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Interview: Double Fine's Harris - From Pixar To  Costume Quest

Interview: Double Fine's Harris - From Pixar To Costume Quest

October 20, 2010 | By Christian Nutt

October 20, 2010 | By Christian Nutt
More: Console/PC

Gamasutra recently had a chance to speak to studio creative director Tim Schafer about Double Fine's new creative and business direction. The company, post-Brutal Legend, has split into four teams and is working exclusively on downloadable titles.

The first to be released is Costume Quest for Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network, out this week, and Tasha Harris is the project lead on the Halloween-themed role-playing game.

The game sprung from her imagination -- in fact, it's based on a concept she came up with when she was very young. It's the kind of game that could only exist in today's digital download market: a real child's imagination coupled with Earthbound-influenced design.

To find out more, Gamasutra spoke to Harris, as well, who not just talks about the design of her game, but why she left Pixar to end up at a game developer.

Tim was saying this was based on an idea you've had like since you were a kid?

Tasha Harris: Yeah, it's pretty funny. When I was a kid, I was always drawing, but I always loved video games. So I would draw out some ideas for games, and I remember drawing these little pixelated kids trick or treating.

It was just this idea I had kind of kicking around my head from a long time ago... but I never really fleshed it out. I knew it was like a Halloween game, [with] trick or treating and kids, but that was kind of all I had.

When Tim kicked off the game jam, or the Amnesia Fortnight, how did you settle on actually going with that idea?

TH: Well, like I said, it was kind of an idea that I had in my head for a while. I had mentioned it to Tim just kind of casually. I think maybe we were out to lunch one day or something, and he's the one who picks the projects for the Amnesia Fortnight.

So, he was the one who asked me, "Hey, do you want to lead a project for Amnesia Fortnight. Do you want to do Costume Quest?" I mean, at the time, it didn't have a name even, but it was more his decision. I just brought the idea to him.

Your background is primarily in art?

TH: Yeah, animation. I studied 2D animation at CalArts.

You worked at Pixar?

TH: Yeah.

So, you were originally in sort of the animation track, more cinema or film animation.

TH: Yeah. Actually, at the time when I got out of school -- I think it was around the Super Nintendo time, or maybe the PlayStation 1 had just come out -- but games didn't have the high quality of animation they do now. So animators generally wanted to go into film or TV, maybe. And I really liked stuff like The Simpsons, not necessarily Disney stuff but stuff that was a little bit more quirky and funny.

And Pixar offered me an internship, and it was funny because, at the time, Toy Story 1 had just come out and not a lot of animators were interested in working on the computer, but I love computers. So, I was like, "Oh, this is great. This is two things I like, put together."

So I was really happy to get that offer, and that was how I ended up at Pixar. But it was kind of funny because, at the time we had these portfolio days where studios would come to CalArts to recruit animators, but there were no game companies there. It was just all TV and film. I think that would probably be different now. [laughs]

Well, it's funny because if you had stayed at Pixar, you probably wouldn't be leading a project.

TH: Right, right. I wouldn't say that's the reason I left Pixar, but in a way... the company just got really big. I think it's over a thousand people now. When I first started there, it was around maybe 250. That's still big, but it just kept getting bigger and bigger, and I kept feeling like I was a smaller part of each project. So, I really was interested in working at a smaller place where I felt like I had more ownership of the final product.

So, that was one of the reasons I wanted to work at Double Fine. But also, I really was interested in trying something new and trying games because I was always a fan of games. I knew Tim through some mutual friends [and] it seemed like a natural fit because I had loved his previous games, and I just love funny stuff.

I love stuff that's kind of stylized, a little different, so it just seemed like a natural fit. It wasn't necessarily because I wasn't being a lead, but it was more because of the ownership thing, where you don't necessarily feel like you're that important to the finished product. If they have a hundred animators, how important do you really feel to the finished thing?

How long have you been at Double Fine?

TH: Four years, about.

So, you were there for most of Brutal [Legend]?

TH: Yeah. I worked on Brutal for about three years, almost since the beginning, but they had a little bit of the game running when I first came here.

So, you didn't really have any issues when you came into the company, with the shift from working long projects to many short projects, because you had no idea that was going to take off....

TH: No, because when I first came here, Brutal Legend was a pretty big, long project. I was just really excited to be learning something different because animation for games, especially at a small company, is a lot different than animation for film. At Pixar... it's very focused. Everyone is focused on their specialty, so animators are very focused on just doing really good animation. That's why their animation is so good. They spend all this time like polishing this one shot.

But in game animation, you have to work with a lot more limitations. We might not have all the controls necessary for this character, or we might have to get this done in a day. So you have to work around some limitations. There's a lot more challenges.

And also, because it's a smaller company, you end up doing more things. I learned modeling and rigging since I've been here. We do our own layouts, which is all the camera work, which we didn't do at Pixar. So I feel like, in a way, it's much more challenging, but I kind of enjoy that. It keeps me interested in my job.

How did you arrive at doing an RPG? Was that part of your original dream?

TH: It wasn't, but I've always really liked RPGs. It's always been my favorite genre, I guess, especially with Super Nintendo. That was when all the really good ones started coming out. I loved all the Dragon Quest games and all the Final Fantasys. Earthbound has always been one of my favorite games of all time.

Even now, I'll go back and play it sometimes. I guess the whole thing with the costumes and pretending to be someone your not, it is kind of like roleplaying. So, Halloween, it's kind of a roleplaying experience, so it goes with the genre, I think.

I liked that one line. I played the demo, and I think it was Wren who said Halloween is "the night you could be who you really are".

TH: Yeah, that's one of the things I really always liked about Halloween, the imaginative-ness of it, the creativity. This one time I wanted to be Darth Vader, but my parents wouldn't actually buy me the real Darth Vader mask or anything, so I just made this really crappy looking, hobnobbed Darth Vader costume out of this helmet and some skateboarding pads and stuff. [laughs]

It looked really stupid, but nobody's going to make fun of you for wearing it because you're a kid and it's Halloween. I always loved playing pretend, when I was a kid. Even not on Halloween, just playing dress-up or playing superheroes.

I haven't played much of the game, but ... it's about how kids can give you a window into your own adult emotions... it works on more than one level, right?

TH: Yeah, that was one of the things that I wanted to get across in the game, that nostalgic feeling of these kids playing dress-up; it's kind of freeing in a way. But I think people, even adults, still experience that on Halloween. Halloween is pretty popular for adults, too.

Especially in San Francisco. Last Halloween they were calling it the straight pride parade. Everyone sort of lets go.

TH: Yeah. For research for this game, I looked at a lot of old pictures of kids dressed in Halloween costumes, and that's one of the feelings I'd like to get across to adults playing it -- that kind of warm, fuzzy feeling you get when it's like, "Aw! This is awesome," you know?

It's funny that you mention Earthbound because it really does seem it would be the most obvious influence... do you think that's the case?

TH: Definitely. There's obviously other influences -- it's all these different things that I like from different games all mashed together, given my own twist to it. But Earthbound is definitely an influence. I really like how Earthbound took place in a modern setting. I guess Pokemon, those RPGs do that, too, but for some reason, it seemed really cool to me, especially when I was first playing it, it just seemed different from all the other RPGs. The Japanese quirkiness of it, it's not the typical RPG setting... I definitely wanted that to get across in the game.

It's cool, because something I've seen this generation that I personally like is seeing sort of the classic game influences start bubbling up the surface of people. I think the download titles are really enabling that.

TH: Yeah, I noticed that, too. People who have been growing up playing games, now we're making games. We can take what we learned or what we grew up with, what we loved growing up, and put that into the games we make now. Like Shadow Complex, a Metroid-style game, but modernized. So, that was kind of what I wanted to do, make a game that was like the RPGs that I loved growing up, but make it modernized so it looks cool and people enjoy playing it now.

I talked to Tim a little bit about the game, and he talked about prioritizing combat and exploration as the two things you concentrated on -- to really get those right. How did you define what you wanted to achieve with this game at the outset? Because you didn't really have very long.

TH: That's true. [laughs] I didn't have very long. I think one thing is taking influences from other games that I liked, like Legend of Zelda... I really liked how in Zelda, you find these new items, and that enables you to explore new areas.

So, that's what we did with the exploration mode abilities, where the costumes have abilities, and that enables you to move on to other areas. And then the combat, it's similar to other turn-based RPGs, but it's given this spin of costume abilities. So, all the abilities go with the costumes. But we used those classic RPG abilities -- you've got the classics like defender, attacker, healer, the trilogy there -- adapted to the different costumes.

So, you start with the design, and then fleshed it out through the theme?

TH: Right. That's been the hardest part for me, learning more about game design, because the theme I felt was very solid. The core game mechanic of collect candy, get costumes, trick or treat... I felt like those things were really solid, but figuring out the mechanics of how this would actually work was the most challenging aspect for me.

I've really been learning a lot through this whole process. A lot of it is just play-testing and figuring out "Is this fun? Is this too repetitive? We need to add another enemy type here or another ability here." That type of thing.

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