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Interview: Tim Schafer On Kickstarter, Passion And Dads

Adventures In The Unknown

Featured post The man, the hairstyle.

Industry legend Tim “Industry Legend” Schafer has been at the front of gaming news for the last couple of weeks. After the twitterstorm that followed Notch’s somewhat speculative offer to fund Psychonauts 2 came the record-breaking Kickstarter project, that saw Schafer’s company, Double Fine, raise over $2 million in a fortnight. I spoke to him over the weekend to find out how the process has been, what the intentions are for a new 2D adventure, to reflect on the classic adventures of the 90s, and to see if there were any other dream projects he has left. In the first part of this two-part interview we discuss the reactions to the Kickstarter, the role dads play in playing adventures, and where things are with Psychonauts 2. Tomorrow we’ll go into the lessons learned from Schafer’s previous adventures, memories of Day Of The Tentacle, Full Throttle and Grim Fandango, and how that will affect design today.

RPS: Do you need a new F5 key yet?

Tim Schafer: We got one of those automatic refreshers set up in the conference room, and right when we were about to hit a million we crashed the site.

RPS: Congratulations. It’s been amazing to watch.

Tim: Thanks! It’s been fun! On so many different levels, just an incredible experience.

RPS: Can you describe the range of emotions you’ve had over the last couple of weeks?

Tim: In the month previous to this we had a project cancelled, and we were feeling pretty down. It’s a roller coaster here, and we were in this little bit of a down period, then we put this thing out and it’s incredible. Like I said in the video, it feels like an enormous love-bomb exploding. All these people saying, “We don’t even need to know what the game is, we just want you to make it, here’s some money.” It’s an incredible message to send. There’s probably a lot of different kinds of messages that people are sending. Some of them are just “we love Double Fine”, some are saying “we love adventure games”, and some of them want to say “we hate the existing payment structure of games and we want our kind of game to be served.” They’re all good messages.

RPS: You must be aware of the passion that’s out there for games like Psychonauts, Grim Fandango, Day Of The Tentacle… I was just planning on spending the entire interview just talking about Day Of The Tentacle.

Tim: Come on, let’s do it!

RPS: But you must have an awareness of this passion, but did you realise how big it was before this?

Tim: There’s a difference between someone who’s passionate on a forum, and someone who’s passionate and sending you money. It’s a moment when people are saying, “No, we’re not kidding. We want this.” We knew our fans are passionate, but sometimes it’s hard to guess. Before a game comes out there can be a ton of tweets, people Twittering at me, saying how much they love the game. And I think, oh this game will be a huge hit. I got a hundred messages on Twitter about it! And then the game will maybe not sell that much, and I’ll be like, well it seemed like a lot of people when they were Twittering me. When you look at the backers for this project, it’s only 63,000 backers – which is a lot, it’s the record for Kickstarter – but that wouldn’t be a high-selling game. If you made a game that sold 63,000 copies, it would not be considered a hit. So it’s interesting how this whole Kickstarter thing has given a megaphone to those fans, and those 63,000 people have produced over two million dollars now.

RPS: Have you spoken to publishers since, heard their reaction?

Tim: Yeah, ‘cos we’re still out pitching our other games. This is just one of our projects. We have four teams here. Those other teams are still out there pitching new games to publishers, and their response has always been, “Oh that’s great – congratulations on that. Now let’s talk about games like we always have.” I don’t think any publishers are quaking in their boots – they’re like, “Oh, two million dollars, that’s cute! That’s the marketing budget for the little game I’m working on.” It’s not a big amount of money for them. It’s a big amount of money for us though.

RPS: What obligations come with that much money? You asked for $400,000. Is there anything that stops you spending the other $1.7m on an island?

Tim: There’s no legal thing. But I totally would get sued! The obligation is the same, which is to make a great game. This vote of confidence is really touching, people saying they trust us to make this really great game. I don’t want to let them down, I want to make the best game we can make, but that was the plan all along. Instead of waiting until the end of the project and people buying the game, you’re hearing it at the beginning of the project. Which is great.

RPS: It’s amazing publicity for a project, but is it at the wrong end of the development time?

Tim: I think that’s changing. That’s the difference between indie game PR and big publisher PR. Big publisher PR is you hoard the information until the end, and then you spend all your marketing money at once – your shock and awe campaign. Indie gamers, if you look at the blogs for Braid, or Super Meat Boy, they’ll tell you when they first think of the idea. That gives a chance for a small game to get word of mouth, more and more people learn about it, so by the time it comes out there’s a big buzz about it. So maybe this is exactly the right time.

RPS: It’s also put a real weight of expectation on you guys. I know you’ve joked throughout that it could be a big flop in front of lots of people, but how are you protecting yourself and your team from that weight?

Tim: We’re not! We’re just going to experience it. It’s almost like a performance art piece, which I think is what makes it interesting to me. It’s not just that we’re making a point and click adventure, it’s that we’re sharing the process. I’ve always wanted people to know more about how we make the games, because I think it only helps people enjoy them, to realise how they’re created by people, and how hard our teams work to make them right. Sometimes when you see people doing a flame post, I think that person feels that the creators of the game is some anonymous, large unfeeling entity. I want to humanise game development in the eyes of the fans. Let them see those people care just as much as they do about games. Not so they go easy on games, not at all, but to really see first hand the love and care that goes into making them.

RPS: Have you been playing other people’s adventures recently?

Tim: I’m going through a list. Right now I’m playing Machinarium on my iPad, which is a really beautiful game. It’s been enlightening to see how some of the puzzles are fair, some are not fair. It’s different from a modern console game, where all the rough edges are smoothed out, and right about where you’re about to get confused you’ll see some on-screen text telling you what to do, because it was focus-tested and someone like you got confused in that same spot. In adventure games you hit these hard stops – like, I do not know what to do at all right now – it’s really informative. It shows you how much work you have to do to put in-game contextualised hints, like characters who give a little piece of the puzzle every time you talk to them. Machinarium does it with an embedded hint system. It means I don’t have that anxiety that I’m going to have to put the game down because I can’t figure it out. We’d never have thought of doing an in-game hint system. And I think you can do it better, have it be part of the gameplay, you talk to people when you’re confused, you run into a character and then give you one little piece, and you think, ah! You still feel like you figured it out because you did it in the game.

RPS: What really strikes me about playing older adventures is how much more impatient I am now. Do you think you have to pace a game differently now?

Tim: There’s a lot of stuff we would have done [back then] if we had information. We did as much play testing as we could, which really mostly meant people in the office – we’d drag someone in and make them play it, and watch them. We can now be much more rigorous about play-testing – not focus-testing the content – but watching how people play it. We’ve learned a lot more about how to make something fair, as opposed to unfair. Nowadays people expect to get through games. They expect to be entertained, and to get through them. You really don’t expect to hit a wall. But there’s this resurgence in hard games recently, like with Super Meat Boy, or Dark Souls, some people are really lamenting the fact that games aren’t hard any more. There’s something really exciting about overcoming a challenge. I don’t know if adventure games can ride that wave in, but it’s possible. There’s just an art to making a challenge that’s hard, but also entertaining as it’s hard. I think the secret is to make the confusion feel like entertainment. You don’t know what to do, but the game’s egging you on, going, “Oh, you’re just about to figure it out! You’ve got it! You’re looking at all the pieces, think about it!” It’s the way a human being would make you interested in the puzzle if they were giving you a live demonstration. It has to nudge you, prod you, and encourage you to keep trying.

RPS: In the 90s, if I got stuck I’d have to phone my dad’s friend Ted. That was the system at the time.

Tim: You’d phone him? And explain the situation over the phone?

RPS: And he would always have a subtle and brilliant clue.

Tim: That’s everyone’s memory. We always bring up our dads, and sometimes our moms, but mostly I think of me and my dad sitting down to play the Scott Adams text adventures, or the Zork adventures. You would have to get up and let him sit down to try something. Or maybe your friend would try something. It was a different kind of multiplayer game. I think there’s an exercise in how people need to have their brains shaken up in order to solve problems. You’ll go down a road of thinking, hit a dead end, and you’ll feel like you’ve tried everything. Then you’ll go away, take a shower, go for a walk, or go to sleep, and then you’ll wake up and your brain knows what to do, and you instantly solve the puzzle. It’s like your brain was working on it while you were in this altered state. Or you just got out of that rut. I think having someone else, like your dad, he’s not down that rut. The game design challenge now is to somehow get people into that altered state, where they are freeing themselves from those mental ruts while they’re still playing your game. Nowadays, if you’ve put your controller down, you’ve lost people for good.

RPS: Are you talking at all about the project, any ideas you have for it?

Tim: No. I’m even trying not to think about. I’m trying to have all that happen during the filming of the documentary.

RPS: So you haven’t kicked ideas around, even before you started the Kickstarter?

Tim: No, except for the concept of doing an adventure game.

RPS: How are you stopping your brain from going there?

Tim: [Laughs] It’s surprisingly easy. You just get writers’ block… No, you have to put time… ideas do percolate in the back of your head, but unless I actually sit down with a notebook, and write a whole bunch of stuff every day, then things will wait for you.

RPS: Are you tempted to try to get Dave Grossman on the project?

Tim: Well, you know, he has a job.

RPS: I know, I know, but…

Tim: I can’t poach people from my friends’ companies.

RPS: But I feel like it would be putting the three Transformers together that form the super-giant robot.

Tim: Maybe they’ll give him an exchange student visa for a couple of meetings.

RPS: I can’t let you go without asking about the Psychonauts 2 thing.

Tim: Psychonauts 2 thing?

RPS: Do you think the Kickstarter has got you out of that?

Tim: [laughs] It’s a distraction! [Notch] made that comment right before we started the Kickstarter thing. I was like, oh god, do we still launch the Kickstarter? This is becoming a thing. Then we launched it anyway. He made one tweet, and I think he was very surprised that it exploded. We’re taking a step back and thinking about what we could do, because he’s an interesting guy, and he can make interesting things happen. We need to take a breath and thing about what we can do.

RPS: We’re keen for it to go ahead, as Notch said we could have the credit.

Tim: [laughs] Well, maybe it will happen! I don’t know.

RPS: Are you planning to meet with him at GDC?

Tim: Should I say? Well, I’m sure we’ll meet at GDC and talk about things. We’ve got a lot going on!

RPS: It seems like amazing times.

Tim: I know! It’s exciting, isn’t it? I wonder if a lot of people are going to do- Supposedly a lot of indie games have picked up a lot of funding on Kickstarter. The guy who made Pixel Sand put up a graph that showed how his funding had increased when we launched our Kickstarter. I’d love to see it lead to more crazy and alternative ways of funding games.

RPS: What other dreams do you have left? I mean, a dream I have is to work with the Muppets. I can’t imagine anything better.

Tim: I would like to make a game that cures disease.

RPS: Uh-huh, Uh-huh.

Tim: That cures cancer, that would be awesome. I’ll keep thinking about that one, it’s going to take a while… But it’s crazy. On Brutal Legend I met all my teenage [heroes]. I got to meet Ozzie! And then I met all my idols from when I was four years old on for Once Upon A Monster. I could make a game with Michel Gondry. That would be awesome.

RPS: Thank you for your time.

Tim: I wonder what crazy offers this interview will spur. I should fish for more money… If only Michel Gondry would tweet at me.

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John Walker

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One of the original co-founders of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I'm now a senior editor and hero of humanity. Old and special.

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