Earlier this week, Double Fine’s first iOS game came out: the comic management simulation Middle Manager of Justice. Gamers and critics alike had been excited for the first app from the geniuses behind masterpieces like Psychonauts, Stacking, and Costume Quest, and lots of fans downloaded it immediately.
Which was very bad for Double Fine. Because the game wasn’t done.
According to Gamasutra’s interview with project lead Ken Chi, the early release was a result of Apple’s demanding submission process. When Double Fine first began submitting the game to the App Store, the game was given a placeholder release date in September, but it quickly became clear that like so many games, the release would need to be delayed so all the bugs could be fixed. Double Fine didn’t want to pull the game and go to the back of the line, so Chi thought he would just tell Apple to hold the release after it had done the initial code review.
Somehow, that important final step got forgotten. So one morning, Chi was heading into work, thinking about what changes his team would make to the game today, when he got a call from the tech director informing him that it was already on sale in every territory.
Chi immediately sent a frantic request to Apple to pull the game from the App Store. But there were already a whole lot of players who thought the new Double Fine game was a buggy and unbalanced mess. So Chi posted on the Double Fine message boards, explaining the situation and apologizing for the mistake.
Then he did something that reflects the improvisational smarts you’d expect from a company that does comedy better than anyone else in the business: he asked the players for feedback. So instead of players showing up on the forums to scream about what didn’t work, they were cheerfully submitting the kind of detailed bug reports that a company normally pays overworked QA testers to provide. Many of the posts were about straightforward programming errors: blurry textures, missing mission objectives, and a curious tendency to make the iPhone run very hot. But there were also quite a few smart design suggestions reflecting the experiences of ordinary players. They explained where goals were confusing, where the interface made input mistakes too easy to make, and where the game’s scrambling of genre expectations needed to be a little more clearly presented (an important consideration after the company’s genre-straddling flop Brutal Legend).
Having a game go out to the world before it’s been properly bug-tested can destroy players’ confidence in a designer. Thanks to Ken Chi’s ability to roll with a nasty surprise and the personable tone he takes on the Double Fine forums, it’s instead become a bridge between consumers and the company, further cementing Double Fine’s relationship with its fan base. Of course, lots of fans are sorry to see that they’ll have to wait a little longer for this eagerly-anticipated game. But it’s worth it for the chance to be a participant as well as a consumer. Double Fine is a San Francisco based company, so perhaps we can just call this combination of improvisation and invitation to participate “very Burning Man.”