Tim Schafer on Amnesia Fortnight, the game jam powering the Double Fine ideas factory

Tim Schafer

Game jams are “a reaction to what a bottomless well of time games can be,” says Double Fine boss Tim Schafer.

It’s an unavoidable truth of game development that sometimes months – often years – of work might never be released, or be modified and compromised beyond all recognition.

Double Fine has found a way around that wasteful culture with its Amnesia Fortnight, a game jam which started in 2007 and is described by the studio ‘a lawless, unforgiving, creative supernova’. It has since not only become a regular fixture on the developer’s calendar, but a vital source of new ideas. Production on all current projects stops dead, and before the two weeks begin there’s an open invitation – anyone in the company can pitch a game idea, and it has a chance of getting made. In previous years, studio founder Tim Schafer would choose the most promising concepts and teams would split off into smaller groups in order to make them. That process has already birthed Costume Quest, Stacking, Iron Brigade and Kinect game Once Upon A Monster; for the 2012 game jam Double Fine took the concept a step further by opening it out to the public, who could vote on the games they’d like to see made and then, at the end of the two weeks, actually buy those prototypes.

Of the five games from the last event, two have emerged as ‘real’ games. Hack ‘n Slash, a dungeon puzzler where your hero has a laptop rather than a sword, and Spacebase DF-9, an intergalactic ship-builder and life sim. The latter is on Steam Early Access, while Hack ‘n’ Slash is set for release in the first half of the year. The other three – Autonomous, Black Lake and The White Birch – remain on Double Fine’s to-do list, says studio boss Tim Schafer.

“The one that got the most votes was Black Lake,” he tells us. “That one couldn’t be released on Early Access, that would have to be made in full so hopefully that’ll see the light of day someday. I’d love to make White Birch, and Autonomous got a little bit of life when we put out the Leap Motion experience [Dropchord]. It’s great to have these little demos and prototypes around because every so often a partner will come along and say ‘hey, we want to make a game that’s like this’ and it turns out we have a game that’s exactly like that.”

Costume Quest is one of several Double Fine games to have originated from Amnesia Fortnight, “an RPG with much of the genre’s complexities stripped out, but with some clever ideas put in their place,” we said in our review.

The studio has around a “50 per cent success rate,” says Schafer. The inaugural Amnesia Fortnight reflected that – while Once Upon A Monster and Iron Brigade were polished up, fleshed out and released, the other two lay dormant. “One was called Tiny Personal Ninja, which I thought was a great title, and there was an augmented reality webcam game that was set on your desk that was called Operation Your Desk Is Disgusting, it had all of these gross things crawling all over your desk that you had to kill.”

Later, Stacking and Costume Quest were graduates of the process. The more game creation opens up, says Schafer, the greater the chances these games will make it through to release. Especially with the advent of crowdfunding, something Double Fine has done so much to popularise in game development.

And even if they don’t make it to full release, players can now buy the prototypes. “A lot of them are really interesting but often we have no idea how to turn them into a game we can actually sell,” says Schafer. “So what we did last year was let people see for themselves – we found that the process of making these prototypes is just as entertaining as the prototypes themselves.”

This year’s Amnesia Fortnight has begun, then, Double Fine adding an extra hook with the inclusion of Adventure Time creator Pendleton Ward, who will lead one of the four projects.

So what is it about game jams that seem to inspire so much creativity? “I think it’s about motivation and focus,” says Schafer. “And part of it is a reaction to what a bottomless well of time games can be. It used to be that if you had a game idea it would take years and years to make and you get so overwhelmed with it you don’t know which way is up anymore. And then the game falls apart, goes over budget, gets cancelled or something else bad happens.”

Applying a deadline and a focus on keeping it simple to a game concept is “a good discipline for developers to have,” says Schafer. Most of all, it’s important to carve out a dedicated date in the diary to focus on nothing else. There’s a positive kind of peer pressure at play, too: “I think there’s something about the motivation of having people around you, and having people expect things of you,” adds Schafer. “It keeps you from walking away from your project for a few hours. Because a lot of us have ideas for games and we’re like ‘I’ll get to that someday’ – game jams are the time to do it.”

Whether Double Fine prototypes Mega Rad Karate Troopers, Timagotchi, The White Witch’s Gnome War or any of the other pitches this year is up to the public. Whatever they decide, what’s certain is that Double Fine has done to game jams what it once did for crowdfunding: turned a new way of opening out game creation to the masses into a way to empower – and fund – game developers.