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Gamer Double Fine Works Around Publishers


This week, San Francisco is hosting the Game Developers Conference. It's the largest global event for the industry that makes video and online games. Twenty thousand people from one hundred countries are there right now. And a game that hasn't even been created yet is getting lots of attention.

From member station KQED in San Francisco, Aarti Shahani reports.

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: A few hundred conference goers crowd into a room at the Mascone Convention Center. On stage, developers from Double Fine, well-known independent game-makers, talk about raising money to develop new games.

NATHAN MARTZ: But if we're going to pitch it, we actually have to pitch it, you know, to the suits, right. To publishers. They to have to make this game...

SHAHANI: Nathan Martz is referring to the well-known tension between the creative developers and the business suit publishers.

Sitting to his right is company founder Tim Schafer. Schafer blows kisses into the air - as though his colleague's point needs illustration. The audience gets the joke.


SHAHANI: Awkward laughter. Schafer wants to free developer and fan alike, from the grip of controlling publishers.

TIM SCHAFER: What if there are a lot of adventure game fans out there who want an adventure game? I wonder if there is some way that I could talk to them directly, cut out publishers altogether.

SHAHANI: Schafer poses this rhetorical question in a YouTube video released a few weeks back. He was launching his campaign to raise money for a game that he says, no major publisher was willing to pay for. After just a few hours online, Schafer hit his goal of $400,000. Days later, he got to $2.4 million - by far the biggest success story in the history of Kickstarter.com - the website he's been raising money on.

His 70,000-plus backers won't turn a profit. But they'll get rewards, like a free game or even a credit in it, depending on how much they pledge.

Blocks from the convention, back at Double Fine Studios, Schafer employs about 60 people. Fussing with a Rubik's Cube, he talks about the limits of games, as an industry. Publishers want the usual bloody, kill-'em-all shooter games, the proven megahits.

SCHAFER: The big companies are not going to create games that are going to be good for the overall art form. They're not going to progress, you know, how expressive the games are, and how emotionally relevant they are, and how fulfilling they are from an artistic point of view.

SHAHANI: The game industry is huge. It's expected to make $33 billion this year, that's about equal to the movie box office worldwide. Schafer has the star power of an Oscar-winning producer.

JEFF BROWN: When I first saw what he was doing, I kind of laughed and thought it was like, you know, Martin Scorsese doing a crowd-sourcing project to try and fund his next picture.

SHAHANI: That's Jeff Brown, communications VP at Electronic Arts. They're the top game publisher in the U.S. Brown questions whether regular indie developers can replicate a celebrity's homerun. But he does note that crowd-funding may well have a future because, as new players flock to the Apple Store and Facebook...

BROWN: The games that they're playing are a lot cheaper. They're a lot simpler, and the barriers to access to get into the industry have gone down, too.

SHAHANI: In the past, mega-hits cost $40 million. Now, you can make one for, say, $2.4 million. Schafer plans to do just that and make a documentary about it, to demystify the process for kids who think that only big publishers can make games.

So this is not a declaration of war on publishers?

SCHAFER: No, this is not a declaration of war on publishers. We wouldn't start that unless we were ready to win it. No, just kidding.



SHAHANI: Not now. While Schafer celebrates his new crowd-funding success, he's not closing the door on old money. He leaves his Rubik's Cube on the table and heads to the conference room where two big publishers are waiting to hear his next pitch.

For NPR News, I'm Aarti Shahani. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Aarti Shahani is a correspondent for NPR. Based in Silicon Valley, she covers the biggest companies on earth. She is also an author. Her first book, Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares (out Oct. 1, 2019), is about the extreme ups and downs her family encountered as immigrants in the U.S. Before journalism, Shahani was a community organizer in her native New York City, helping prisoners and families facing deportation. Even if it looks like she keeps changing careers, she's always doing the same thing: telling stories that matter.
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