TIM SCHAFER

EDGE - - AN AUDIENCE WITH… -

FBro­ken Age’s cre­ator on learn­ing from old gen­res, the dif­fi­culty of sequels, and the power of Kick­starter

ew de­vel­op­ers can lay claim to as many cher­ished games, or char­ac­ters, as Tim Schafer. Start­ing out as a tester at Lu­casArts in 1989, he worked his way up to tools pro­gram­mer, then co-wrote 1990’s The Se­cret Of Mon­key Is­land with Ron Gil­bert. Full Throt­tle and Grim Fan­dango saw Schafer re­fine his idio­syn­cratic sto­ry­telling style, even as the genre he’d helped shape be­gan to stut­ter. His more re­cent work as cre­ative di­rec­tor of Dou­ble Fine – Stack­ing, Se­same Street: Once Upon A Monster, Brü­tal Leg­end – has con­tained a se­ries of ex­per­i­ments with both story and for­mat, but Kick­starter phe­nom­e­non Bro­ken Age marks a long-awaited re­turn to his roots. Here, we ask Schafer about re­sus­ci­tat­ing the point-and-click with a new fund­ing model, and the state of sto­ry­telling in mod­ern games.

Why did you de­cide to take Bro­ken Age: Act 1 out of Steam Early Ac­cess and put it up on the store­front?

Ini­tially, we thought, ‘It’s in beta [and] it’s go­ing to have some bugs while we fix the sec­ond half, so we’re go­ing to re­lease it on Early Ac­cess’. But when we looked at how the team had pol­ished it all up, it looked like a com­plete pack­age, not some in­com­plete bro­ken al­pha. We did mock re­views for the first time, and those came back very pos­i­tive, so we de­cided to move it and thought, ‘Hey, this de­serves to be on reg­u­lar old Steam’.

Did you have any con­cerns about re­turn­ing to pointand-click games af­ter so many years?

It was fun to re­visit them af­ter a lot of time and see how not ev­ery­thing ad­ven­ture games used to do has been re­placed. It seemed like in the old days, ad­ven­ture games had the mo­nop­oly on char­ac­ter and story and beau­ti­ful art and sound. And then other games kind of caught up with those things: they present a nar­ra­tive, they have beau­ti­ful art and mu­sic. But it was in­ter­est­ing see­ing what was still left be­hind. A lot of it was hard to de­scribe, but it was a pac­ing thing. It was the way that your mind works when you play an ad­ven­ture game [and] how it is to play some­thing that moves at your pace and lets you sit there and think if you want to sit there and think. And it was re­ally fun to ex­am­ine that, to think about what is re­ally im­por­tant to ad­ven­ture games and what isn’t. Like, is it su­per-im­por­tant that we have a mil­lion verbs on the screen, or is it more im­por­tant that you’re trans­ported to an­other world and that you feel like you’re in a real place, and that you’re ex­plor­ing and think­ing about how the pieces of the puz­zles fit to­gether?

The qual­ity of sto­ry­telling in videogames to­day is of­ten un­der­whelm­ing. Does that frus­trate you?

No, it leaves a lot of room to stand out as be­ing a good writer in games! [Laughs] But I agree that there’s not a lot of good writ­ing in games, and it’s frus­trat­ing that even when you see games that are held up as great ex­am­ples of writ­ing, you think: if that game was a movie, you would never go see it. You would never talk about that story. You’re just so amazed that a game has any story at all that you’re call­ing this an amaz­ing story. But re­ally it wouldn’t stand up to a book, or even a comic book. I wish stan­dards were higher, but I think the best thing to do is try to make the best games you can – I don’t think it’s solv­able any other way.

What’s your take on Tell­tale’s The Walk­ing Dead?

The in­ter­est­ing thing is what they’re do­ing isn’t bring­ing back point-and-click, but they’re kind of carv­ing out their own genre of in­ter­ac­tive nar­ra­tives more sim­i­lar to

“It’s amaz­ing that people what we paid ev­ery­body What amaz­ing ac­coun­tants

Heavy Rain- type in­ter­ac­tions that’s more about player choice and not so much about puz­zles. And so I think that’s a branch on the fam­ily tree of nar­ra­tive-based in­ter­ac­tive fic­tion, and point-and-click ad­ven­tures are an­other, just like text ad­ven­tures. For people who like ex­plor­ing fan­tasy worlds and dis­cov­er­ing in­ter­est­ing char­ac­ters and places, they might like all of those kinds of gen­res. But some people only like one or the other, so I think it’s great that Tell­tale’s carv­ing out brand new ter­ri­tory.

Do you think the time be­tween in­stal­ments in episodic gam­ing is hold­ing the model back from its po­ten­tial?

It’s ag­o­nis­ing some­times wait­ing a week for a new episode of Game Of Thrones! And when [shows] go away for a while, you feel like punch­ing the TV, ’cause you’re like, “C’mon, just give me the en­ter­tain­ment I want right now!” But the re­al­ity is that it’s dif­fer­ent for the people mak­ing the stuff; I can see why it would take four months to make an episode of The Wolf Among Us. But people are used to comic books com­ing out maybe once a month, you know? That might work for [comics], but it’s hard to make a game in a month. It takes a month to sta­bilise a build and fix the bugs some­times. And so you would have to pretty much have mul­ti­ple teams work­ing on it [to] deliver one a month, and I’ve seen people try that. A lot of people are work­ing on those prob­lems, and Tell­tale is prob­a­bly ahead of ev­ery­one in that area.

But do you think episodic gam­ing could ben­e­fit from stag­gered de­vel­op­ment, some­thing closer to TV?

I don’t know; people are com­ing up with new mod­els all the time. Al­pha fund­ing is re­ally in­ter­est­ing be­cause the pub­lic can weigh in on the di­rec­tion your game takes. And it’s great for [de­vel­op­ers] who don’t have a lot of money, be­cause they can take some of the money that people want to pay just based on the prom­ise of your game and use it to ful­fil that prom­ise. I don’t think any one an­swer is re­ally the right one for games, be­cause they’re all so dif­fer­ent and de­mand dif­fer­ent things from people. I think episodic works for some games, al­pha fund­ing works for oth­ers, and the reg­u­lar old ‘wait a year for your next edi­tion of Halo’ works for that game. I just like the fact that people are ex­plor­ing new meth­ods all the time and com­ing up with new ways to deliver the goods.

Bro­ken Age’s Vella is a won­der­fully nat­u­ral­is­tic and strong fe­male char­ac­ter. How do you feel about the state of fe­male char­ac­ters in games right now?

There’s a lot of things that over­lap be­tween is­sues of so­cial jus­tice and is­sues of cre­ativ­ity, and they over­lap a lot. Some people might de­scribe it as rep­re­sen­ta­tional is­sues in games – maybe they want to have char­ac­ters of this type or that type – but there’s a cre­ative rea­son to tell new sto­ries that haven’t been told be­fore, and that leads you to telling the sto­ries of char­ac­ters who of­ten aren’t fea­tured in games. That just nat­u­rally cre­ates sto­ries that feel fresh, which also means char­ac­ters that feel fresh, and mak­ing them feel fleshed out and real is a cre­ative thing. All your char­ac­ters need to be fleshed out and real. And it’s not like you’re do­ing that on pur­pose just to make a per­son of a cer­tain gen­der or eth­nic­ity be­liev­able, you just want all of them to be [that way]. I’ve al­ways done that. In Full Throt­tle, we had this char­ac­ter called Mau­reen who thinks you killed her fa­ther for a long time. I re­mem­ber mak­ing a spe­cial chart for what Mau­reen thinks is go­ing on through­out ev­ery act in the game. So while you are try­ing to clear your name of the crime, I’m think­ing, ‘OK, even though she’s not in the scene, I want to con­sider what she’s think­ing about all through this, so that when you see her again, she’s been through some­thing, she’s changed and now she’s think­ing dif­fer­ently’. And it shows in her di­a­logue, her pos­ture and ev­ery­thing. You want to think through all of your char­ac­ters.

What’s your re­sponse to the crit­i­cisms lev­elled at what people as­sumed was an ex­pen­sive Bro­ken Age cast?

It’s amaz­ing that people some­how knew what we paid ev­ery­body. What amaz­ing ac­coun­tants they must be! I mean, we can’t go into de­tails about what people were paid, but if Dou­ble Fine does some­thing, you can pretty much count on the fact that we did it in a very scrappy and af­ford­able way. I can tell you that from the very be­gin­ning we had a budget per line in the game, and our costs per line

some­how knew [for Bro­ken Age]. they must be!”

didn’t go up from that very first budget. We had more lines in the end – so our over­all voice budget was big­ger, be­cause the game grew big­ger – but our cost per line never went up.

In a game that re­lies on its story, get­ting the cast right is surely a pri­or­ity.

I feel like it’s re­ally im­por­tant. The rea­son we used people like Jack Black and Eli­jah Wood is not be­cause they’re fa­mous, but be­cause they’re su­per-great ac­tors. When I worked with Jack on Brü­tal Leg­end, I did kind of pick him for that, be­cause he’s so close to what I had imag­ined for Ed­die. But then af­ter work­ing with him in the stu­dio and see­ing how broad his range is, cast­ing him as a com­pletely dif­fer­ent per­son in Bro­ken Age was a great thing to be able to do. And with Eli­jah, I was re­ally wor­ried that Shay would come off as whiny and petu­lant, be­cause he’s such a teenager and so over it and rolling his eyes all the time. And I was like, “People are not go­ing to like this guy, be­cause he seems like a spoiled brat”. But when we cast Eli­jah, he’s such a good ac­tor that he brought this warmth to it, and you just can’t help but like Shay and iden­tify with his bore­dom and frus­tra­tion. And not to men­tion all the other great ac­tors like Masasa Moyo and Jennifer Hale, who can just do any­thing. So it’s great to work with great artists of all kinds.

You’ve ex­pressed mis­giv­ings about the way di­a­logue trees are han­dled in games. Do you have any ideas as to how they might be im­proved?

I just re­mem­ber when we were do­ing Grim Fan­dango, we changed a lot about the [clas­sic point-and-click] in­ter­face. Our mantra was ‘No metaphors’. There’s no metaphor for the in­ter­face in Grim Fan­dango. You see Manny’s hand reach into his coat, he pulls out an ob­ject: ev­ery­thing is lit­eral. We don’t show that he’s in­ter­ested in an ob­ject by high­light­ing a glow. We show that he’s in­ter­ested by tilt­ing his head and all that stuff. The only thing we couldn’t turn into a lit­eral dis­play was the di­a­logue trees, and I was like, “I lit­er­ally don’t have a bet­ter idea for di­a­logue tree than di­a­logue tree”. [Laughs] In Psy­cho­nauts, we were able to put the di­a­logue trees in a thought bub­ble, and I was like, “Well, that’s kind of lit­eral”.

Hav­ing suc­ceeded on Kick­starter, do you think crowd­fund­ing is here to stay?

I think it’s def­i­nitely here to stay. I don’t think it’s nec­es­sar­ily the an­swer for ev­ery sit­u­a­tion, but it def­i­nitely changes the game com­pletely. Not ev­ery per­son is go­ing to be able to pull it off, but if they have a re­ally com­pelling idea and a re­ally in­ter­est­ing take on it, they can call people to sup­port their project and don’t need to go ask some big com­pany for a lot of money. Which is great, be­cause that money’s go­ing to come with a lot of strings at­tached. It’s great be­cause it al­lows people to say they want their favourite show to come back on the air, or they want their favourite game genre that’s not be­ing made any more to get made. I don’t think people are ever go­ing to turn away from that. What I hope is that people learn to un­der­stand what Kick­starter is, be­cause I think there’s people who re­ally get it – that you’re back­ing an artist who you be­lieve in, and you’re get­ting re­wards as a thank you gift – and people who think it’s just a pre­order sys­tem, like a loosey-goosey ver­sion of Ama­zon or some­thing. It’s not that, and the people who don’t un­der­stand that are very frus­trated and scep­ti­cal of it.

Are you con­cerned about Kick­starter’s ten­dency to bring back dor­mant se­ries and gen­res, though?

No, I think the great thing about Kick­starter is that it’s self­cor­rect­ing, you know? If there’s people that want it, it will work out, and if there aren’t people who want it, it will not work out. If there’s some­one who uses it, abuses the sys­tem and doesn’t deliver, they won’t be able to do that again. So it might take time to work all these things through, and the whole back­log of things that people think can be res­ur­rected might have to pass through it, but once that’s done, I think things will cor­rect and it will ad­just.

Is there any­thing you don’t like about Kick­starter?

The main prob­lems are we don’t know how to do a lot of things right with Kick­starter yet. Like press em­bar­goes – when we went out to back­ers, there was a lit­tle hul­la­baloo about em­bar­goes. Maybe this is more about trans­parency than about Kick­starter, be­cause we’re be­ing re­ally

“The only downside to Kick­starter is that we’re in such untested ter­ri­tory”

trans­par­ent with our process and let­ting our back­ers see ev­ery­thing. Most people just don’t re­alise that many re­views are em­bar­goed, and for very real prac­ti­cal rea­sons. Like, maybe the guy from Edge is in town this week, but our game’s not ship­ping till next week, and all the other re­views are go­ing to come out then. But he’s go­ing to look at it to­day, so we do this em­bargo and that way ev­ery­one gets a fair shot at hav­ing a re­view with­out be­ing scooped. That’s one of the rea­sons they ex­ist, for sure. But we were giv­ing our game out to the back­ers who might have wanted to write re­views of it them­selves, and they’d have the op­por­tu­nity to do that be­fore the press, which seemed kind of un­fair. So we were like, sheep­ishly, “Please just try not to talk about it. If you can just wait two weeks be­fore you do your in-depth re­views. Maybe do some let’s plays?” And some people don’t have the men­tal­ity that they’re back­ing or sup­port­ing an artist by pledg­ing on Kick­starter, but that they’re pur­chas­ing a prod­uct. And they were like, “I pur­chased a prod­uct, I get to talk about it. This is my game and you can’t tell me not to…” And so there were a cou­ple of people who were break­ing the em­bargo, so we just felt like, oh, we’ll just let it go, so we lifted it. I think people just re­sented be­ing told they couldn’t do some­thing, and they found it hor­ri­fy­ing to think that there was such a thing as an em­bargo. But a lot of our process through do­ing the Bro­ken Age doc­u­men­tary is kind of hor­ri­fy­ing people and let­ting them know the funny things that go on be­hind their games that they don’t know about. And so the only downside to Kick­starter is that we’re in such a new, untested ter­ri­tory. You don’t know how people are go­ing to re­act, and there are so many people who are sus­pi­cious of Kick­starter and feel like it’s a scam or Ponzi scheme. I think time will prove them wrong, but in the mean­time it’s slightly an­noy­ing hav­ing to deal with them.

You said re­cently that you’d like to re­turn to Brü­tal Leg­end. Is that some­thing you’re con­sid­er­ing se­ri­ously?

The only thing an­noy­ing about those news sto­ries is that I say that in ev­ery in­ter­view when any­body asks me! When­ever some­one’s like, “Hey, do you want to do a se­quel to this game?” I’m like, “Yeah, sure, dude!” Given the op­por­tu­nity, I’d do a se­quel to any game. If some­one was like, “Hey, here’s a bunch of money – make a se­quel to that game,” I’d prob­a­bly have ideas for what­ever game they’re talk­ing about. Now that we’ve shown that we can make our own op­por­tu­ni­ties with Bro­ken Age, people are ask­ing again if we can do that, but I don’t know if I could Kick­start a $30m game, which is roughly what Brü­tal 2 might cost. But while we could do that se­quel, we also have a bunch of new ideas that we want to make in­stead, which has been the main rea­son we haven’t done sequels. Well, apart from Kinect Party, of course!

If you did go back to make an­other Brü­tal Leg­end, what would you do dif­fer­ently?

It’s still our best-sell­ing game, but even with that it had this huge po­lar­i­sa­tion when it re­leased: some people just did not like the RTS el­e­ments. I think there’s a lot we could do to make the RTS el­e­ments bet­ter, and bet­ter ex­plained, and I would love to get the op­por­tu­nity to do that. But there are some people who would be like, “I just wanna do the story and I re­ally don’t want all these other el­e­ments,” and the ques­tion would be to what point I’d al­low those people to change the game. Part of me just likes [the idea of] fix­ing what’s there and be­ing true to the orig­i­nal. Be­cause the orig­i­nal idea for the game hap­pened all the way back when I played the first Warcraft. I wanted to do a ver­sion with big daddy rock demons and hot rods. It’s so core to what the game is to me that I can’t imag­ine get­ting rid of that. And I also feel that most of the people who com­plained about that were the ones who didn’t nec­es­sar­ily re­ally give it a fair shake. I mean, I still go and play that game on­line with people and I love the staged bat­tles, so I re­ally wish that there was a way to make them eas­ier to en­joy for ev­ery­body.

Bro­ken Age ini­tially felt like a bonus project, but do you see a fu­ture in mak­ing more point-and-click games?

We have the en­gine for it now, and the know-how, that’s for sure. His­tor­i­cally, we’ve al­ways made the op­po­site of what­ever our last game was, but who knows? Next time we do Am­ne­sia Fort­night [Dou­ble Fine’s yearly pro­to­type game jam], if any­one pitches a game that uses that en­gine, then we could be off and run­ning on a new ad­ven­ture game. It also de­pends on how well Bro­ken Age does!

Bro­kenAge might be­long to a genre some would call out­moded, but as an early Kick­starter ex­per­i­ment, it has helped pioneer a thor­oughly mod­ern way of fund­ing games

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