Double Fine Asks All the Right Questions
by DAN MILLER-SCHROEDER, design3.com
Members of Double Fine Productions spoke at GDC on Wednesday about their "Amnesia Fortnight," a two-week game jam designed to encourage new game prototypes. A picture emerged from the talk of a group of people that knows how to ask the right questions of their games and come up with solutions that take advantage of the entire company's creativity.
Led by Tim Schafer, Double Fine (Psychonauts, Brütal Legend) has a history of producing extremely creative and charismatic games. When a publishing deal for Brütal Legend 2 fell through, the company was in dire straits. Borrowing from Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai's experience whereby Kar Wai took an exploratory break from filming his epic Ashes of Time to make the classic Chunking Express and Fallen Angels, Schafer held two Amnesia Fortnights over the course of a few years as an incubator for future games. Four projects were culled from these sessions with the intention of developing them all simultaneously. Miraculously, or more likely, due to the result of the studio's talent, all four were signed by publishers and released last year.
Not only did this strategy save the company, but internal talent was further developed, as splitting into four teams gave employees the opportunity to explore new lead roles. The project leads of three of these games, Stacking, Once Upon a Monster, and Iron Brigade, discussed their games' challenges and how these challenges were addressed during development.
Lee Petty transitioned from Art Director on Brütal Legend to the lead for what eventually became Stacking, an adventure game inspired by German Expressionist film and populated by Russian stacking dolls. His guiding light during development was to find the essence of the game early, and build out slowly from there. "Usually it works the other way around," he remarked, "where lots of features are added and then cut later." By making only the design decisions that supported the central stacking mechanic, they were able to focus their limited resources.
In the first stages of development, ideas like "hat combat," fighting with German nutcrackers, and complex facial animation were eventually thrown out in lieu of stacking-related solutions. A single low-poly doll model was used for every character, allowing for hundreds of simultaneously-rendered models, and they conveyed character variation through animation and accessories like monocles, hats, and canes.
In a departure from many adventure game mechanics, Stacking allows for multiple solutions to the same puzzle, rewarding players for creativity and logical thinking. In the long run, this saved on puzzle design time and made the game more accessible to audiences. They also used silent-film-style dialogue slates and licensed classical music to save on their sound budget.
Petty's takeaway advice? "Find your game's essence early, and embrace your limitations."
ONCE UPON A MONSTER
Nathan Martz took the lead on the Amnesia project that eventually became Once Upon a Monster. Born from a desire to stop writing "dismemberment code" in Brütal Legend and focus on the lighter side of the human experience, Once Upon a Monster gives players "the joy of helping others." Designed for parent-child co-op play with the Kinect, Sesame Street's Elmo and Cookie Monster guide players through a world of monsters with problems that need solving.
The game jam version of OUAM was actually a songwriting game with a band of monster musicians to help even the musically-challenged "experience the joy of music." The light, joyful tone arose from a GDC talk from LocoRoco's Tsutomo Kuono and childhood heroes like Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes) and Jim Henson (Muppets).
With Microsoft's release of the Kinect, Martz shifted the vision to the "the joy of interacting" and shifted the gameplay away from music generation and into exploring the physicality of player-monster interaction via the Kinect. The announcement of a Warner Brothers/Sesame Street partnership presented yet another opportunity, as this game's vision was already fairly aligned with that of the affable Sesame Street IP. A deal was struck, and the game's final vision evolved into the aforementioned "joy of helping others," a central theme in Sesame Street's mission.
Martz attributes his success to knowing his vision, keeping that vision simple, and constantly reminding the team to keep them focused. Another huge aspect of his success was his ability to look for and seize opportunities. Capitalizing on the Kinect and WB/SS developments speaks to his market awareness and open mind.
Brad Muir, Project Lead for Trenched and Iron Brigade, found success in identifying Double Fine's existing brand and applying those principles to his game. Of a game's branding, he said, "it's up to you, not others, to define it." He also took advantage of the entire company to discover creative solutions to his design problems.
After analyzing previous Double Fine releases, he identified "story," "funny cutscenes," and "appealing characters" as common threads. This was further distilled into "originality," "personality," and "appealing characters." Starting with an idea of mashing up mech warrior and tower defense mechanics, he held a company art jam that produced (predictably, if you're familiar with the DF artists) fantastic and truly original results. They decided on a mobile trench design for the player character and "TV screen monsters" for the enemies and focused on "makeshift World War I tech" for the overall art approach.
To give the game its Double Fine personality, he enlisted feature suggestions from the entire company. Out of this came the use of uber-manly "Man's Life"-style 2D art and character attitude, an impromptu array of hundreds of weapon models, and a quirky but widely appreciated right-trigger "salute" feature.
The tops of the mobile trenches were also opened up in later iterations to allow the driver character to shine through and fully express his machismo. Handles of whiskey are consumed after battle and flannel is liberally worn. They also, in a moment of cross-company inspiration, transformed a mission-giving general character from a stock military officer to an admiral aboard a mobile battleship confined to an iron lung.
Schafer's final advice as the architect of his company's turnaround was to find designers you trust and give them autonomy, remain agile to survive, grow through multiplicity, and find opportunity in diversification.
design3 is the premier game development portal with thousands of tutorial videos on game engines, 3D tools, 2D tools, and audio software as well as the industry’s fastest emerging media content provider.
Dan Miller-Schroeder is the design3's Instructional Designer and is constantly on the hunt for bringing educational material to the design3 community. Find him on design3 as "danms" or follow him on Twitter @d3danzo.