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Flying With Four Engines: Tim Schafer On Double Fine's New Mission

The head of the idiosyncratic development studio Double Fine on post-Brutal Legend life, and how splitting the company into four teams might just be the best decision he's ever made -- for both business and creative.

Christian Nutt, Contributor

October 15, 2010

18 Min Read

At UK's Develop conference, Double Fine creative director Tim Schafer revealed that the Brütal Legend developer had split itself into four teams and was working on four small, download-only games.

Conceived during two week "Amnesia Fortnights" in which the small teams had to come up with an appealing, executable concept for a game, Costume Quest is the first title to be released since the studio changed directions. It releases to Xbox Live and PlayStation Network next week.

Unlike the studio's previous games, Schafer is stepping out of the main creative role for these four titles. Costume Quest is led by a studio animator, Tasha Harris, who worked at Pixar prior to joining Double Fine.

The game is being published by THQ, which also signed another of the Amnesia Fortnight projects. Two more are yet unannounced, but all have reportedly been signed.

In this interview, Schafer discusses why this new direction is the right one for his studio, how publishers and developers both fit into the equation -- and why, all that being said, the team might unite once again behind one big project of the right one comes along.

So, well, here's Costume Quest. It's done, basically?

Tim Schafer: Yeah.

And how long did it take you to make it?

TS: Less than a year. It [woke] fond memories for me, from the first game I ever worked on, which was Secret of Monkey Island. That took nine months. This is roughly similar, and also it was text-based, so it was also a similar kind of feeling of just...

Like, it feels it was yesterday Tasha [Harris] and I were talking about this game. Like "Wouldn't it be cool to do..." And all of the sudden... Compared to like Psychonauts and Brütal Legend, which we just lived for four or five years, you know.

What kind of effects did that have on the game itself? Did it stick closer to what you were thinking? Did you have to make fewer compromises?

TS: Well, it forces you to be disciplined about your scope and to be focused on core gameplay mechanics. You know, Brütal Legend, I think definitely you'd see that we had time to think about a whole bunch of stuff that could be in the game. You know, "you should be able to drive and fly." You know what I mean.

When you have like a year to make a game, it's kind of like, "Let's do one thing." And Costume Quest has the two things. It has combat, and it has exploration. So, you're just stuck to those things.

You know, every time you come up with a new idea, when you have a long schedule, it always seems like there's room to put stuff in, but with a short schedule, it's pretty clear that you just have time to basically do the basic idea that you have, which I think makes better design actually, [if] you know what I mean. You focus. You like make one thing work, and you just...

It stops feature creep.

TS: Yeah.

Talking about combat, since you knew combat was, as you sort of put it, like 50 percent of the game basically, did you find that you were more intent on making the combat fun, making it balanced, instead of adding new features?

TS: Yeah. It's such a thing that's repeated over and over again that you really have to make that core thing work. I tried to add things. It's my nature, because we're all about having new ideas, so it's all like, "You know what else would be cool?"

And the great thing about being kind of removed from that project -- I just had that studio creative director role -- I could say things like that, and then Tasha and her producer Gabe [Miller] can be like, "But we don't have time. We don't have time to do that."

If there was something I really liked and was super passionate about, I might bring it up over and over again until they, you know, gave in, but I respected their schedule. I can't go make them late, you know what I mean? So, I just give my opinion.

It was great to have that because sometimes when I have all the power to be like, "You know what? We're going to do this. We're going to add this thing..." I think it's dangerous for people to get their way 100 percent of the time. That's what I learned at Lucasfilm. (laughs) I'll just leave it at that.

When you talk about like adding things or not adding things, are we talking features? Are we talking just monsters? How granular are we getting on the adding scale?

TS: It's more like features. It's more like the sentences begin "You know what else we can do?" And whenever you're saying that "You know what else we can do?" it's always true. You could also do that thing, and it would be cool.

But it gets to like where there's good editing. It's like a writing task, almost. If you can add anything to a book, you keep writing. You could just add another chapter. You could add another paragraph.

Someone told me once about writing and editing. The important thing about editing is that you have a spider web. Imagine a spider web, and you were to cut strings out of it here and there. It wouldn't make the whole spider web looser, as long as you cut the right strings -- because all the strings around it would bear more weight, and it would actually make the thing more solid. That's the good metaphor for editing that I know, and I think that's the same for game design.

Coming from two long projects, how did you communicate, and how did you get everyone on that page? We're talking almost ten years. The studio had been going from two long projects to this short one. Did people really wrap their heads around the mindset of creating this way?

TS: Well, there are two things. One, we had a great time doing it, as a test, twice. We did those Amnesia Fortnight projects. Once at the middle of Brütal Legend, once at the end. We just took two weeks, and everybody forgot what they were doing for two weeks -- hence the name -- and broke the whole 60-person company into four groups. Each group made a game in two weeks.

And it was such a great morale boost. Everyone just had so much fun, and everyone was so focused on what they were doing. And in two weeks, that scoping thing is even clearer. It's like, "You know what? We have time to get one thing right. Let's just do that."

Because so many games... you start a huge production. When you have infinite time, it seems, you don't just focus on getting one thing right. You're often like, "Let's start a million things, and let's go." And then at the end, you'll try and tie them all together, and there's a big panic. "Let's cut half of them." But we had like two weeks of "Let's try and get this one thing done."

Anyway, everyone really loved that. In smaller teams, you can get everyone in the room for a meeting. Communication is easier. Everyone has more ownership, and everyone has more responsibility and gets their input. Everybody gets to help with design. So, it was fun, and everyone was on board in that sense.

But doing smaller games is something I wanted to do for a long time, but I was always thinking we'd kind of toy around with it on the side and ease into it -- ease into doing multiple games. And then we found out we weren't doing Brütal Legend 2. We were basically like, "Wow, we don't have another game ready to pitch, except for these eight prototypes we made in our Amnesia Fortnight process. So, let's take the four best ones and pitch them."

How did you determine which were the four best?

TS: I just picked them. (laughs) The end of each Amnesia Fortnight, we had a little kind of game... It was like a little indie gamejam, a little game festival. We played them, and all of them were fun in different ways. It's just some of them were, you know... It's both proving a game that could be pitched, made, produced, and published, and also just testing out crazy ideas.

Like some of the ideas were just wacky technology, things we wanted to try to see if we could do -- augmented reality or something like that, just as a hypothetical example. So, they don't necessarily turn into games. It's not like they were bad; they were just a fun little thing.

These other things, like Costume Quest... The combat wasn't done or anything, but walking around the street looked a lot like the final version of a game, and we were like, "I can totally see that being a game."

How did you determine how long the schedule was going to be in the end for the game? Was it based on like the budget when you signed it, or just the scope of the game that you scoped out at the beginning of the project?

TS: Well, a while ago I just got it in my head that I had a really great time working with Monkey Island, and I would love to that again. I would love to do a game on that timeframe and spend... not that exact same amount of money, because it was about 250,000, I think, to make Monkey Island... but to do a smaller budget.

There were a lot of things that went into that exact number, you know, for both the budget and the team size. When we did Amnesia Fortnight, "What is splitting out company into teams of 10 to 15 people? How many teams does that give us?" That's a good working size for a team. "And how many games can we make?"

I think a year is a good amount of time to work on something. I feel like creatively that's enough time, where it's always fresh and fun for the entire time. And, you know, at the end of it, you can do another one. You wouldn't feel bad about it. Because it would have been hard to rev up to get creatively decided immediately about Brütal Legend 2. I think we would've felt like, "Okay. Let's take a month off."

But these games, just getting them done in a year, basically the honeymoon period is still on when you ship, creatively.

When are you going to know like if this is a good strategy for your studio?

TS: I already know. I already love it. I already love my position of being, instead of the bottleneck that everyone was waiting for, like "Tim, when are you going to come up with that character design?" Or story, or whatever, I am now being a helper. Everyone's working. I'm not stopping it from working.

I'm just showing up to be like, "This project needs a lot of dialogue so I can help and write a bunch of dialogue for them," or "This project needs design brainstorming," and "This project needs just some relationship thing with the publisher I can help with." So basically I'm just adding positive things to each project instead of holding them up.

I mean, I think I added positive things to Brütal.

So, I like that. I like already the stability it brings us of having four revenue streams from different companies, instead of one. Just from a business sense, it's more calming to know that if one hose shuts off, there's other... It's like having an airplane with four engines, one of them can blow up and you can still stay in the air.

It seems to make logical sense, but then you think about just how hard it is to keep the plane flying in general -- for everyone's that trying to fly planes. Do you think it's going to work as a strategy?

TS: Yeah. I mean, I think the test will be, I guess, when we do a second round... I mean, it's already tested that we managed it, we did the big jump -- which is from one project to many, which is a big production infrastructure challenge. Like, how do you manage multiple teams? Your accounting department has to do stuff it's never done before. There are all these different things that have to happen. So, we made that jump.

For the culture and stuff, it's already proven to be a good fit. Because there are tons of creative people that are dying... People like Lee [Petty] and Tasha who have these game ideas get to show that they have great ideas that are really good games, so that's already worked. That's already proven to be true.

And now we just have to prove from a business point of view that we can make it work by doing a second round of them, because then the wheel is really spinning. The real upside to doing many projects instead of fewer, bigger projects and doing multiple smaller projects is that you have more chances for a hit game.

Despite what everybody says, you never know. No one knows, and no one knows anything. That's William Goldman. He wrote Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid, the screenplay. He's mainly a screenwriter, and one of his books was called Nobody Knows Anything, which is an important thing to remember -- because so many people are always pontificating about what makes a hit.

"Oh, here, you've got to have this, this, and this." "Oh, I knew that." And they're always there to explain that this summer's hot hit, they totally saw it coming, right?


TS: It's a lot more random than people are willing to admit. So anyway, you can risk 30 million dollars and just hope that you get a payoff, or you can just take, instead of one project every four years, take four projects a year. There's more of a chance that one of them will be more of a breakout, something you can invest in more, and do a sequel, or something like that.

There's a lot of talk about the migration to digital. Do you feel like you kind of got here in time to be at the front, from a studio standpoint? A lot of studios are still concentrating on big games.

TS: It felt like I had jumped the tracks, in a way, if I wanted to do creative stuff. Because at these meetings, you know, we were pitching 25 million dollar games or whatever... You go through this process of sanding off all the rough edges, you know. People wanted to take the heavy metal out of the game. "It sounds cool, but let's take the heavy metal out." I'm like, "No. It's totally..."

Right. That's the point.

TS: Like, I understand going for a broader audience, but you can't cut the heart out of something. And so it gets to be frustrating, the risk management.

I don't think they're evil. If I had 30 million dollars and I wanted to invest it, I would go for a pretty safe bet. I don't think I would go for someone unproven, on something like that, so I understand that point of view. And I just realized that, yeah, when you ask for that much of someone else's money, you've got to do something that's pretty safe.

And we don't want to do things that are that safe. We never have. We want to do something that's unproven, something that's fun and a little risky, and doing things that are more like 1 million or 2 million dollar budgets.

Did you even consider pitching a big game instead of little games? Or did you just jump headfirst in?

TS: No, because it was something we've been wanting to do for a while. Basically, game design kind of tells you how big it wants to be, I think. Some of them do kind of scream for a game with a big treatment. If we had one of those...

There's always like some embryonic version of one going around in my head or somebody else's head. And if one of those comes to the surface and kind of tells you, "I'm ready to be a game," then we would pitch that. I don't think we could make one up.

You don't go to war with the army you want. (laughs) That sounds so cheesy. Like Donald Rumsfeld, wasn't he the guy that made that quote? "You go to war with the army you have, not the army you want". And you go to a pitch meeting with the ideas you have, not the ideas you want.

Anyway, we have these little ideas all the time, and we just wanted to make them happen.

You have to think that you'll get to do what you want more frequently. Well, you can do everything more frequently, first of all. Create more games, more frequently. You get to do what you want, probably more easily. And you get to find the right audience and not worry that you didn't find the big audience.

TS: Well, yeah. I mean, if the sales numbers that we have... Even the lowest sales numbers, if you think of the lowest, they still make money at these budgets that we're talking about. They still do well. That's exciting to think about! Actually getting a royalty check from one of these games. Maybe. (laughs)

Do you foresee a long-term need for publishers in these relationships?

TS: I mean... What can I say there that won't...

Completely alienate the people in the next room? (laughs)

TS: Completely alienate... (laughs) Publishers play an important part in the process.

(Shafer crosses his fingers) Does that mean I'm lying? Or does that mean I'm hoping that was the end?

It looked like hoping.

TS: Yeah. It looked like hoping because I held them up. No, no. They do.

There are a lot of things that publishers do that someday I would like to do. Like, I would like to have our own marketing department. I would love to have our own PR department someday, that can work with the PR department at a publisher, obviously. If you make unique games, I think you need a unique message and a unique way of getting to your unique fans. So, I would love to bring that stuff on our side somehow.

But for things like getting slots on XBLA, is that like one of the things that publishers can do relatively well right now?

TS: Yeah. Definitely... It's a lot easier to talk to those kind of people if you're a publisher.

This is the same engine for Brütal, right, and it's multiplatform? So, did you do this stuff with PSN or XBLA in mind, or just "whatever the publisher ends up being" in mind?

TS: In the initial phase of just making the prototype and making games, they were kind of seen as platform agnostic, I guess. We were pitching for everybody, and if they got signed with first party, it would obviously affect what platform it was coming out on. So we had to stay pretty nimble, and once it was settled who the publishers for each game was, different things were specialized, or focused, on what platform it was.

How like advantageous was it to have your engine that had been through the paces with Brütal?

TS: Completely essential. It was completely essential to have our engine. I mean, if you were another developer that wanted to do something like this, you could use other engines. You could find other free engines out there, or something like Unreal or something you can license for cheaper.

But for us, it was, we had the engine that millions of dollars had been invested in. We could make something that looked kind of triple A right away. We never wanted to make something that looked cheap. We wanted to make something that looks nice. It's a slice of a really high-powered thing, instead of a cheap one.

You haven't announced what the other three games are, just that they exist. Is that because of the natural way of the scheduling in terms of the way they're getting wrapping up, or is it actually part of the strategy -- having one engine burn out at a time?

TS: (laughs) There's an advantage of having multiple relationships. I mean, we plan not to burn out any relationship, but what happens is that publishers, they re-org and they change...

I mean, you've seen presidents at, you know, LucasArts and... Presidents change. When Ed Fries left Microsoft, look what happened to Psychonauts. So, you can't put all your eggs in one basket, that's for sure.

But we have a great relationship with THQ, and it's been one of the most fun [experiences] we've had working with a publisher, because they really have given the games creative freedom, and they've been really nice. And they brought cookies shaped like ladies' dead fingers to our party, which was a first time for us.

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About the Author(s)

Christian Nutt


Christian Nutt is the former Blog Director of Gamasutra. Prior to joining the Gamasutra team in 2007, he contributed to numerous video game publications such as GamesRadar, Electronic Gaming Monthly, The Official Xbox Magazine, GameSpy and more.

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