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Tim Schafer on the future of crowdfunding and publishing, post-Psychonauts 2

Tim Schafer on the future of crowdfunding and publishing, post- Psychonauts 2
February 10, 2016 | By Christian Nutt

Psychonauts 2 has been successfully crowdfunded, to the tune of nearly $4 million. The most interesting thing about that is likely that -- via new investment-enabled platform Fig -- 49 percent of its funding came in as investments into the game, rather than Kickstarter-style, rewards-based backing.

Tim Schafer, founder of Psychonauts 2 developer Double Fine Productions, is optimistic that this sort of funding can enable games with a bigger scope than crowdfunding alone, and can open up developers to a new degree of freedom.

At the outset, he hoped that the option for investment would "grow the limit that we felt had been there on previous crowdfunding campaigns," under "the assumption being that those people would not have just put that money into the reward side."

That, he hoped, would translate into an ability to break away from crowdfunded games of limited scope: "It's not like we're making more profit because the profits are bigger, but we can do really ambitious games," Schafer says.

This is necessary because publishers just didn't want to fund Psychonauts 2 at the scale Schafer dreamed up; he pitched the game around the industry in 2011, but wasn't able to find a deal that worked for Double Fine. He says his relationships with publishers are good; it's just tough to find a match that fits.

That's not a problem when the money doesn't all have to come from a single source.

The game will be built with a mixture of funding, with money also coming from Double Fine's own coffers and also a third party. When those funds are added to the mix of crowdfunding backers and investors, it all adds up to the game Schafer wants to make.

"We felt that we pieced it [Psychonauts 2's budget] together by what we thought we could get from each source," Schafer says. "And I think for a game like Psychonauts 2, there's a certain amount you can get from each source."

He found the process of wooing and working with publishers draining. "A lot of my time was spent was spent thinking of ways making the person who gave us the money feel confident they weren't going to lose that money."

During development, Schafer likes to "work with a certain amount of chaos, where I don't know where things are going to land." It's hard to convince a single company to back that process.

"I'm not saying they're being evil or weird; if it were my money, I would want proof I wasn't going to lose it, too." But, he says, "That setup just makes companies work in ways that are not productive."

With crowdfunding in the mix, says Schafer, things are going smoothly. "Publishers like it, because it takes a lot of the risk away, and they like that you have some skin in the game. And they like the crowdfunding part, because it proves public interest. It works for them and it works for us, and I think it's a good way to do it."

He envisions game production will follow a path similar to film production: Money for game development will be gathered from a variety of sources, rather than from a monolithic publisher deal.

"Movies are made from money from all different places. They piece together those budgets from everywhere. We're moving away from that record company model where one company does everything. When you see a movie and it's got like five title cards before it... each one of those people put some money into this thing."

And he thinks this funding mix is helping enable a new breed of more creatively supportive publisher, too, "because people don't need all the money we needed before."

His hope, then, is that crowdfunding and investment crowdfunding "grows and grows," becoming an integral -- and normal -- part of the mix.

"There was this sense that when we did the Broken Age one, there was some novelty to it. Nowadays a lot of people don't even notice [crowdfunding campaigns]. I want it to be a big part of how we make games in the future. I want it to be repeatable; I guess that's the word. Before it felt like a stunt. I want it not to be a stunt."

And of course, says Schafer, the "nagging question" of crowdfunding remains: "what if you guys get rich, what about all these people who helped make it happen?"

With platforms like Fig that allow investment, "it's not just free money; it actually shares the profits of the game with people." Of course, this option only became viable in the U.S. at the end of 2015. We'll see where it goes from here.

One of the most crucial parts of crowdfunding, says Schafer, is the "much more direct relationships between people who make entertainment and people who consume it."

Building that relationship is something Schafer pioneered by having cameras constantly follow the development of Broken Age. "We haven't really changed our production style, there are just cameras around. I don't even notice them anymore," he says.

Of the backers, says Schafer, "They have to know who they've given the money to, and they have to see the money in action. So without that transparency there is no crowdfunding, I don't think. ... But it's what makes crowdfunding possible. You can't have a crowdfunding project and just disappear."

And there was another major lesson learned from Broken Age -- the first major video game Kickstarter, and a project that launched with an initial goal of $400,000.

"I thought I was going to make a $300,000 game and a $100,000 documentary," he says. That's not what happened, and it led to complications. This time, Schafer wanted to get everyone on the same page from the outset, not least because he was inviting direct investment.

"If we couldn't get $3.3 million, we didn't want to make the game, because that would mean we couldn't make the game we wanted to."

"We had to say, 'this is what we honestly need,' because it's different this time."

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