An Audience With: Tim Schafer – Double Fine’s boss on episodic games, Kickstarter and Brütal Legend 2

Tim Schafer

Double Fine creative director Tim Schafer.

Few developers can lay claim to as many cherished games, or characters, as Tim Schafer. Starting out as a tester at LucasArts in 1989, he worked his way up to tools programmer, then co-wrote 1990’s The Secret Of Monkey Island with Ron Gilbert. Full Throttle and Grim Fandango saw Schafer refine his idiosyncratic storytelling style, even as the genre he’d helped shape began to stutter. His more recent work as creative director of Double Fine – Stacking, Sesame Street: Once Upon A Monster, Brütal Legend – has contained a series of experiments with both story and format, but Kickstarter phenomenon Broken Age marks a long-awaited return to his roots. Here, we ask Schafer about resuscitating the point-and-click with a new funding model, and the state of storytelling in modern games.

Why did you decide to take Broken Age: Act 1 out of Steam Early Access and put it up on the storefront?
Initially, we thought, ‘It’s in beta [and] it’s going to have some bugs while we fix the second half, so we’re going to release it on Early Access’. But when we looked at how the team had polished it all up, it looked like a complete package, not some incomplete broken alpha. We did mock reviews for the first time, and those came back very positive, so we decided to move it and thought, ‘Hey, this deserves to be on regular old Steam’.

Did you have any concerns about returning to point-and-click games after so many years?
It was fun to revisit them after a lot of time and see how not everything adventure games used to do has been replaced. It seemed like in the old days, adventure games had the monopoly on character and story and beautiful art and sound. And then other games kind of caught up with those things: they present a narrative, they have beautiful art and music. But it was interesting seeing what was still left behind. A lot of it was hard to describe, but it was a pacing thing. It was the way that your mind works when you play an adventure game [and] how it is to play something that moves at your pace and lets you sit there and think if you want to sit there and think. And it was really fun to examine that, to think about what is really important to adventure games and what isn’t. Like, is it super-important that we have a million verbs on the screen, or is it more important that you’re transported to another world and that you feel like you’re in a real place, and that you’re exploring and thinking about how the pieces of the puzzles fit together?

Schafer’s return to point-and-click adventure games has been a triumph. Read our Broken Age review through the link.

The quality of storytelling in videogames today is often underwhelming. Does that frustrate you?
No, it leaves a lot of room to stand out as being a good writer in games! [Laughs] But I agree that there’s not a lot of good writing in games, and it’s frustrating that even when you see games that are held up as great examples of writing, you think: if that game was a movie, you would never go see it. You would never talk about that story. You’re just so amazed that a game has any story at all that you’re calling this an amazing story. But really it wouldn’t stand up to a book, or even a comic book. I wish standards were higher, but I think the best thing to do is try to make the best games you can – I don’t think it’s solvable any other way.

What’s your take on Telltale’s The Walking Dead?
The interesting thing is what they’re doing isn’t bringing back point-and-click, but they’re kind of carving out their own genre of interactive narratives more similar to Heavy Rain-type interactions that’s more about player choice and not so much about puzzles. And so I think that’s a branch on the family tree of narrative-based interactive fiction, and point-and-click adventures are another, just like text adventures. For people who like exploring fantasy worlds and discovering interesting characters and places, they might like all of those kinds of genres. But some people only like one or the other, so I think it’s great that Telltale’s carving out brand new territory.

Do you think the time between instalments in episodic gaming is holding the model back from its potential?
It’s agonising sometimes waiting a week for a new episode of Game Of Thrones! And when [shows] go away for a while, you feel like punching the TV, ’cause you’re like, “C’mon, just give me the entertainment I want right now!” But the reality is that it’s different for the people making the stuff; I can see why it would take four months to make an episode of The Wolf Among Us. But people are used to comic books coming out maybe once a month, you know? That might work for [comics], but it’s hard to make a game in a month. It takes a month to stabilise a build and fix the bugs sometimes. And so you would have to pretty much have multiple teams working on it [to] deliver one a month, and I’ve seen people try that. A lot of people are working on those problems, and Telltale is probably ahead of everyone in that area.

Telltale has led the way in delivering episodic games like The Wolf Among Us and The Walking Dead, says Schafer.

But do you think episodic gaming could benefit from staggered development, something closer to TV?
I don’t know; people are coming up with new models all the time. Alpha funding is really interesting because the public can weigh in on the direction your game takes. And it’s great for [developers] who don’t have a lot of money, because they can take some of the money that people want to pay just based on the promise of your game and use it to fulfil that promise. I don’t think any one answer is really the right one for games, because they’re all so different and demand different things from people. I think episodic works for some games, alpha funding works for others, and the regular old ‘wait a year for your next edition of Halo’ works for that game. I just like the fact that people are exploring new methods all the time and coming up with new ways to deliver the goods.

Broken Age’s Vella is a wonderfully naturalistic and strong female character. How do you feel about the state of female characters in games right now?
There’s a lot of things that overlap between issues of social justice and issues of creativity, and they overlap a lot. Some people might describe it as representational issues in games – maybe they want to have characters of this type or that type – but there’s a creative reason to tell new stories that haven’t been told before, and that leads you to telling the stories of characters who often aren’t featured in games. That just naturally creates stories that feel fresh, which also means characters that feel fresh, and making them feel fleshed out and real is a creative thing. All your characters need to be fleshed out and real. And it’s not like you’re doing that on purpose just to make a person of a certain gender or ethnicity believable, you just want all of them to be [that way]. I’ve always done that. In Full Throttle, we had this character called Maureen who thinks you killed her father for a long time. I remember making a special chart for what Maureen thinks is going on throughout every act in the game. So while you are trying to clear your name of the crime, I’m thinking, ‘OK, even though she’s not in the scene, I want to consider what she’s thinking about all through this, so that when you see her again, she’s been through something, she’s changed and now she’s thinking differently’. And it shows in her dialogue, her posture and everything. You want to think through all of your characters.

What’s your response to the criticisms levelled at what people assumed was an expensive Broken Age cast?
It’s amazing that people somehow knew what we paid everybody. What amazing accountants they must be! I mean, we can’t go into details about what people were paid, but if Double Fine does something, you can pretty much count on the fact that we did it in a very scrappy and affordable way. I can tell you that from the very beginning we had a budget per line in the game, and our costs per line didn’t go up from that very first budget. We had more lines in the end – so our overall voice budget was bigger, because the game grew bigger – but our cost per line never went up.

Questions were asked about how much Double Fine was paying the voice talent on Broken Age, though of course the figures have never been disclosed.

In a game that relies on its story, getting the cast right is surely a priority.
I feel like it’s really important. The reason we used people like Jack Black and Elijah Wood is not because they’re famous, but because they’re super-great actors. When I worked with Jack on Brütal Legend, I did kind of pick him for that, because he’s so close to what I had imagined for Eddie. But then after working with him in the studio and seeing how broad his range is, casting him as a completely different person in Broken Age was a great thing to be able to do. And with Elijah, I was really worried that Shay would come off as whiny and petulant, because he’s such a teenager and so over it and rolling his eyes all the time. And I was like, “People are not going to like this guy, because he seems like a spoiled brat”. But when we cast Elijah, he’s such a good actor that he brought this warmth to it, and you just can’t help but like Shay and identify with his boredom and frustration. And not to mention all the other great actors like Masasa Moyo and Jennifer Hale, who can just do anything. So it’s great to work with great artists of all kinds.

You’ve expressed misgivings about the way dialogue trees are handled in games. Do you have any ideas as to how they might be improved?
I just remember when we were doing Grim Fandango, we changed a lot about the [classic point-and-click] interface. Our mantra was ‘No metaphors’. There’s no metaphor for the interface in Grim Fandango. You see Manny’s hand reach into his coat, he pulls out an object: everything is literal. We don’t show that he’s interested in an object by highlighting a glow. We show that he’s interested by tilting his head and all that stuff. The only thing we couldn’t turn into a literal display was the dialogue trees, and I was like, “I literally don’t have a better idea for dialogue tree than dialogue tree”. [Laughs] In Psychonauts, we were able to put the dialogue trees in a thought bubble, and I was like, “Well, that’s kind of literal”.

Having succeeded on Kickstarter, do you think crowdfunding is here to stay?
I think it’s definitely here to stay. I don’t think it’s necessarily the answer for every situation, but it definitely changes the game completely. Not every person is going to be able to pull it off, but if they have a really compelling idea and a really interesting take on it, they can call people to support their project and don’t need to go ask some big company for a lot of money. Which is great, because that money’s going to come with a lot of strings attached. It’s great because it allows people to say they want their favourite show to come back on the air, or they want their favourite game genre that’s not being made any more to get made. I don’t think people are ever going to turn away from that. What I hope is that people learn to understand what Kickstarter is, because I think there’s people who really get it – that you’re backing an artist who you believe in, and you’re getting rewards as a thank you gift – and people who think it’s just a preorder system, like a loosey-goosey version of Amazon or something. It’s not that, and the people who don’t understand that are very frustrated and sceptical of it.

Kickstarter is often controversial because people are still figuring out exactly what it is, says Schafer.

Are you concerned about Kickstarter’s tendency to bring back dormant series and genres, though?
No, I think the great thing about Kickstarter is that it’s self-correcting, you know? If there’s people that want it, it will work out, and if there aren’t people who want it, it will not work out. If there’s someone who uses it, abuses the system and doesn’t deliver, they won’t be able to do that again. So it might take time to work all these things through, and the whole backlog of things that people think can be resurrected might have to pass through it, but once that’s done, I think things will correct and it will adjust.

Is there anything you don’t like about Kickstarter?
The main problems are we don’t know how to do a lot of things right with Kickstarter yet. Like press embargoes – when we went out to backers, there was a little hullabaloo about embargoes. Maybe this is more about transparency than about Kickstarter, because we’re being really transparent with our process and letting our backers see everything. Most people just don’t realise that many reviews are embargoed, and for very real practical reasons. Like, maybe the guy from Edge is in town this week, but our game’s not shipping till next week, and all the other reviews are going to come out then. But he’s going to look at it today, so we do this embargo and that way everyone gets a fair shot at having a review without being scooped. That’s one of the reasons they exist, for sure. But we were giving our game out to the backers who might have wanted to write reviews of it themselves, and they’d have the opportunity to do that before the press, which seemed kind of unfair.

So we were like, sheepishly, “Please just try not to talk about it. If you can just wait two weeks before you do your in-depth reviews. Maybe do some let’s plays?” And some people don’t have the mentality that they’re backing or supporting an artist by pledging on Kickstarter, but that they’re purchasing a product. And they were like, “I purchased a product, I get to talk about it. This is my game and you can’t tell me not to…” And so there were a couple of people who were breaking the embargo, so we just felt like, oh, we’ll just let it go, so we lifted it. I think people just resented being told they couldn’t do something, and they found it horrifying to think that there was such a thing as an embargo. But a lot of our process through doing the Broken Age documentary is kind of horrifying people and letting them know the funny things that go on behind their games that they don’t know about. And so the only downside to Kickstarter is that we’re in such a new, untested territory. You don’t know how people are going to react, and there are so many people who are suspicious of Kickstarter and feel like it’s a scam or Ponzi scheme. I think time will prove them wrong, but in the meantime it’s slightly annoying having to deal with them.

You said recently that you’d like to return to Brütal Legend. Is that something you’re considering seriously?
The only thing annoying about those news stories is that I say that in every interview when anybody asks me! Whenever someone’s like, “Hey, do you want to do a sequel to this game?” I’m like, “Yeah, sure, dude!” Given the opportunity, I’d do a sequel to any game. If someone was like, “Hey, here’s a bunch of money – make a sequel to that game,” I’d probably have ideas for whatever game they’re talking about. Now that we’ve shown that we can make our own opportunities with Broken Age, people are asking again if we can do that, but I don’t know if I could Kickstart a $30m game, which is roughly what Brütal 2 might cost. But while we could do that sequel, we also have a bunch of new ideas that we want to make instead, which has been the main reason we haven’t done sequels. Well, apart from Kinect Party, of course!

Any mention of Brutal Legend 2 tends to attract headlines, but it seems unlikely right now – it’d cost about $30 million to make, says Schafer.

If you did go back to make another Brütal Legend, what would you do differently?
It’s still our best-selling game, but even with that it had this huge polarisation when it released: some people just did not like the RTS elements. I think there’s a lot we could do to make the RTS elements better, and better explained, and I would love to get the opportunity to do that. But there are some people who would be like, “I just wanna do the story and I really don’t want all these other elements,” and the question would be to what point I’d allow those people to change the game. Part of me just likes [the idea of] fixing what’s there and being true to the original. Because the original idea for the game happened all the way back when I played the first Warcraft. I wanted to do a version with big daddy rock demons and hot rods. It’s so core to what the game is to me that I can’t imagine getting rid of that. And I also feel that most of the people who complained about that were the ones who didn’t necessarily really give it a fair shake. I mean, I still go and play that game online with people and I love the staged battles, so I really wish that there was a way to make them easier to enjoy for everybody.

Broken Age initially felt like a bonus project, but do you see a future in making more point-and-click games?
We have the engine for it now, and the know-how, that’s for sure. Historically, we’ve always made the opposite of whatever our last game was, but who knows? Next time we do Amnesia Fortnight [Double Fine’s yearly prototype game jam], if anyone pitches a game that uses that engine, then we could be off and running on a new adventure game. It also depends on how well Broken Age does!