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Develop 10: Schafer On Future & New Games

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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