Since its transformation from a big boxed game developer to a download-centric house with multiple projects going at once, San Francisco-headed independent developer Double Fine has released two games: Costume Quest, late last year, and now Stacking, which puts the player in the persona of a Russian matryoshka nesting doll on an adventure to rescue his siblings.
The game was originally devised in Double Fine's Amnesia Fortnight -- a two week game jam in which the developers at the studio broke into teams and worked on small projects, which became the genesis of the studio's new download game focus. It combines the sense of humor of a classic adventure game with new-style gameplay.
In this extensive interview, Lee Petty, the Double Fine art director who lead the Stacking project, and the studio's creative director Tim Schafer discuss the creative process that lead to Stacking.
They also touch upon how download games fit into the current gaming landscape, working with publishers and marketers, and where the title of this article came from.
The whole Russian doll thing is quite… I don't know what the right word is. Like, unprecedented? Unexpected? Sort of surprising, thematically?
Lee Petty: I don't know what you mean by that. The market's flooded with Russian dolls!
Tim Schafer: I actually -- this sounds like a joke -- but I feel that I've seen a lot of Russian doll stuff lately. Like just in terms of [some decorations] I saw the other day, and I was like, "I think they're in the zeitgeist; they're on the tip of society's tongue."
And Lee, who is always on the tips of tongues of things, was quick to see that and realized that that's what people want -- especially in the downloadable space. They said, "Russian dolls. We need Russian dolls... but could you add child labor jokes and spice it up?"
Okay, so the magic mix is Russian dolls and child labor.
TS: Those are like the outside of the Oreo with a filling of fart jokes that hold it all together. And classical music.
LP: Well, we don't want to go entirely mass market, so we put farting in there.
TS: Yeah. And Russian dolls are so simple but versatile. There's only one character model in the whole game, which is great.
From a production standpoint.
TS: Yeah, but there's over 100 dolls. I mean, we haven't had made a game I think that had that many [characters]. I mean, Brütal Legend had that kind of number of characters in it.
And it was just such a great idea, such a clever way of giving a lot, without being bogged down in the production of it -- unless you do things like dolls, that have the stop motion look, where we're not animating all their fingers wrapping around objects and stuff. They're just expressing themselves in this more stylized way, which I think has even more charm than usual. There you go!
It fits with the direction the company's going. You have to think about clever ways to be able to make games quickly, right?
TS: Well, it was a choice. You're either making really big expensive games that take no risks or make less expensive games that are creative and original.
LP: And I think for us, when we talked about making small games, one of the things that we really felt passionate about was trying to make games that -- we didn't want them to feel or look cheap. We still wanted them to feel like a high fidelity and fresh experience.
And it's an exciting space to be in, I think, with downloadable games. And we're seeing the quality in many ways -- or at least the attention people are putting into them -- like raising and raising.
We really wanted to feel like new territory that we could be a part of, and try and offer a little something different, but still had it be kind of a polished, or attractive, or seductive experience on some level. Not purely just a Flash game on the Xbox which -- I love Flash games, but I feel like people expect more on a console.
TS: And we can do more! At the company we know how to do that kind of stuff, so we don't want to lose that.
On the one hand you're saying it's not exactly the most typical theme for a game, but it does fit in, actually. It makes me think about, I don't know, like Etsy or other things that you see online -- if you step away from games for a second and just take a tiny look around. It seems culturally aware.
TS: You mean if you take one step outside of the game industry you see creative stuff? Is that what you're saying?
TS: But it's true! I mean less and less so with all the indie games that are getting made. But it seems to be that there are very few looks that are allowed in games, and trying new stuff is not exactly rewarded all the time. So that's definitely what we want to do.
And I think this game's also is kind of old school, in a way, in that it's an adventure game, you know? It has all the humor and dialogue and the story aspect of an adventure game, but it's not the same old gameplay. It's a different, completely fresh way of interacting with people.
Instead of walking around talking to people, you're actually walking around being different people. And all those people are toys that you can pick up and play with and just see what they do.
What happens if you… I don't want to say, "What happens if you fart on the baby?" That was like my first example I could think of. The way things go these days in games journalism, that will be the headline: "Schafer admits fantasy of flatulence on youth."
You made it even worse when you restated it!
TS: Yeah. [laughs] I tried to class it up a little bit.
No, but you made it worse!
TS: I meant to say "Petty..."
LP: "...commanded by Schafer to flatulate on youth."
LP: He's delegated his arm of flatulation on small things to me -- not just children.
TS: I rest my case.
LP: Dogs, cats...
This was part of your Amnesia Fortnight. And you're brainstorming this, and I know you [Lee] came up with this idea and you were like, "Hell, that's a fucking cool idea!" And then you [Tim] were like, "That's really cool, let's do it!"
Did you think that it would eventually end up being a game that would be signed? Or were you like, "This is maybe a little esoteric"?
LP: I guess I felt like I wanted to take a creative risk. I've been in the game industry for a long time, like Tim, and I enjoy working on high fidelity experiences that don't necessarily have the most unique creative direction, but are still really polished and everything...
But I kind of felt like, "You know, if we're going to spend two weeks and try and make it work, I want to take it seriously and see how I could make this work."
And we approached it from day one, when we were making the demo with the tutorial built in, and trying to make just a simple act of stacking and unstacking a compelling gameplay mechanic experience too, in addition to the theme.
Even though it was a little out there, at the same time I felt like we've worked hard to try and make the form and content point to the same types of things. It makes sense that you stack because you're a stacking doll, and that's sort of a physical, simple thing that most people culturally know -- what a stacking doll is. So even though it's may be odd that you're in a world of them, it makes sense on some level. It's not just sort of juxtaposing two random weird things into a fantasy game.
TS: And it's not like Lee's pitch was devoid of some sort of a commercial or business idea, too. Because it was yeah, definitely creatively satisfying, experimental, but it was also us thinking about a casual audience, and how could a casual audience enjoy something that also a more hardcore audience could enjoy?
And that's why a lot of the game design focuses on the multiple solutions to the challenges and this kind of replayability. Because if you're a more novice player, you can just play one of the solutions to any of the puzzles, and get through the game still. You could find an easy solution to a lot of the puzzles.
But as you start getting into it, you realize what you really want to do is get all the solutions to the puzzles, and you start seeing these little hints of like, "I bet I could use that character here". And so, I think a more hardcore player, or somebody who's used to playing those tough adventure game challenges will not rest until they get all those tricky challenges. So I think Lee was definitely thinking about how to access a wide market and not lose the old market of adventure game fans.
You're preserving that adventure game design aesthetic. You're really seeing it start to pop back up now recently, in different ways. It was like it went to sleep for awhile or something, but now it's back, I think.
TS: I always said that there's bits of adventure games that never die. Like story and character, it just got absorbed by other games -- like ambiance and stuff that you used to only find in adventure games. But there were some things we left behind.
One of them was games that move at your own pace; that was one thing adventure games had. Like a lot of us don't like -- aren't that really very coordinated or fast. Like I can't play first person shooters really, I'm not that good at them. Especially multiplayer, I just get creamed.
And there's something nice about adventure games where you kind of sit there and have time to scratch your chin, and think about what you want to do, and solve puzzles, and nothing happens until you move. And that definitely is something that most games don't do.
And in Stacking there's always stuff going on -- it's always active, but you don't have to worry about being killed. You can sit there and really think through all the different solutions you want.
LP: Or just play for awhile. One of the things I love is just letting the world itself tell some of the story. And so games that let you spend some time just exploring the world and looking at the detail and having them all built to support the narrative, to me is just a really satisfying thing.
But a lot of times games are so focused on giving you a rollercoaster experience and yanking you through this space in one way that it's hard to have that moment. Even some action games, games like BioShock, that do let you spend a little more time exploring the world, I always find really satisfying to have that layer.
To me that kind of heralds a bit from adventure games, and I wanted to make sure we included some of that in Stacking as well. So we try to provide layers of things to do, second to second, that aren't necessarily solving puzzles or advancing just a single narrative.
It's interesting to look at the way you approach the design in this game because it goes from the very simple, concrete mechanic of stacking, which, like you said, everyone's going to be instantly aware of. And then that moves to all of the super abstract things, like the more achievementy level of multiple solutions to the puzzles. You're covering your bases, design-wise.
LP: I always had this track in my head of when we were designing the game about like, "Well, could I make a game that I would like and my wife would like and my daughter would like?" as opposed to targeting publisher-defined genres that may or may not exist in the downloadable space. I just sort of thought, "Well, I like to find a lot, I like to explore environments, I like to collect everything, I like to kind of try different angles on the same thing", some of the habits of a core gamer.
My wife loves puzzle-solving, but she likes kind of being led from puzzle to puzzle and only doing enough because she likes watching the characters and the story progress. My daughter -- she's a young kid -- she just likes things that look cool and having fun playing with stuff.
So when designing the game, I was like, "I think we can have a track here." And ultimately, it all is about a little more of what I call "a pick up and put down experience." Something that you can kind of have some bite sized fun at that does build to something bigger, but if you're going to put this game and come back a week later, you wouldn't be overwhelmed and lost. And I think that's important, with all the games on the market. And I love that about downloadable games; it's a little bit more compact that way.
Sometimes I'll be playing some long, deep, giant mainstream game, and then I'll have a download game on the side. My main gameplay session of the night will be a whole bunch of the big game, but I'll be fatigued. But I'm not quite ready to turn off the 360 yet, so then maybe I'll dive into some download game for awhile. Do you guys ever think about that?
LP: Yeah, all the time.
TS: Yeah, because I've had Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood at my house for a long time and I know it's good, everyone says it's good, I can't wait to play it.
Yet when I get home, put the baby to sleep, talk to my wife for awhile and then she goes to bed, I get like an hour and I'm like, "I know there's going to be at least an hour of tutorial in that game. Okay, I'll play something else instead." You know what I mean? And it's like I'd rather play Pac-Man or get through [Costume Quest DLC] Grubbins…
LP: I think there's this variety, too, just in terms of… No, I don't want everything to be a big, almost stressful experience -- sometimes, it is, to take on those big games! I mean, I really enjoyed some of those games, but I like watching sitcoms as well as movies. I sort of see them as just a different "I'm in the mood for something small."
There's a lot going on, there's a lot of things you want to try, and it kind of weighs down if you have too many big games going concurrently. It's almost stressful, in a weird way, and there's so many things -- like so many great iPhone games and downloadable games that are grabbing my attention, too.
I really like pick up and put down experiences. And I don't think that means they need to be shallow, I just think they need to be structured in such a way that you feel like you can come back, and still have fun, and still build towards goals.
I'm not surprised that Stacking is an artist-led project. It's so creative in the visual sphere. One thing that your Amnesia Fortnight did is give you a chance to put people in different disciplines in charge of projects, right?
TS: Yeah, you can definitely see the mark of Lee or Tasha [Harris, lead for Costume Quest] on their games, and I think that's one of the cool things. Because if you're going to make this argument about games as art, then I think they have to be an expression of the people who make them. Not just the person in charge, but the whole team, and the company who made them.
I think with games, you should always look at them and be like, "There's no one else who could have made that game, except for the person who made it." As opposed to a lot of games where they could've been farmed out to any work-for-hire developer. Which is fine -- but you know, the thing our company is going to do is to try and make games that are more expressive.
Last time we talked, it was right before Costume Quest was going to come out and now it's out. You probably can't talk specifics, but are you satisfied with performance?
LP: Yeah, it came out and it won a few awards already, and we've got DLC coming out for it. And one of our goals is try and make it extend beyond Halloween by having this DLC that's not Halloween-specific. And cross our fingers, maybe we'll continue on... I'm always torn, because it would be fun to keep going with DLC and have like Valentine's Quest and Easter Quest. Well, maybe not Easter Quest.
But then there's also like, "What else could that team come up with? Something fun, that's new?" too, so that's always kind of the question. The great thing about games that are this inexpensive is that they don't have to sell a ton to make money, or to break even.
Well, that's been a big question. You were stung by that. It's not just you -- it's this generation's big problem.
TS: Brütal Legend sold like 1.4 million, last time I asked, and I was like, "That's more than any game I'd ever made, up to that point." And I should be going like, "Woo!" but instead it's like, "Well, it didn't sell 5", and that's the problem with those big games.
That's what Peter Molyneux said at GDC last year. "Fable sold 3 million in the past but we really need to take it to 5."
TS: I can't even put 5 million people in my head. I'm trying to imagine them all standing there.
It's just the problem with the cost of production this generation. I'm curious if you're finding out whether you can sustain a company.
TS: I mean, in some way the money's the same. The budgets for the four projects, it's like we divide the budget into fourths. And so, it's totally sustainable in terms of the amount of money it brings in; it's just more complicated.
We hired a new VP of production; we need some more infrastructure, another producer to manage all that stuff. And so it's more complicated, but in terms of how much money it brings in, it's the same amount of money, with more stability because you know, like I said before, one of the engines can go out and the plane's still flying.
You would think the big studios function this way, but they don't. Movie studios produce a range of content. Tent pole movies sustain other movies, and it's all give and take up and down the chain.
TS: But you never know. Because as much as you might say you know what's going to be a hit, no one really knows.
LP: I mean that's the story of Easy Rider and most of the '70s. It was like, "That's a hit? Where'd that come from?"
To me it seems odd that there aren't more -- I mean you're starting to see some of it... The cost of any boxed game... They may think these smaller games are risky but when they're spending 1 million or 2 million dollars on a small game. Okay, so maybe the market's still evolving and there aren't a lot of people who make money on that. The most you're going to lose is half that, or whatever, potentially.
But the bare minimum for any boxed game that's going to sell seems like it's in that sort of 15, 20 million dollar range. And it's really hard to even break even. So, to me, it seems like if there's an evolving market, this is the time to try and get quality developers involved in it.
Not to imply that indie guys aren't quality, but it's a different range of games you can make with a full experienced dev team than a couple of guys with Flash experience. And I think they should have a place at the table too, but it'd be nice for us to expand that range a little bit and see all the different things that can be done in that space.
And to me, if I were a publisher, I'd be making some more bets there, because the potential downside is much smaller to the potential upside I think, especially if you're trying to get involved in a market.
You talked about your desire to appeal to a lot of people. And I think that because publishers are hedging their bets with the big boxed games now, you're going to see, if anything, less of an attempt to appeal to a wide variety of people with boxed games, and more of a concentration.
Especially if there's the perception, "Oh, people are going to iPhone, people are going to Facebook." This concentration is going to just hone in on whatever the publisher thinks their target demographic is.
LP: The problem always has been that, that's usually the same "18 to 34 year old male" hardcore action twitch audience. And that's great. I mean, I enjoy playing those games too, but there's only so many games that audience will buy. And it may be more than my grandma, but they're not going to buy the flood of games all coming out in that space.
Especially if they can play the Call of Duty multiplayer for a year before the next one comes out. And not really have to worry about playing anything else in between that's like that.
TS: I just feel like we're on the mission to reach people who are not being reached by games right now. Whenever I think of like, "Who would really like Stacking?", a lot of it is someone who's in the house of the gamer, you know what I mean? There's someone who has the Xbox or the PlayStation and they're playing games, but there's someone else in the house not playing games. And my hunch is always that person will be the one who would like Costume Quest or Stacking, and I would love to draw that person over towards the box and get them playing.
You think someone might show this off to their girlfriend? God, that sounds like such a stereotype. I was trying not to say that, but I couldn't!
TS: Yeah, but we got that so much with Costume Quest. Like, "Oh my God, my girlfriend, my wife loves this game." It is a stereotype, but it's one that it's great to be on the side of getting them playing it.
LP: Yeah, it's not like we're exploitively targeting a particular demographic. I really didn't want to think the game in terms of like, "Okay, it's 12 to 14 year old males!" I was like, "No, it's someone who wants this type of experience. That could be male, female, it could be any age." And I think a lot of those ways of describing the marketplace are a bit antiquated.
I've come back to this frequently, and I've talked to about it. You don't hear quite as much anymore -- "core versus casual". That is not really a very helpful distinction. At all.
LP: It doesn't really mean anything. I think there are certain qualities... Really what you're trying to encapsulate is qualities that aren't necessarily always paired together. It's tricky.
A developer I was speaking to told me about difficulties with marketing on a game, a boxed product. Even though the developer has experience drawing in people of different demographics and different interest levels, or different genders, they've been instructed to ignore that and concentrate on giving the game "more violence and tits", essentially.
LP: Even if you said we're going to target the core male audience, there's a lot more to it than those sort of like sophomoric, frat boy descriptions of the audience. There are other things than just tits and violence. I mean, I'm fine with tits and violence, too, in some games, but there's more depth to the 18 to 34 year old male audience, there's a lot other stuff there.
TS: I was an 18 to 34 year old male at one point.
LP: In 1960.
TS: I was fucking deep, let me tell you.
LP: But even the movies that target them, they're not all the same mold of movies; there's other stuff you can do there. You kind of feel like it's just an excuse... It's not even really a form of risk aversion, it's not really thought out well. It's just sort of a kneejerk thing to say, I guess. Even from a publisher standpoint of, "Fine, we're going to target this demographic."
I agree. You think about the 18 to 34 year old males that you know in your life, and you wouldn't say it's a homogenous group, would you? So why is that the intent to go after them is very homogenous?
TS: I think it's focus group dynamics. I always think when you get a bunch of 18 to 34 year old males in a room, there does tend to be this [tendency to] kind of zero in on certain things... There'll be one dominant person who'll say, "Oh, I wish there were more guns! I wanna shoot things!" And then all the people who have different tastes like that in the room just kind of shut down and get quiet. And you see everybody kind of like move towards this thing, like talking about how cool guns are.
That's just my [take]. I've watched these focus groups happen and people are afraid to say in some ways... Like even my two nephews, I see one of my nephews, he would be like -- in front of the older one -- he'd be all about Metal Gear and talking about shooting headshots and stuff like that.
But you get him by himself he'll talk about Mario Galaxy. He had this thing for more innocent games that are for younger -- like he'd still appreciate games that have happy stars twinkling and that kind of gameplay that I like.
The whole perception of that group effects how that group behaves in those sorts of situations. I don't know, it's complicated. What do I know about marketing? We always want to get mad at them. When you're in development, it's almost too easy to blame things on marketing.
Back in the earliest days at LucasArts we were always like, "Marketing should sell these games more!" I try not to do it just because it's so common.
You can't just make people buy games.
As much as people like to believe that, to an extent. It's funny. People tend to blame marketing in both ways. "Oh, they had the advantage of great marketing!" or "No one bought it because the marketing sucks!"
TS: And it's just not my field of expertise so I feel like, "Oh, I just kind of hope they just trust them to know what they're doing."
LP: I sort of feel like there's marketing which is -- like I agree with Tim, but I guess my thought on the matter is like supposedly if there is an art, or a craft, or a science to marketing, it's marketing a product as it is. It's not going into the inception of the product saying "it can only be done in this way." That's not marketing, that's creative directing a project to make the marketing job easier at the end of it.
I mean I've seen really unique [products]. In all sorts of industries you see stuff you've never heard of successfully marketed, that people didn't even know they wanted. So it's certainly possible to expand markets through clever marketing. And I'm no expert, but when it crosses a line to me, is when it starts coming in and they're focus testing an idea that's not even developed. There's really nothing of substance to focus test. It could be veiled excuses to stay on the conservative road.
TS: I would just like to get some of our own marketing at Double Fine. Like our own marketing that works closely with development, to be catered to what our games are good at, and figuring out how to market our kind of games. Sometimes at a publisher, they are just marketing your game like the last game they marketed.
Valve is very good at not just marketing their games, but, like, when Portal 2 got delayed, they had a very funny way of getting people to accept the delay. "Making games is hard," is what they said.
When you have an external PR person just messaging out a delay, you're not going to get that flavor and the personality. There's like a wall between the flavor and the personality of the developer that they're dealing with, and their audience. I don't think that wall should be there, particularly.
TS: It's like every time they work with a new publisher, I have to establish that I write my own quotes. [laughs] And that sounds really basic. But because in every press release that comes from the publisher, usually there's a quote from me in it and it's always like, "I'm excited to take this product to market!", like this really marketing-sounding quote, and I have to go, "Can I rewrite my quote?" and they're like, "What?! You want to? Okay!" And that's because I think if people got the whiff of marketing talk from my quote, they would feel like, "Okay, something's wrong here."
We're back to the question of the advantages and disadvantages of having a publisher. Obviously there are tremendous advantages for you to have a publisher, they'll spend money marketing your game, and they'll spend time and effort marketing your game, and they'll negotiate deals and do cert. They'll deal with Microsoft and Sony. But at the same time it puts a wall between you and your audience, and maybe something is lost there. I'm not speaking about THQ specifically.
TS: Yeah, I agree. The publisher is a great partner to have, is really valuable. A bad publisher is bad. That's one reason we did our own podcast. Not that we even know anything about doing a podcast, but at least it's like, "Okay, you're directly hearing us talking like we talk in the office about stuff that we care about." Because we want to have that direct connection with the people who play our games.
LP: Yeah, and I think some of the bigger studios can learn a lot from the indie guys, because the only option they have is a sort of like grassroots direct-to-consumer communication. And some of them have done really interesting things and really good jobs at it, and I think the trick for companies like us is figuring out how we can employ some of those same ideas but also while working with publishing partners.
We have employees and staff, and we can't do a slow burn for three years to build up hype. We need to pay people and make games. But there are still lessons to be learned there, I think there's definitely more we can do.
And I think Valve is a good example, they do a lot of good community management and they do smart promotions. Being able to basically control their biggest distribution channel doesn't hurt. You know the Steam stuff is brilliant, so good for them. I'm really glad they're around.