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The Irrational Games of not being like Double Fine

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I just wrote this (see below) and posted it on Gamasutra. I probably shouldn't have. The most amazing part is, I am sober! Reposting it here, to see, if some even more sober voice of the trusted DF community thinks "This is stupid. Take it down" ... or not - much obliged.

Today was a weird day. The Irrational Games announcement got me thinking. Ken Levine - another veteran of this still young ‘video game industry’ - and the path he is taking. I can only speculate. I have no inside knowledge at all. I don’t work in video games.

I remember asking in the Irrational Games forums, several years ago (it was about 100 of us), why they are not “diversifying” - it was the time, when Double Fine started to ship their first ‘smaller games’, post Brütal Legend. The ones, that came out of previous Amnesia Fortnights. Irrational was a “one-AAA-game-at-a-time” shop. Bioshock Infinite was already in the making, but not announced.

The answer I got, from somebody senior from their staff, was “we are not that kind of company”.

I remembered that today, when I heard about the Irrational Games announcement.

What I am trying to say: Tim Schafer deserves even more recognition, for how he is doing things?

If you yourself are creative, there are several stages (or walls) you come across in your career.

The first wall is to not just be creative yourself, but work (well) together with others. Another step is, to not just be a good team player, but to be able to lead a team. Yet another step is to be able to ride that unpredictable Bronco (Bronco - is a horse, non-Steed fans), which is the management level of leading a company; being able to make management decisions, having the burden of being responsible for the company and the people who work in it and the families who depend on it … on you.

Each one of these steps is tricky. Each one of these steps demands of you a skillset which exceeds the previous one by a multitude. Everyone who has had a career of any kind knows about this. Each step has a higher probability of failure than success, since many try, but only few succeed.

Again, I am speculating form the outside, but, as I see it, Tim Schafer has the ability to step back and let others be creative beyond the ‘contribute to the team’ level (ownership! empowerment!) in a company that could have been just a “Yes, Tim” Shop - at least for a long while. He could have gone ‘the other route’, being the leader (which he is), but not allowing for others to pitch adventure games IN HIS FACE (which was amazing to watch, during this years AF Round 1 pitches, btw. Yet, he not only allows it, but encourages people to do so.

We live in an era of high volatility, an era of constantly moving parts inside an industry that is trying to catch butterflies, like Vladimir Nabokov used to, not knowing which business model will sustain, which investment will make back the money (from F2P MMO’s, to free iPhone games, to XBONE & PS VITA etc, etc) … everyone on a management level is taking bets, with huge risks and no guarantees for return - breaking even - or making a profit.

In such a time, when every “middle size” video game company is gone, Double Fine seems to found its place, staying fiscally healthy, having delicious buns in the oven, passionate people who work for the company for many years (who could probably make more money in other companies, but decided to stay?!), working for different platforms, owning their work(!), making money...

I think, he deserves way more credit from the business media, for the way he is managing Double Fine (with his management team).

The way he turned around a “negative” into a positive (or rather tons of positive), in itself is a well covered story by now (at some point, somebody should make a documentary about the Buddha engine - the cow, that keeps on giving?), but he is still making business decisions which are risky and bold, yet he has the bravery and confidence in the people around him.

It makes him a role model for any software company that wants to succeed, imho.

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Some of this success is definitely due to Dracogen, Indie Fund and crowdfunding. DF would be in a very different place otherwise.

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Some of this success is definitely due to Dracogen, Indie Fund and crowdfunding. DF would be in a very different place otherwise.

I don't think that detracts from the statement, though. That's akin to saying that some of Steam's success is due to quality developers hosting their games there (of course it is) or that some of [insert movie title here]'s success is due to [insert list of beloved actors here] wanting to be involved in it.

Double Fine very well could have been the kind of company that Dracogen and Indie Fund were not interested in, but it says something positive about Double Fine that they were and continue to be.

Not any company could have gone to Kickstarter and raised $3.3 million dollars (and indeed, we've already seen plenty of games fail---even very famous IPs), but it only says something positive about Double Fine that they were not only able to do that, but that they were the first high profile company to pull it off.

It also speaks to Double Fine's credit that they not only pulled off the initial Broken Age kickstarter, but had a second round of crowdsourcing success immediately after the first one, when the first game wasn't even finished yet. Not just any company could have done that. And a large part of that is due to the fans Double Fine has accumulated, the good will it has built, and the community it has embraced. There really isn't to my knowledge another game company out there that has a relationship with a passionately supportive fan base the way that Double Fine has. That's no accident. That, too, speaks to Double Fine's credit.

The initial DFA kickstarter was sort of a catalyst that ignited a huge community-focused fire within Double Fine. They are constantly thinking of new ways to get the community excited and involved, brainstorming new ways to allow the community to participate, revising those practices based on the lessons learned from the last round. Massive Chalice's public face was a revision of the Broken Age model. This year's Amnesia Fortnight had an overhaul to its voting system that reduced momentum bias in the voting and increased the fun of participation. Even one of the unchosen games is being built by the community for fun with Double Fine support.

It's not that I see Double Fine as being a company that "invented" crowdsourcing, because they didn't. Nor did they invent the Humble Bundle Store. Nor did they invent online communities.

But being an effective business isn't just creating something from nothing over and over again. It's about staying informed of trends in the marketplace, staying informed of emerging technologies and services. It's about knowing what resources, opportunities, and plans of action are available to you, judging if/when you need them, and applying them effectively. Even better if you can effectively incorporate or partner with trending technologies/services to make your company a model of the future rather than a relic from ten years ago (as can happen with monoliths).

In short, I feel like Double Fine is demonstrating that it is an extremely flexible and agile company. And when I say "agile", I'm not just talking about agile software development, although they were already doing that, too. Development is actually step three in a broad process that begins with analysis and design. Everyone knew about agile software development, but Double Fine is showing off this new crazy system of injecting agility into analysis (e.g. Amnesia Fortnight pitches/voting) and design (e.g. paid internal game jams/community participation), and they are still brainstorming with that all the time.

I think Double Fine is setting an interesting model for how middle-sized companies can find a place.

The question, though, is can a company be like Double Fine from the start? It seems like part of the reason Double Fine was able to accomplish what it has accomplished is partly due to the pedigree that Tim brought to the company but also partly due to the fact that they started with a big splash (Psychonauts, Brutal Legend), which got them some attention, and then they went small.

I think that a company could, but effective community management/involvement is key. This is a new thing that will feel weird and bizarre and unpalatable to some people---about as weird as facebook feels to grandpa----but I think it's gonna be one of the next big waves and DF is pioneering the model.

We'll surely see an evolution in the job description of "community manager" at other companies, and people who are effective and insightful in that new capacity are going to be sought after.

I may be wrong; I may be right; but that's wot I think.


In addition to the Irrational Games news, I just read the most recent article on CliffyB at Gamasutra in which he said he wants to start up a middle-sized studio but wouldn't want to do it without videos, podcasts, and an effective community manager.


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