On Tuesday Minecraft developer Markus “Notch” Persson took to Twitter with an unprecedented offer: he wants celebrated game developer Tim Schafer to release a sequel to Schafer's cult classic 2005 game Psychonauts, and he's willing to help pay for it.
[Check Out: Getting Started With Minecraft]
What’s exciting about the offer isn’t so much the prospect of a Psychonauts sequel (though hey, bring it on. And if you haven’t played the original mind-bending adventure/platform/RPG...thing that was Psychonauts, it’s now available for PC and well worth your time). No, what's really exciting is the idea that independent games might be successful enough to help keep mid-budget games alive.
Understanding why this all matters requires a bit of gaming inside baseball, but I promise it’ll be quick. Over the past decade the gaming industry has embraced an approach to project finance that's very similar to how Hollywood film financing works, and these days the budgets of triple-A titles like Call of Duty have ballooned up into the eight- and even nine-figure territory. For instance, BioWare's recently-released MMO reportedly cost $200 million to make. Meanwhile, small indie titles are getting by on less and less money, and most indie games are developed with no formal budget to speak of and just a handful of programmers.
This funding disparity has led to the creation of a lot of great games at both ends of the financial spectrum, with big-budget publishers playing it safe and pushing tried-and-true game genres like the first-person and third-person shooter, the sports game and the RPG to new levels of polish and spectacle. At the same time, indie developers free to create what they please are developing experimental games that open up whole new ways to play games. But though I wouldn’t give up Mass Effect or Sword and Sworcery for the world, this financial model has made it much harder for anyone to profitably publish games that are neither triple-A nor indie, but rather somewhere in the middle.
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And Psychonauts is an excellent example of such a game, a cult classic developed by Tim Schafer and Double Fine Productions that cost Majesco a pretty penny to publish but failed to gain traction in the market. Schafer’s practically made his entire career on these types of games, from his early days at LucasArts working on classic games like The Secret of Monkey Island to his more recent Brutal Legend (a game adored by many in the PCWorld offices). The current gaming market can be rough for developers like Tim Schafer, who make brilliant games that are a bit too weird to be a smash hit, but a bit too big to be developed independently.
Schafer’s eccentric mid-budget games have netted him a small but deservedly devoted fanbase that just wasn’t enough to keep Psychonauts publisher Majesco out of financial trouble when the game proved a commercial disappointment. In a games market dominated by proverbial David and Goliath products, cult classics like Psychonauts look like a dying breed. Big publishers aren’t willing to take a risk with their money when they can pour it into a guaranteed hit like the next Call of Duty and, until now, it looked like the indie world wasn’t willing (much less able) to risk that kind of money either.
But with the burgeoning financial success of independent games, things may be changing. The most recent Humble Indie Bundle earned $1 million in less than 24 hours, and developer Markus "Notch" Persson has made millions on Minecraft, which has sold more than four million copies as of last November. So far, Notch and other successful indie developers have spent their money helping the indie developer community grow and thrive with projects like Indie Fund (founded and financed by a group of indie developers) and Notch’s own game studio Mojang, who both create and fund smaller indie titles.
Notch’s recent tweet may be a sign that things are changing. Obviously, that’s a lot to attribute to just one tweet (and it may be a bit of wishful thinking on my part) but there are also other signs that the indie community is capable of funding mid-sized games. The Indie Fund, for instance, recently changed their investment terms to start financing bigger and riskier projects.
What does this all mean for gamers? It means more models to get a game made than the two that dominate today, and more viable ways of financing games means more different types of games, meaning more fun for everybody.