Develop: Double Fine's Schafer On 'Amnesia Fortnights' And The Pitfalls Of AAA
It was during the difficult times during the development of Brutal Legend that the shoots of new growth sprung up for Double Fine productions. The studio's now shifting away from an AAA development model to a "less high-risk strategy," according to co-founder and president Tim Schafer, addressing audiences at UK conference Develop on the evening of the studio's ten-year anniversary.
According to Schafer's Gamasutra-attendfed lecture at the event, those change-making challenges for Brutal Legend now somewhat infamously began when the game lost its first publisher in the acquisition of Vivendi by Activision.
During this period, Schafer introduced 'Amnesia Fortnight', -- an idea he borrowed from the film director Kar Wai Wong, who developed the scripts for two of his most popular movies, Chungking Express and Fallen Angels, by holing up in a hotel room for two weeks and improvising with a small cast of actors.
Schafer split the Double Fine studio into four teams. Senior staff headed three, while one had to self-organize. Each of the teams was charged with designing and developing a prototype for a smaller game, before presenting it to the rest of the company at the end of the two-week period.
"The exercise led to four enjoyable demos, and provided a huge morale boost to the studio’s staff," explained Schafer. "It kind of felt like a mini-indie games festival within our own company." However, it wasn’t until Brutal Legend 2 was canceled by EA that the true value in Amnesia Fortnight was realized.
Having banked on the AAA sequel, and not wanting to lay off any staff in the downtime between projects, Schafer was reminded of the demos they had created during the previous project and took them on a pitching ‘road show’ to a variety of publishers. "We thought maybe one or two might get signed," he said. "In two months, we managed to get all four games signed, enabling us to become a multi-project studio."
"The benefits to making smaller games with budgets of $1-2 million compared to $40-50 million are huge," said Schafer. "With a triple-A game, when there’s so much money invested, the risks for a publisher are huge. The more money you ask for from an investor, the more that you have to give up. No matter where in the world your publisher is based, they will remove features that could potentially alienate any users when the stakes are so high."
"This can be deeply frustrating if you are interested in making games that aren’t necessarily universal but are more daring or experimental," he added. "Moreover, the chances of withholding IP rights are very small on such large projects. While publishers will still try to take your IP rights on smaller titles, you’re more likely to be able to hang onto them."
Schafer talked about how working on multiple projects with different publishers concurrently has been a healthy change for the studio. "Sometimes, when working on a single triple-A project, you can begin to foster a parent/ child relationship with the publisher, where they provide you with dev kits and all of the equipment you need. This can lead you to think that the publisher is there for your benefit, but the reality is that they are their own business, and are looking out for their interests."
"Then as soon as they take that support away, you can be left floundering," he warned. "Working with multiple publishers helps you to realize the reality of the situation. It feels a lot more healthy to me."
"I don’t know whether we’ll be making smaller games forever," he added. "The primary benefit has been in enabling us to move to a multiple game development set-up. We have choice, and can do small or larger games, or mix it up. That has been hugely liberating."