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Interview: Tim Schafer and the art of selling out


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My name is Tim ... S-C-H-A-F-E-R. [points to my notepad] That's correct.

Do people get that wrong a lot?

They never get it right.

Does it annoy you?

No, I just like to fight for my particular spelling. For no reason it's completely arbitrary but for some reason it's enjoyable to fight for the specific spelling that I randomly have.

You're trying to keep your Google ranking up.


You don't want people messing with it.

And people who spell their names A-E-F-F-E-R. Hate those guys. They're jerks.

I heard that other gaming blog made you wait in the rain. I saw your tweet.

I know. Oh well, that's because I didn't have his cell phone so I was trying to get his attention by twittering about it. I never shut up.


Another guy did, another guy came. But you are on time. That's a kind of professionalism.

No, I'm totally unprofessional. I just happened to be passing by, thought it would be cool to interview you. So, this is something new to me: I'm coming to E3 and I'm seeing a giant poster for a Tim Schafer game on the front of the convention center.

Yeah, isn't that weird?

It is weird! How do you feel about that?

It's some sort of crazy dream. I mean, I used to come here when we had Day of the Tentacle and I would be like, "Oh, we'll never have a game like that, there'll be some big ad up there." And I never thought a game that I was working on would ever get that kind of exposure.

"... Brütal Legend is the most personal, least sell-out a game. But I hope it does sell out."

Do you think people will say Tim Schafer has sold out?

I hope so. The only thing I hope they say is, "Tim Schafer sold out and it worked and I bought it." I mean, what's sold out about it? The game is like the most personal game I've ever done. It's based more on my actual personal favorite things in the world. You know, metal and hot rods and exploring an open-world, things that I like. If you look at each game that I ever worked on, we've always tried to sell out with each game.

On Day of the Tentacle, we were trying to have more mass market appeal by having full-screen animation. You know, like when the founding fathers jump out of the window, it's full-screen animation. Making the interface simpler by having pictures, you know, and then in Full Throttle we got rid of the interface. You can say that was selling out. And Grim Fandango, biggest of all, we went with 3D instead of 2D, and with Psychonauts we went to console and made a platformer. We're always trying to do these things so, in some ways, Brütal Legend is the most personal, least sell-out a game. But I hope it does sell out.

You spoke about sales before -- I think you said people shouldn't worry about sales. I feel like you have more to say on that topic.

I'm saying when money is on the line, you have a legitimate thing to worry about, you know. If you're a publisher or developer and you've invested something in it then you should worry about it, but I think sometimes people like the underdog story too much. "Aww, no one likes this band I like. I'm the only person who likes it." And they're secretly complaining about it, but they secretly like that and it bums me out when I hear fans of our games talk that way, because hey, we don't need the underdog status. That's a whole topic.

They want to see you sitting on a throne of money.

But do they? Or do they want it to be the thing that only they like and nobody else likes.

Hmm ...

Because there's an appeal to that for people. "I know about this thing and it's not appreciated and it makes me special to know about it." But I think ... um, well ... Where was I going with that?

I think you were just going into how you were electrocuting Jack Black very recently.

[laughs] Oh, did you see that?

Yes, I did.

Jack is a good sport. He's really a lot of fun to work with.

He's fun to electrocute, obviously.

He is really fun to electrocute.

Do you electrocute any employees at Double Fine?

Not the fast or hard-working ones, no. Not the ones that are under the legal age of electrocution.

What is the working environment at Double Fine like? You started in 2000.


That's nine years ago, you're just bringing out your second big game, basically.


Unless i missed one -- it was so indie that I missed it.

[laughs] Yeah.

And that seems a little counter to the way that most studios work. Infinity Ward pushes out a Call of Duty every second year. You guys seems to be pretty ... relaxed about it.



No! We just take on very ambitious projects, you know, we have a really small team, and we want to stay small, but we want to make big games. With both Brütal Legend and Psychonauts, we made the engines from scratch and now we have this great, versatile engine that will maybe help us make the next game much faster. Of course, now I say that, flash forward six years into the future and I'll regret it.

I'm going write a post right now that says: Sequel confirmed already.

Yeah, well I didn't say sequel, I said "next game," right?

"Next Game" (the game).

The next game could be The Adventure in the Vault with the Policeman and the ... yeah.

Someone has to make that game at some point.


"You didn't know about the babies in GTA IV? "

What is Jack Black's role, exactly, in terms of the game's development? You've got him for voices, he's appearing in the trailers ...

And before he was even involved, in some ways, he was inspirational to the character of Eddie Riggs. The guy that he played in the past, in School of Rock or Tenacious D, with this heartfelt love for music and over-the-top theatrics. I just felt it was a part of who Eddie Riggs is. I also wanted to make the kind of game that Jack Black would like, before we even met him. I was like, "I wonder if Jack would like this game?" Because now I know I'm making the right kind of game. So then, I showed him the game and he liked it and signed on to do it. I was like, "Yes!"

Does he have good taste in games?

Yeah, I mean he finishes more games than I do. He gets through them, he plays them twice. Plays them every night. And he likes Psychonauts, that's the best taste you can have in the world, right?

[laughs] What was the last game you finished?

The last game I finished?

Yeah, I know you were playing World of Goo.

Yeah, I finished World of Goo, that's true. On the airplane I was playing Professor Layton. And then, see, we had the baby right in the middle of GTA IV and I was really enjoying GTA IV and I got to the last island and with the baby ...

Is that a cheat code? I don't think you can have babies in GTA IV.

No, you don't understand what I'm saying. I'm saying my wife physically gave birth to a child. ... You didn't know about the babies in GTA IV?

Oh, no.

You just get to Jersey, you get the second girlfriend and you have to go on a lot of dates before you have the baby.

Oh. See, I usually get the order completely wrong.

Yeah, you have the baby first date?

Yes, it's kind of weird.

Yeah, it's awkward because then on the second date you have the baby there.

[laughs] Right. In terms of the gameplay in Brütal Legend, how much is going to be focused on the strategy element that you have in there? Where you're commanding the ...

Oh. The game starts simply with you having and axe and a guitar and a car. And as you go on the the missions, you find new people, like the headbangers, that you want to add to your army. And then on missions after that, you can have them with you and you control them with the D-pad. So you can press D-pad left and they'll follow you around. Or D-pad down and they'll stop and defend that area.

You get more and more units in your army until you have about 11 of them and then you have these big battles where you have a rock stage. Your army will stage dive off the stage and then fight in this big epic way. So, I guess for 30% of the game. You guys like these kind of numbers.

We love numbers.

Let's make that 35%.

Is that going to go on the back of the box?

Yes. 35% squad control mechanics.

What else is on the back of the box?

My face.

Your face? [laughs]

A close-up of a dog in a bar that you don't talk to. A little maze and like a word letter jumble puzzle. Because if people don't like the game they can always play the word jumble puzzle on the back of the box.

What if you put the front cover on the back as well and confuse people?

What goes on the front then?

The front.

What goes on the back?

The front. See, you won't even know.

It saves a lot of time. You might start flipping it around and just get stuck in the store.

Did you know that Monkey Island is back?

I heard that.

"I can talk about EA's butt. "

It's coming back. You were part of that before -- are you happy to see that returning?

I'm excited that you can play the original one again. Dave is doing the new episodes, Dave Grossman. Other than Ron, there's probably no one else that should really be doing that. I'm really happy about that.

It's interesting that you keep hearing that the adventure genre is dead and then alive. Then you get to the interviews and people ask, "Do you think the adventure genre is dead?" It's a bit of an endless cycle. People are still interested in good stories and that narrative, right?

I think about that a lot. Sometimes you think, it isn't something that died but it never really grew any bigger than it was. It's kind of the same size that it always was. It's just that the rest of the industry got huge. Also, things have changed in terms of people's tolerance for being confused.

When I used to play Zork or the Savage Islands or Scott Adams adventures, you'd hit this thing -- in the beginning of Savage Islands 2, you died in four moves if you didn't do the right thing. It starts off and you're running out of air and you're gonna die. It's that hard. I played it over and over again and the solution to the puzzle -- spoiler alert -- was you had to type "hyperventilate." You had to hyperventilate and that helps you get to the room with the air in it.

Of course.

I was like, "Wow, that kind of puzzle would not fly today." Back then it was okay to just be stumped and be like, "Argh, I don't know what to do!" Because then you'd go talk to your friend or talk to your dad and you'd sit down and trade seats and take turns typing.

Nowadays, people kind of expect to fly through games. Maybe you hit an obstacle but try for about 15 seconds and the obstacle passes. Will people tolerate just being stumped, trying to figure something out? I still think people are like that. That's one thing we found out making adventure games. There are people who love that, and there are a lot of people who just don't like that feeling at all. But I think the trick is to make that stage of being confused entertainment in itself, because when you do a good adventure game, you're kind of winking at the player the whole time. You don't know what to do, but you should be able to figure it out by looking. Like when you tell a good riddle. These are all the clues you need: if you think about it a little bit more you'll figure it out.

Sometimes you feel like you don't know something but you feel like you should be able to do it. That can be a pleasant sensation if it's just the right amount of time, just the right amount of difficulty. It can be very pleasant. If it's too hard, it's not pleasant at all.

I was a little stumped in that adventure game in helping you host the GDC awards.


I only found half of the jokes. I'm not even sure there were 20; were there really 20?

There were 22, yeah, yeah.


Clint designed that game; our webgamer. He designed that game and I just helped out with the dialogue.

Did you play it? Could you get all the jokes?

Oh yeah, I won that. I beat the shit out of that game. What're you talking about?

[laughs] That's why you were able to host, because you finished the game. People who didn't finish the game weren't very good.

Exactly. That's how they chose me to host it; I won that game. I mean, I'm good at those adventure games because I know the important thing is to cheat. My daughter, I think, is going to be very good at playing adventure games, even though she is only a year old. Because she'll grab a toy and she'll bang it on all of her other toys in the room.

Trying all the items.

She's trying every item in the room with every other item in the room to see if it does something. I was like, "You are a natural-born adventure game player." She doesn't steal objects and hide them somewhere on her body, though. In some secret orifice.

That's still an issue with characters in adventure games -- they're complete kleptomaniacs. I hope she doesn't learn from that: you should steal everything you see because it might be useful later on.

And where are they putting all these things?

Exactly. You'll have to buy really big pants.

I think Steve Purcell is always making jokes about Max, that if you looked at a cross-section of his body, you would see that he was shoving all these inventory items up his butt.

Uh-huh ...

That's kind of gross.

It is.

I shouldn't say that. They wanted to do a little X-ray of him, they should. Okay, never mind. I can say that now without Lucas. I can say butt; I can say Max's butt.

Is there anything that you can't say with EA? Can you say whatever you want now?

I can talk about EA's butt.

You can? It's a pretty big butt.

It's nice looking. Nice ass. That's terrible!

They have huge ass-ets.


It's a big business.

They've been really nice to me. I don't know if you saw the EA press conference, but they don't give me a script for anything, I can say what I want to say. I got to make a Lita Ford masturbation joke. They're nice.

They once called you creatively risky. Do you think you're creatively risky?

What game is worth doing that's not creatively risky? That's what I want to say.

"I'm good at those adventure games because I know the important thing is to cheat. "

You said that, in some ways, this is your most personal game, but for me as the player, it seems like your biggest game ever. Everyone knows about it; everyone I've spoken to is excited to play it. The production values are sky high.

It's a big game. It's a little bigger team than Psychonauts, but the core team is essentially the same. You get a creative idea and then you pursue it, that's how it works. You don't have to choose what idea to do next. You get the idea and you do it.

This time this idea led to attention-getting things: it's rock music; loud; action; the acts; the blood; the hot babes; the music; all that stuff. It's just naturally going to get more attention than maybe a smoking skeleton gets.

EA is known for franchises, obviously. Do you think this will make you seriously consider making Brütal Legend as a franchise? How do you feel about that?

I would love to do that just because there were so many things that I wanted to get into this game that I couldn't. We've got all these characters and things that we just didn't have time to do, so I'd love to explore it some more. Especially now that we have our own company and we have a lot of creative people there and we can do more in the future, more than one game at once.

That's what always blocked me from doing sequels. I wanted to do a sequel to these games but I also wanted to do this new idea that I had. So now, I can maybe do both.

Do you think you'll want to take a break to do something smaller in-between these huge releases?

I'd love to do something small.

Like an XBLA game.

I'd love to do one of those. I've always said that, though I haven't done it. Let's see if I actually do it.

Now that you've sold out it'll be really easy.

Oh yeah! It should be super easy now that I'm a big sell-out.

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