Since switching to its current Amnesia Fortnight-fuelled model, Double Fine has embraced an ethos of bold ideas, rapid prototyping and smaller games. With Happy Action Theatre, its newly released Kinect mini-game collection, the studio is taking this outlook to perhaps its natural extreme, collating 18 “activities” that strip away the rules and encourage a return to carefree, experimental play.
We caught up with company founder and industry veteran Tim Schafer to discuss why Double Fine abandoned Kinect's defining technology, the consistently surprising whims of younger gamers, and throwing out any traditional understanding of what constitutes a game.
When we spoke to you about Sesame Street: Once Upon A Monster last year, you described young players as a “force of nature”. Was that the starting point for Happy Action Theatre? Yeah: It’s watching the chaos that ensues when young players are in front of a Kinect game. They want to jump around, get off camera, get up really close, then grab your leg and climb on your shoulders. I felt like the Kinect hardware was powerful enough that it should not only not break when that happens, but thrive. What kind of game could you make that would respond to that chaos – a room full of toddlers or a dorm room full of adults? Students, I mean [laughs].
You've focused on goal-less interaction and fun; more a toy than a game. It became pretty clear that it couldn’t be a game. One of the troubles we’ve always had, even with Once Upon A Monster, is that if you’re trying to make something fair and competitive you have to be really careful with Kinect. For example, you’re in a race and somebody runs in front of another player and you lose that player – tricky things can happen if people don’t play by the rules. Little kids never play by the rules. So one of the founding principles from the very beginning was to not have any rules or win/fail conditions, and just have a free space to explore and have fun in. We call Happy Action Theatre’s individual elements activities and it’s really more of a toy overall. It’s meant to be something you play with. We talk about sandbox games, but this is almost literally a sandbox! It’s just full of hot lava.
Did you encounter any limitations with Kinect? We purposely built activities that went with the strengths of Kinect and worked around whatever weaknesses it has. There’s a lot of strength and power in the skeletal tracking system, but I think it also leads to things like it being hard for players to get too close to each other. So we actually avoided the skeletal tracking system except as an additive, optional thing. For all the basic gameplay we used the rougher ‘potential player locator’ – I think that’s the technical term, but we just call it 'player blobs'. We track their motion a little bit so you can do things like punching and kicking even though you’re just a blob.
I think the important thing with Kinect games is not to port over some game; you don’t want to take a game that’s meant for controller and try and make it work for Kinect. You have to start all the way from scratch and think about what the hardware does that never could have been done before and make an experience around that. And if you’re really open-minded about it and you’re willing to throw away even the concept of it being a game, then I think the best things are made that way.
In terms of narrative and mechanics, Double Fine’s output to date has been consistently sophisticated. Was it a challenge to regress, as designers, back to more primal play? [Laughs] That was a really fun process because the game is made of little bite-sized pieces that we could prototype in a day. Sometimes our programmers or effects artists would just come up with stuff in a few minutes. And so it was really a lesson in the advantages of rapid prototyping. Instead of sitting around debating whether this upgrade system would work after 30 hours of gameplay, we’d just try it and make it work. And it was really surprising, because at least a third of the things that I was sure would be fun, weren’t fun, and we ended up cutting them. While we were working on it, new activities would emerge just from watching kids playtest the game. We were like, ‘Hey, what does that kid want to do? He seems to want to smash buildings…” [laughs]. So that was really educational because I think that’s probably true of big games too: a lot of the stuff you think is going to be fun, turns out to not be fun. But by that point on a big game, you’ve already invested a million dollars in the feature and so you’ve just got to make it work…
How did you approach the task of self-editing all these ideas? First we just brainstormed a bunch of crazy ideas for what you could do. And then edited that critically, making sure that the activities took advantage of the hardware; we really used the depth buffer and the player identifier and sound identification and things you just couldn’t do before. For example: the hot lava flows into your living room, and wraps around the geometry of your furniture and your legs.
Actually, it was really surprising because for the hot lava activity I thought the kids would jump up on the couch to avoid it, but instead they’d lay on their back and hide in it! So we added new gameplay based on that and added an achievement called ‘I know now why you cry,’ because everyone who gets in the lava sticks their thumb up in the air like Terminator! [Laughs] And then we made it so when you stand up afterwards you have fireball hands and you can throw these fireballs around, but if you hit a friend with one, they’ll turn into ash, like Pompeii, and then if they move they shatter and you’re actually gone from the scene.
Did you include many other Pixar-style winks to the adults? There are definitely easter eggs for Double Fine fans -have a lot of secret appearances by Raz and even some of the mobile trenches from Iron Brigade. So there are little things like that, and more things in there like the Terminator achievement.