There are many reasons why Tim Schafer is the kind of guy people want to give thousands of dollars to.
Here’s one. Last week, I sent him an email asking if he’d speak to me for a new website I was setting up. He got straight back and said: ‘Yeah, I’ll call you later in the week’. It’s not like we’re old buddies – I interviewed him once at the Develop Conference in Brighton; he was funny and charming; he swapped business cards with his co-interviewee, Greg Zeschuk, co-founder of Bioware (now that would be an interesting collaboration), and then he left. That was it.
And then the Double Fine Adventure Kickstarter fund opened and smashed its target in two hours. Now Tim Schafer was the biggest story in the industry. He was in Las Vegas at the DICE event, he was being inundated with interview requests – a tornado of goodwill and admiration had opened up, with him at the epicentre.
I figured: oh well, I won’t hear from him again.
Yet, at the exact time we’d agreed two days before, he called me up at home. As the dollars rolled in, as his studio celebrated, he was talking to Hookshot Inc., a site he doesn’t know. A site nobody knows.
And that’s part of it, I think. As well as being a design genius, people will give him a million dollars to make a game, because he’s one of the good guys in the industry.
Also, he once called Bobby Kotick a prick.
Press Kick To Start
So anyway, the obvious question – why Kickstarter, why now? “Fans have asked many times over the years for us to do a graphic adventure,” he explains from his hotel room in Vegas. “But I’ve pitched to publishers before. When I showed them games like Psychonauts and Brutal Legend, they’d say, ‘your pitch is very… creative.’
“I knew we wouldn’t get an adventure funded. But I started to wonder how many fans there were out there. I thought, instead of me just saying ‘this is impossible’ let’s give those fans a shot at putting their money where their mouth is.”
Then something else happened. 2 Player Productions, the Oregon-based filmmakers who specialise in video game pieces, approached Tim about doing a documentary, following Double Fine through the production of a game. “I just tied that in with the idea of using Kickstarter – I said, hey, let’s make a game and a documentary. It all exploded from there.”
Schafer announced the fund via Twitter in the early hours of February 9. He was asking for $400,000 within 34 days.
He had that within eight hours.
By the end of the day, the fund was at over $1m thanks to over 30,000 backers. Most put in $15 for a copy of the game, but many of the more extravagant pledges were already disappearing, including lunch with Tim Schafer and Ron Gilbert at the princely sum of $10,000 (I wonder who’s picking up the tab).
Did he have any idea that this would happen? Any at all? Schafer laughs, “No! I guessed by the end of the first night we’d be at $2000. People were saying it’s crazy to ask for $400,000 on Kickstarter, but I was just working off what I knew it would actually cost to make a game. It’s shocking that games cost millions of dollars to make. But you’ve got to pay salaries. People are expensive…”
Three years ago, Schafer came to a realisation: the industry wasn’t working for him. Brutal Legend had been through development and publishing hell. Originally, it was due to be released by Vivendi, but when the company merged with Activision, Double Fine’s heavy metal action adventure was dropped.
EA picked it up but a messy legal battle erupted: Activision sued Double Fine, Double Fine countersued, and although the game eventually made it to release, it was no doubt compromised by the exhausting legal drama it had evoked. Then EA decided against a Brutal Legend sequel. The whole thing was over.
So Schafer’s plan was to go digital – small teams working on small projects. The sorts of offbeat, interesting games they wanted to make anyway. They pitched these to various publishing partners and the results were idiosyncratic treats like Costume Quest, Stacking and Iron Brigade.
Has the industry, with its burgeoning interest in digital distribution, come round to Schafer’s way of thinking? Has Double Fine killed the publisher? “Well, I’m not trying to vilify them,” he says. “Publishers do their business in a way that works for them. They’re risking millions of dollars so they’ve got to mitigate that risk – and sometimes that means removing risky ideas from games. The thing is, Double Fine is all about coming up with new, unproven and really creative ideas. It’s a constant battle for us to get those ideas to go through the system, that long spanking machine of people who have to sign off on you. They’re not evil, they’re just trying to protect themselves.”
Interestingly though, what Schafer has effectively done is swap from one kind of paymaster to another. Instead of a multinational corporation, the money-men behind Double Fine Adventure will be thousands of ardent fans. It certainly sounds like the perfect switch, but will this bring its own problems? What if those investors don’t like the way the game is going? What if they want too much control?
“Well, Double Fine is still going to be responsible for the game,” he asserts. “We can’t say, ‘we made a crummy game, but the fans made us do it.’ We’re going to make sure they get a game they like – and that doesn’t always mean doing something they’ve asked you to do. If you’re making a shooter and the fans say, ‘we want the shotgun to be more powerful’, you might not be able to do that because it’s tied in to a lot of other systems.
“So you just ask yourself, okay, why do they want the gun to be more powerful? What do they really want here? Then you give them what they really need, the thing that’s behind what they ask for. Do you know what I mean?” There’s a pause while I think it through. “The fans will get a really original adventure game,” he clarifies. “That’s what they want.”
I ask about 2011, a year in which the studio released three excellent titles. Is that success? Is that what this is all about? “Double Fine is a company that values its independence,” says Schafer. “We really value our employees, and…” there’s a slight pause, then Schafer shouts at someone else in the room, “why are you looking at me like that?! Of course I value you!” There is muffled laughter in the background and Tim returns. “…And we have a responsibility to make things happen for ourselves. It’s not enough to come up with great ideas, you have to come up with great business ideas, too. You have to protect yourself.
“But yes, we’ve been trying all these different projects, and it’s great – we have multiple teams and multiple leaders like Lee Petty, Brad Muir and Nathan Martz, people who are new, who can take on these projects. We’ll try out iOS devices, or maybe free-to-play, we’ll try licenses. We’re having a lot of fun doing it.”
Double Fine, then, is making the most of the digital era, coping a feel of all the new platforms and delivery methods. But there are frustrations, too. Schafer has watched the Xbox Live Arcade and PSN services dwindle away from fantastically promising beginnings to troubled, even fading services. “Ever since I played Geometry Wars I thought, what a great new portal,” he enthuses.
“But it seems that this year, the idea didn’t explode like it should have. Back when Castle Crashers came out, it seemed it was going to grow and grow. I just wish there was more support, more marketing, more placement on the dashboard. It could have been our own little Sundance Film festival, a great sandbox for indie development.
“But the indie community is now moving elsewhere; we’re figuring out how to fund and distribute games ourselves, and we’re getting more control over them. Those systems as great as they are, they’re still closed. You have to jump through a lot of hoops, even for important stuff like patching and supporting your game. Those are things we really want to do, but we can’t do it on these systems. I mean, it costs $40,000 to put up a patch – we can’t afford that! Open systems like Steam, that allow us to set our own prices, that’s where it’s at, and doing it completely alone like Minecraft. That’s where people are going.”
Notch On The Belt
Ah yes, Notch – that’s another interesting story, and again, it revolves around Twitter. A few weeks ago, Schafer was talking about the possibility of a Psychonauts sequel, and about the publisher indifference he’d encountered. On February 7, The Minecraft creator, now a wealthy man thanks to four million sales of his creative RPG builder, sent Schafer a short unambiguous tweet: “Let’s make Psychonauts 2 happen”.
Psychonauts was of course, Double Fine’s cult Xbox platformer, another title with massive fanboy appeal, stymied by its publisher, this time a financially misfiring Majesco. After the Notch tweet, Double Fine released a terse statement, “Tim and Markus are talking. Who knows what might happen?”
Who knows? Well, Schafer might. “Notch was serious about the offer,” he says. “We haven’t gone through what that would mean in a detailed way, but it’ a possibility. He has a couple of dollars… and you know, he’s one of those guys who has been successful and is handling it in a new way. Instead of joining a country club, he’s doing the things he thought were cool, before he was rich. He wants to make games. That’s what I would do if I had money.”
Here’s another great thing about Double Fine. The studio has this huge fanbase; these committed gamers who think they know what they’ll get from Tim and co. And then Tim and co take the Sesame Street license and make Once Upon A Monster, a totally unsardonic, joyful exploration of fairy tales and emotions. Inspired by that experience, the company has just launched Happy Action Theater, via XBLA, a Kinect toy based around movement and play. Tim has a two year-old daughter who has – as all children do to their parents – given him a new perspective on life and work.
“Kinect just challenges all our old ideas – and we wanted to take that farther,” he says. “What if you’re not even making a game, per se? All of a sudden that opens up tons of possibilities. And suddenly we’re like ‘hey we don’t need a skeletal tracking system, we can just find another way of tracking people so we can have six players, we can use their video image to help them see what they’re interacting with so they don’t need instructions. And then we just designed activities where kids just know what to do. When a bunch of balloons fall on a roomful of two-year-olds, they know what to do! When they see pigeons, they chase them, when they’re in a ball pit, they know how to play.
“It’s great to watch children play Happy Action Theater – they’re laughing, they’re running around, they’re being kids. There’s no frustration, there’s no way to fail. Although it wasn’t always that way. We get to watch Microsoft’s playtest feeds, so we’ve seen kids just standing there crying in the lava section… we had to make a few changes to that.”
As for the future, Schafer says Double Fine is certainly looking at mobile and free-to-play. He also told me that doing “a big game” was a possibility. “My whole time in games has been about having crazy ideas and turning them into real games,” he says.
Right now, he has one crazy idea to deal with – an idea that’s just got him over a million dollars in backing. Do he and old LucasArts cohort Ron Gilbert even have a concept for this thing? “I have some vague ideas floating around in my head,” he laughs.
“But importantly, this isn’t just making a game, but making a viable documentary about it. People often ask where ideas come from and how they turn into games, and this is a great way to show the entire process from loose ideas to a developed concept. We’re going to put it all on camera. It’ll be like The Office, with me as Ricky Gervais.”
The talk drifts back to what’s going on at Kickstarter. Those dollars rolling in. Schafer started that day with a vague idea that people loved the adventure games he once made and ended it with the funds to bring them back. How weird is that?
“If you have a good story to tell, you’ll get support from backers,” he says. “And we had a good story to tell with this one. Sometimes you ship a game and you say, ‘oh, what are we doing? No one cares!’. Then something like that happens – a huge outpouring of goodwill… and money… It was like the end of It’s a Wonderful Life.”
We joke about ditching the documentary idea, and just making a feel-good movie out of this whole experience. It could end with Schafer delirious with gratitude, running through the Las Vegas streets. “Thank you Luxor, you crazy old pyramid!” he yells.
Kickstarter, the romantic comedy? Stranger things have happened. And I know at least 35,000 people who wouldn’t just pay to see it, they’d give Tim the money to make it, too.