Can Kickstarter resurrect the “middle class” game studio?
So with the discovery of Shadowrun Returns I’ve begun realizing just how much of a force Kickstarter has become in getting some not-so-small-named studios up and running. Personally I think Kickstarter will be a bit of a fad in terms of this trend, but for now there’s a lot of money being sunk into smaller studios that at one point Cliffy B declared dead in the water (and he was at the time, let’s face it). Games like Psychonauts or Singularity or Enslaved.
It was either that you were a huge studio working on the next AAA title, or a tiny 1 to 3 man team working on another indie game. The market has been saturated with both and it doesn’t leave much room for anything else. And that Kickstarter thing is really made for the indie game designer, right? For people who need a couple thousand dollars to pay for rent and the expenses associated with game development (of which rent and cheap soda are probably the only real expenses). It seems tailored to that, since people can contribute a few bucks here or there and collectively get you off your feet. I personally viewed Kickstarter this way for a long time and its probably why I didn’t get into it until more recently.
Then I started to see more interesting things come out of the site, it looked like it was gaining a lot of traction. And then the bombshell of Double Fine Adventure hit. Here was a game that would be made by a not-so-major studio, but one that had become well known to game enthusiasts. Tim Schafer’s name was widely considered a mark of excellence and innovation (despite some of his short-comings) and Double Fine had proven that they were really good at making games, just not those AAA ones. Kickstarter, quite frankly, is a perfect home for them. Double Fine, to me at least, was always a middle-class-game-type-of-studio stuck in a AAA studio body.
Don’t take the terms lightly either. this isn’t to say middle class means inferior quality or skill to a AAA. I think its more of a comfort zone. Some game designers are more well suited to the days when teams consisted of about 15 to 30 people at the most. I don’t think they do so well in a 200+ studio working tirelessly on the next sequel. “Double A” is a mark of indie mentality and quality, but with a bigger mindset. AAA disregards the indie mentality entirely and aims to please in the biggest way possible, neither of those qualities are bad things, but I think its why smaller studios will pump out new IP’s while big ones will still be working on Final Fantasy Whatever.
But if you missed some of the rush, then maybe its time to take another look. The Kickstarter community has been booming, and it might for the next few months. This is a great time to get on the ground floor of something big and directly help influence it. Personally I want to see these types of games come back with a vengence. Maybe Shadowrun Returns and Wasteland 2 are sequels to established IPs, but for ones that didn’t get direct sequels for a couple of decades (don’t count that FPS Shadowrun, I don’t think anybody knows what that was). You have Takedown, which is from industry vets wanting to return to classic tactical shooters and The Banner Saga which is also from some industry vets wanting to make fun turn-based RPGs again.
This is just such a fascinating thing to watch. These budgets are far above the indie norm, even Jonathan Blow only spent about $100k of his own cash and some of these budgets are leaping into the millions. Far below big budget AAA games, but more than enough to get something great made. And that’s what I’m most excited about, putting big dollar signs in front of people with dreams with no strings attached (well, except for maybe the promises they make themselves). Will some fall flat? I’ll be honest: probably, but at least one will come out a triumphant leader and show us all that middle class games still have a place.