"I started feeling a little bogged down by the scope of [Brutal Legend]," says Tim Schafer, founder of Double Fine. "It was really huge and I felt like the team had been doing it for a long time and had a long way to go yet. I felt like they needed a break."
That break was Amnesia Fortnight, a two week game jam during which anyone at the developer can pitch an idea and, if it's selected, lead a team to turn it from concept to working prototype. Now in its tenth year, I spoke to Schafer about the jam's benefits, pitfalls and how it's changed over the years.
The game jam idea actually came from the world of cinema and the filmmaker Wong Kar-wai. Schafer tells me about the movie, Ashes of Time which the director was working on. "It was this long medieval Chinese epic with swordplay and it was taking years and years for them to make. And he thought his team needed a break so he took his two lead actors and a cinematographer and a video camera and went to Hong Kong and improvised footage for two weeks. They ended up with the footage that became the basis for two other complete movies: Chungking Express and Fallen Angels."
The idea in all of this was that working on a large-scale creative enterprise can be this consuming, exhausting tangle of moving parts which can end up engulfing you, and not in a good way. "To just throw everything up in the air and work on something small and short and simple and punchy, it can be such a liberating experience. That's what we were going after."
But while Amnesia Fortnight started as a way of blowing out the cobwebs and refreshing the team it has accumulated a bunch of moving parts of its own. Nowadays the game pitches can be voted on by members of the public. There are documentary episodes charting the progress of the games. There's a community event running alongside it. There's a fundraising element which supports the work of the charity, Special Effect.
Each element of that feels like it has the capacity to change the event and make it something very different from the 2007 breather, but it also retains a lot of the original format. So how different does it seem to Schafer?
"It's changed in a lot of different ways," he says. "The first time we did it was for a creative break. After Brutal Legend 2 was cancelled and we didn't know what we were going to do next but we had these demos we had made from Amnesia Fortnight. We ended up getting those signed as games, so Stacking and Costume Quest and Once Upon a Monster and Iron Brigade all came out of the first couple of game jams we had.
"That changed it from just a creative exercise to being a way we could generate ideas for games. This is where our new games could come from. A big chunk of our games do come from Amnesia Fortnight now."
As a metaphor for game development, the first thing we implemented was the ability to hit yourself in the head with a hammer. pic.twitter.com/KWpDhhM4yz
— Zak McClendon (@ZakMcc) April 13, 2017
Adding an audience
"The other thing is when we went public with it. I think that was a reflection of how things changed after our first crowdfunding campaign when we crowdfunded Broken Age. That opened up a whole different relationship with our community. Instead of gamemakers and fans it was more like an interactive community where they were talking back to us a lot more and giving feedback and ideas and we were going back and forth in this discussion.
"When we opened up Amnesia Fortnight to them it seemed natural - a continuing trend of more and more transparency. Letting people who play games see more and more of how games are made. That goes with an overarching trend in the games industry which is more transparency which is a good thing."
He describes the Double Fine player community not just as people who play, but people who gravitate towards creativity and want to create things themselves. That's what he sees reflected in their enjoyment of helping pick the pitches to turn into prototypes and that there's a community game jam running alongside the studio one.
The other element at play when Amnesia Fortnight began was that the studio's projects thus far had originated with Schafer. "As the team developed and matured it seemed pretty clear that there were other people who were ready to step up with their own ideas and how could we do that as a company? How could we take that risk on other people's ideas?"
"In the old days it was me and then one lead programmers and one lead artist," he remembers. "A lot of the positions were taken but when we split into four teams making these little games we had four lead artists and four lead programmers and four designers and people could try out new roles and grow or learn what they wanted to do."
I ask about whether it's a wrench to get people to a) stop working on the bigger project for a while and b) get them to go back to the bigger project after a while. I feel like I would probably take a while to switch off from it and to switch back on after the break.
"The first time some people were concerned. 'Why are we doing this? Why are we taking this time off?' he says. "I feel like it really does benefit the original project. When people came back to Brutal Legend after the first one they had so much more energy and drive. They also learned a ton of things about the engine. We'd just switched to Unreal and I think having everyone try to make a game in two weeks is teaching them things about Unreal they never knew and things about their own skillset."
But what about someone like Asif Siddiky? He's a director of photography with 2 Player Productions, the video production company behind the Broken Age documentary amongst other things. He's leading a team this year having pitched a game which was kind of Iron Chef meets kaiju films. What if someone from slightly outside the game creation work of the studio gets a taste for games but then has to leave?
"Well, part of the philosophy is that anyone in the company can pitch," says Schafer. "Asif has been behind the camera for years, but he'll film our brainstorming meetings and he's always very quiet behind the camera so we don't notice the cameras that much. Then after the meeting he'd often slide me a page of notes that he took during the meeting, like 'Hey, here's some ideas I had in case you want to...'
As for what happens afterwards, the idea is that if he wants to make games he'll have something concrete on his resumé and a lot of associated learnings to draw on. If he doesn't then it's extra insight which might be useful to his work behind the camera filming game developers at work. There are also any number of other scenarios I can imagine involving anything from part time work on tiny games to packing everything in to go and compete on Iron Chef using gigantic cookware.
I wonder if that's true of everyone who participates, or whether there's a strand of bittersweetness if you don't see a way to convert the experience into a next step. While I'm wondering Schafer points out that sometimes the useful takeaway from these experiences is knowing that you don't want to go down a particular route. Perhaps you were weighing up project management, you get a two week taster course and you work out you never want to go anywhere near it again.
While the team are figuring all of this out or taking on potentially unfamiliar roles there is likely to be a knowledge gap or two. Apparently there's support available from the top end of the company as well as from the people who you pick for your prototype team. Schafer and Double Fine's head of development, Caryl Shaw, both try to be available to field questions or offer a modicum of mentorship but it sounds like the bulk of the support comes from the prototype team itself wanting to succeed.
"Asif and the other first-time project leaders like Devin [Kelly-Sneed] have a whole team that wants them to make a great game so they're all going to step up and fill whatever gaps are needed."
The public vote
Something I find myself thinking about a lot thanks to Kickstarter and game jams which have a public voting element is how good the public actually are at knowing what they'll enjoy playing versus knowing what they enjoy being pitched.
"It just shows in some ways what I was going through when I used to pick them all by hand," says Schafer. "I'd try and guess what would be successful. In the end I would always put my bets more on people than ideas. I would know these people pretty well working with them for a while and take calculated risks based on who I thought would be a good project leader - more so than the idea itself. I think the internet tends to vote more on the idea than the person."
It's an interesting distinction. This time the selection process allowed for two public picks, one from Schafer, and one which came via the people actually working on Amnesia Fortnight. The latter was important because it gave the team a bit of control rather than feeling entirely at the mercy of online voting.
Schafer reserving a slot for himself is a reaction to Headlander being bypassed one year. "We had a year when we had this great science fiction idea about this character whose head can launch off his body and I thought it was so great. I couldn't wait to see it in Amnesia Fortnight and the internet didn't vote for it. I was like 'Youuuuu dummies!'"
At the same time, when I watched the pitches I found myself feeling sad when I saw things I assumed wouldn't get past the internet voting and would have to rely on the other categories if they wanted a chance. Taroky sounded interesting but the pitch was confusing and I only got a feel for the digital card game after picking through some comments and doing a spot of online research. There was also Vagina Crisis: A Period Piece. I loved the name but a health education choice-based game about navigating a player's period felt like it wasn't going to easily get the stamp of approval. It didn't (although Vagina Crisis is now a functioning part of my day-to-day lexicon).
"You're only choosing one out of 23 pitches so there's going to be a lot of rejection and questions about who gets picked and why but the team has always taken it really well.
"What I try to set the expectations for is, only get involved if you feel the process is worth it no matter what the outcome is. The process of coalescing the idea into a pitch and sharing that with people and putting yourself at risk, then getting feedback and honing your pitch, making it better and going public with it and then being either accepted or not selected... I think that process teaches you a lot if you're going to be a creative person and if you're going to work in the games industry."
He adds that sometimes the pitching process lets you get an idea out of your head instead of leaving it rattling around in there accumulating a kind of weight that can turn into a burden. There's also the Headlander thing where just because a pitch didn't get through the Amnesia Fortnight process it might still end up worming its way into someone's brain and get made anyway.
An oasis of sorts
The other thing I want to touch on while I have a few moments left is the documentary side of things. I'm always interested in what happens when a studio puts more of its work and staff in the public eye and how that changes the company. Sometimes it's not a positive experience for the people involved – I'm not talking specifically about Double Fine here, but about how becoming an identifiable face online for whatever reason can lead to uncomfortable or unhappy experiences as well as more enjoyable ones. So has the process of creating the documentaries has been a universally positive one?
"I think it's been kind of a mission for me," says Schafer. "I mean the documentary guys have their own mission which is to show the creative process of making games and something more along those lines and mine was more about pulling back the curtains and letting everyone know what game development was like and seeing it on both sides. I think it's definitely achieved that.
"I feel like they made a really great documentary and showed - we really pushed to make it as honest as we possibly could and show as many of the not fun meetings as well as the fun meetings when we're making a game. That has been successful. One thing I didn't really take into account was how it can be kind of tough on the team because I was volunteering all of them to be on camera all the time."
That's not to say there was no way out if you didn't want to be on film. It just sounded like it was something which didn't occur to Schafer immediately.
"If there's someone who just doesn't want to be on camera we just don't film them. Only a couple of people have opted out to that extent. Otherwise we show the team the episode before it goes live so if anyone's like 'Wait wait wait, that's unfair, I don't like the way that was edited - it makes me look like I'm saying something I wasn't' - that never happens [because] they have a voice and can speak up and talk about it.
"And if anything's in the documentary that's going to get us arrested or sued we can pipe up then as well! So there's trust there but we want to be as honest as possible because we want to show people how anyone can make games. It's not a special class of people or a special breed of people. But also that people who do make games put their whole heart and soul into it. They put a lot of love and creative passion into everything they make and I think people who play games should know that as well."
He does note this doesn't mitigate all of the potential for targeted criticism. When the studio is under fire for whatever reason, "That can be harder on the team because they're vulnerable, they're putting their faces into this documentary and so people who are choosing to say hurtful things about the team can pick them out individually.
"We've experienced a little bit of that with the documentary. People can go into our forums and talk about specific people by name and how they don't like their art or animation or whatever. That can be tough. There hasn't been too much of that outside of some of the highly publicised abuse waves that have traveled around Twitter."
That's the most negative sentiment we touch on in the interview. The rest feels really upbeat and energised. I wanted to point that mood change out because it was an interesting moment of familiar internet frustration suddenly appearing as part of an event which has this capacity to kind of sail past a lot of that stuff in my mind. By that I mean that Amnesia Fortnight, as well as containing some really interesting ideas, is this event I think of as joyful. I didn't really dig into that assumption until I was researching for this interview but I realise that I think of it as some kind of friendly, happy-to-see-you oasis. It was interesting to see the commercial and human elements start to come into focus and make it into this more nuanced, less unreal exercise with associated benefits and costs.
One thing I don't know is what Schafer would make if he had the opportunity. He takes more of a curatorial role in Amnesia Fortnight, so what would he do if he could chuck a pitch into the mix?
"That's a great question. I did lead an Amnesia Fortnight project once and I've learned that I'm really too busy to lead a little project while I'm also doing the company stuff! Right now I'm mentally very deep in Psychonauts 2 so I'm thinking about that world and how we're going to do that."
"The other big part of my mind is I think about board games a lot. I just feel very intimidated by board games. Whenever I try to come up with a board game idea and I write it up on paper and try and actually figure out what the pieces and cards would be and I realise oh man, this is really hard! Maybe some year I'd do one of those."