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Interview: Tim Schafer On The Amnesia Fortnight Bundle

Unprototypical

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As we just mentioned, Double Fine have launched a unique Humble Bundle to let people vote from 23 game pitches to decide four that will go on to be made into prototypes. I spoke to Tim Schafer earlier this evening to ask how this came about, and how such a thing will influence the company. In this first half of the interview we talk about the Bundle, what makes a Double Fine game, and why they’re so keen to show these early stages of game development.

RPS: You’re stepping up how you do the Amnesia Fortnight, right?

Tim Schafer: That’s right, we’re letting the world in on it. For the last few years we’ve done this Amnesia Fortnight thing where everyone stops what they’re working on for two weeks, and everybody has two weeks to get in small teams and make a game. It’s always been such a great time for us, and a really fun morale boost for the team, but also really productive. It’s led to things like Costume Quest and Stacking – all the games we’ve made since 2009.

After the Kickstarter project we’ve had this change where we’re more used to doing things in an open way. It’s gotten me personally, and the whole team, used to doing things in a more open way. The traditional way of doing games development is pretty secretive. You horde all of your information until you’re ready to release, and then you do a big PR blitz. The Kickstarter thing, we’re showing people the game before we have a name for it, or a character, and we’re finding out that that’s okay. In fact the players get more excited. We learned from the Kickstarter that people care more about the game the earlier they see it.

There are so many great ideas that we come up with that no one ever sees, and there’s so much inventiveness – an explosion of ideas – that we want to share with people. There’s 23 pitches on the page, and that’s just me asking, “Hey, anybody in the company want to pitch a game?” I can see almost every one of them being a fun game, but we can only make four or five. So I’m asking people to help us choose. Sometimes I get tired of being the chooser. I’m tired of being the decider!

RPS: Do you know if it’s normal for a company’s employees to have this many ideas?

Tim Schafer: Double Fine is a very creative company, and we encourage people to have some faith in their ideas. It’s really easy to think your ideas are silly and not share them with people, so we try to encourage the opposite. But I think there are a lot of creative people at other companies too. There’s a lot of talent in the games industry – and when games have to through all these crazy hoops it’s really hard to protect an idea from creation to product. There’s a natural reservoir of creative talent in everybody, and our whole company is about trying to find ways to nurture that and bring it to life.

RPS: Is there a remit for what makes a Double Fine game? Are there boundaries?

Tim Schafer: I’d like to say in theory, no. But there’s definitely a style, or a take on the world, that is more Double Fine. I’d imagine that every game we make has some element of humour to it, even if we have decapitations, it’s still kind of funny. The company has a certain personality, and it involves humour and a general goodwill [laughs]. There’s not a lot of anger coming out in the games.

RPS: So what’s the plan behind the Humble Bundle?

Tim Schafer: You buy into the bundle – you can pay whatever you want. You can pay one dollar if you want, or one hundred dollars. Heh, there are people who pay $5,000 even though they don’t have to, just to get on top of the leaderboard. And you can set how much of your money goes to charity. I thought it was so great how the Humble Bundles are successful, even though they’re based on good will and faith. You could rip them off it you want to, and people tend not to. It’s a thing that’s financially successful, and also a great testimony to game players. They get a wrap for pirating games, harassing women online, you know, but there’s people who will just give up their money when they don’t have to if you approach it the right way. So I was inspired by Humble Bundle.

So you buy the bundle for Amnesia Fortnight, and you get the prototypes at the end, and you get to vote and participate, and you get to watch the 2-Player Productions documentary of what we’re doing in the live-streams. But it’s risky, because you’re giving a prototype, and people don’t know what a prototype looks like – it’s ugly – so they can choose to lower their risk by not paying as much. Or they can give all their money to charity if they way. It’s a really unique way of distributing it. And if it’s really a huge hit then maybe we’ll have enough money to actually turn one of these prototypes into a real game.

RPS: How about the Happy Song and Costume Quest prototypes?

Tim Schafer: Those are from the very first Amnesia Fortnight that we did in 2007. Happy Song was Nathan Martz’s prototype for the game he wants to make. And you’ll see it’s very different from Once Upon A Monster. There’s no Sesame Street for instance. But you can see some of the same characters, a lot of the inspiration. It was a very music-based game, but it changed a lot by the time it came out. And you can see the original prototype for Costume Quest, which is so different from the final game. If you’re a fan of Costume Quest I think it’s a really interesting thing, because it’s got full camera controls, and the voices are all robot voices, and it’s got costumes in it that we cut like the dragon costume.

I realise that a lot of our fans are people who are either interested in creativity or games development, they want to make games for themselves. They like to watch the documentary about what it’s like to make a game, and I think they like to see these half-finished prototypes to show what ideas look like in the beginning.

RPS: It seems to be a continuation of the ideas with the Kickstarter, showing how the sausage is made.

Tim Schafer: And the human side of it. I’m actually trying to humanise game development. When I was a kid, I didn’t realise it was a job opportunity. I didn’t realise that people not any smarter than me were making these things. We definitely show that we’re not smarter than anybody. [laughs] Hopefully any kid watching our documentary is like, “God, these people can do this?! Okay, I can do it too.”

RPS: With the success of games like Happy Action Theater and Once Upon A Monster, has that changed what people are pitching? Does it broaden people’s ambitions?

Tim Schafer: Every game we do hopefully does that. That was a proof of what we hoped to do with our small games, which was to take bigger chances. It’s not a studio defining thing any more, it’s more like an experiment. We’ve definitely had fun doing family-orientated games, and there are unexpected benefits. Like we just saw a news article about how they’re using Happy Action Theater to work with autistic kids. Inclusiveness was always the original intent of that game, but I never thought it would be used in, like a school setting.

RPS: There does seem to have been a tonal shift since the days of Brutal Legend toward this sense of inclusiveness.

Tim Schafer: I think it’s a case by case thing. I think Brad, who made Iron Brigade, makes games that he likes. And when I was getting interested in making something like Happy Action Theater, it was definitely aimed at what I was seeing around me. Which was my daughter who was two-and-a-half at the time, trying to play Kinectimals. I thought, how can I make this so she doesn’t get frustrated and cry? The other thing I would say is that Double Fine is an inspiration-driven company. We want to just have a crazy idea, and then if it seems good, go for it. It’s more about how can we create a fertile bed for creative ideas. And then the battling that you have to do to protect those ideas until the end.

RPS: So how many games are you already working on at the studio?

Tim Schafer: Oh gosh. Well, we’re currently finishing up The Cave, and we have Kinect Party which is the sequel to Happy Action Theater. Our first sequel. And we have Middle Manager Of Justice about to come out in Canada. And a couple of secret projects. Right now my urge is to not have any secrets, but when we have a partner involved we have to be secret for them.

RPS: Yeah – often it’s difficult for companies to talk about games that might not come to be.

Tim Schafer: Although this is the opposite of that! What we’re doing with Amnesia Fortnight is we’re announcing games that definitely – most of these are not going to turn into actual games. In the past we’ve had a fifty percent success rate. Two of the four games tend to get made. But yeah, normally the common wisdom is to not announce a game until you’re 100% sure you’re releasing it, but we’re showing you from the very beginning. This is all part of the process, and you might as well learn about it.

In the second half of this interview, to appear tomorrow, we talk more about the after-effects of the Kickstarter, the games it’s inspired, and the process of avoiding the publisher.

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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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