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Interview: Double Fine on presenting a united indie front

By Connor Sheridan on Thursday 19th Jun 2014 at 1:58 PM UTC

Double Fine made Kickstarter cool, and then it made game jams look like the best party ever.

But game development isn't all the gags and giggles seen in video snippets, as the many developers inspired by Tim Schafer to create games have learned. While some have been fortunate enough to work for him, others labour on their own, setting down the difficult path of building a vision and selling it to others.

Schafer has been interested in helping out novel video game projects ever since he set up Double Fine (as evidenced by his appearance in more than a few Kickstarter pitch videos). But, in the last year, Double Fine has assembled a more formal way for Schafer and the studio to help promising talent.

That vehicle is the Double Fine Presents label, which as well as guiding others through the thorny path of game development and publishing, serves to inspiration too.

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Justin Bailey, left, and Greg Rice

Half publishing initiative and half creative workshop, the program offers creators advice, space, and companionship in Double Fine's offices. It's built on trust, cooperation, and openness between game creators, instead of licensing deals or buyouts.

We spoke with Double Fine COO Justin Bailey and senior publishing manager Greg Rice about why they started Double Fine Presents, what it means for both sides of the deal, and why - if everything goes right - the program may make itself irrelevant.


CVG: What does it mean for a game to be presented by Double Fine?

Justin Bailey: We see that indies are making some amazing stuff. But there's a bunch of indies out there, so getting discovered is a pretty big problem: You can have an awesome game, and have great production values, and still not succeed just because you don't have the right exposure. If you look back five or ten years that wasn't the case.

So for us it means it is an indie title that we've looked at, and we think it has really good quality. It may or may not show some innovation and some certain style, but it's something that we want to shine the spotlight on a little bit and help them out.

How do you help these projects?

Greg Rice: It's kind of hard to define, because it's really going to be different for every game. Like Justin says, a deciding factor in choosing a game for this is that it's something we're really excited about and the team are excited about, and it's something we want to work with.

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As far as what we're offering the game, that really is something that we're going to be working with those developers to figure out and tailor toward their needs. It's not really a one-size-fits-all platform, it's us working with them to figure out where we can be involved and where we can be helpful, and where we can stay out of their way.

JB: It's already been different for the two titles we've done. So the first title was mostly promotion-type support, co-promotion; we helped on a press release, made a video for them, and then we helped with some of the distribution stuff.

And then Ian [Stocker, creator of Escape Goat] asked us to name ourselves as the publisher. We were actually kind of shying away from being called a publisher. He's like, "No, I think it's great that Double Fine is the publisher of the game."

And for Sam [Farmer], with Last Life, we're helping with the Kickstarter. The game's not even done yet and we're giving him advice on how to best run it, so he can make his Kickstarter successful. When it comes out, once it's done being developed, we will do the promotion pieces as well.

How many submissions have you received so far?

JB: In our first day we had way over a hundred [submissions] and we continue to have a very large number of people submitting. So it's obvious that there's definitely desire for something like this, and it's reached a lot of people who are looking for some partnership.

GR: Even when it's not in an official capacity we're just trying to remain helpful whenever we can and provide some guidance and feedback. And we've had other people who have sent us a build of their games and we've played them at lunchtime and sent over some notes from our team. So it really is just trying to be a good member of the ecosystem.

"The days of having a physical disc and that being the end of the relationship with gamers seem largely over"

What makes a good indie ecosystem?

JB: At a previous company I was in charge of the Korean office. A lot of people have said that the Korean office, as a market, is kind of where the US market is headed.

I don't know if I agree with that, it seems a little too neat. But one thing I do agree with is that in Korea, the majority of developers are also publishers. The people who are actually making the games are in charge of the community and there's an ongoing relationship.

The days of having a physical disc and that being the end of the relationship with gamers seem largely over. The ecosystem we're trying to help foster is one where you have developers who are able to get their initial community and then maintain that community, to keep making the games they make.

GR: I think a big shift was a lot of this digital distribution stuff. A lot of the things that we looked to publishers for help with in the past are becoming easier and easier for a developer to handle.

We know so many other developers in a situation like ours, where they really care about their games, they're putting their heart into it - for them it's really about the joy of making a game and pleasing their fans. And the publisher was there to help get the game out there, promote it, or for distribution.

And now those are things they can kind of take on on their own. It's nice to see a lot more of these creatively driven, meaningful games being put out that don't take their fans for granted and are there to delight and entertain. It's nice to see more and more people doing unique and interesting things in the gaming space and we want to support them so they can do that on their own terms.

JB: There are two scenarios to success for us. One is that we help the indie basically become self-sufficient, they learn a lot of the stuff from us, without having to learn the hard way - like we have in some instances.

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And then they can do it themselves and they can go off and they've got either a seed of a community or something else that they can build on, and now they're self-sufficient. And that's part of the ecosystem piece.

The other part we're happy to do, is for people who just want to concentrate on their game development and they don't necessarily want to worry about it.

We've had some very successful indies who have done all the publishing themselves, and they just want somebody who they can trust, who is similarly minded as themselves, who has high regard for their creativity.

They've asked us, "Hey, can you release my game? It's not because I don't know how to, it's because all I want to do is make the game."

So is this even more relevant with self-publishing pushes across PC and consoles?

GR: The definition of publishing is really changing a lot right now. We've been striving toward self-publishing for a while here at Double Fine, and a lot of that was around having deals where we're seeing financial returns on our games when they were finished but also being able to remain creatively in control of the game.

That also had the byproduct of teaching us how to do these other things that a publisher has done for us, like market our games and distribute them and promote them. Those are the things that we're still finding valuable in a publishing relationship, because, no matter what, we're always going to want to be talking about our games and getting out there and selling the game.

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I think there's some sort of future where you can still have that in a publishing relationship and don't have to lose financial control or creative control over your game. That's what we can provide for these people.

How long have you guys been thinking about backing these outside games?

JB: When I came on at Double Fine, I went through the normal thing of figuring out, "Ok, what's Tim passionate about? What's the company good at? What's the studio good at? What does the market look like right now?"

And one thing that came across time and time again, especially talking with people about the studio and what they thought about it, is that there were a lot of other indies who were inspired to be successful by Tim.

So one of the things that Tim wanted to do, was - this has informally been happening basically ever since he left [LucasArts] - it would be nice if Double Fine had a formal program where Tim could do that as well.

So that was kind of the seed of what was going to become Double Fine Presents.

The benefits are clear for the selected games and developers, but what does this do for Double Fine in return?

JB: The part I like about this is that it gives us a wider presence outside of just Double Fine as a company, as a studio. We're not just looking for it to be a one-way relationship.

Just having indies in and out, just having the program exist gives us a chance not only to see their games but for them to see our games and give us some feedback. That's part of what makes it the ecosystem that we're hoping to help foster, this idea of indies collaborating together.

"We're seeing things as a relationship, something that is ongoing with the consumer"

Game development is usually marked by secrecy. Is this a step toward opening that up?

JB: It's less about control, you're exactly right. It's more about collaboration and visibility. I think when you talk to other indies, it's like "release early, release often" and that's just really different from what game development used to be.

It used to be that everything was hush hush and secret until you had that big marketing push, because you're only expecting your game to sell for six weeks anyway. So you knew you had that window, and everything had to be oriented to maximize that window and the sales there.

Whereas now we're seeing things a lot differently. We're seeing things as a relationship, something that is ongoing with the consumer as well. And we're seeing that by doing indie meet-ups and having other people around you, it helps make your game better.

GR: I think that's just kind of a difference between indie and triple-A in general, just the spirit of openness and willingness to collaborate and provide feedback on each others' games. Everybody's bringing their own specific thing to their game and their own background, so I don't think we're ever really worried about competition with other independent developers.

It very much feels like a community of people supporting each other.

Escape Goat 2 was created independently but finished in your space. Are you interested in bringing more people into your studio?

JB: One of the things that is part of the program is [we offer space for] local San Francisco teams or even indies in other places that are looking to move to San Francisco. So those guys are working in our office space, a lot of those teams are still working there.

I think actively it's about five or six indie groups that are in the office [as of April] and we're going to expand that to more groups who want to come in and work there as well.

Part of what Greg was talking about, too, is just the idea of collaborating with each other on a day-to-day basis and being able to bring the games in and show them to all of Double Fine over lunch. And when somebody's speaking at a trade show or something, they can test that speech out on an audience first.

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GR: That's been a cool part of it, for sure. Everyone here loves games in general, so it's just really inspiring to be surrounded by other people who are making cool stuff.

Even before, in Double Fine you could get really focused on your game and not notice what's going on around you. Suddenly you'll see someone who is working on Costume Quest and you're working on Stacking and it looks amazing, and it's just really inspiring to see other people making games and doing interesting things.

So now that's amplified a little bit more by other folks outside the studio making things that are cool to just check in on and play from time to time.

This setup requires a lot of trust both ways. Do you think this would be tough to replicate without the goodwill Double Fine has built up over the years?

JB: I think that's why we're uniquely positioned. We have that good faith and trust and Tim's really been big about building that up. It's tied in to Double Fine being a recognizable brand in the community. It sounds cheesy but we're trying to do what's right.

The point is, we're opening things up, and we're trying to use 2 Player [Productions, a documentary team], they're able to help us show videos of what's going on and with livestreaming. And we're talking openly and honestly with our forums and other channels about what's going on.

But now we're actually, physically opening up our office to let people in. It all kind of supports this idea of openness and visibility.

Where do you see Double Fine and Double Fine Presents five years from now?

JB: It's very hard to say, because the program is almost meant to make itself obsolete. If you get enough indies that are now really good at publishing themselves, then maybe the program's not even needed any more.

If we saw a vibrant ecosystem where most developers are publishers, or at least they're working as publishers on their own terms if they want to, then that would be one view of success.

GR: You can always expect that Double Fine will be making cool games and interesting games on our production side. Now it's just a matter of trying out new, weird things to help out other people and help this indie community grow.

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