Even if you don’t know Tim Schafer, chances are you’ve played at least one of his award-winning games – do Psychonauts, Day of the Tentacle or Grim Fandango ring a bell? Schafer, a UC Berkeley grad and LucasArts ex-pat, cut his design teeth on The Secret of Monkey Island, and is considered a luminary in the adventure game field. I was lucky enough to speak with Schafer about his past, his present and his thoughts on the future of the ever-changing gaming landscape.
Starting Your Own Studio
When Schafer left LucasArts in 1999 to found his own studio, DoubleFine, it was not with the whole-hearted gusto you might have expected. “At the time, I did not want to start my own company,” Schafer says. “For many years it would come up, people would talk about, ‘Hey, we should start our own company,’ and I was like, ‘I don’t want to worry about the bathrooms being clean and worry about if there’s paper in the copier,’ you know, and here I am doing that now.”
So what changed? Schafer says a lot of it had to do with enduring a corporate environment for 10 years. When he started at Lucasarts, the company was all about creativity, but as time went on he felt it begin to drift. “They had lost a lot of creative people at that point,” Schafer says, “and I wanted to have control over that and be able to treat my employees the way I wanted to and treat the people on the team the way I wanted to.”
Between his desire to keep good people close to him and the optimism in the late ’90s that made it feel like anyone with a little start-up capital and a dream could succeed, DoubleFine was born, though its conception was not easy. “It was quite the rollercoaster,” Schafer says. “The whole time, there’s no net underneath you.” But the lack of a safety net actually gave the team more freedom to move. “At DoubleFine, one of our animators wanted to move to Iceland, and at the old company they would have said ‘We’re not going to work with him anymore,’ but here we can say, ‘This guy is a great animator, and we want to keep working with him, so we’re going to keep working with him long-distance.’ And it’s worked out great. And you can just make that call and not need to worry about all the things a big company would need to worry about.”
Luck, Schafer admits, also had a great deal of influence on DoubleFine’s success. “Around 2000,” he says, “a generation of consoles was launching, Microsoft was launching in particular the Xbox, and they were really into buying some success there. They were willing to throw some money around and take some risks to get an early lead.”
Pitching a “Creative” Game
Schafer says during the pitching (and re-pitching) of sleeper hit Psychonauts, the word “creative” was oftentimes said as a slur. “People would just kinda be like, ‘Oh, it’s very creative.’ And it really seemed like the more you could make your game seem more like something else or more derivative of something else, the more comfortable they would be with it.”
The problem, he says, is publishers don’t want derivative junk, either. More often, he says, a game will start out creative and have the edges gradually rounded off by an extended vetting process, but he’s still optimistic about the opportunities for creative design. He says you just have to want it more. “You’re going to be expressing to somebody why this is a good risk of their money,” he says. “So you have to really believe, yourself, that it’s good risk of money, and you have to figure out why you think it’s going to be a big hit.”
Belief factors heavily into Schafer’s worldview. He says even the best ideas can eventually be killed in committee, which is part of why he decided to start his own studio. “What’s going to happen a lot,” he says, “is that someone goes to a publisher with a really creative idea, and the publisher goes, ‘OK, we like it, except we don’t like these three things.’ And those three things may be the most important things to the developer, but depending on where they are, if their company is running out of money, and they want to stay in business, they just have to say yes. They’ll say, ‘OK, we’ll cut out those cool parts.’ Sometimes you’ll do anything to keep your company afloat.”
So with companies churning out carbon-copy, unoriginal games and whittling down creative offerings to a shadow of their former selves, does Schafer feel that the industry is in a slump? “Well, there have always been bad games,” he says. “I don’t know if there are really more now than there were before.”
What he does know, however, is that it’s much easier for a game to be whittled down or stamped out, and that the reason boils down to one word: risk. “If you’re a publisher that’s a public company,” he says, “and you have to be responsible to your shareholders every quarter, you have to justify a decision you made that sounded risky. Like, if you lost a lot of money for your company and it looks like you took a risk … you’d be in big trouble. So it’s easier for people at big companies to make the least risky move possible.”
He says being risk-averse is human nature, especially in large companies where you’re viewed as replaceable. “People have to stand up and take a risk, people have to stand up and expose themselves to the possibility of failure in order to make something great. You have to say, ‘This is my idea, this is something I believe in, and I will take the hit if it turns out to not be true. If it fails, it’s on me.'”
The Big-Ticket Item
Psychonauts, despite a poor initial run, enjoyed delayed-reaction critical acclaim and eventually became a fan favorite. Schafer thinks he knows why.
“Platformers were less popular when the game came out than when we started the game,” he says. “Little things like that that may have made people take more of a ‘wait and see’ approach with the game.”
“Some games just do better by word of mouth,” he adds. “Some games get a ton of hype right out of the gate, and some games are the kind that you play and you love so much you tell all your friends about it, and that’s how they get heard about.”
Schafer says word of mouth from the game’s fans kept them going, and positive reviews from the press validated the team’s work.
“Sometimes it is a really depressing, hard day at work,” he says, “and you’ll get that letter that’s like ‘Oh my god I just finished Psychonauts, and it’s the best game I ever played,’ and I’ll read it and send it around to the team, and it really does matter. Fan mail does actually keep you going sometimes.”
Don’t Give Up Hope
Schafer admits that in today’s gaming arena, pitching an original idea, opening a studio or going your own way can get a little disheartening. “It’s exasperating,” he says. “If we had not been able to re-sign Psychonauts, I probably would have walked away. It can be very depressing, and you get so little encouragement to do good work. You just have to kind of decide to do it.”
The pitch process, Schafer goes on to say, can be the most taxing element of game design. “You work your hardest to come up with not just a good idea but a really good presentation of the idea, and you really think you have something, and you take it out there, and the response you get sometimes is just appalling. It can be really depressing because, you see, the people in charge of green lighting projects are just lame. Some of them are really cool, don’t get me wrong, but a lot of the people making decisions did not come to that point in that company because of their awesomeness.”
But his message is ultimately one of hope, and of motivation.
“A lot of people think creativity is just about coming up with goofy ideas,” he says, “but that’s just the beginning. Coming up with an idea, editing it, crafting it to where it’s cool, but also fighting for it. In the end, it doesn’t matter unless you’re willing to fight for it.”
Chase Murdey is a freelance contributor to The Escapist.