From making LucasArts classics to founding – and almost losing – his own studio, Schafer has always been a tireless supporter of creativity
From making LucasArts classics to founding – and almost losing – his own studio, Schafer has always been a tireless supporter of creativity
Of all the cult-hit LucasArts adventure games made by Tim Schafer in the 1990s, Full Throttle was the one that achieved the most mainstream success, selling a million copies by the time Schafer left to start his own studio, Double Fine, in 2000. On April 18, Full Throttle – now owned by Disney – will be released in a remastered edition, with new animations and an orchestral score, much like Schafer's remastered versions of Grim Fandango and Day of the Tentacle.
At Double Fine, Schafer first became known for inventive, comedic games like Psychonauts and Brutal Legend, as well as for taking many years to finish them. Since 2009, however, the studio has avoided big-budget development in favor of making many smaller games like Stacking and Costume Quest, as well as crowdfunded projects like Broken Age – with another crowdfunded title, Psychonauts 2, in the works. During an hourlong conversation, Schafer talked to Glixel about his reputation as a project manager at LucasArts, his career-long fight for creative independence, and the troubled development of Psychonauts, followed by the game's remarkable staying power.
A lot of people say video games aren't funny. Does that ever hurt your feelings?
Most games aren't funny. I think that's true. If they said all of my games weren't funny, I guess that would hurt my feelings. Tell me who it is. I want to go to their house.
Stephen Totilo, the editor of Kotaku, wrote a whole essay in Slate that asked, "Why are video games so humorless"?
I think that's a very valid question. Although he's totally ignoring Day of the Tentacle.
What's your answer?
It gets to this thing about the breadth of video games. Why aren't we as broad, in general, as film or books, where we can talk about any subject? I guess it's because no one has made a lot of money doing that. As soon as someone makes a lot of money with a comedy, there will probably be a lot more.
Erik Wolpaw, the writer of Portal and your co-writer for Psychonauts, once said that Valve expected to be competing with a wave of Portal clones by the time Portal 2 came out. But it didn't happen.
No one imitated Portal because Portal nailed it. You can't be like, "You know what? I'm going to do Portal, but I'm going to do it right."
One of the funny things about pitching Full Throttle was that it didn't sound like a comedy at all. And I wouldn't say it was a comedy. At a high concept, it's a biker on the run for a crime that he didn't commit. There's nothing funny about that. But then when he tries to pick up a piece of meat, or something that he doesn't want to put his lips on, that can be funny. That's an interesting thing to pitch to people: "It's going to be serious from 10,000 feet in the air, but it's going to be funny on the ground."
There's a melancholy undercurrent to a lot of your games, even though they're also funny. In Psychonauts, you go to a disco party inside a woman's head and then learn about how her children died in a fire.
I would blame Kurt Vonnegut for that. Growing up reading a lot of Kurt Vonnegut, he always had things that were tragic and funny at the same time. I think that's what life is like. We just kind of soldier on through it.
People used to ask in the 1990s, "Will a video game ever make you cry?" But I really think, "Can a video game make you laugh?" is the harder question.
Speaking of the 1990s, you talked to Soundgarden about doing the music for Full Throttle?
We were like, "How are we ever going to have music that rocks as hard as what we're trying to get across here, with this biker?" I liked Superunknown, the Soundgarden album that had a song called "Kickstand" on it. We thought, "This is a sign from the rock ‘n' roll gods that we need to get this song." We made a trip down to L.A., rented a convertible and drove to A&M Records and pitched them on it. It was going really well, until they realized we weren't going to give them any money.
But Mark Hamill did agree to be in the game.
I don't know how we got Mark Hamill, except for the Lucas connection. We really loved his work as the Joker in Batman: The Animated Series on TV. On Day of the Tentacle, we had Richard Sanders, who played Les Nesman on WKRP in Cincinnati. Our voice director asked us what we wanted Bernard to sound like, and we said, "Can he be a nerdy guy, like Les Nesman on WKRP?" And they said, "Well, instead of getting a Les Nesman-alike, let's just get Les Nesman." Those kinds of moments went all the way to getting Jack Black for Brutal Legend. "Why don't we just get Jack Black, instead of a Jack Black-alike?"
Jack turned out to be a fan. Mark, we were just lucky to be working with Lucas. We got him to do not just one but three voices in the game.
Did you meet George Lucas when you worked at LucasArts?
I met him three times. He came to look at all the storyboards for Day of the Tentacle. And I met him at a Christmas party, and once with Hal Barwood. He was very good friends with Hal Barwood, who was making the Indiana Jones games, down the hall. Mostly, everyone was like, "Don't touch George. When he's here, give him his space. Leave him alone."
You put your name on your games. You cast yourself as a character in a documentary about the making of Broken Age. You host the Game Developers Choice Awards every other year. Did you always want to be a public figure?
I do crave attention, as the youngest child in a five-person family. I think that's sort of built in. I used to be really, really bad at interviews. I just found this one from 1997 with NextGen magazine, which someone put on YouTube. It was me talking about Grim Fandango. It felt like my mouth was cranked down really tight, because I was so scared of saying the wrong thing. And that happens. I have said the wrong thing. And it gets taken out of context, or turned into a headline, and then all of a sudden it's all over Twitter, and Bobby Kotick's calling me.
You have to be careful, but you shouldn't let that stop you from being excited about your game.
There's definitely a sense in the Broken Age documentary that you don't always like the press, despite how much you talk to us. And you even made a critic the final boss in a Psychonauts level.
I may put on a friendly, gregarious face in the press, but I'm twice as shy as anyone else out there. I got a "C" in this one class in college, because the final project required you to find a partner in the lecture hall, and I just wouldn't talk to anybody. I couldn't finish the project, and got a really bad grade, but that was worth it to me, as long as I didn't have to talk to anybody.
So I'm super shy. Going on stage to host those awards is terrifying to me. It makes me miserable for two months, before those awards. I can't think of any jokes to tell, and I'm dreading it. And then it happens. It's like a roller coaster you're terrified of. As soon as you do it, you think, "I should do that every day! That was amazing!"
If you're ever been in front of a crowd, and they laugh at one of your jokes, it's like that feeling in history class when you're in high school and you make a joke and the entire classroom laughs. Except for the teacher, who's really mad at you. You're like, "Yes! I've got to do that again."
Before you made Full Throttle, you pitched LucasArts on a biker game, a day of the dead game, and a spy game. You made the first two. What happened to the spy game?
It's sitting on a file in LucasArts's archives. There are different movies that made me want to make these different games. Yojimbo and The Road Warrior made me want to make Full Throttle. Grim Fandango is obviously Casablanca and The Thin Man. I had this idea for a spy game that was Three Days of the Condor and Hong Kong wire-fu Jet Li movies.
Since it's not happening, I can just say, "Clearly it was going to be the greatest game of all time."
I've also heard you talk about a spy-in-outer-space game that was inspired by 2001, Shaft, and Barbarella?
That was it. That's the same one. The idea was that no one used lasers because they were afraid they were going to burst the seal of the spaceship, so they all had to punch each other.
I've heard you say that it's a good idea to replace the world "jealousy" with "inspiration" when you're talking so you sound more positive, and –
You know, it's funny, I said that one way, and it's been interpreted a different way. And they both work. My way is, if you want to sound like a more evolved and highly adjusted person, whenever you're about to say "jealous," just say "inspired." I'm a parent, so when I go to someone else's house and the house is clean, or they have two bathrooms, I just say, "I'm so inspired by you."
Someone else, some more positive, more evolved person than me, heard that and turned it into, "You know, Tim Schafer said that instead of being jealous, you should be inspired." Even that sounds better than what I said.
But you have called Double Fine an "inspiration-driven company." So is it a jealousy-driven company?
No. Well, yeah, that can be a thing. When we were working on Monkey Island, every day Dave Grossman and I would write jokes and dialogues. I'd be working on the shopkeeper while Dave was working on Herman Toothrot. Ron Gilbert would come by in the afternoons and sit there and play one of the scenes that we worked on. And if Ron laughed really hard at one of Dave's scenes, I'd be like, "Ooh, I've got to get some of that."
We had what we called a pizza orgy, our big playtesting sessions, and I remember there was a certain point where someone was playing the game, and they say to Herman Toothrot, "What happened to your pants?" And Herman Toothrot says, "What pants?" And they just cracked up. Even now, I'm still laughing at that line.
I was very inspired by that.
We are an inspiration-driven company in that we chase after what we feel are good ideas more than anything else. As a rule, we don't try to drive everything by what's popular in the market or what we think will make us rich. We try to chase our good ideas. For one thing, whether you succeed or fail, you'll still feel motivated to keep going. I've seen a lot of people drop out the games industry, because it can be really draining, especially if you're not doing what you love. Like Kinect Party – originally Happy Action Theater – we made that game, and it didn't have a huge market, and it didn't make us rich, but I'm really happy we made that game, and I'm really proud of it, and it made me feel jazzed about making another game. Whereas if we had made some licensed property that we didn't really care about, and that had not sold, we'd be like, "Why are we even doing this?"
"When you're doing what someone else wants you to do, they'll give you money for it. But then you wonder why you spent two years of your life doing that."
My daughters love Kinect Party. I still have an Xbox 360 set up in the living room because of it.
Me too! Every birthday party, I turn it on, and eventually some kid will walk into the room and find themselves in the middle of a lava field, and then there will be 20 kids in there having a great time.
Your desire to chase ideas over economics has made you and Double Fine successful, but it has also led the company to struggle at times.
In general, whenever you're doing what you want to do, it's always an uphill climb. When you're doing what someone else wants you to do, they'll give you money for it. But then you wonder why you spent two years of your life doing that. You're not any more likely to get rich that way. You're probably less likely. Because no matter what happens, the person who gave you that money is going to take all the profits.
Does the presence of cameras at your studio change the way that games are developed?
Yes and no. I don't really notice them that much. Some people on the team, especially new people, are like, "What's that guy doing over there in the corner?" Or, "Are you wearing a wire?"
It has an effect. There was a point during the making of Broken Age when I felt I could have cut the game in half – really cut it down and delivered a much smaller game. But the fact that we were being filmed and everyone would have known that I had done that – usually, you can do that on a project. In fact, you usually do. Most games start off bigger and then they get cut down to fit somewhere close to the budget of the game. Or be only a year late.
In this case, the documentary would have documented that the game was really big and then got cut down to this size. And so everyone playing it would feel that loss. To me, there was no turning back. Which meant we put millions of our own dollars into it. But it was worth it, in the end. That game came out really good, and I like it, and it made us money. It worked out.
Yet in the documentary, when the first act is released, you and your colleagues seem really sad that it's not selling as well as you hoped.
That's because launching games sucks, these days. If you've talked to a lot of indie game developers, it's really terrible to launch a game. The days when you would launch your little indie game and it would be a runaway hit – the days of Limbo or Braid – very few people are having that experience nowadays. There are so many great indie games coming out every day. You don't even have time to play them all.
There are some great reviewers out there, and then there are some really snarky reviewers, and then there's kind of a rant culture on YouTube, where you get more clicks and attention if you do a really negative piece, a negative screamfest. Dealing with that, after you've spent years of your life with your heart on the table making this creative work that you've put your whole life into, and then you've got to deal with some ranting YouTuber, that's rough.
I've gotten to the point where I just don't look at anything anymore. We know whether it's good or not. Everybody knows, when they make something, whether it's good or not, deep down. It's still nice to hear nice things, and horrible to hear horrible things, but I think you know. I don't go on the forums to see what people are saying anymore. I don't read reviews, or look at YouTube anymore. You've got to be true to the creative vision of the project and do great work and then move on.
One of the most memorable scenes from the documentary is from Episode 14, when you're watching a streamer play Broken Age at release, and you're one of the stream's seven viewers.
It's weird. The world is weird. You can't help it. All that stuff I just said, I don't do. Right? I just said I don't watch reviews, and yet you have a video of me watching a streamer play my game. Obviously it's more of a theoretical position.
And you seemed genuinely wounded, and teary, when one of the backers demanded a refund.
Well that guy was just a dick. You can read 20 good things, but you'll only remember the mean thing that someone said on the Internet. As human beings, we don't know how to use the Internet yet. We don't understand how to deal with the emotions that come from the massive connectivity that we have with people. How do you deal with some random person saying horrible things about you? It's just weird. So I think we're in this transitional state of evolving into Internet-compatible beings. Right now, I think we're still in our terrible twos of trying to deal with that.
Whenever I meet another indie dev, especially someone who is shipping their first game, I don't know how to say it, but I want to prepare them for the fact that shipping games sucks. I want to tell them, "Listen, it's about the long haul. You're not going to get rich off this first game. You'll be lucky if you get any attention at all." You've just got to start making your back catalog. We make money off of our back catalog. You'll make more money on your first big Steam sale than you will on your launch day. Just to try to prepare for not getting all your hopes up for this amazing launch that's going to change your life. See it as just one more step in this long career where you're making good stuff, putting it out there, and making money over time with it. Enabling you to do the thing that you love.
The fact that we are making more money off Psychonauts now than when it launched is, I think, something you have to think about.
Psychonauts was what, twice as successful in its second five years on the market as it was in the first five years after it was released? It's been very important for your studio's existence that you own the games you make.
That's one of the reasons I left Lucas and started my own company. During Grim Fandango, I heard a rumor that somebody was working on a sequel to Full Throttle, and I was like, "What? No one's talked to me about this." That's when I realized I didn't own what I was making.
On The Ringer's "Achievement Oriented" podcast, Jack Sorenson, the former president of LucasArts, said you weren't a great project manager. Is that fair?
Hold on, I have to go vomit for a second.
It depends what you mean by project manager. I made the game that I wanted to make in all those cases. I wasn't the most predictable. All of my games were late. But a lot of games are late. I would definitely say there are more organized or more reliable, schedule-wise, project leaders out there. But I wouldn't trade my games for anybody's.
Are we going to see Psychonauts 2 in 2018?
Well, you know, I have a team now. We have Zak McClendon, who is running that project. And I am involved creatively, but he is very – what's the word I'm looking for? – a lot more organized than me.
What year did you say?
I thought I read on the Fig crowdfunding page that you're aiming for 2018. I saw the numbers 2, 0, 1, 8.
I better not say anything about dates.
If you're motivated by deadline pressure, like a lot of creators, how do you create that without publisher milestones?
How do you have discipline when you're self-funded? Well, obviously you don't. You run out of time and then you get more money somewhere else.
No, you have your own producers, internally. It is challenging, because when a publisher says, "We will not give you the money that you need for salaries unless you deliver all these features by this date," that really gets your attention and motivates you. But you just have to create that feeling internally. Everybody wants the game to be on time. Nobody wants the game to be late. But they don't realize, sometimes, when they're making a design decision that they're affecting the schedule in a really profound way.
What's with all the Rubik's cubes in your office?
I am really interested in them. I used to carry a regular 3x3 cube around, and then someone left a 4x4 cube on my desk. Anonymously. I still don't know who it was. And when I learned how to solve it, someone left a 5x5 cube on my desk. I thought, "This is interesting. I have a Rubik's cube fairy." And then I solved that one, and they left a 6x6 cube, and finally a 7x7, and now just all kinds of weird shapes.
For one thing, I'm a fiddler. I like to fiddle with things at my desk. But also, there's something really pleasing about Rubik's cubes. They're really a fun little puzzle. They're cool because they look impossible and then there's some nerdy kid on YouTube who will tell you exactly what to do.
So they're like adventure games?
Exactly, in that they make you look smart but they don't really require any intelligence to solve.
Speaking of metaphors, Eddie in Brutal Legend is a man out of his time. The way he talks about metal is a little like the way you talk about adventure games.
In that they both fucking rock? I definitely totally relate to Eddie in that scene.
"You feel your brain grow this new piece that now can solve that thing. And I think that's what our brains are trained to do. That's how we live as human beings."
Do you like hard games?
At first, I didn't. It's kind of like jazz. You need a friend to guide you, and then all of a sudden it opens up a whole new world for you.
When I first played Bloodborne, I was like, "I can't figure out even how to equip a goddamn weapon." I couldn't beat the first guy. The interesting thing about that game is that it seems really hard and unfair until somebody points out that you can't just run in and mash buttons to win. You've got to stop and look at them and learn how they behave. When you do that, it's actually not, in some ways, a hard game. You just have to approach it a little differently.
I had a similar experience with Super Meat Boy. I was like, "Why do games have to be really hard now? I'm not enjoying it." I tried and tried and tried and couldn't beat it. And then I picked it up a couple days later, and I was so much better. I think my brain just grew a little nodule to play Super Meat Boy. And then I got it, why people like really hard games. The mastery is not immediate. Kind of like the Rubik's cube. You feel your brain grow this new piece that now can solve that thing. And I think that's what our brains are trained to do. That's how we live as human beings.
Your games aren't Super Meat Boy hard, but there are a lot of places that stump the player. Or Psychonauts – that's a game that is imaginative and joyful but also rage-inducing.
For the weaker players, yes.
I think with adventure games, people say, "This game was really hard until I got inside your head and the way you think." I probably have a consistent approach to puzzle solving. When I'm designing a puzzle, it's like, "OK, here's a door with a lock. What's the obvious solution? Get the key and open the door. Obviously we can't make that work. It's got to be something much more unintuitive." It's got to be the opposite, like you have to break the key in half, or you have to lock the door to get through it, some kind of lateral thinking. Once you know that, and you see a key and a lock, you're like, "OK, what's the opposite of what I think I should do here?" And you can often find a solution that way. So you do kind of learn a way of thinking or a way of seeing the world.
During the making of Psychonauts, Microsoft cancelled the game, you borrowed $250,000 from a friend to meet payroll, and then at one point you told your staff that Double Fine was closing. What was that time like?
It was probably the worst time of my life. One of them. We had already been crunching on this game for four years. We had fallen in love with the game by that point and felt that it was a really special game that deserved to live, but also that we deserved to live as a company.
I had so many leads. We talked to every single publisher about re-signing the game. One of them even got our bank routing numbers. They were going to wire us the money, and then backed out at the last minute. We were just pitching and pitching and pitching, dragging a devkit in a suitcase all around E3. And at the same time, we were trying to get the game made. People were making levels while we're out there talking to publishers. We tried to get a loan, and that didn't work out. Finally, when it looked like it was the end, we were like, "The world will never know. We will never have shipped this game, and the world will never know anything about Double Fine. We will have made nothing. And that will be the end of it."
Basically, to lose not just my life's savings, which I had put into the company, but to lose four years of your life and all of the team that you asked to take this trip with you. It was unbearable to think about. So we just kept fighting against it, kept crawling. It's like being buried alive. You just keep digging up while the dirt is flooding in. And hopefully you make it to the top.
That's what game development is like.
I was surprised to hear you say, in the developer commentary for Day of the Tentacle, that it was the last time you had fun making games. Is that true?
It was the last time it was easy. When we added voice and 3-D, it complicated things a lot, and the teams got a lot bigger. That game, I also had a partner. I had Dave Grossman to help me, to talk to each other about what to do. That's always really helpful.
It's not that I hate making games. But the act of shipping them is really grueling.
And now Double Fine is 17 years old, which is ancient as far as video game studios go.
Yeah, take that, Jack Sorenson.
Or David Jaffe, who turned down Psychonauts and Brutal Legend at Sony?
Yeah, but he was right. I was not pitching it very well. He didn't give me a flat no on Psychonauts. He just wanted to see a bunch of proof that we knew what we were doing, whereas Microsoft didn't. Or they considered the past work to be enough proof. And David Jaffe was right. I didn't know much about platformers, or console games in general. And so he wanted to see that I knew how to do that. Instead, we learned it on the job.
Over those 17 years, we have had the same goal, which is creative control. When I left Lucas, I wanted to own what I made, and I wanted to control it. That's the same thing that comes all the way to this day. But the way we've done that has been different. In some ways, it's just this long story of us trying to be creatively independent.
Did you really talk to Markus Persson, the Minecraft designer, about helping you to make Psychonauts 2?
He sent us a tweet about it. And he did it the day before we were about to launch our Kickstarter campaign for Double Fine Adventure. So we were about to do this huge shift that would change our company forever. "Yeah, just hold that thought, Notch." And also, when I told him how much it would cost, he was like, "Eww, I didn't think it would cost that much."
But I will credit him with Inception-ing that idea into my brain. Because I had thought, "We're never going to make the sequel to Psychonauts. No one will ever give us money for that." And when he was talking about it, I was like, "What would that sequel be like? I wonder if I could bring back all those stories I wanted to do that started with the first game. I think I do want to make this game. I think it would be a really good game." By the time he wasn't interested, we were like, "There's no way we're backing out now. We're going to find a way." And we crowdfunded it, and found a publishing partner, and we're doing it. He helped make that happen without spending any money.
You told me once that you think of Double Fine, in Nineties lingo, as an "alternative" studio rather than an "indie" studio. Do you still think that way?
Those words are all so weird. When people say "indie," I think there's a difference between what they think of and what we are, even though we are completely financially independent. We don't submit our games to the Independent Games Festival awards, because it seems wrong. So there's a difference. But also, we're totally different from Triple-A games and big publishers. There's some weird space that we're in that doesn't have a name.
Psychonauts is not trying to be an art film. Psychonauts is trying to be really accessible to a mainstream audience. Some people don't see that as fitting into indie games. But I don't think there is any rule about what an indie game can be.
I think the main thing is that the machinery that makes games has a lot of compromising pressures and a lot of risk mitigation that leads to removing interesting artistic statements. However you're pushing against that, you're doing the right thing.
This interview has been edited and condensed.