IGDA Forum: Tim Schafer Gets (More) Creative
Double Fine founder Tim Schafer (Grim Fandango, Psychonauts) is known in the industry for his eccentric personality and his inventive concepts -- his studio is currently at work on Brutal Legend, a game that tasks a time-traveling band roadie with bringing heavy metal to the ancient world.
Perhaps this makes him ideal to lead the final session on creativity at the 2007 IGDA Leadership Forum, where Schafer asked the audience to write questions on index cards for him to answer on stage, in a spontaneous, stream of consciousness-inspired session.
"How could you not do a game about a guy with an axe and a guitar, driving a hot rod?" Schafer said, when asked about Brutal Legend.
Prior to founding Double Fine, Schafer spent some ten years with Lucas Arts, where among other projects he worked on the computer title Full Throttle, and he commented on the inspiration. "Full Throttle was inspired by hearing about someone's summer vacation. They were excited telling a story about bikers and Alaska and Sturgis. Hearing that story told excitedly made it feel like an exciting story to tell. It's folklore. That's how folk tales were told."
He continued, "We try to actively solicit ideas from the team, because design is tricky -- it's difficult. If you can get someone to do the work for you, it's great."
"In the earlier days, I really just wanted creative control. It sounds devious. I wanted to write all the lines. I didn't want to be bossed around or tell anyone what to do," Schafer recalled -- but he went on to explain how letting go is an essential component of creativity. "Games are so big that you can't do it all by yourself. That's a great thing onto itself. It's a process of letting go of that control. It's about, 'How can I get everyone on the team pushing towards this creative thing?' Then the team comes up with all these great ideas that you could never come up with by yourself."
In fact, with all the ideas that can be generated in a strong team, there's sometimes not enough room for them all. "There are some things at the end of Psychonauts that we had to think about cutting in order to ship," says Schafer. "It's a balance. We didn't want to be just an average experience. We wanted it to be a special experience. There's a difference between a game you like and game you love -- something you'll remember for years. We wanted to Psychonauts to be one of those games."
Schafer has one piece of humorous advice for building a team like that: "Gather people that are smarter and crazier than you. This way you can blame them or take the credit."
Later, he was asked about how he chooses such a team. "Hiring creative people is such an individual thing. I guess it's more about how you relate to them and get along with them," he said. "You meet someone that inspires you and inspires the team, it's fantastic."
When asked what lessons he gleaned from becoming independent, Schafer said, "I have a lot of publisher relationships now. The one thing I learned was not to fight. Being independent was a lot different from working at LucasArts. We had a lot of fights with our first publisher. I learned that it's better to have a good relationship. Now I just say yes to everything and let it play out. If a game takes three years, you'll go through three different regimes with the publisher. Chances are the guy you said yes to will be gone in a year. Just say yes and it will solve everything."
He later added, "Looking back, I would have started [Double Fine] with someone else's money instead of my own money. That was a fun thing to learn. We wanted to create our own company and create our own culture and do it ourselves. At the beginning I wanted to do it all -- design, HR, everything. I ended up not doing a good job at anything. I couldn't make a good game because the toilet was overflowing and I had to fix it…."
Discussing publishers, Schafer also said, "Publishers can do a lot more blue-sky prototyping. They have enough money to do this. Really cheaply, you can have a small team putting together prototypes. Every now and then they'll come up with something cool and fun."
Asked if he plans to do any Xbox Live Arcade games, Schafer said, "We talk about making Xbox Live Arcade games all the time. Who doesn't want to make Xbox Live Arcade games? It's like when you see a Great Dane taking a giant shit and then you see a poodle taking a little Tootsie Roll shit. The poodle is so cute, but at the end of the day you're still picking up shit. Seriously though, we'd love to make Xbox Live Arcade games, but we're really busy now."
Schafer was also asked about past ideas that may not have come to fruition. "Every single game I make is the game I wanted to make. I'm happy with every one of them."
He continued, "I'm very nostalgic about my older games because they were so easy to make. What you see was what you got with 2D and text. I've really enjoyed working on all my games though. They have gotten increasingly crunch and harder to make. Psychonauts took five years. It was really grueling, but it was really rewarding."
Schafer recalled, "For [The Secret of Monkey Island], it was great. I was at Lucas Ranch surrounded by Ewoks and At-Ats. I was just out of college and was thinking, 'I guess this is what work is like. I write a bunch of jokes at Skywalker Ranch. This is great!'"
"You were terrified of George [Lucas]," he added. "I worked there for ten years and I saw him like three times. He'd just suddenly show up."
What's Schafer playing now? "I'm really into playing Phantom Hourglass on my DS. I have a longer commute now and I love playing it on the train."