Broken Age and the Kickstarter factor

I haven’t done a ton of gaming on my PC lately. It’s not for a lack of games—I have access to a lot of new releases for testing purposes—or for a lack of hardware—there are literally crates full of graphics cards in my office. It’s not even for a lack of free time, so long as I’m not crunching away on another time-sensitive TR review.

No. My problem is that, these days, big-budget games are stuck in a rut.

As graphical fidelity has grown and development costs have ballooned, originality seems to have atrophied. Most of the new releases out there feel like carbon copies of their predecessors, with similar gameplay, similar level design, and similar stories. I’ve found that to be true whether one looks at multiplayer or single-player. In action games, single-player tends to be especially bereft of variety: you shoot some bad guys, hide behind cover to heal for a second, move on to the next area, watch the cut scene, rinse, repeat. Multiplayer sometimes get spiced up with co-op or expansive, vehicle-laden maps, but basic gameplay doesn’t vary all that much.

Indie games have proved to be a good way for people like myself—those tired of cookie-cutter shoot ’em ups—to scratch our gaming itch without boring ourselves to death. I’ve grabbed a number of fun, experimental indie titles on Steam, like Race the Sun, Dyad, and Gone Home. In terms of originality, they’re worlds better than Call of Duty XLVII: Ghost Strike Team At War. But by virtue of being indie, they also tend to be saddled with low production values. Lack of funding tends to limit scope and quality in ways that, at times, can be disappointing.

So, is there a way for big budgets to feed originality rather than destroy it?

Perhaps Kickstarter is the way to go. Last month, a friend of mine told me about Broken Age, a project led by Tim Schafer, one of LucasArts’ former adventure game gurus. Shafer and his team asked for $400,000 to fund a “classic point-and-click adventure,” and they wound up with $3.34 million in pledges. That larger-than-expected windfall allowed them to build a game with killer art and top-notch voice talent, with folks like Elijah Wood, Jack Black, Wil Wheaton, and Pendleton Ward on board.

Last week, I sat down to play the first act of Broken Age. (The second act is coming later this year.) I made it last a couple of days, logging about four hours of play time in all—about what you’d expect from a blockbuster shooter’s single-player campaign these days. And for the first time in forever, I had actual fun playing a big-budget game.

In Broken Age, you alternate between the roles of Shay, a teenage boy who’s apparently alone on a spaceship full of overbearing robots, and Vella, a teenage girl from a coastal village where tradition calls for her impending sacrifice to a giant, Miyazaki-esque monster. There’s no apparent connection between these two characters at first, though the game lets you switch between them at will. Sick of talking to Vella’s grandmother about the monster? Step into Shay’s shoes and explore space a while. As the story progresses, however, the game offers up small hints about how Shay and Vella’s destinies are linked. More becomes clear during the act-one finale, which left me honestly (and pleasantly) surprised.

As far as gameplay mechanics go, Broken Age should be immediately familiar to any fan of LucasArts classics like Monkey Island or Day of the Tentacle. It should be easy enough to pick up by someone uninitiated, too. In that respect, I suppose one could make the case that Broken Age is just as cookie-cutter as Call of Duty—just with a multi-decade gap between cookie cuttings. Here, though, gameplay mechanics are very much incidental. They’re simply a delivery vehicle for the game’s top-notch writing, voice acting, and art.

Playing Broken Age feels surprisingly like watching a Pixar movie or an episode of Adventure Time. The humor is universal, likely to amuse kids as much as the older and more jaded among us, and the delivery is extremely polished. Modern shooters may feel like cut-rate action movies, but Broken Age doesn’t feel like a cut-rate cartoon. Hearing Wil Wheaton play a lumberjack terrified of talking trees (which, as it turns out, are real), or listening to Elijah Wood argue with a spaceship AI who calls him “sweetie,” you never get the sense that you’re wasting your time with sub-par entertainment. On the contrary, I would often sift through dialogue trees to make sure I didn’t miss out on any punchlines.

I’ve heard some folks complain that Broken Age is too straightforward, that its puzzles are too easy to solve, and I suppose that’s true. Someone with half a brain and some experience with adventure games probably won’t get stuck on any of the puzzles, at least not for very long. I certainly didn’t. But you know what? That’s okay. For me, playing Broken Age was about enjoying the ride, not about being challenged or validated. I love puzzles in the right context—I’m a big fan of the Myst series—but I’ve never enjoyed contrived riddles in point-and-click adventures. They’re often frustrating to solve, and they get in the way of the story.

Unchallenging as it may be, Broken Age feels like a breath of fresh air amid all the brown-and-gray levels, assault rifles, and overwrought military themes. And it gives me hope for future Kickstarter projects.

This path may not be easy for other indie developers to follow. With the funding drive that led to Broken Age‘s creation, Tim Schafer appealed to the nostalgia of a whole generation of folks—and he offered absolute expertise in the genre. (This is the guy who made Grim Fandango.) Few others in the industry can make such a claim. At the same time, there are other industry veterans like Tim with potentially great ideas that wouldn’t fly with major publishers. I’d love to see what someone like, say, Tom Hall could do with three million bucks and complete creative control.

More to the point, Broken Age has shown that a Kickstarter project can blossom into a high-quality piece of interactive entertainment. The more projects like Broken Age succeed, the more studios will feel encouraged to pursue unorthodox ideas. And I think that’s a good thing.

Comments closed
    • Milo Burke
    • 6 years ago

    Jack Black has talent?

    [quote<]That larger-than-expected windfall allowed them to build a game with killer art and top-notch voice talent, with folks like Elijah Wood, Jack Black, Wil Wheaton, and Pendleton Ward on board.[/quote<]

      • Milo Burke
      • 6 years ago

      Alright, down-voters: name two movies in which he displays talent.

      The only movie I’ve seen him in that I thought he was well suited for was School of Rock. But I think that is less about his talent and more about a role that matches his personality: obnoxious. Haha.

        • Meadows
        • 6 years ago

        All right, I’ll bite since you’re writhing so much. The blog specifically talks about *voice* talent. I gave you -1 on both comments.

    • David
    • 6 years ago

    For my money Broken Age is as good as adventure gets. It might be a tad on the easy side, but I prefer that to too hard.

    Banner Saga is another great game to come out of Kickstarter. It’s incredible; I can’t get enough of it.

    FTL came out of Kickstarter and is a lot of fun.

    I also backed Torment, Project Eternity, and Shroud of the Avatar. All of which seem to be very well organized and send frequent, useful updates on progress.

    I don’t expect any Kickstarter game to come out on time. Just as I don’t expect any major release to actually hit their first couple of launch dates. It’s a little annoying, but it’s the way of things now.

    • ShadowTiger
    • 6 years ago

    Having backed several games on kickstarter, and being an indie developer… I think its safe to say that every game has a different story.

    Broken Age is not a $3.5 million game… its a $6 million game. They have been funneling profits from other games, including humble bundle and steam sales into Broken Age. The money they get from part one is going to help pay for part 2.

    Shadowrun Returns is the first kickstarter game that I backed and was released. It was “pretty good” and it also went over budget and behind schedule, though not by much. I look forward to what happens with the DLC coming out this month and hopefully they can afford to make more.

    Shadowrun Online is another game I backed, and they did not raise enough money to make an online game, which makes sense if Shadowrun Returns had trouble making a single player experience. However, they have a publisher backing a different game using the same engine, so that is helping the game get made, albeit greatly delayed.

    Wasteland 2 was supposed to be the first game to come out of those listed here, but it was significantly delayed. I am not really sure what the financial situation is here, but I assume they are using back-catalog sales or maybe even dipping into Brian Fargo’s pockets to keep the studio running.

    Project Eternity seems to be the best organized and run campaign so far, and I am hopeful that they will actually release on time (statistically unlikely, however). I think they will be able to finish the game on budget, but they also have plenty of money to back it up.

    I am trying to illustrate that its a long and tough road to make a game through kickstarter, especially if you get excited and promise many things as stretch goals. Many of these games would have failed if they didn’t have publishers or revenue from previous games keeping them afloat. It seems fairly risky to back a game that isn’t from an experienced team or a medium sized studio. That being said, I have backed some smaller projects that are going well, it is just something I avoid doing unless I have lots of confidence.

    I do hope more companies turn to kickstarter instead of publishers, but they will need to have lots of financial backing or good planning in order to ensure the project doesn’t run out of money.

      • BobbinThreadbare
      • 6 years ago

      All the games that over-funded are “delayed” because they had much more money to spend making the game.

    • Meadows
    • 6 years ago

    Another perspective from Yahtzee:
    [url<]http://www.escapistmagazine.com/videos/view/zero-punctuation/8744-Broken-Age[/url<] Here is his extended blog about it: [url<]http://www.escapistmagazine.com/articles/view/columns/extra-punctuation/10959-The-Magic-of-Old-Adventure-Games[/url<] Turns out his biggest gripe is something subtle that today's gamers will not notice but that nonetheless makes these games decidedly more shallow: every puzzle is an item puzzle. (This applies to the Telltale games as well.) This means that every time you reach a point where you can't progress, an item will be your solution. Always. These games revolve around items. Counter-argument: old adventure games had player actions and dialogue challenges open up story progression too, two methods that have almost died out completely. The only form of player-induced continuation that still remains in games is scripted events in action titles; no experimentation needed there. They even flash the button for you to press. I didn't notice it so much until he drew my attention to it, and now I'm starting to see it too well. [b<][i<]On the other hand,[/i<][/b<] Broken Age does look colourful and interesting, which is just as well and which should still prove refreshing amidst all the war and strife in the surrounding titles.

    • Arclight
    • 6 years ago

    Among a few other titles, I have played Planetside 2 on and off for the last year and I’m still entertained. I still think it’s regretable that they haven’t released a benchmarking tool as it is a very demanding game while maxed out it manages to look very nice considering the size of the game.

    • kamikaziechameleon
    • 6 years ago

    Maybe Crowd funding will save the F2P games that don’t work super well in the F2P model. I mean Hawken, MechWarrior… they aren’t bad games but they could use a different model. They are just so flipping expensive they are twice to three times as expensive as a normal game.

    • SecretMaster
    • 6 years ago

    I’m actually a bit unhappy with gaming on both ends. Big name games from established publishers are expensive and at times, leave a lot to be desired. There is certainly the heavy emphasis on amazing graphics with oftentimes, little other substance.

    On the other hand, the kickstarter craze is taking over indie games. There are tons of games with kickstarters attached to them, and often end up leading to what appears to be half baked products in the end. Or you pay for essentially alpha testing a game that is seriously buggy and wonky. Minecraft sort of set the gold standard for this system, but Minecraft is probably a rare success story than the common norm.

    I’d love for some middle ground to be found. Lower the graphical standards for games (I really do not give a rat’s ass about games super graphics) so you can focus your budget more on gameplay as well.

      • Chrispy_
      • 6 years ago

      I’ve been avoiding early access games for this reason, having bought into Rust and Kerbal Space Program.

      Half-baked, incomplete, buggy games that cost twice what they will eventually retail for.

      Are they fun? Sure.
      Do I hate them for being expensive and buggy and detracting for my desire to play the polished, smooth running end product? Yes.

      Have some patience people. Games are better WHEN THEY’RE DONE.

        • Cyco-Dude
        • 6 years ago

        and, some people are willing to pay to get that early access, bugs and all. you just have to realize what you’re getting, and be realistic about the production quality.

        also, if everyone waited for a “finished game”, none of these crowd-funded games would even see the light of day. someone has to…what’s the word…”kick-start” the whole process. 😉

      • ET3D
      • 6 years ago

      Kickstarter isn’t for everyone. If you pledge to a game, you do it because you want that game to happen, and you’re willing to risk that it won’t be perfect. Kickstarter certainly isn’t (in most cases) for people who prefer to play it safe. (Though some projects I think are pretty safe, for example Wakfu, a project currently running to dub an animated series into English.)

    • sunner
    • 6 years ago

    I’d love to see a return of the games from the PC’s early years.
    I.e.—the ones that had simple, memorable themes (Boy meets Girl in distress….with her help he Rescues her… true Love blossoms… they go Adventuring together).
    I’m thinking of Games like ‘Betrayal At Krondor’….’Kings Quest’ series….plug in your own, old favorites.

    The PC world was young then, and Game Designers were relatively-free to pursue their art. Noble deeds, Heroism, Romance, was the main theme of many games. The designers & studios often became rich&famous. Then, the Suits took over gaming.

    • DPete27
    • 6 years ago

    Some of my favorite “away from the norm” mainstream titles recently:
    Portal 2
    Dishonored
    Tomb Raider

    Common trend: Less focus on mindless killing, more on sneaking/strategy/problem solving.

    • tipoo
    • 6 years ago

    I really enjoyed this game. Monkey Island was one of the first games I recalled playing as a kid, so I didn’t mind paying a bit to see what its creator could do, and to see if he could re-popularize point and click adventures. The art, music, and voice actors were all incredibly charming, as was the writing. Can’t wait for part 2, I have many theories.

    Also really looking forward to No Mans Sky.

    I agree that many games are starting to feel boring, I’ve kind of gotten over plot lines just thick enough for you to shoot everyone on screen. Maybe it’s part of getting older, I sometimes can’t help nagging thoughts like “What if that man I just skyhooked was just doing his job to support his family?”.

    • Meadows
    • 6 years ago

    There’s a [i<]COD 47: GSTAW[/i<]? How did I [i<]ever[/i<] miss the release announcement! Gotta run.

    • LostCat
    • 6 years ago

    I want to buy Broken Age but I have so many un/barely played adventure games :/

      • meerkt
      • 6 years ago

      So wait until part 2 is out. 🙂

    • NovusBogus
    • 6 years ago

    It all hinges on Star Citizen, the crowdfunded AAA. If it succeeds, all the myths about how games are supposed to be made will get blown wide open and we’ll see a new golden age of passionate free-agent developers with the resources to make serious games. If it fails, Kickstarter will become a boondoggle and the indie games industry will retreat back to its own set of repetitive genre tropes–platformer, tower defense and the like.

      • mcnabney
      • 6 years ago

      Not sure why the down-voting. The ‘player’ has already thrown down $38M on Star Citizen – and in many ways that has helped other game-related Kickstarters like Broken Age. It is now a perfectly acceptable way to fund a game – which means that development success can now be based upon catering to the niche instead of the LCD. Also, anything that takes money away from EA has got to be a good thing.

        • meerkt
        • 6 years ago

        Broken Age’s successful funding helped Star Citizen, not vice versa. It was about half a year earlier.

          • Voldenuit
          • 6 years ago

          And if you go even further, succesful campaigns – some that produced actual real games from Kickstarter (eg Divekick, Strike Suit Zero) and Indiegogo (Thomas Was Alone) helped convince the established developers like Tim Schafer, Chris Roberts, JE Sawyer, Brian Fargo et al. that crowdfunding was a potentially viable way to finance their game development.

            • meerkt
            • 6 years ago

            How? The these 3 games came after Broken Age/Double Fine Adventure. And I don’t think Thomas Was Alone can be considered a big crowdfunding inspiration, having collected $2,400 of a 4,000 goal.

            • Voldenuit
            • 6 years ago

            [quote<] I don't think Thomas Was Alone can be considered a big crowdfunding inspiration, having collected $2,400 of a 4,000 goal.[/quote<] At least they didn't say the game would be over a year late and then ask for twice as much money so they could finish it (*cough*Tim Schafer*cough*). EDIT: To clarity, I'm not saying that Broken Age isn't a fine game. By all accounts, it is. I'm just saying that Tim Schafer running out of money and asking fans for more time and more money at a time when no successfully crowd-funded game had been released yet was not a particularly good endorsement for the crowd-funded model. Now that there have been several successfully released games that were wholly or partially crowd-funded, it's clear that crowdfunding can be a good way to get game development funded, a picture that was less clear in early/mid 2013. Also, I'd like to point out that a game doesn't have to be crowdfunded nor have a single developer to be "indie". There have been many succesful indie games that were privately funded (Braid, Machinarium, VVVVVV, Spelunky) or even bankrolled by larger companies (Deadlight, Fez, Rymdkapsel, Thomas Was Alone - which was bailed out by Sony after the indiegogo run failed to meet its target). I also like schemes such as early access which allow games to be continually funded while development is ongoing (Project Zomboid, DayZ, etc). Doesn't work for all game types and development models, but it can be a great way to get continuing player involvement and input as well as cashflow.

            • meerkt
            • 6 years ago

            Early Access isn’t for me. I like my games complete, not moving targets (even if sometimes these may be polished targets). But if you look at it as something like crowdfunding/pay-before-it’s-done-and-hope-for-the-best, then it’s okay. But it’s more expensive for the developer, assuming Steam takes 30%.

            Regarding the development time and cost of BA, yeah, well, it’s been discussed a few months ago. I’m fine with both. It didn’t cost backers more, so it’s valid. And a larger budget lead to longer development. Time-wise I’m in no rush and I prefer better games. Given the $3M, a basic game would surely be disappointing.

            • Voldenuit
            • 6 years ago

            I’d have thought that an episodic game could have been partially funded by the sale of the first chapter, though. Surely they didn’t think that the only people who would have bought it were the Kickstarters? In a way, that’s what the Early Access titles do – you pay for ongoing development, and that includes ongoing content.

            • meerkt
            • 6 years ago

            There’s a difference between episodic, where each segment is feature-complete, and an alpha where the game may be buggy and incomplete.

            I guess some people like seeing a game taking shape, and participating, sort of, in some of its development. Another way to crowdfund.

      • Noigel
      • 6 years ago

      Well, that’s all predicated on Star Citizen actually being a good game too. The hype train all believes this is a forgone conclusion because of the creator and fond memories of a past game… this is all a fine assumption… but not a guarantee. It could come out like “Duke Nukem” or “Universe at War” and fall flat on it’s face…

        • travbrad
        • 6 years ago

        I also wonder how many backers of Star Citizen have actually played a space sim before. I’ve talked to a lot of people who seemed to just give them money because it looked cool, not thinking about what type of gameplay the game is going to have.

        I’ve talked to people who say they hate dogfighting in games, yet those same people say they are looking forward to combat in Star Citizen..

          • pandemonium
          • 6 years ago

          Roberts brings his lineage of fun to play games, regardless of being a space simulator fanatic, and the concept of a theme-park+sandbox style MMO. This is what I’ve been waiting for, even though I’ve never really found a space MMO or simulator that completely appealed to my fancy. I’d play them for a few hours and then get bored because of the lack of substance or the overbearing time requirements.

          I funded it and looking forward to it with great anticipation.

      • lilbuddhaman
      • 6 years ago

      Star Citizen scares me. It has huge, massive potential. A MMO Privateer; An EVE with more action, less spreadsheets; A whole universe to explore; Nostalgia. But they could mess it up so easily….I backed it but only for ~$30? I want to play, I want to see it, but I’m not putting a gfx card’s worth of money into a game that doesn’t exist yet.

    • Deanjo
    • 6 years ago

    [quote<]As graphical fidelity has grown and development costs have ballooned, originality seems to have atrophied.[/quote<] I think that could be said for pretty much every game since the mid 90's and it only got worse once since online gaming. "Hey I got an idea, let's make a MMO with no real plot." could sum up the vast majority of games for the last 15 years. To tell you the truth, I think the last game in a long long time that actually finished before I got totally bored with it was world of goo.

      • indeego
      • 6 years ago

      How interesting, I was utterly bored to tears of that one 10 minutes in. How is that an example of a game with a “real plot?”

    • SetzerG
    • 6 years ago

    I can definitely understand. However, I look at it a little differently. On one hand, game developers have targeted what I call the ‘lowest common denominator’ in order to broaden their market. On the other, development costs have spiraled out of control with too many devs wanting to make AAA games, or nothing. And with the development costs so high, they can’t afford to take many risks.

    You did mention the problem of developers looking up to Hollywood. It’s common to hear someone in the games industry talking about how Hollywood is superior to the games industry. I would challenge that. I think games is a superior media in many ways. It’s okay to be different. When you focus on following something, you can’t really be better than it, and you won’t find yourself leading.

    BTW, I backed the Kickstarter for Torment: Tides of Numenera. Check it out!

    • ronch
    • 6 years ago

    I agree with Cyril here. So many games these days feel boring, not because they’re bad, but because they all seem just the same. Nothing new. This is especially true with FPS titles that seem to sell well because everyone in America thinks joining the War on Terror (if you could call it that) and blasting Afghans is fun. So I tried some indie games such as Amnesia, Gone Home, and Trine 2, and found that they are very good games considering they are just indie titles with small budgets. They do try to blaze their own paths and it’s quite refreshing.

      • Voldenuit
      • 6 years ago

      AAA games are not where you go for creative ideas and risk-taking. They will churn out the same title year after year (look at Activision splitting CoD into 3 devs for yearly releases of the same bullcr@p).

      Indies, however… There has never been a better time to be an indie gamer, except maybe in the near future (before they all get bought up or collapse under freemium cyanide pill, and after all the cool cool games on the horizon come out). Rain World, iubes, Hunting Anubis, Matador, Below, The Floor is Jelly, Hyper Light Drifter, No Man’s Sky, Volume, The Witness, and that’s just barely even scratching the surface of titles on the horizon.

        • brucethemoose
        • 6 years ago

        Ya, there are a ton of indie games under development right now that are just boiling over with potential.

        My money is on Starbound and maybe Starmade leading the pack (the Minecraft and space-sim crowds are hungry), but the next few years will be a golden age for indie games in general… AAA franchises will continue to rot.

        • travbrad
        • 6 years ago

        I think a lot of people also overlook the “middle-ground” games that aren’t typical 2D “indie” games made by just 1-2 people, but also aren’t AAA massive budget games.

        I’ve had more fun in Natural Selection 2 than any “AAA” FPS in the last 5+ years and have a serious addiction to Kerbal Space Program. I’ve also probably played Planetside 2 more than all the Battlefield games combined; a game series I loved but has really stagnated in recent years.

        I do love indie games too though 🙂

          • shaq_mobile
          • 6 years ago

          +1 for ns2

          560+ hours and growing. just wish we had a 40 man server in US

    • UberGerbil
    • 6 years ago

    [quote<] [b<]four[/b<] hours of play time in all—about what you'd expect from a blockbuster shooter these days.[/quote<]Is that a typo?

      • joshg253
      • 6 years ago

      Maybe 4 hours for single-player campaign?

        • Cyril
        • 6 years ago

        Yeah, that’s what I meant. Clarified the post.

        • brucethemoose
        • 6 years ago

        I played BF3 MP for about 4 hours before I got bored. Never picked it up again.

          • DPete27
          • 6 years ago

          Yeah, I think you’re being a bit hasty if you’re completing single-player campaigns in 4 hours. Usually takes me at least 8 hours, which purportedly what developers shoot for. If you’re getting bored within 4 hours, that’s much more understandable.

      • Pwnstar
      • 6 years ago

      This is only part of the game. He’s not done.

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