GamesBeat

Double Fine’s unusually tough Tim Schafer on dancing games and being the anti-Willy Wonka (interview)

Double Fine Productions’ Tim Schafer was invited to host this year’s Umloud event in San Francsico, where bands playing Harmonix’ Rock Band 3 music-rhythm game compete against each other for money and fame. Actually, money and fame are tied for a distant second behind helping to raise funds for the Child’s Play charity. In fact, there is little to no money and fame involved.

GamesBeat met up with Schafer at the event. The Psychonauts/Brütal Legend designer was rocking a black leather jacket, demanding everyone call him “the unusually tough Tim Schafer” and narrating his own actions. “He squeaks ominously as he leans into the mic,” Schafer says as our interview begins.

GamesBeat: OK. This is actually my first time here, and I was wondering if it’s pronounced Um-loud or Oom-loud?

Schafer: Oom-loud. Ooom.

GamesBeat: OK. I felt like it’s “Um, it’s a little loud.”

Schafer: [Enthusiastic chortle] It’s like, how do you like your rock? “Um … loud.”

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GamesBeat: Exactly. Can you tell us a little bit about the event and your involvement?

Schafer: Yeah, this is the first time I’ve been to it, too, but I’ve heard about it. We had a band in previous years that was kind of a Brütal Legend-themed band. And I just couldn’t come for various scheduling reasons.

GamesBeat: Like the construction going on over by your office?

Schafer: Yes. That’s ruined everything in our lives. No, I’ve always wanted to do it, and this year, I’m actually MCing it. What do you call it? MCing? Hosting? Anyway, I’m going to be introducing the bands. We’re showing Kinect Party in the back room. I’m getting some free drinks. And we’re helping out the children.

GamesBeat: Are you any good at Rock Band?

Schafer: You know, for a while I was pretty good at the drums. But then I only got as far on Hard mode as “Don’t Fear the Reaper.” I got through the game on Medium, and I wanted to get through on Hard, but then “Don’t Fear the Reaper” is like an hour long. I never realized that when I was a kid, but it’s an hour long.

GamesBeat: It’s basically two songs. It has like a Lord of the Rings-style finale.

Schafer: Right. That’s the part. I can get through the whole real song, but then when I get to the Satanic epilogue of that, I mess up.

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GamesBeat: I feel like when you do karaoke, or you have your favorite radio edits of songs, you never realize what the actual album cut of the song was until you play Rock Band. Then you’re like, “Wow.” What about Dance Central?

Schafer: [Nervous sniggling] I’ve only done a little Dance Central because I feel like I’m learning a skill that I don’t want to perform.

GamesBeat: Your body is just against it.

Schafer: Yeah. When I’m playing Rock Band, I’m like, “Man, someday, later on in life when I’m a famous rock star … .” Which gets a little harder to convince myself of as I reach middle age, but it still happens a lot. This would be … “I can’t believe nobody saw me do that awesome drumming, that fill I just did. I wish someone could see me doing that.” I never have that urge when I’m playing Dance Central. I’ve never done a move in Dance Central that’s like, “Man, I wish someone would have seen me fist-pumping and shaking my hips!” It’s not exactly the same type of wish fulfillment, but it’s still a good game.

GamesBeat: They’ve got “Gangnam Style” on there now. It’s kind of a game for anyone, I would believe. So, seriously …  . More serious question. Classic rock is obviously a big part of your life, and it has an impact on your games.

Schafer: And metal.

GamesBeat: And metal. Is there any new music that you’re enjoying? Modern hits?

Schafer: I enjoy everything. I actually do listen to everything. In high school, I listened to a lot of metal and punk rock.

GamesBeat: Did you have the jacket?

Schafer: I never could pull off a jacket like that. I was just not cool enough. And now … .

GamesBeat: But now, thanks to Rock Band, you can.

Schafer: [Gleeful shriek] No, I’m a dad now, so now I just don’t care what I look like. Once you’ve created life, you just don’t care what anyone thinks.

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GamesBeat: It’s like you can’t top it.

Schafer: Yeah. Whatever. You don’t like my jacket? I made a person. What did you do? OK, my wife made a person, but I was totally around for a lot of it. I was there. … What [was the question]?

GamesBeat: What kind of music are you enjoying now? Like new releases.

Schafer: There’s still some good newer, current metal bands, like Three Inches of Blood and stuff, and things I got into during Brütal Legend, but … .

GamesBeat: No dubstep or Carly Rae or anything?

Schafer: No! See, you get to a certain age where you’re like, “I’m just gonna listen to everything I listened to before I was 35.” Because nothing is really … I’m trying to think of other new bands.

GamesBeat: For me, that age was 15. I still listen to the same Rage Against the Machine and Smashing Pumpkins albums from when I was a kid.

Schafer: I was working at LucasArts when Rage Against the Machine was big. So there. When I was making Full Throttle, you were 15. But no, it’s totally fine. There are cool new bands. I’m just blanking on them. What’s the new … . It’s weird. The newest music I listen to is actually video game music. I really like the soundtracks to some of this year’s games, like Disasterpeace’s Fez soundtrack. That was really cool. Chiptune stuff — I do enjoy that. The last time I really got into new music that wasn’t heavy metal was probably like … TV on the Radio? I think that was it. That’s the last time.

GamesBeat: Game soundtracks really are starting to come into their own. They’re being nominated for Grammys.

Schafer: Yeah, the Grammys. A well-deserved nomination to Austin Wintory for Journey.

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GamesBeat: A lot of times they’re included with special editions now. You get an art book and a soundtrack and stuff.

Schafer: We just put our soundtracks for Amnesia Fortnight on our Humble Bundle. Because we’re doing this Humble Bundle where you can vote on which prototypes we make for our next games, and then you get to play them in the end. We were working on them, and we’re like, each one … . Usually we do them in private and people don’t get to see this, so we just rip copyrighted music and just steal stuff off the web to put into these games. But since we’re selling it this time, we have to be a little more legally proper. The upside of that is we’ve had our composers write new music for all five games. But they’ve all written like four pieces for five games, so we already have a huge soundtrack for this crazy Amnesia Fortnight thing. We just added that to our Humble Bundle today, so you can download that. And we will no doubt, next year, be talking about this Grammy that it won. We’ll be knocking that no-good Austin Wintory out of the category.

GamesBeat: One thing I was wondering about using licensed music that you would never actually license for the final game: Do you get attached, to where it’s just kind of heartbreaking when you can’t use it?

Schafer: Oh, yeah. All throughout Brütal Legend, I swore … . The most important music licensing piece was that I really wanted to have “Dee” by Randy Rhoads in the game. This beautiful instrumental that he did. I animated a whole cutscene to it and everything. But near the end, Ozzy’s people were like, “No. Not that song.” And I was like, [simulated sobbing]. We had to do a substitution. That was really hard.

But yeah. Commercial music is very polished, so you put it in the game, and it instantly works. It makes your game sound like a finished game. Then you do your own compositions for a while. They’re finding themselves, and people are like, “This is not as good as … .” But at the end of it, you’re just really happy to have original music. It’s always better to make your own stuff.

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GamesBeat: So speaking of Amnesia Fortnight, this current endeavor that you were explaining seems pretty ambitious. I was wondering if your experience with the Kickstarter kind of gave you a taste for these big, public community efforts.

Schafer: Well, it made me unafraid of being open. I come from a background … . Starting at Lucas, the most closed company of all. It’s like Willy Wonka when the doors are closed. He gets a lot of … . Lucas is a very secretive company because of all the crazed Star Wars fans out there. And the regular game development is like, “keep everything a secret and release it when you’re polished and ready.”

The Kickstarter thing and the documentary that we’re doing with the Kickstarter has just taught me that there’s nothing to be afraid of. You release your stuff out. You show a piece of concept art that may or may not be in the game. It doesn’t matter. People are just like, “Oh, that’s cool!” People get on your side more, not get on your side less. The fear is that if it’s not perfect, you can’t show it to people because they’ll freak out. The fact is, they just feel more bought in. They feel like they’re part of the development team.

GamesBeat: But on the flip side of that, there’s also the Peter Molyneux effect, where he’s super excited and sharing all his ideas early, and then it doesn’t make the cut into the final game. That has an adverse effect, where he develops a reputation and people are like, “You overpromised and underdelivered.” Do you ever worry about that?

Schafer: I think, if we were like … listing out a whole bunch of crazy features. Like, “Hey, we’re going to have this multiplayer mode,” and then we couldn’t pull it off. That would bum people out. But this is just, “Hey, we’re working.” For instance, I showed the very first concept art we did for our main female character in the game. I just put the first one up, then, “Here’s the next one; here’s the next one.” People were voting on their favorites. Some of them were happy with the one we chose in the end and some weren’t, but that’s just the way … . They knew that that’s … . Not everybody is going to like everything they do. But because you’re honest about it, they tend to not … . People don’t like it when they feel like you’ve been dishonest with them. I feel bad for Peter because I’m sure, in his mind, he believed those features were going to be in his game when he promised them. It probably broke his heart that they weren’t in the game. But to the external viewer, they feel like, “You lied to me.” Which is not what happens from his perspective, probably. I think as long as we’re really just being transparent, there’s no chance for something to be seen as a lie. You’re just saying, “This is early concept art. It might change.”

Now, Kickstarter makes you put a big disclaimer at the beginning. They didn’t do it with our project. But you have to state risks — “This might not happen” — and all this stuff, just to make that clear to everybody.

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GamesBeat: Speaking of Kickstarter, in general, for people who maybe haven’t been following along or who maybe didn’t get a chance to back it and get into the voting and everything, how is the Double Fine Kickstarter project coming?

Schafer: The Kickstarter project, Reds? The code name is “Reds.” It’s coming along great. We have progress. You can see it. The great thing is, we have this documentary going on, so people are seeing, every month, the progress that the game is making. We’re putting all these posts up in our forums, and so … it’s been amazing. We had all our artists come from all over the country — our favorite artists who have kind of scattered over the years — and brought them back for a big art jam. They made a lot of great concept art. We’re doing a lot of plumbing for this great adventure-game engine because we didn’t have an adventure-game engine before.

Now, I’ve just almost finished the design. It’s probably way too big for what we have in mind. It’s funny. Even though we got way more money than we expected, I can still overdesign for that budget. It’s my special superpower that I have. So there’s probably some trimming that’s going to happen there. But it’s going great. That happens to every game.

[Images by Noel Holmes and Kat Hagan via Umloud's Facebook]


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