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Pulling Back the Curtain: The Importance of the Double Fine Adventure Documentary
Recently, 2 Player Productions wrapped production on Double Fine Adventure, a documentary series that followed the development of Broken Age. It was revolutionary in the gaming scene, being the only documentary to ever follow a studio developing a game from its conceptualization through its release and aftermath. Before it, the average game player had only ever seen brief snippets of development from single-person games or small indie teams. Double Fine was the first developer to pull back that curtain on game development, a feat arguably more important than its rocketing of Kickstarter into the mainstream, and unquestionably having a bigger impact on the industry and the community than Broken Age itself. If we’re being honest, Double Fine completely mismanaged their Kickstarter funds, and Broken Age isn’t great. But by “showing how the sausage gets made,” as studio founder Tim Schafer put it, Double Fine made their campaign more than worth it, and left a long-lasting contribution to the industry.
Until DFA came out, game development was a mystical secret that no one outside the industry could begin to comprehend. So much of it was mysterious that many who wanted to be in the industry viewed it with rose-tinted glasses: a dream job where they could play all day. All we knew about game development beforehand were the two extremes. There were the developers that talked in interviews about how great it was, coming to work and hanging out with cool people, getting to create great games that everybody loves. We also read the headlines about developers losing their jobs, and studios being shut down. That or it was about developers going mad in “crunch time” having to work 80 hour weeks. In fact, Double Fine gives us a good example with the Tim Schafter episode of G4’s Icons, when he took us briefly behind the scenes of production on Psychonauts.
We never knew what it was really like, not until Double Fine showed us.
Sure, there have been developer diaries, like when Adam Sessler took us behind the scenes of the making of Evolve. But these are largely promotional things, and being marketing tools, they really don’t actually show us anything of what game development is like. They boil down to “hey, look at this cool thing we’re doing it, our game is so great!” They don’t delve into the sweat and tears it took to code that feature; they don’t show us what it’s like trying to rewrite the script so that cool new toy makes sense in the narrative.
The Double Fine Adventure documentary, as well as the other news Double Fine shared with the gaming community, showed us that game development is a lot like any other job. There are peaks that require a lot of hard work to climb, and the valleys are few and far between. The obvious example is when Double Fine announced that they’d blown through all the Kickstarter money and would have to split the game in two in order to finish it. This is an interesting event for two reasons, both how Double Fine handled its budget and their decision to split the game, and for the angry backlash from the community. For Double Fine, who had already ventured out on a limb twice with the Kickstarter campaign and the documentary, it was another experiment borne of poor management. How many other big studios have split their game in two, allowing the first half to pay for development of the second half? Game development is often unpredictable like that, and too few studios are willing to evolve their ideas for what their game should be to counter that unpredictability.
But it was poor handling of their original budget that got them to that point. Schafer made no secret of the fact that the game was originally meant to be small, but the success of the Kickstarter caused him to expand the scope dramatically. It was this expansion – ironically, the success of the project – that nearly drove it and Double Fine to ruin. From an outsider’s perspective, it looked like the company didn’t know what it was doing, and some theorized, as always, that the whole thing was a big scam. This obviously wasn’t the case, but it’s easy to see why some got the impression. However, those who watched the documentary saw what happened from the inside. Double Fine did overreach, but the behind-the-scenes facts are more complicated than that.
The decision to split the game was not Schafer’s, and he rejected the idea at first when it was proposed in Episode 10 of the documentary. Producer Greg Rice and COO Justin Bailey came to Schafer and told him the company had spent all the Kickstarter money. That much Schafer knew already. But they also told him that, even after they started reselling their old games on new platforms and launching Amnesia Fortnight 2012 as another paid documentary, the company wouldn’t have enough money to finish the game. After tough negotiations with Schafer, easily the most tense moment of the whole series, he gave in, and the game was split in half.
From then on, it was made clear that the company would be putting their own money into the project. They used whatever sales they got from Act I, the money they made by acquiring the rights to their old games and reselling them on modern platforms, the deal with Sony to remake
The gaming community at large didn’t care too much. Many were angry for… whatever reason… and were more than happy to continue calling the whole project a scam. The heat eventually died down, as it always does, but the situation poses an interesting question. Are we ready to “see how the sausage is made” at all? Is the gaming community at large really mature enough and understanding enough to be able to handle a company that’s so open and honest, especially when that company makes mistakes along the way? Judging by the reaction Double Fine got throughout development, it’s hard to argue that we are ready for more of it.
At the same time, this reaction showed why the documentary was and is so important. There were three levels here – on the smallest, it proved that Double Fine wasn’t running a scam. On the medium scale, it demonstrated that Kickstarter can work as a funding tool. On a larger scale, it showed the people that play video games how video games are made. The veil of secrecy has been pulled back to show the inner-workings, inner-workings that aren’t so much a well-oiled machine, but rather a Rube Goldberg contraption held together with spit, string, and a bit of tape.
Above all, it showed that Double Fine is a company comprised of people, people who have a passion for making games. They might be wrong on occasions, and make mistakes, but they have a passion for what they do. The decisions they make influence the game, the good and the bad, and putting that human face on game development is where the true brilliance of the documentary lies. That’s what it all comes back to, humans working with passion on something they love, through the best of times and the worst of times. Games are made with sweat, tears, and hard work, not churned out of a machine by robots, even if they feel that way sometimes. Perhaps with this new knowledge, the gaming community’s venom will recede. The next time a game is delayed or a developer says something we don’t like, we’ll hold off on the death threats and instead remember what we’ve learned. Developers could show off their games sooner, in off-the-cuff, pre-alpha stages, not as overly scripted or heavily doctored marketing tools, but rather as a demonstration of potential.
The work isn’t done yet. Although the Double Fine Adventure documentary is at an end, the developer will likely continue their Amnesia Fortnight documentaries. Beyond Schafer’s studio, 2 Player Productions is responsible for several other behind-the-scenes documentaries, including a look at the early days of Mighty No. 9 and Minecraft: The Story of Mojang. Outside these few, and Indie Game: The Movie, there aren’t many other in-depth looks at the development process. Considering how long video games have been around (43-57 years, depending upon who you ask), there’s a surprising lack of not only true backstage access to how games are made, but a lack of overall knowledge of the process.
What we really need as a community is for these documentaries to gain popularity, for the development process itself to be more widely covered by games media, and for a big studio like EA or Ubisoft to jump on the bandwagon. One can hope, right? Until then, we’ll always have the Double Fine Adventure to act as a teaching tool for what working in the greatest industry is really like.
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Double Fine’s documentary chronicling Broken Age’s development has reached its last episode
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Broken Age available to all on January 28