With Costume Quest, Stacking and Trenched already in the wild, and Sesame Street: Once Upon A Monster soon to join them, Double Fine's Amnesia Fortnights have proved nothing if not prolific. We speak to studio founder and development legend Tim Schafer about the inspiration for the fortnights and how they've affected the studio's fortunes.
Double Fine exists in a limbo between the indies and the big studios. How did that happen?
We're rarely under the same publisher. What does that tell you, that we're just hard to work with? [Laughs] You know, it's not about publishers. I hope I won't get in trouble for saying this, but it's about the people at the publishers. There'll be different people at different publishers with different directives and different priorities, and every once and a while there'll be someone whose priorities match Double Fine's and we want to do a thing together. But things don't stay the same at publishers for very long; they usually reorganise, people leave, they change their priorities or what platform they're most into. So we have to move to where the game is.
So does working on more games increase your chances of matching your ideas with publishers?
That was part of the survival technique of doing shorter games. I found that by doing five-year games – which I don't recommend – you're going to deal with at least three publisher reorganisations. At Vivendi, we had three different regimes while we were working on Brutal Legend, and then the merger happened. It was a scramble each time, and we managed it each time. Every time the regime would change we'd have to go down there and say, 'Hey, we're so glad that guy's gone, you're the best!' Each time we'd have to get in good with the new regime, and we got pretty good at that. That was our problem with Psychonauts: we had a champion at Microsoft and then that person left and the new guy said, 'What's this? Why is it late?' Don't be late, that's the other thing I learned. So if you get in and get your game done in a year, you can probably avoid a re-org. And even if you do have a re-org you probably only have a couple months left on your project in order to avoid them dropping the axe.
Trenched is a tower defence-cum-thirdperson shooter set in an alternative post WWI world
Which led to the Amnesia Fortnight project?
We had done one Amnesia Fortnight in the middle of Brutal Legend, and one at the end, so we had eight prototypes. I thought eventually we'd start working on smaller games with the extra money that we got from these huge games, and then we found out that Brutal Legend 2 wasn't happening. We had nothing else for the team to do and no money coming in, but we had those protypes so we said, 'Well, let's get the best four signed'. The thing I like about it is that we had a catastrophic event and the company saved itself purely based on the creativity of the team. Lee, Tasha, Brad, and Nathan – their ideas. The team came together just to make great prototypes to show them off – it wasn't like someone swooped in with a bunch of money, it was just that we could say, 'Oh, you don't like that game? What about these four?'
Where did the idea for Amnesia Fortnight come from?
I got it from that film director Wong Kar-Wai, he was working on this epic medieval movie called Ashes of Time, and it was this whole ordeal out on location. It was really grueling, and it took three years – [Laughs] although three years, that's nothing – and everyone was getting bogged down by the whole production and he said, 'You know what? I'm gonna take my cinematographer, and my two stars, and we're gonna fly to Hong Kong and just mess around and shoot some stuff.' And then they just improvised, writing the script as they went, and in two weeks they made enough footage for what would become Chungking Express and Fallen Angels, which are his two most famous films. And then they went back and finished Ashes of Time. We spent five years in the world of Brutal Legend, and that game has one vision of the world, which is 'Heavy Metal is fucking awesome.' I'm into that, and some of the team was into that, but I know it must be a drag for some people to be stuck in the world of Eddie Riggs for that long.
So, I thought, let's take a little break from it and do [Amnesia Fortnight], two of the games from which would eventually become Trenched and Once Upon A Monster. It was just a way of doing a creative break for the team, not to make games to make per se, but I always knew that if we got a great idea for a small game that we could make it. Ever since Geometry Wars came out, I thought, 'Wow, there is a way on a console to make a tiny game and have it be cool and sell a lot and get out to a lot of people.' I always wanted to make one of those, to make a game that size. We were just fooling around with it and then it turned out to be the thing that saved us, and that's why we're still here as a company.
Costume Quest, an RPG released in October 2010, was the first in the Amnesia Fortnight series of games
You've got people doing all sorts of things, and there's a lot of shuffling going on among teams. Do you do a lot of on-the-job training?
In a smaller company you definitely wear a lot of hats. If we were at 250-person team, someone would only be painting trees, or something like that. But at a smaller company people do move around as needed, which is one of the strengths of having multiple projects.
Sustainability is a hot topic right now, with much talk of crunch, overtime and working conditions at a lot of major studios. How was crunch on these four smaller games?
You should ask the team, because I didn't work crunch on these games. [Laughs] These games are too short to have death marches; they'd have some periods of intense focus, but the whole project's really only a year. I don't want to say there wasn't any crunch, because the team might say, 'Well, there wasn't any for you!' There's definitely still a lot of work to do [with a smaller game], but you can't get as behind the eight-ball as you can on a big project. Like on Brutal Legend, we had two years. When you have a lot of time, to someone like me – someone who's more creatively minded and not very good with schedules – it feels like an infinite amount of time. And then it slowly creeps in, and you don't really realise it until you say, 'Wait a second, we're going to be a year late. Wait! How did that happen overnight?' On these smaller projects, you're always going to want a little more time than you have, but that amount is smaller because there're fewer features and less chaos. It's more manageable, which means less crunch.
Do you think about going back to selling games on disc?
Well, it's not like we're 100 per cent committed to doing games of any certain size; that was just one way of going multiple-project. We couldn't do four Brutal Legends at once, you know? And there're things I like about our size, and things I like about big games too. Eventually I'd like to do a mix.