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Happy Action, Happy Developer: Tim Schafer on Reimagining Double Fine
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Happy Action, Happy Developer: Tim Schafer on Reimagining Double Fine

February 3, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 5 Next

Microsoft just announced quite a few sort of non-game interactive toys for kids.

TS: [laughs]

Did you really just kind of pitch this cold? Or was this an initiative that they had going that you fit in to?

TS: I didn't even know about this initiative until recently! It was just lucky that we happened to fit in with that, I guess. I don't know how long they've been working on it. That's something only they know. But no, I was just like, "Hey, I was playing with Kinect, and you know what would be awesome on Kinect? This." And I called and told them about it.

Are you guys involved in this new Sesame Street stuff?

TS: No. Just Once Upon a Monster. Yeah, we're not. I think it looks really cool; I can't wait to see how that stuff does. Because it is interesting! It's like, you wouldn't call it "games", it's just an interactive magazine. And I love that.

You mentioned earlier that you can't just throw Kinect controls into a traditional console experience, and that we're going to create new types of genres and experiences now that we've tapped into this thing. What kind of possibilities are there? It seems like most of the games that really work well might be targeted specifically at kids.

TS: That's my natural thing. It's a natural fit for kids and family, and I don't think that's so bad! You've got to think about who wants to stand in front of their TV. Kids like to stand up. Thirty-year-old guys late at night, who want to get a bunch of achievements, they don't necessarily want to stand up in front of their TV. But a bunch of kids at a dance party, they want to stand up in front of the TV.

It's interesting to think about it like that, like, "What would make me want to stand up in front of the TV?" Something active that wouldn't make me too tired. I think you start down that path and some logical things will pop up. You want me to give you all my best ideas right now?

Just start laying them out. Give me the next 10 years of Tim Schafer.

TS: I've got to hang on to them. It's our business plan.

Oh, and one more thing about the tech. This might be more detail than you want, but we are using a different kind of tech than most games use. We use motion blobs. Kinect games only have two skeletons they can track at once. Kinect can track two skeletons, and we wanted to track six people at least. So our goal was birthday parties for 3-year-olds, or a dorm room full of drunk 20-year-olds. 21-year-olds, I guess I should say.

I wanted to track as many people as possible, and just use the kind of raw depth information and the raw silhouette information of these players. So that's how we get more players than most Kinect games. Most Kinect games have basically two. But for the most part we're not using the skeletons.

Did you build that blob tech?

TS: The Kinect itself has built in trackers for six players without skeletons.

Oh, I hadn't realized.

TS: It tracks their silhouette image. Freestyle in Dance Central, that's kind of what a blob looks like. That's how the players look to us, and using the depth information, we turn that into ideas about motion, and where motion is moving, where it's headed. We use that to turn that blob into a rough equivalent of collision, to have you simulate these 3D objects.

Happy Action Theater in some ways caps off the transformation of Double Fine over the past... Has it really been two years? Can that be right?

TS: Well Brütal came out... October 2009. And it has been two years since Brütal. But to sign all those games, it took about four months until we signed the last one. Once Upon a Monster was the longest production cycle, Costume Quest was the shortest. It got out by Halloween 2010, which was amazing. And then Stacking, and Iron Brigade, and Once Upon a Monster.

We've heard the story before, but tell us again how these projects came about?

TS: Basically we did this Amnesia Fortnight project in the middle of Brütal, where we took two weeks off and forgot about what we were working on -- hence the title "Amensia Fortnight". And we split the company into four teams, and each team had two weeks to make a game. And it was just like, "Go. Good luck."

And we came up with four really fun, interesting prototypes. And then we did it again at the end of the project, and we had eight interesting prototypes. We took the best four, we took them on the road, we got them signed, and we made games out of them. Which was great.

We thought we were doing Brütal Legend 2, and I always thought we would be doing these smaller games on the side. But we weren't doing Brütal Legend 2, so we had to scramble. We said, "Okay, we're going to do all four of these right now!" And we luckily got them all signed, because we had demos. It always helps to have a demo.

And there were just like a bunch of experienced, creative people at the company, like Lee Petty, and Nathan Martz, and Brad Muir, and Tasha Harris, who were just ready to go. And just chomping at the bit to express themselves, and have their own games, and show what they had. They wanted to show what they could do, and they did.

So all four games that you were pitching got signed.

TS: Yeah.

That's kind of crazy.

TS: Well, I mean, you can't take no for an answer. [laughs]

So the remaining four prototypes... are they still floating around, or have they been abandoned?

TS: Some of them were good, some of them... There were different degrees of success. More than just testing out an idea, we were testing out a potential project leader. You know? And sometimes you sink or swim, and sometimes people get in there and get overwhelmed and turn in maybe a half-finished prototype. It was kind of promising, but wasn't quite done. So we didn't think we could get it signed. Or maybe the idea just didn't turn out to be as fun as we thought it would. That happens a lot in games.

And the fun thing is, that happened to Happy Action Theater. We have 18 activities; we made about 21. And we just like, swore that this idea was going to be fun, and then we implemented it and it was like, "Oh. That's not fun at all!" And we try to change them a little bit; then we just cut them. So it was great on Happy Action Theater that we could go so quick, that game was all about rapid prototyping. So we were able to cut and leave only the best ones in there.

But with Amnesia Fortnight, the same was true. And some of them were really great, and I wish we could sell them, but they were kind of unsellable for one reason or another. They're too specific, or they're multiplayer-only, or they're just demonstrating one very specific tech. One of them was just a cool augmented reality demo, and we ended up using augmented reality in Happy Action Theater. But that particular game, we didn't think we could turn into something we could sell.

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Maximilian Lundsten
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Really lovely interview.

Ali Afshari
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I enjoyed this interview. In regards to Schafer not being able to patch Brutal Legend on the come? What kind of red-tape can possibly cause Sony to not allow a patch that can fix an obvious bug that can hinder the player's experience? That must be extremely frustrating for Double Fine and any other developer.

Nicholas Avenell
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Well, you have the developer, the publisher and the console maker, and any title update for the major consoles has to go though a testing process before it goes live (Feel free to insert a cynical comment about testing here). If the developer's not in a working relationship with the publisher, then it's unlikely anyone will be willing to pay for the testers to check the title update, so it won't go up.

In Steam, they're publishing directly to the platform, and Valve don't screen title updates. You patch it. If you break customer support, you're who they're shouting at. Freeing, but also dangerous :)

Ali Afshari
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@Nicholas: Thanks...that makes sense. I still think there should be some way to make sure all updates get through, but I guess I'm being to naive :)

R. Hunter Gough
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I played the demo the other night with my 2 year old. She loved the balloons, and just as she was starting to grasp that her actions on-screen matched her real-world actions, the room filled with lava and she became terrified and hid. We'll try again later. :)

Also I totally agree with Tim about "that Kinect launch title for kids". My 2 year old is facinated by it, and keeps wanting to play the demo, but try as she might she just can't keep her hand steady enough to select things on the menus. I'm hoping that after a few sessions with HAT she'll develop the coordination to play the other game, too.

Nicholas Sweeney
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Great interview and great "video-toy"! :) My 4 years old is really loving it!

jaime kuroiwa
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I can't recall any interview with Tim Schafer that didn't make me smile. That guy's magic.

...and let me just say: The screenshot of children burning in lava made me spit coffee.

Tora Teig
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Such a great heartwarming interview, I need to play Grim Fandango and Psychonauts again, because I forget how brilliant they are. Thank you, Frank!

Kenneth Blaney
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I know it is cliched to say, "I thought of that first," but when I saw "Once Upon a Monster" I immediately thought it was a great idea because it is EXACTLY what I would have done except with a "Dora the Explorer" licence. And, because I am apparently very egocentric, whenever someone does something I would have done, I automatically think that person is a genius (although in Schafer's case I thought that ever since "Psychonauts").

Lots of kids TV shows do the same thing, that is, they invite the child to do something and then pause while they wait for the child to do it. Of course, a TV show can't actually interact with a viewer, so the effect only works to give the illusion of interactivity to a child. With a video game, like Kinect, you no longer have to simply rely on the illusion, you can actually interact with the child.