Broken promise Double Fine's 'Broken Age' Kickstarter, and trust

"The world of video game design is a mysterious one," Double Fine's Kickstarter pitch reads. "What really happens behind the closed doors of a development studio is often unknown, unappreciated or misunderstood."

Those words were written around February 2012, ahead of the longtime adventure game developer's Kickstarter campaign launch in order to introduce its latest effort to the world. The project required $400,000, Double Fine's Tim Schafer said -- a goal eventually shattered by more than $3 million in pledges -- and would unfold "over a six-to-eight-month period." A "small team" led by Schafer promised to create a point-and-click adventure game in the vein of Monkey Island and Maniac Mansion. That game, first known as Double Fine Adventure, is now Broken Age -- a fitting title considering what came next.

Last evening, Schafer took to the Kickstarter backer page to explain what's going on with Broken Age (now well beyond the "six-to-eight-month period" originally promised): "I designed too much game," he said. That means it's not ready, in case that isn't clear. Moreover, a half-done version of the game -- pared down from its original scope -- will launch on Steam's "Early Access" section long before the full game's planned launch, and long before Kickstarter backers will play what they paid for, in order to fund the final half.

In his letter last night, Schafer said, "Backers still have exclusive beta access before [launch on Steam], as promised in the Kickstarter," though the (half-complete) version is planned for open sale otherwise. "We could actually sell this early access version of the game to the public at large, and use that money to fund the remaining game development. The second part of the game would come in a free update a few months down the road, closer to April-May [2014]," the letter said.

And no, before you ask, such a change doesn't impact the $3.3 million Schafer and co. received from backers. There is no refund available through Kickstarter, as not delivering on a product isn't a violation of Kickstarter's rules. The following is Kickstarter's stance on project completion and fulfillment, as taken from its FAQ page:

"Who is responsible for completing a project as promised?

It's the project creator's responsibility to complete their project. Kickstarter is not involved in the development of the projects themselves. Kickstarter does not guarantee projects or investigate a creator's ability to complete their project. On Kickstarter, backers (you!) ultimately decide the validity and worthiness of a project by whether they decide to fund it."

Essentially, whatever money given to Kickstarter projects is a donation -- sure, you're being promised something in return, but there's no legally binding contract guaranteeing you'll actually get it. Of course, the approximately 90,000 people affected by Double Fine's decision may feel differently about buying future games by the studio, to say nothing of whether they'll back a Kickstarter project ever again. Considering the positive effect a successful Kickstarter like Double Fine's Broken Age has on other gaming projects -- dubbed the "Blockbuster effect" by Kickstarter itself -- what ramifications will its failure have?

Broken promise Double Fine's 'Broken Age' Kickstarter, and trust

Indie developer Rami Ismail has a different view. He took to his personal blog last night to express his thanks to Schafer and Double Fine for exposing the (often messy) financial underpinnings of game development, flaws and all. "Double Fine set out to make a game with eight times the budget we had on some of our titles and suddenly had to re-scope when Kickstarter expectations were [that] they were going to release a game that's worth 3 million dollars," Ismail wrote. "Instead of holding back, they are trying to give every single one of their backers the maximum amount of game for their money." And while Ismail's right in that respect, it doesn't change the fact that Double Fine is going back on what it promised backers.

Since the original plan was to create a small game with a small group for $400K, Schafer and his team were faced with an unforeseen dilemma when they raised $3.3 million: either create a product "worthy" of the amount they raised or continue with the plan and simply ship that product to more people. Schafer clearly chose the former, as evidenced by his statement "I designed too much game."

Whether or not Schafer made the right choice is a question for another time, and for people who are far more intimately involved with Broken Age's development than us here at Engadget. What we do know is that one of the most prominent examples of a crowdfunding success story just became one of the most prominent examples of why consumers should be wary of backing crowdfunded projects. If long-established players like Double Fine pull in more than eight times the capital they originally asked from fans yet still can't meet a grossly over-inflated budget, that's what we'd call a warning sign.