Despite what some people may think, I still love and admire the work of Double Fine. Their history is suitably impressive, from Psychonauts to their recent remastering of Grim Fandango; simply put, their games are a joy. So when the publisher reins came off with their generously kickstarted project Broken Age, you would think the results would be incredible, and they almost were … almost. Luckily, 2 Player Productions filmed the whole making of from start to finish, so we can examine exactly what happened.
I wasn’t a backer of Broken Age so I don’t speak on behalf of their disappointments, but I didn’t find the 3 year development cycle to be particularly excessive for such a small team and such a high level of polish. As Tim Schafer, lead developer of the project, once rightly said, people remember an incredible game not an incredibly scheduled development cycle. But the long production of Broken Age was ultimately its downfall, causing the company to hemorrhage money , dishearten the devs, and cause controversy among fans and press. Ironically, it stems from the Kickstarter being too successful, and the ego that exploded from it.
The Kickstarter was where all the trouble began. Double Fine asked for the modest sum of $400,000 back in February 2012 for their as of yet unimagined game, when they were suddenly rewarded with $3.3million. 10% of this went straight to Kickstarter and $600,000 went into backer rewards, so conservatively this gave Double Fine just over $2million for their development fund. This may sound like a lot but would in fact only support the development team plus all the freelance talent such as artists, musicians and voice talent until November of that year. 8 months sounds like an incredibly tight development cycle, except when you take into account the meager $400,000 asking price and the 7 month proposed development period suggesting that Schafer’s original plan for Double Fine’s adventure game was modest.
That’s not to say that something modest can’t be amazing. Papers, Please, recently rocked the industry, and many old point-and-click adventure games, such as Sierra’s library, relied heavily on exploration to fill out a few hours of gameplay. But with 90,000 backers to please, Double Fine felt a huge about of responsibility and expectation leading them to design a game which was anything but modest.
Tim Schafer’s vision for Double Fine’s adventure seemed to expand by the second . It began with the desire to hire artist Nathan “Bagel” Stapley to insert his unique style into Broken Age, but before long, in his mission for perfection, Schafer wanted Bagel working on everything – characters and backgrounds, from concept design all the way to the completed product. With the huge amount of original characters and scenes involved in Broken Age, it was way too much for one man to handle, even with another artist collaborating.
Then came the music. Good quality samples became live musicians, which soon turned into a full score played by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. With writing from a point-and-click veteran like Schafer, consumers were always expecting something high quality, but “good” no longer seemed plausible for Schafer and his team. They had to achieve perfection.
Hundreds of people auditioned for voice acting roles in Double Fine’s grand adventure, and Schafer’s old friends Jennifer Hale, Jack Black and Wil Wheaton were glad to be on board. When Elijah Wood claimed Monkey Island was his favorite game of all time, Double Fine reached out to him to complete their collection of celebrity talent.
All these additions, upgrades and tweaks for perfection were both costly in time and money. 8 months quickly evolved into one year then two, and various freelancers and interns left the project after their short-term contracts. Then there were several changes of staff within Double Fine from different projects, as well as the departure of many staff such as Ron Gilbert, lead developer on The Cave and Broken Age’s own community manager. Much of Double Fine’s revenue was already being pumped into Broken Age as constant changes in staff don’t come cheap. Double Fine began desperately looking for funds, selling intellectual property from Brutal Legends, teaming up with Nordic Games, and of course the infamous split of Broken Age into two acts.
Released in January 2014, the media was putty in Double Fine’s hands upon playing the first act of Broken Age and hungry for the finished product. The writing was witty, the art style charming, the voice acing perfection and the music brought together the whole tone perfectly. The puzzles were criticized for being a little on the easy side but mostly there was nothing but praise.
Double Fine gave itself another impossible deadline of May 2014 for the second act which was soon changed for December as Schafer spent the next week pouring over every review, diving deep into the comment sections and becoming absorbed by Twitch streams of Broken Age, obsessed and in shock by how infatuated people were with his game. However, with just $800,000 in sales generated from the release of Act 1, Double Fine knew that this development cycle had to be shorter than the first. Soon though, Schafer fell behind on his writing and December turned into April 2015.
Creating an act twice as long as the first in half the development time seems impossible until you see how they did it. They did so by using minimal new characters and scenes and completely reusing the two main locations from the first act. The story is far from the inspired and complex intrigue of the first act and instead is a slew of glorified fetch quests.
Schafer willingly admits that he aimed to take the easy puzzles of the first act “too far” the other way, something which Double Fine must have been aware of when they freely handed out walkthroughs with their review copies. This works for some of the mathematical or logic based puzzles, such as the hexipal fixing puzzle, but is simply frustrating when it comes to the intense repetition and backtracking of the game’s finale.
In fact, the finales perfectly describe where Broken Age‘s acts differ. The first act ends on the biggest plot twist of the entire game, Act 2 by contrast ends just short of the entrance to the plague dam, before any excitement can begin. When a member of Double Fine commented that they should include some of the people who inhabit the mysterious city in the finale, the idea was quickly shot down. “We don’t want to be adding new features now.”
For me Double Fine’s grand adventure will always be Broken Age Act 1. This short but incredible journey, filled with drive and passion, is everything Schafer promised in his Kickstarter. A modest game filled with experience, talent and love. Act 2 screams of obligation and resentment, something not worthy of the name Double Fine.
Long has never meant good and a promise is worth nothing until it is fulfilled. Double Fine more than fulfilled their original promises with Act 1, but unfortunately the $2million made them promise increasingly more until the legend of Broken Age was something the real game could never live up to. Let Broken Age serve as a lesson. Nothing can ever be perfect, and if you push it too far, then it might just end up Broken.
Or maybe Tim Schafer is just not very good with money …