Double Fine Productions CEO Tim Schafer has touched the development of a lot of video games, so it’s natural that he’s hard-pressed to pick a favorite. But his answer is ultimately driven by one of Schafer’s most closely-held values: the importance of being present with other people.
I’m asking Schafer about his favorite projects at an opportunity ripe for reflecting on his industry impact: DICE Summit 2023 in Las Vegas. We spoke just hours before he was inducted into the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame, in recognition of his over 30-year impact on the games industry. This honor puts him on a roster of past winners including Ed Boon, Connie Booth, Bonnie Ross, Todd Howard, Hideo Kojima, and many others.
Beginning with The Secret of Monkey Island at LucasArts up to his most recent work, Psychonauts 2, Schafer’s directly been involved in the development of over 25 games. Via Double Fine, he’s helped publish almost ten more, and within Double Fine itself has helped support the development of still more than that. And then there are all the games Double Fine has supported via Day of the Devs over the years, an annual festival of game demos that has helped spread the word about countless indies.
At first, to answer my question about his greatest career highlight, Schafer proceeds to name Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, Full Throttle, Grim Fandango, and Psychonauts before admitting he’s just going to name every game he’s ever worked on.
So I nudge him a little more. Surely, in over 30 years, something sticks out? He arrives at probably two of the least-known games he’s ever worked on: Double Fine Happy Action Theater and its sequel, Kinect Party, both Kinect games for the Xbox 360.
“What I love about those, if you’ve ever seen them, is that there’s no barrier to entry, so your grandparents can walk in the room and just all of a sudden be playing this game,” Schafer says. “And it’s this augmented reality-type game where we put kids and fill their living room with lava, and they dance around…and I still put it on all throughout my daughter’s life. I know she had a birthday party, and kids still stand in front of it and scream and yell and jump around. I’ve never made anything that I can visibly see the joy on people’s faces when they play it, because adventure games usually play like this…”
Schafer makes a very serious, focused face, as if concentrating very hard on playing a game.
“Not very joyful. I mean people are enjoying it. But this Kinect game, watching them jump around and being happy, and people who normally would not think of this as gamers. It has just been something I’m really proud of, and I don’t think many people know about that game at all.”
More, Weirder Games
The theme of accessing joy and creativity by physically being in community with others was one that ran both through his DICE Summit Fireside Chat keynote with Outerloop Games co-founder Chandana Ekanayake, as well as our interview. When I ask him about the biggest changes to how games are made he’s witnessed in his career, he lightly touches on voice-acting and 3D before thinking of how developers communicate with communities, and the ways in which that allows them to witness the joy people feel through the games they make…as well as all the other emotions.
“We used to have print magazines and just not talk to anyone except for our conferences. Maybe we’d meet someone who played our games once, or we’d wait a month for a review in Computer Gaming World, and now it’s just interface all the time. Before we launch a game, during, and after we launch a game, just talking to people about it. It’s so interactive, in a way, with our communities. Those are big changes, our relationship with our community. Especially because we’ve done crowdfunding, that changes your relationship with your community where they’re like your patrons in a way. They always were, but…it’s challenging.
“We’ve done it twice, but I don’t know if it’s necessarily a good fit for games, just because games take so long to make that people… it stresses them out to wait so long for their goods to be delivered, you know what I mean? But it was great to get past the gatekeepers a little bit and say, ‘We do want adventure games again. We do want platformers and stuff.’ So, it’ll continue to evolve, I think.”
One of the other biggest changes for Schafer personally was Double Fine’s acquisition by Xbox, a move that opened a number of new doors for the studio. As Schafer puts it, Double Fine historically tends to make “weird” games that tend to be difficult to find funding for. But with Xbox’s support, he’s not only had the funding, but he’s also had the boon of Xbox Game Pass to put those weird games in front of people who might not have ever tried them at full price.
“Game Pass lets us reach people who maybe would’ve been too nervous to drop 70 bucks for a physical copy of a thing,” he says. “But they see it and it looks really compelling and they’re like, ‘Oh, I’ll just download it and play it.’ That’s a great place for us to be, so that changes us, and I think it’ll lead to us being more like ourselves and more creative…It’s allowed me to move forward projects that I had on the back burner, thinking, ‘I would never be able to pitch this to a publisher. It’s just too strange-sounding.’ And now we can make those games, so they’re going to get weirder, that’s all.”
It’s worth pointing out that Schafer isn’t referring to Psychonauts 2 here – it was already in development when Double Fine was acquired. But he does add that Xbox’s support meant being effectively asked, “How would you finish Psychonauts if you had resources?” His answer was to put the boss fights back in and polish it far more than he’d been able to otherwise, and that’s what the team did.
Instead, Schafer’s “weirder games” remark is referring to Double Fine’s future output, which he’s not able to talk about just yet. He does confirm that the studio still does internal game jams, and he’s got a whole list of game ideas in his head that he wants to work on some day. I ask him if he’s thinking of revisiting some of his old games at any point, and while he’s not opposed to the idea entirely, that’s not what he’s up to right now.
“Starting with Broken Age, we were like, ‘Let’s make an adventure game again,’ which is kind of a nostalgic thing to do,” he says. “And then we started remastering all the old adventure games, Grim, and Day of the Tentacle, and Full Throttle. And then we made a sequel to Psychonauts, which is considered officially a retro game now. I saw someone was discussing CRT TVs and which are the best ones, and then Psychonauts was their demo. And I’m like, ‘Oh, it’s a retro game.’ We’ve been looking towards the past and taking care of our past, and archiving it and preserving it in these remasters. But now, we’re really excited about doing all new stuff. We’re doing new games in the studio, and everything is 100% new.”
Schafer is also still playing lots of games despite, he says, the temptation to stop playing as he gets older and busier raising kids. He’s been playing Cult of the Lamb a lot, and Stray, and he tells me he wants to get around to finishing some of the big blockbusters like Elden Ring…but keeps coming back to Vampire Survivors. He’s excited for The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom too, and says that its predecessor Breath of the Wild is probably his favorite game of all time (that he didn’t make). It supplanted Super Mario 64, which influenced Schafer’s shift from making point-and-click adventures to 3D adventures, though he cautions that fans probably shouldn’t expect him to draw similar inspiration in the future and make anything as big and ambitious as Breath of the Wild.
Schafer briefly ponders doing something like Animal Crossing – a game about tending and caring for something – but Nintendo already nailed that, he says, so maybe not. Above all, whatever Schafer does next, his biggest concern is keeping his creativity alive.
“There’s types of games I would like to make, and it’s more like I think the biggest effort is, I’ve always been mindful of not losing that fire in your belly. How do you tend that, how do you stoke that? How do you not suffocate that, how do you let in enough air? All these metaphors for, ‘How do you make sure you still love what you do?’ And it always involves moving towards a project that excites me the most, because there’s a lot of pressure to get pulled into maybe business development or other areas of your job that are important, but will make you wake up one morning and that fire’s gone. So, I’ve always avoided that, so I would just maintain pursuing that, and just always chasing what inspires me and everyone at Double Fine.”
Human Beings, Making Games
But Tim Schafer’s job isn’t just to noodle away in a room by himself and make games. Schafer is vocal about games being a team effort, and therefore the importance of building a healthy, sustainable environment for the human beings working on them. One major way he’s demonstrating this is through the release of a 32-part documentary on the making of Psychonauts 2 created by 2 Player Productions, who embedded in the studio throughout development to offer a very transparent look at how Double Fine works. It’s an unprecedented move in a normally very secretive industry, and a massive gamble to commit to before the game is even made. What if Psychonauts 2 had flopped?
Schafer says he was prepared for that when he signed off on the Kickstarter for the documentary.
“Look, this is the story of how games get made, and sometimes it goes well, and sometimes it goes off the rails,” he says. “And Psychonauts did kind of go off the rails, and then the team brought it back, and so I think it’s a great story of that. Maybe I’d feel differently if the game turned out bad, but I’m very happy with the game getting nominated for Game of the Year and stuff.”
One big reason this level of transparency was critical to Schafer came from his own experience as a child, writing into a magazine asking how he could get a job making video games. He recalls he never got an answer, and just assumed for years that games were made by “really advanced people, somehow super smart, different than me, serious scientists and stuff.” Making a documentary, he says, was his way of answering his 8th grade self…and all the other kids out there now who might have the same question.
“I’ve always been struck by how once you’re on the other side and you’re inside the world of games, there’s so many jobs that you don’t know exist when you’re a kid, like sound editor, or dialogue editor, or producer, and tools programmer. This is the thing, people are like, ‘Well I can’t program a character, so I can’t work in games.’ There are a lot of jobs in games that people don’t know about, they don’t know someone just maybe makes skeletons for not even the outside of the characters, just the inside of the characters, sometimes that’s just one person’s job…Showing all those in a documentary is part of that, pulling back the curtain and letting people see that they could probably get a job in games.”
What’s more, Schafer isn’t done. 2 Player Productions is still embedded in Double Fine, documenting whatever it is they’re working on next. It sounds like a scary process in an industry rife with toxic work culture, crunch, and other struggles that other studio owners might not be so keen to have on camera. But Schafer has put a lot of thought into creating an environment that he isn’t embarrassed to show, and he admits that years of experience and learning from mistakes certainly helped him avoid those pitfalls in his later career.
And, he emphasizes, that doesn’t mean problems never occur. But listening to the team when they speak up about issues and creating an environment where they feel comfortable doing so is critical.
“It’s hard, because people do want to work hard on something they love, when they care about the games so much, a lot of people want to throw themselves into it completely. And managing that balance between being really productive and making something you’re proud of, but while also watching sometimes just basic habits, like going home at 5:00 and seeing your loved ones, just getting enough sleep, some basic caring about yourself and your team or something. It got harder during quarantine, because we couldn’t really watch what people were doing. It’s easy in the office to be like, ‘Hey everyone, go home.’ Early in my career, if I needed to leave early, I’d kind of sneak out, no one saw me. And then later I was like, ‘I need to walk down the hallway and yell goodbye to everybody at 5:00, so everybody sees that I’m leaving, so they start to go like, “What am I doing here?”’ ”
Schafer adds that while it’s not hard to set limits on hours worked, there are different levels of crunch, and it never comes from just one source. He describes it like a machine with levers: one for budget, one for game quality, another for the schedule, and another for quality of life of employees. And a company might, he continues, treat the quality of life knob as flexible but the other knobs as fixed. But that shouldn’t be the case.
Which is another good reason, he says, to publish the documentary. Double Fine has done a lot of work to learn how to create a sustainable culture, and Schafer wants to share it with others. Especially, he says, because he’s actively interested in creating a more diverse industry – which means breaking down barriers that have historically blocked out more diverse individuals from being a part of it.
“I think it’s about transparency because a lot of these things have been exposed recently where there have been managers who don’t think they’re being abusive, they’re just being themselves. And they don’t realize being in a management role is having an amplifier, and all your little funny quirks are now having an effect on people and affecting their quality of life…I think it’s good that the industry is talking about that,” Schafer says. “I think hopefully it’ll lead to some idea of almost like a curriculum of management training for creative endeavors specifically in video games. Because it still feels like a young industry even though it’s been around for 50 years now, but I feel like it’s something that has been handled like the Wild West in a lot of ways still.”
Feelin’ Double Fine
In his DICE fireside chat, Schafer says that he isn’t interested in writing for film instead of games, because “games are fun.” I later ask him a similar question, but about other endeavors – he’s a writer, after all. Would he ever write a book? Maybe, Schafer says – it’d be amazing to be fully in control of his own creation. But he adds that it seems “kind of lonely also.”
“I’ve heard someone say this about opera, but I think it’s more true for games, which is that they bring all these art forms together,” Schafer replies. “If you’re making a game, you’re working in engineers and also painters, 3D modelers, singers, musicians, violinists, painters, and I said painters already. But you bring together all these actors, you bring together all these disciplines together and then you’re putting on the show together that’s super exciting.
Our conversation has circled back to this idea of collaboration, and how much Schafer just likes other human beings, working with them, and being creative with them. He’s not especially interested in any new technology lately, for instance, but he tells me he’s really interested in seeing how other developers make games and tell stories, and frequently derives inspiration from seeing what the incoming new industry talent is doing with what’s already there.
“Doing Day of the Devs exposes us to a lot of really inspiring indies,” he says. “I like that people are getting more serious about inclusivity and diversity in game development. Because I think that means there’s a whole bunch of stories and points of view and perspectives that are going to be new and bring a lot more life into games in the next few years, as people get serious about giving opportunities to people of color and women, and different groups that haven’t been represented in games before.”
So he’s making new games, he’s working to spread transparency around positive working cultures, and he’s deriving inspiration from other developers – where does that eventually take award-winning developer Tim Schafer? In ten years, what does Tim Schafer making video games look like?
“Um, I’m sitting in a hot tub, I got my feet up,” he says. “I’m having a blast now because I’m prototyping some ideas, just a couple people. And no one’s really looking at it, talking about deadlines or anything. I’m just messing around with what a game could be, and that’s really fun. Because they’re not like, ‘Oh my God, we’re going to run out of money in three months.’ I’ve got people working on new games, and I’m working on new ideas, and that’s a really fun place to be.
“I’m always trying to build up Double Fine so it could survive if I got hit by a bus, but I don’t plan on getting hit by a bus anytime soon. I think I’ve just been very dedicated to making sure it’s always fun for me still. I think by holding on to the parts of the job that I like, like writing, and not giving those up, which can cause trouble. But I still maneuver things to Double Fine so that I really enjoy my job, and I work with people I like, and that it enriches me more emotionally more than it drains me. So, I think that allows me to stick around.”
As we wrap up, I ask Schafer if there are any questions he wishes someone would ask him that he never gets asked.
“’Do you have any ideas how I should invest $45 million?’ That’s a question I want. I’d say, ‘Well, I’ve got a game pitch I’d like you to hear.’”
Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.
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Author: Rebekah Valentine