about how to raise money for projects. “After the interview we got to talking about how we raised cash for our movie through Kickstarter, and we said it might be interesting if [Double Fine] pursued that with a game,” Siddiky said. “It was something they had been thinking about too. It was an offhand comment; it wasn’t something they were thinking about too seriously, until we mentioned the idea of Kickstarting a documentary about Double Fine, or something that’s going on at the studio, or maybe a new game. That evolved into Kickstarting a documentary and a new game.” Double Fine's Greg Rice remembers the early days of thinking about the project. “We here at Double Fine have been keeping our eye on Kickstarter as a legitimate way to fund a game for around a year now, but we initially weren’t sure we could ask for the kind of budget that would be necessary to make the kind of game our fans would expect from Double Fine,” he told the Penny Arcade Report. “Then we saw the success that the 2 Player Productions guys had with their Minecraft documentary and we starting taking things more seriously. We met them when they came to the office to film an interview with Tim for the Minecraft documentary, and immediately got along really well. When they wrapped production on that project they came to ask us if we may be interested in having them Kickstart a documentary about Double Fine as their next project.” The two groups began talking, and the concepts for possible projects began to flow. One of the early ideas was to give fans a choice between three games to fund, and then Double Fine would create that game if the Kickstarter campaign were successful. After Double Fine and 2 Player Productions began talking, however, a more ambitious idea came about: what if Tim Schafer were to go back to his roots with a classical point and click adventure game? It wasn’t a crazy thought; fans often approached Schafer and asked for new point and click games and, according to 2 Player Productions, the Kickstarter campaign was seen as a way to see if people would be willing to stake their own money to make that happen. Sure, people said they wanted Tim Schafer to take lead on a new point and click title, but would they be willing to fund it themselves? Just how much did fans want to see Double Fine tackle an adventure game? 2 Player Productions leveraged what they had learned from the Kickstarter campaign for the Minecraft documentary when helping to shape this project; it was important that the core experience take place at the $15 level so no one would be excluded from playing the game or being able to take part in the project. “We wanted it to be something that everyone could participate in,” Levering said. The project came together collaboratively, and was ready to launch around the time of the annual D.I.C.E. Summit. A few days before the project went live, there was a surprising development: Persson tweeted about funding Psychonauts 2.
Why this project is important, and why the lessons will be unique
“We were terrified when Markuss said that stuff on Twitter, the day before the project launched. We were afraid Tim was going to abandon us, “ Levering said. “It turned out to be a good thing; it got the name out in a big way the day before. It was on everyone’s brain, and then this other thing happened and it boosted it up. It definitely helped us in the end, this idea of Double Fine coming back into the spotlight.” Looking back just a few weeks, the timing was perfect: the Internet was buzzing with news of a possible Psychonauts 2, and then the Kickstarter campaign launched when everyone was already thinking about and praising the work of Double Fine. It was the kind of PR that can only happen by happy accident, but it helps to have a long career of high-quality work and gamer loyalty. When the fundraiser began, fans were all too happy to support the company. This project represented a wonderful opportunity for 2 Player Productions as well. Shooting promotional videos about games like inFamous and Uncharted 3 had been a creative challenge for the team; Sony was understandably reticent about showing any of the negative effects of working on on large, big-budget game releases, and there were rules about not showing anything branded in the videos. So if someone in the shot was wearing a shirt with any kind of logo on it, it had to be blurred out. Often, the videos were shot in bland, featureless rooms. Videos were often cut up by the legal department, and then the marketing department. “What it creates is this atmosphere where you almost have to sit people in front of a green screen. It creates a bubble, and inside that bubble it’s like this artificial world. You don’t get to see how things actually happen because you don’t get to exist in a real space,” Levering said. “Video crews that come in to do projects, you can’t even walk around to shoot anything. You end up having this sterile, controlled environment that’s boring and doesn’t allow for any investigation or expression.” Videos would often consist of a designer in front of a logo talking about how they make the characters jump. “You’ll understand that anyway when you play the game, and then it has no value,” Asif Siddiky said. The team already had a bad experience promoting the chiptunes documentary Reformat the Planet, which was shown at South by Southwest. That seemed like a big deal at the time, but after paying a publicist to introduce them to drunk people at overcrowded parties, they decided the movie business wasn’t as glamorous as it is seen from the outside. The Kickstarted Minecraft documentary was one way they could be creatively free, and now, working with Double Fine, they will be able to show exactly what it’s like to make a game under these conditions. There aren’t many limits to what they can and can’t shoot during this project, although they can’t show any other ongoing projects at Double Fine. Within the world of the Kickstarter game, everything will be available for the documentary. “[Double Fine] seems committed to 100 percent transparency. It’s something that Tim really wants to do,” Levering said. “He wants to have that existing document as well. They seem committed to that idea. Hopefully we won’t run into too many cases where we have to cut something, and if we do, I’m sure it will be for the right reasons.” It’s an odd situation; everyone is hoping for a smooth development process… but there has to be something there to make a movie about, right? “There has to be some level of hardship, or some level of drama that goes on,” Paul Owens admitted. “Not too much. Just the right amount, so it’s interesting.” Of course, this is going to be a documentary that shows how a team that has almost unlimited creative freedom and a fan-supplied budget makes a game. The environment will be very different from the rest of the video game industry. “This is not how all games get made. It’s going to be much different than how most games get made. It’s not going to be a perfect representation of the development cycle,” Levering explained. Viewers hoping to get insight into how games are made may not learn many lessons applicable to the wider industry. “It’s definitely going to be this weird, hybrid development cycle that not many people have experienced before. It’s hard to say how similar it’s going to be to any other game that gets made. We don’t know if they are going to have the same problems. It will probably be a whole host of problems no one has experienced before.” The other unintended consequence is that it may become easier for more games of limited mainstream appeal to find funding. “I think this is going to create more boutique experiences where you have a small team developing something very specific for a certain audience,” Paul Owens said. “Maybe it’s a game that’s not meant to be a big seller, but it’s going to satisfy the audience that exists. We might see that being a viable business model. Developers out there that are unhappy and struggling, just to know that there are options out there and maybe they can, more or less, do it on their own. That’s something we can all be very proud of being a part of. Just giving people more options.” The money is certainly nice, but what may be more important is the validation this has given both Tim Schafer and the Double Fine team. “Companies dream of things like this happening, and it couldn’t have happened to a better group of people, really. A more deserving group of people,” Levering said. After the challenges of games like Psychonauts and Brutal Legend, people are lining up to support Tim Schafer and Double Fine, and they’re paying large amounts of money to allow them to do what the developer does best, and that money won't come with the creative constraints of a big-name publisher. Now the hard part begins: the team at Double Fine has to sit down and actually make the game. Levering said that as far as he knows things are still the very beginning of the idea phase, and work will begin in earnest once the Kickstarter drive ends on March 13. Luckily for us, 2 Player Productions will be there to show us how it goes.