Develop 10: Schafer On Future & New Games

By Kieron Gillen on July 15th, 2010 at 4:39 pm.

I have no idea how I have created this line. Please feel free to debate it.

I zombie-walk into the back of the hall, to have Doublefine’s industry-legendtm Tim Schafer on stage saying something along the lines of “You always have something to learn about hard drinking from the British”. As a pallid spirit powered solely by the ghost of spirits, I fear he has nothing to learn from me – bar, don’t do it. However, we do learn from him – not least, the first information of the four (count ‘em!) games Doublefine are working on.

Schafer basically tells the story of Doublefine so far, which has stretched ten years so far, leading to a total of two games – Psychonauts and Brutal Legend. They existed primarily as a one game studio, which lead to a mass of problems. The cash-flow issues around games only coming out so irregularly. The limited career advancement possibilities. “They have to kill that lead programmer to advance – though that’s not always a bad thing,”notes Schafer, before noting that homicide inside the staff does tend to hit morale hard. And imagine what it’ll be like to be working on a metalhead-based game for four years when you’re not the biggest metalhead in the world.

As well as that, there’s the aspect of the publisher relationships. Getting a big enough advance to lead to the proverbial AAA game is tricky – it normally leads to less risky games and giving up the IP rights. Also, there’s the changing nature of the staff at a publisher. Executives who loved your game may leave, which challenges its possible future. Doublefine has managed to achieve a 100% being dropped by publishers, going through four of them – though, as Schafer notes, since they still exist, so maybe there’s a business plan there after all.

Doublefine’s future was buried in a break in development where, to enliven things, they split the company into four teams, each of who had two weeks to make an actual game. They experimented with team structure, with leaders or no leaders. They did it. And they were fun and the team found themselves motivated. And then returned to Brutal Legend. After that, there was another quick go at the 2-week game thing… when a momentous phone-call came.

They were previously told it was a done-deal that they’d be doing a Brutal Legend 2.

The phone-call said that actually, they’d changed their minds. They weren’t going to do a Brutal Legend 2. “When they said it was a done deal, they meant there’s no deal – and we’re done,” adds Schafer.

Dark times for Doublefine, with the team considering stripping down. In the end, they returned to those quickly-made games, and with the best four, started taking them to publishers. And within a few months, all four of them got deals. Doublefine had, via necessity, took a jump into a whole new way of doing things.

And it’s suiting Schafer and the teams. Rather than a one-game company, they’re now a multi-game company. People can now move between teams. People can now work on shorter development cycles – something which Schafer, the Lucasarts veteran, is somewhat nostalgic for. On the publisher side, when a budget is sub-2-million, they’re more willing to take chances – and to let the developer keep the IP. Hell, even the staff-changing at the publisher is less of a problem. By the time the new boss gets the idea of cancelling the game, it’ll probably already be on the shelves. Can’t take it back now.

Schafer opened with talking to the people who were working on Casablanca. What was it like? Well, it was just another film. They did something like 50 in the year. Point being, you don’t know which game may blow up – and more chances is better, as far as Doublefine are concerned.

Also key is that it moves Schafer to more to a general cross-team facilitator and people who were leads now step up to be project leads.

The four teams and their heads?

  • Lee Petty, the Art Director on Brutal Legend. As such, the game’s heavily aesthetic showcase, with Schafer using words like “retro” and “beautiful”.
  • Nathan Martz, the Brutal Legend lead programmer. It’s described as technically cutting edge, but accessible.
  • Brad Muir, one of the Brutal Legend Designers. His interest on Brutal Legend focused on the combat and multiplayer, and the game apparently delves into that sort of mechanics showcase.
  • And finally the game headed by Tasha Harris, Brutal Legend Animator, ex-Senior Pixar Animator and creator of popular Littleloud Webcomics. Amongst other things.

That’s four games are basically in the next year or so – two traditional retail games and two downloadable ones.

Looking forward, Schafer also noted that it gives them a lot of flexibility. They can carry on making small games…. or they can combine and form a large team, if one of the IPs prove massively successful (This strikes me as basically what Valve did with Portal. A relatively small team on the first experimental game, exploded into a genuine full-team thing for the sequel). There’s an infrastructure there. And while they’re wedded to publishers at the moment, it’s better to have relationships with multiple publishers, rather falling into a autonomy-stunting Parent/Child relationship. And, they won’t rule out self-publishing. “I always think about self-publishing,” says Schafer when asked, “It would be an awesome thing to do, and the second we get some extra money we’ll do that”

So, excitement for Doublefine. However, this hasn’t been the talking point of the convention. That’s Schafer’s quote to Eurogamer on the subject of Bobby Kotick: “His obligation is to his shareholders. Well, he doesn’t have to be as much of a dick about it, does he? I think there is a way he can do it without being a total prick. It seems like it would be possible. It’s not something he’s interested in.”

So, yes, that got talked about. “That was an accident,” winces Schafer, “I was going to change the name of the talk “How to give interviews: Remember the microphone is on.”

He went on to advises against burning those bridges. Because this industry is small and people stay there forever. He has what he describes as like the scene in Empire Strikes back where Solo walks in and finds Darth Vader. Many times he’s walked into a pitch-meeting which he’s trying to sell the game and… “Oh shit! Darth Vader is in the room!”. It’s someone he’s previously offended. So don’t do that. The people you hate will end up being around the industry forever. As Schafer says: “Only the cool people go away,”.

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43 Comments »

  1. Shrewsbury says:

    When the fuck are we getting Brutal Legend for PC?

    • JohnnyMaverik says:

      Considering the console sales probably never unless Double Fine could and would distribute it digitally.

    • sfury says:

      Sadly the way the publisher denied them a second game and them splitting the team and making now FOUR games simultaneously – I don’t think there is a PC port coming any time soon. (Unless they make some sweet money from those projects and decide to self-publish it, but even that way it would take some time)

      I hope some of those games come to the PC digital distributors too, I’ll definitely be buying anything indie-priced from them without second thought.

  2. MartinNr5 says:

    Come on Kieron, by all means imbibe til you puke but this piece was messed up even by your standards.

    So far – so far. There was a lot of “noting” going on. A team with “no readers”? Is a “Parent/Children” relationship with a publisher a good thing? And on EG he says 50 films a year, not 5. Which is it? :)

    • Kieron Gillen says:

      Thanks for the corrections!

      KG

    • MartinNr5 says:

      @Kieron: Always glad to help. :)

    • terry says:

      Also “homicide inside the staff does tend to hit moral hard”. Unless you meant to say that Doublefine degenerates into some sort of deranged sweaty orgy at the concept of death. Which would be nice.

  3. Isometric says:

    I read that as “I zombie-walk back into hell” also good call on Kotick Schafer, the man’s an arse.

  4. Muddy Water says:

    I hope these games come out on the PC. His reason for why Brutal Legend didn’t come out for the PC … didn’t really make a lot of sense.

  5. ChaK_ says:

    I don’t like that girl’s hair in first plan

    Yeah, that’s important

  6. BaconAndWaffles says:

    I very much hope this works out for Doublefine. It appears to me that Doublefine was trying to make indie games on a AAA game budget (and time frame) and therefore sell it at a AAA game price. Deliberately reducing the budget, time frame, scope, etc. . . will hopefully improve their success rate.

    And when I say “indie” game, I mean that in the same sense that big movie studios have smaller sub-studios that make “indie” films.

  7. Tei says:

    No one say bad things about Kotick.

    I think Schafer will awake a morning with a severed head of a unicorn in his bed, and a rainbow on the window.

  8. Radiant says:

    Incredible opening post.
    Well said!

  9. LukeE says:

    Nice line.

  10. Cooper says:

    The thing with the Kotick quote is that, whilst possibly the source of regret, he was pretty much bang on the nail.

  11. Jimbo says:

    They need to put themselves somewhere between Telltale and Quantic Dream. Schafer is a creative genius, but gameplay just isn’t his forte.

    • Mo says:

      What Schafer does, that basically nobody else does, is tie the story elements directly to game mechanics. I love that. Even things like, in Psychonauts, Raz wouldn’t go into the lake because he has a childhood fear of water. Or in Brutal Legend, all the RTS elements were tied into Rock Concert terms, and it didn’t feel forced at all.

      The problem is more an issue of polish. With both Psychonauts and Brutal Legend, I could see what they were trying to do, and it made a lot of sense, but it really needed a couple of months worth of polish to be fully realized.

    • Frank says:

      @Jimbo: Oy, seriously? I suppose by `gameplay’ you mean old-school walking + inventory puzzles (Telltale’s `forte’) or walking + inventory puzzles + quicktime events and other gimmickry (Quantic Dream).

    • Jimbo says:

      @Frank: Uh… what? I’d clarify, but I think my first post was pretty unambiguous.

      @Mo: I’m not sure I’d call “not being able to walk into a lake” a gameplay mechanic exactly, but I see what you’re saying. He is good at justifying everything within the context of the game.

      I disagree that his issues with gameplay are just a question of polish though; I just think it’s beyond his talents to be able to do it particularly well. He can’t get the ‘feel’ right. His seem to be liked despite the gameplay, rather than because of it – which is why he should make games that focus on his strengths.

      To be fair, I don’t think even perfect gameplay would have made Brutal Legend a commercial success. As soon as it became widely known that a) it turned into an RTS and b) it was an open-world game that was only about 8 hours long, that game was done.

    • Jimbo says:

      * “His games seem to be liked…”

    • Weefz says:

      @Frank To be fair to Quantic Dream, they’ve dropped the inventory puzzles ;)

  12. terry says:

    I love how every time Schafer crops up now Kotick is the elephant in the room, even if he isn’t mentioned explicitly.

  13. Jad says:

    I love this turn to more frequent, smaller games. You can get so much more variety and creativity with a smaller team and a smaller focus.
    Most of the games I’ve been enjoying recently have been either indie games or smaller games from big studios, like Bionic Commando Rearmed. That was a fantastic game. It was cheap, did its gimmick very well, and didn’t outstay its welcome.

    From what I understand, its big-budget brother sold very poorly and lost Capcom a bunch of money. Imagine if Capcom had used that budget to make say, five Rearmed-sized games. Maybe two of them would have been as bad as the new BC game and would have bombed, but if three of them were good to great, then Capcom would have made money. There would also be much more flexibility to cancel one of the smaller projects if it wasn’t going so well, if the initial outlay was smaller. There would also be the ability of a quicker turn around to build on the successes — I imagine that would could already have a BC:Rearmed 2 if GRIN, the main BC company had not gone under after the AAA BC game failed.

    • Jimbo says:

      I’m really surprised we haven’t seen more classic franchises given the ‘Rearmed’ treatment, given how successful BC was. They must be able to turn those things around in ~3 months for not much outlay.

      There are loads of great old franchises lying around not being used, and even if they can’t get the license, they could just make a ‘heavily influenced’ version.

    • Jad says:

      Absolutely. It really does seem that Capcom is the best at this: Megaman 9 & 10, BC: Rearmed, Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix, Dark Void Zero, etc.

      Although others are getting into the game with Battlefield 1943, Dragon Age: Journeys, that new Lara Croft game, Lucidity, I’d even include Valve with Portal.

      So much of the above list doesn’t come to PC though, which is disappointing.

      I really love calling it the “Rearmed treatment”, by the way. And I’d love more of it.

  14. Navagon says:

    Anyone who produces an RTS and thinks “DERP! It’s a console game! It’s not meant for PCs!” isn’t really worth paying much attention to. Especially in a PC gaming blog.

    He’s spot on about Kotick at least.

    • Mo says:

      Be honest: you haven’t played Brutal Legend, have you?

      There are perfectly valid reasons why some console games don’t work on PCs, and vice versa. In fact, you just implied that RTSes are better suited for PCs.

    • James G says:

      Perfectly valid reasons? Like what? Seeing as I’m perfectly capable of using a controller with my PC, or even hooking it up to my TV if I so desire, I’m at a loss as to what you mean. If you are only talking in terms of commercial viability, then I’m willing to concede that some titles are vastly more successful on the consoles, but I don’t think the translates to ‘doesn’t work.’

    • Mo says:

      A PC game that requires a gamepad isn’t really a PC game. Yes, *you* can hook up a controller, and hook your PC up to a TV or whatever, but most people won’t. It’s not just about commercial viability, it’s about ensuring that the majority of your potential audience can enjoy your game.

      As far as I’m concerned, a PC game that doesn’t play well with a keyboard & mouse just doesn’t work at all.

      The subtle nature of input devices is under appreciated by designers and players. There are games that work with a mouse, but not a touch screen. (Gridrunner) Or vice versa. (Flight Control) Or that work with arrow keys, but not a d-pad. (Ninja roping in Worms) Or vice versa. (Street Fighter) Or games that work with two analog sticks, but not with WASD+mouse. (Katamari Damacy)

      Etcetera. I’m not saying it wouldn’t work at all, but I am saying it becomes significantly more clunky.

    • James G says:

      Well that’s your choice, I’m happy to use whatever control scheme I find works best. Which more often than not, seems to be keyboard and mouse, even with games that most insist work best with a controller.

      Tell you what I would like to see though, analog stick and mouse combo, something like the Wii nunchuck in the left hand, mouse in the right. I suppose you have a limited number of buttons with that setup, but I think it could work quite well in the right context.

    • Thants says:

      At any rate, there’s really no reason that pretty much any game can’t work perfectly well with a mouse+keyboard. Most of the time a PC game works better with a controller it’s because the developer did a terrible job with the mouse controls.

    • TeeJay says:

      @ Mo:

      “A PC game that requires a gamepad isn’t really a PC game. Yes, *you* can hook up a controller, and hook your PC up to a TV or whatever, but most people won’t.”

      You can get an XBox controller for windows for £15 and software to remap everything as much as you want. If a really great game came along and the overwhelming consensus on gaming forums and reviewers was to play it with a gamepad then large number of people would go and get one.

      However my experience has been that I am so used to keyboard / mouse and so used to my screen/chair/desktop set-up that I didn’t take to a joypad even when I was playing button-mashing games like Tony Hawk Pro Skater 3 or Trials 2. I am still tempted to try and “train” myself however to avoid hurting my fingers – and this week I was getting a bit annoyed with the numbers of keys required for Just Cause 2.

      All three of these games are good PC games and perfectly playable with a keyboard, but I think I’d benefit from using a joypad with them if/when I get ever get round to buying one that works with Vista 64bit and spend a bit of time mapping it and getting used to it.

    • James T says:

      A PC game that requires a gamepad isn’t really a PC game.

      Any game made to function on a PC is a PC game.

    • cw8 says:

      A PC game that requires a gamepad isn’t really a PC game.

      I have been playing pure PC games with a gamepad since the early-mid 90s: X-Wing, TIE-Fighter and X-Wing Alliance to name a few examples. Yes, I’ve completed the games with a gamepad to fly and keyboard for the functions.
      I have always owned a gamepad ever since, now using a Logitech one. And I use it to play games like Street Fighter 4.

    • Mo says:

      @Thants:

      At any rate, there’s really no reason that pretty much any game can’t work perfectly well with a mouse+keyboard. Most of the time a PC game works better with a controller it’s because the developer did a terrible job with the mouse controls.

      I think I just listed a bunch of them above. And if what you say is true, isn’t it also true that, “there’s no reason why an RTS couldn’t be played with a controller.” It’s true in the most technical sense, but it’s clunky. I certainly wouldn’t play it. Similarly, you *could* play Katamari Damacy with a keyboard+mouse, but I wouldn’t.

      @TeeJay:

      If a really great game came along and the overwhelming consensus on gaming forums and reviewers was to play it with a gamepad then large number of people would go and get one.

      You mean like Street Fighter IV? Metacritic says 91% for the PC version, yet it didn’t sell well enough to justify bring Super Street Fighter IV over.

    • Tei says:

      The consoles are tiny computers, but his games are not PC games. You can connect a XBox360 to a monitor, connect a mouse and a keyboard. And this don’t make Gears of War a PC game.
      You can run Gears of War in a PC connected to a TV, playing with a control pad. And this don’t make Gears of War a PC game.
      The PC is more about values than technology. The technology (mouse, monitor,..) have help define these values, but once these values are stablised, are independent of the hardware to some point (these values can change again).
      I am with Mo in this.

  15. Mojo says:

    I can’t put in words how much I like what I’m reading here. This attitude… a semi-big company focusing on smaller budget projects where creative risk is possible, 4 potentially great games that get a chance with only one of them needing to become a surprise hit and rake in the money… that’s really something I’m missing in games development. We need more studios working in that huge, empty realm between $20 million blockbuster titles competing on the mainest of mainstream and the broke bedroom programmer putting out super-creative retro games he made in 3 days on TIGSource. I like both (with my sympathies usually tending towards the latter group) but there is so much room between the two.

    All my favorite games were made in this balance between budget and creativity that simply does not exist anymore.

  16. TheTingler says:

    I really can’t wait to hear these announced – and judging by Tim’s other Eurogamer hints, at least one may be Psychonauts related. If so, yippee! If not, heck, I’m buying all four anyway.

    IF they’re on PC. I’m still smarting on Brutal Legend. I would have played that at least twice by now.

  17. The Sombrero Kid says:

    just think it’s worth noting from his twitter ‘TimOfLegend: Anyone who says I retracted my comments is lying.’