Red Rants: Double Fine, the Triple Constraint, and the whole Tim Fandango

Broken Age: now broken in two parts

By now it’s across the internet: Double Fine are only going to release half of Broken Age in January, with an April/May update for the second part. In an announcement to Kickstarter backers (of which I am one), Schafer stated:

We have been looking for ways to improve our project’s efficiency while reducing scope where we could along the way. All while looking for additional funds from bundle revenue, ports, etc. But when we finished the final in-depth schedule recently it was clear that these opportunistic methods weren’t going to be enough.

We looked into what it would take to finish just first half of our game—Act 1. And the numbers showed it coming in July of next year. Not this July, but July 2014. For just the first half. The full game was looking like 2015! My jaw hit the floor.

That’s a telling statement, because it goes to the heart of project management. More accurately, it highlights a tension at the heart of many creator-centric games.

Project management is a philosophy that should be familiar to anyone in the engineering, science or software fields, but should be taught in schools. It’s about planning a project within given parameters to ensure smooth delivery, whether it’s a widget, a program or something else entirely. You can do entire courses in the practice, from diplomas (of which I have one) all the way up to masters and higher. it’s very much a toolbox- here are the tools that can be used to plan and execute a project properly.

Central to the idea of project management is the “triple constraint” of Cost, Time and Scope. Basically, any project needs to be optimised around these three ideas- how much will it cost, how long will it take, and what does the project end up being in terms of composition, and extent. If you’re good, and I mean really good, you ideally say to a client “pick two.” We can deliver something to scope and on time, but it’ll cost, or we can do fast and cheap but only of limited scope.

What we’re seeing here is a breakdown in at least one of those.

When the Double Fine Adventure Kickstarter was launched, remember, it was asking for $400,000. Kickstarter and Amazon take a cut (8-10% between them), plus there’s a cost to any physical rewards and a cut for Two Player Productions, who are chronicling the process (which I feel has been worth the price of admission alone, but that’s a separate discussion). Let’s say that leaves Double Fine with a shade under $300,000.

Of course, they made about 8x that, and that probably brought the amount of money that Double Fine had to play with up to about $2.5 million. Within our project management framework, that pegs the cost at $2.5m, but the costs of the project also increased- it’s now likely more graphically and computationally complex than the original plan.

And that’s before pen got put to paper. Remember, this whole project has been from conception onwards. There was no design document or planning done before the Kickstarter- Schafer wrote the game AFTER the funding period had finished, so that it could match the budget.

So we have a fixed cost for the project, but until about a month after the funding period we had only a vague timeline and no scope. That’s a pretty major problem by project management standards.

Reading the above update, you can see the three parts of the triple constraint struggling. By not compromising on the scope of the project, the two other parts of project management have been shot to hell. I sure wouldn’t want Tim Schafer building my house, for example- as Rocketman said, my house would now have 4 kitchens and no bedrooms or shower. The full update acknowledges that both cost and time have gone out the window in favour of the scope. This may have been avoided by more careful writing of the game in the first place, aiming for a smaller target.

So from a project management perspective it’s a wreck, but this process doesn’t take into account the other warring impulse here, that of art.

Tim Schafer (and by extension Double Fine) is a unique voice within the gaming industry. Each game they’ve made has been unique and fresh, and has a very unique artistic vision. Double Fine could have years ago curtailed its ambitions and settled for smaller projects, but their games have always presented distinct and interesting mechanics, plots and visual styles. Indeed, without that style they would never have  got the Kickstarter reception that they have. I’m sure Schafer’s impulse for writing and planning the game the way he has has been to try to meet fan’s expectations of having something exciting and different, which is what got them into the current mess.

This uncompromising vision, even though it leads to troubles with publishers and (at the moment anyway) draws the ire of fans, has led to some of the most unusual games of the last decade. Sure they’ve had flaws, but video games as a medium are richer with them than without them. Even the act of kickstarting this project has changed the gaming industry- look at the number of big game companies that have successfully kickstarted since Double Fine finished their funding last March. It’s worth noting that many of these have been a lot further along than Broken Age when they were kickstarted- many of them had existing assets or prototypes, and many of them went in to their funding period with a fully written project plan.

So the question we have to ask is: Should Tim Schafer be making Tim Schafer’s game? What’s more important- a creator’s bloaty but complete vision or a more modest game that ships on time? I’d argue that games should balance the two, but if you have to pick one, go for the former.

The lesson here is twofold. First, project management is important. Without defining the scope of the project before asking for money, of course either the time or cost is going to blow out, and that’s a consequence that Double Fine has to wear with all the negative press and ire it draws. If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.

That said, maybe it’s worth waiting a little longer for the purpose of creating interesting and creative games.

2 comments

  1. Reblogged this on Skepticism and Dice and commented:
    More Games stuff!

  2. […] This latest one, the result of a wildly successful Kickstarter, takes the series back to its RPG roots. In my opinion, it mostly succeeds. It’s important that it did, too — this is probably the first major kickstarted game to see release (other than perhaps FTL) so in a sense it’s a validation for the kickstarter model- especially now the Double Fine adventure has been delayed. […]

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