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

By Frank Cifaldi

Double Fine founder Tim Schafer is heralded as one of our most treasured video game designers, but he hasn't actually led a project since 2009's Brütal Legend. Sure, the company has shipped four brand new titles since that time, but Schafer himself -- who made a name for himself as the creative lead of classics such as Full Throttle, Grim Fandango, Day of the Tentacle and Psychonauts -- has passed the lead designer torch to others in the studio.

Now Schafer has made his comeback as a lead designer, but not in a way many would have anticipated. Double Fine Happy Action Theater, released by Microsoft Wednesday on Xbox Live Arcade, is a Kinect-enabled piece of software aimed at children (and dorm rooms, as Schafer tells us) that doesn't bother with rules or mechanics. It doesn't have story, mechanics, or even rules to speak of: it's an augmented reality toy, the only "game" here is in the player's head.

Gamasutra caught up with Schafer recently for a lengthy discussion of where Happy Action Theater came from, where the Kinect is headed, and whether Double Fine could ever go back to being a developer of AAA retail games.

So let's talk about the... game? Are we even calling it a game?

Tim Schafer: [laughs] I call it a video toy. Or just toy. Because it really is just a freeform device that you play with. You make up how to play with it as you play with it.

You're the lead on this, right?

TS: Yeah. I haven't led a game since Brütal, and so I've been watching all these guys lead projects and helping them and being kind of relieved that I didn't have to worry about a project, but also kind of jealous because it's fun! Like, "When am I going to make a game again?"

Still, the needs of these little projects were still pretty high on me. Each project needs some writing, or some brainstorming, or some business need from me. So there's still a lot of time that goes into the little projects we do.

But a little idea like Double Fine Action Theater can fit right in. And it has no dialogue, so I don't have to lock myself in my office for an hour every day, which I do when I'm writing. So we can kind of come up with crazy ideas and play them and iterate on them, and it was really fun. And it was only like six months in production.

Where did it come from?

TS: We're making Kinect games, and I was playing a Kinect game at home... not one of ours. It was someone else's Kinect game. It's a good game, and it's meant for kids, probably like five and up. And I wanted to play -- because of the content of it -- I wanted to play it with my daughter, Lili, who was two and a half back then. It's a game that was out -- one of the launch titles on Kinect.

So we were trying to play it, and the content was so cute. She wanted to interact with it, but it was so hard to get her to stand in the right place and hold her hand on a dot for the Kinect timer to count down, and follow the instructions, all these crazy things that you have to do with new games. They're not crazy if you're five years old or older.

The Kinect is such a natural interface for games. There's such a low barrier to entry. But it's not low enough. There should be a way of dealing with the chaos of a little kid. They just want to run in, they want to run off, they want to go sit on the couch. They lay down, they stand up, they jump around, they grab your leg. And there should be a way that a game can tolerate that without having all the errors and freakouts that sometimes a Kinect game will have.

So I was starting to remember those little simple advertisements they would have in malls where kids would walk by a big screen and there would be leaves to blow around, or a projected screen was on the floor and they could jump on it and pop popcorn with their feet and stuff like that.

And I was thinking, what if you could turn those into high production value experiences, and then use some of the new cool tech and the depth field of Kinect and all that to create experiences that were more high tech and more high production value? Just like, something you could interact with and play with. And I just called up Microsoft with the idea, and we signed a game over the phone.

I guess you can do that if you're Tim Schafer.

TS: It's an involved process. But it was just such a small idea, and it really helped to have a target demographic that I actually knew, a specific person that I could make a game for and make it work for her.

So essentially you made a game for your daughter.

TS: Yeah. [Sesame Street:] Once Upon a Monster was also a game that I like to think of as a game for her. But I wanted to make a game that went even younger, you know? Once Upon a Monster is an actual game. It has an actual story, actual characters. Happy Action Theater is a collection of activities, like toys that you play with.

I thought if you just loosened up some of the restrictions that are on Kinect games, and stop thinking about them in the way that we normally think... We think of them in terms of these goals and objectives that can be demanding on the player, because the buttons on the controller are so accurate. You know when they press the A button, or turn the stick. But the Kinect, you're not entirely sure what they're doing, so the experiences have to be a lot more forgiving.

And I was like, "What if we just make them completely forgiving, and there's no failure?" So the game has no failure case, it has no real goals except for the goals you make up for yourself given the tools that we give you.


When I played Happy Action Theater, it felt a lot more natural than most Kinect games. How much of that is good design, and how much of that is your tech?

TS: Kinect is really cool tech in itself, and then our team came up with a lot of cool tech using some samples that Microsoft had, and some of our own original stuff, so you can, say, pull a character out of the screen. We can take your video image and yank it out of the background, so it looks like you disappear from your own living room, which is pretty cool. And just other tech to make snow appear on objects in your room, and we made pigeons land on your head using some cool tech that we wrote.

But there's also design in that. From the very beginning, I thought about, "What is the Kinect really good at tracking?" and what special features it has. And with those as the building blocks, what kind of experience can you craft out of that?

Well it has a camera, and it has this great depth sensor, which is new. There's been webcams before, there's been EyeToy and camera stuff before where you could make camera-based games, but there's never been one with an accurate depth sensor, right?

Not that I'm aware of, at least not as a commercial product.

TS: So what can you do with that that you couldn't do before? So we have an activity where it takes a picture of you, and then you can interact in 3D with that picture. So you can stand next to yourself, or intersect yourself, or hold your own hand, or wrap arm-and-arm with yourself. Did you get to see that one?

No, I didn't.

TS: It takes a 3D picture of you, so it takes a picture of the video feed, but also with depth stored to it, so you can run around yourself in a circle, and things like that. Stuff you could never do before with just a basic webcam. So it was designed from the ground up to be a Kinect experience, I think that's important to Kinect. If you just see Kinect as a different controller for games -- like, we're going to take some game that already exists and just make it work with Kinect -- I think you're going to have a really hard time.

I think the best games are yet to come with Kinect. Like this, where people just start from scratch with no preconceived notions about what a game can be and just build up the experience from nothing using what Kinect is good at. I think it's going to be good. I think we're going to come up with whole new genres of experiences that just haven't existed before.

How do you playtest a toy like this?

TS: It's fun! In the office we'll set it up in our main conference room. People go up and play it. The fun thing about it is that it's, by design, a really easy thing to jump in and out of. So in the hallway, people passing by will be like, "Whoa, I'm in a snowstorm!" And they'll stop and throw a few snowballs, and then they'll walk on. We can record that footage, we can record that depth information, and use it to test the game later.

We brought our kids, and families, and their friends and families to play it, and that's where we really understood the game. It's the kind of game where you explain it to an adult, and you can experience it as an adult. You can say "it's really cool, it's cool tech, it's a cool simulation," but not until you get three kids in front of it do you understand that it's this crazy imagination machine.

It's like "Oh, we're in hot lava! And this guy is chasing me, and now I'm splashing the lava, and now the lava is here, and we've got to get on the couch!" And you see the kids using their imaginations and creating their own experiences, and you realize what Happy Action Theater is all about.


Double Fine Happy Action Theater

We used to call that "emergent gameplay".

TS: Yeah [laughs]. Oh, and also, Microsoft. This is the great thing about working with Microsoft: having access to their usability research department. They have a lot of smart people, and a lot of great facilities for it. And basically we just watched live tests of our game every Thursday, just seeing kids coming in, and standing in front of the machine, and seeing what they do.

We learned crazy things -- like kids didn't want to get out of the hot lava. They wanted to get in the lava! They want to splash around in it, and, in fact, lay down in it. So we made gameplay based on that activity. So we could kind of follow the kids as they led us through how their imaginations told them to play the game.

So the playtesting actually did affect design -- beyond the lava stuff.

TS: Yeah. We implemented a very basic level of functionality, and then watched the tests to see what the kids wanted to do. So we would make balloons -- we would do a physics simulation of balloons falling, and you being able to knock them around. I thought kids would just want to bop balloons up in the air, and it would just be fun to keep the balloons floating. I watched the tests, and all the kids wanted to do was pop their balloons. I don't know why it didn't occur to me. It was like, "Oh, of course." So we added a thing where you could pop the balloons.

But then some of the older kids, after they played it a while, they wanted something else to happen. They wanted some reason to pop the balloons. The younger kids don't really care, but the older kids wanted that. So we started putting in a progression of collectables you find in the balloons. It goes "bling!" and it makes a sound -- but there's no real score, no inventory or anything. It's all just kind of pretend, as in you pretend like you're playing a game. But it's really to give you something that you discover over time.

And there are little things like that in all the activities. There are behaviors that you don't understand until you do something strange, like stand still for a long time, or lay down under the lava, or collect a certain number of balloons, or pop this -- the hidden stuff comes out. Most of that came from watching playtests, and seeing what the kids wanted, what more experiences they wanted.


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.


In addition to the sudden scramble to pitch and even develop these... if I'm not mistaken, they were no real major staff changes in terms of headcount or anything, right?

TS: We never laid anyone off during that time.

So you basically were able to split your Brütal Legend team into four?

TS: It was amazing. We talked about it for so long, and part of the secret was that the team had worked together on Psychonauts and Brütal Legend. There's at least 20 people here who worked on Psychonauts. There's a team here who has worked together for a long time. So when we split up, the communication was already there, and the experience was already there, and that helped a lot.

But also, making smaller games than we were used to was like... What's the metaphor for that? I don't know. If I knew more about baseball, I could totally use the right terms for a baseball metaphor. But anyway, we went from a huge, huge game to making these much more manageable and easy-to-understand games that helped us go multiplatform.

We had a bunch of producers and experienced project leads. And it worked also because the teams were really on top of this. That's Nathan's game, and Iron Brigade was Brad's game. He made all of the decisions about what that game should be. I only got involved as a creative director as needed, but the ultimate responsibility for the game, if it was good or bad or whether it got done, that was all Brad. So that's how the system worked. We really passed down the responsibility of each project to the project leader.

I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around how you had enough artists for each game. Were they bouncing back and forth?

TS: That would be the biggest problem. Our lead artist, Lee, and our lead programmer, and our main designer, and our lead animator, all got a project. Right? And that was great for that project, but that meant the other project didn't have a lead animator, or a lead programmer, or a lead artist. So a lot of time we promoted within. We promoted lead programmers from our programming department, or we hired.

There wasn't an official art director at the beginning of Iron Brigade. We had to scramble because of that later. We had to go back and change some art and stuff. The team probably had extra problems because of that. But we did the best we could, and patched the holes, and fixed them as soon as we could, until we had four teams that pretty much had everything they needed.

You yourself described this as a scramble in reaction to not having Brütal Legend 2 to work on. Obviously it worked out. There were no layoffs or anything. But has this been an unqualified success? Is this a studio you can continue to run this way?

TS: Yeah! It was a struggle because of the problems I just mentioned, the holes to fill, and that's where the teams had the most struggle, I think. It was a lot of work to get them all signed. There was a lot of pitching, and pitching, and pitching. And the games came out, and they were all well-received, and sold copies, and did okay. None of them were flops, and they were all really great games that I'm really proud of. So yeah, it's a great success, and we're doing it some more.

The only thing that has changed in the plan is that when we started out... there's a certain kind of game like Castle Crashers, or Shadow Complex, or Limbo that was kind of like telling us that there's a rising market for a game that size, XBLA or PSN games. And this year, I won't say what the future of that side of games is. Because those platforms seem to be figuring some stuff out, and did not have as great a year this year [2011] as they had last year.

It's kind of interesting, yeah, to see that some people are actually making more money on Steam now than they are on XBLA.

TS: Yeah. And we're on Steam now. We're having a blast. I love that direct connection with our players. We can actually put a game on sale if we want to. We can add a patch whenever we feel like it. I mean, oh my God, the fact that I can't patch Brütal Legend on the PS3, even though it's a known bug that corrupts your save game, and I want to fix it, and we have the fix. It's checked in and ready to go, but I can't patch the PS3 version of the game, because of all the layers of bureaucracy between me and the player. But on Steam we can patch that thing today, you know?

Or like that damned Psychonauts bug on the 360 too.

TS: [laughs] Wait, which one?

Well maybe it's been patched since, but when I tried to play it on the 360, Raz's textures would just disappear on his body.

TS: He turned blue! That was... I don't know if they ever fixed that! That's part of the backwards compatibility wrapper, that was the last bug, and they couldn't fix it, because they had to go work on... DVD-HD, or whatever. See, I don't even remember what it's called now. HD-DVD?

Yeah, HD-DVD.

TS: They had to go work on that. That was so important. So they couldn't fix that bug. And where's HD-DVD now?

And meanwhile here's Psychonauts with a new version on the Mac.

TS: Yeah, and we're still talking about Psychonauts.


If the right project came up, could you reverse the studio back into doing bigger packaged games?

TS: I think we could, but it would involve growth. I could take up maybe one or two of the existing teams, and then add employees to make a Psychonauts/Brütal Legend-type game again. But I wouldn't take up all four teams, because there are too many people now who are on a senior enough level.

Yeah, you can't have all the seniors on one game.

TS: No. Well, you could. It's great, because when you have a real professional like Lee Petty, he can run his own game, but he can also help me on our game, or get the Vault Viewer [a Psychonauts spin-off app for smartphones] working with Ron Gilbert. He can just help out where needed.

But I think it would be a waste of his talent to have him not leading a project, because he's so good at it. So if I was going to do a big game, I think it would be by adding 24 more people onto the studio.

So, could we do a big game again? Will we do more XBLA games? The answer is that now that we have multiple teams, we can try anything. So there are a lot of things like, "Hey, why don't you get into mobile games?" Well, in the old model, we'd be basically switching the whole company over to mobile games, and that would be a really big jump, and I don't know if we could do it.

But now that we have multiple teams it's like, let's take three people and put them on that. Or free-to-play or social, I wouldn't want to bank the whole company on them, but I can assign a small team to it, and meanwhile keep working on the games with our AAA engine while we're doing that at the same time. So the company can be really agile, we can get into new markets quicker, and if they don't work out it's no big deal. We just reassign that team to something else.

So these teams are independent enough to just kind of be like, "Hey, you! Start experimenting with Facebook, and we'll all keep on doing our things."

TS: Yeah, and that's how we ended up doing a kid's game. It would have been kind of risky and scary to assign the entire Brütal Legend team to a kid's game. It wasn't quite sure to have as much support back then. Now we have the Happy Action Theater team too, so we have a good team. We can follow up our successes by investing more in that, and if we have the world's biggest flop, we can leave that behind and try something new.

Is the Happy Action Theater team Tasha Hariss' old [Costume Quest] team, with you as lead? [Ed. note: Harris recently left to join animation studio Pixar.]

TS: It's a combination of people from various teams. We can kind of mix various teams. I had a couple of Iron Brigade programmers on it, it had an art director... actually the art director for Costume Quest.

How far along is Ron Gilbert's game? Are we going to see it soon?

TS: I don't know when we're going to be showing some people stuff. Pretty soon we're going to start leaking some stuff out.

Is that his office right next to yours?

TS: Yeah.

So is the secret of Monkey Island hidden in that brick wall between you guys?

TS: [laughs] It's only inside of Ron's dark and twisted heart.


Costume Quest

Finally, let's briefly talk about your memories of the four Amnesia Fortnight projects very quickly, starting with Costume Quest. What do you remember most about the making of it? Now that it's been out in the wild for a while, are you still into it? Do you still like it?

TS: Yeah. The only bummer is that we didn't get a chance to make a sequel. Now that we've released it on Steam, there's a chance that if we stumble upon some extra money we can make an add-on pack for it or something ourselves. But I really like that game.

I was watching It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown on TV the other day with my daughter, and I was thinking about all these great Halloween memories I have from that movie, and it was reminding me of Costume Quest in a really nice way. I remembered that that was in the inspiration for the team.

They looked at that as the kind of feeling they wanted to create, the great memories of Halloween and the warmth of the fall season and the spookiness and big kids and the way a kid looks at Halloween, and the candy, and all it fits together. I was watching the show and looking back on it -- I was feeling like the team did nail that aspect of it. I was really proud that that game does really capture a similar feeling to its original inspiration. If you can be half as good as Charlie Brown, you're doing okay.

The next one was Stacking, right?

TS: Yeah. And Stacking is just a beautiful game. That was unlike Costume Quest, where I wrote a lot of the dialog. I didn't write anything in Stacking. So the whole thing was a surprise to me. I could actually play it beginning to end, and I only knew about 10 percent of the puzzles from talking to Lee. So I actually got to play it like a fan, like a player. I had a really great time with that game. It had a really beautiful, unique feeling to it, and hilarious characters, and the whole basic premise being so original, I'm really pleased with it.

Iron Brigade reminded me of a smaller Brütal Legend.

TS: Well you can see that it's the one that uses the engine most directly. And also being made by Brad, who was a big part of the combat design in Brütal Legend. You can see his influence on that, and him being a combat guy. It's natural that he would make a game like that.

But the fact that Brütal Legend had four player co-op was Brad's thing. He loves playing games with his brother, who lives across the country, so co-op has always been important to him. So that game is all about co-op. He's never that interested in PVP, he wanted to do co-op, and I think it's great to see that kind of personal influence in a game.

And then finally, Once Upon a Monster. That one I felt... even though that wasn't necessarily your project, that was probably inspired by your life situation, having a young daughter.

TS: It really was Nathan's game. Het set off in the beginning to do something uplifting, which he'll talk about in interviews, but it's true. He's worked on a lot of dark games, and like me he's always lamented the fact that games are really narrow in focus. They seem to recycle the same points of view over and over again. Dark, as gritty as possible, shoot everything in sight kind of mentality, which can be exactly what you want sometimes. And I'm not putting games like that down. It's just that there's more to life than that, and there should be more games than that.

An emotion that doesn't get explored too much in games is joy. And thinking about that is a great, unique challenge. And that's a great thing that if one of the arms of Double Fine can reach out and touch that while we have Brad destroying monsters with giant grenade launching guns.

Did you get to go on set at Sesame Street?

TS: I did not go on to the street itself, but I did get to go to the filming of the intro to the game, where we had Cookie and Elmo in person. And that's where we filmed those videos I did with Cookie Monster, and that was as exciting for me as meeting Ozzy Osborne.

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