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Tim Schafer
Write the Lightning Tim Schafer Psychonauts

Tim Schafer spent 10 years at LucasArts during the heyday of the adventure game era, where he worked on such landmark titles as The Secret of Monkey Island Day of the Tentacle, Full Throttle and Grim Fandango. Known for working heavy doses of humor into his games, in 2000 Schafer left LucasArts to start his own company, Double Fine Productions, which went on to release the critically acclaimed Psychonauts in 2005. The company is currently at work on its next, as-yet-unannounced title.

Playboy: How long have you been making games?

Schafer: Almost 20 years. My game career can drive and vote. But it cannot drink.

Playboy: What was your first?

Schafer: The first game I worked on was the Secret of Monkey Island. I was programmer assistant, designer and writer on that.

Playboy: So you started out programming?

Schafer: I studied creative writing and programming in college. I wanted to write and thought I would work at some boring, computer database job to pay the bills. Like Kurt Vonnegut. He worked at GE or something. It wasn't until years into my game career that I realized, "Wait I'm getting paid to write. Maybe I shouldn't keep thinking of this as a temporary job."

Playboy: So you went into game work to pay the bills?

Schafer: It was a dream job. It wasn't something that occurred to me, though. In high school a friend and I made a game together in Basic and C++ and he said we should start a game company. I said, "Games aren't made by people like us, by high school students who can program. They're made by big game companies like Atari. They know something we don't know." Then I found out they were made by people exactly like us. So I applied at Atari and I got turned down.

Playboy: They said "You're not like us. What were you thinking?"

Schafer: Yeah, I wonder what that would have been like.

Playboy: Do you feel like you dodged a bullet not getting hired there?

Schafer: I've been very, very lucky. My career's been like a Harold Lloyd movie. He walks around reading a newspaper walking down the street. He steps onto a pile of wood without realizing it, he's hauled up to the 30th floor of a building, he steps out onto the girder and right when he's about to plunge to his death another pile of wood swings by on a crane, he steps onto that. When I look back I'm terrified by all the times I almost plunged to my death. It was just one step after another, I just had no idea how terrifying it all was. But you know, getting a job at Lucas of all places, and being able to take part in the birth of the golden age of LucasArts adventure games? They were all based on character and story! There weren't many jobs in computer games where you could exercise that muscle, to be in an environment where story and character mattered and game play mattered. That was really great.

Playboy: It seems like that genre has largely tapered off.

Schafer: Yes it has. You can't really go in to a U.S. publisher nowadays and say you want to do an adventure game and get funding.

Playboy: Do you think that's because public interest has waned, or do you feel like the publishers aren't interested in making those games?

Schafer: It's hard to say. There's a really vibrant fan community for adventure games online. And now people are making their own adventure games because the industry has not produced much for them, so this void has been filled somewhat by the fans making their own homebrewed games, which is great. I actually don't think interest in adventure games has shrunk, I just don't think it grew as fast as interest in other games. In the early '90s, we were really excited if we sold 100,000 copies of a PC graphic adventure. I think Monkey Island 2 sold 25,000 copies. When consoles really took off, publishers started realizing how much money was to be made with these twitch-game mega-hits, and that kind of eclipsed what was going on in graphic adventures. But the market never went away. And a few companies are finally taking advantage of that. Companies like Telltale that say "We're not going to spend $15 million on a game and we're not going to sell five million units, we're going to scale it back to where it was when adventure games were big." So that'll be interesting. They've finished a whole season of Sam & Max now, and that's really exciting to see.

Full Throttle is the first game I made that cost $1 million. That was 1995 and we were shocked. Before that they had cost around $300,000. And Full Throttle took a year and a half to make, which was crazy at the time. In 1990, Monkey Island took nine months to make and cost $200,000. Now games take us at least three years. Psychonauts took five.

We like to make things hard on ourselves. We like to try new things. I think it's important that every time you do a game, you do something that's the exact opposite of the last one you did. Full Throttle is very different than Day of the Tentacle, and Grim Fandango is very different than Full Throttle. Part of the fun of it is doing a complete 180 every time.

I have never really been concerned or excited by a single genre. I've never been married to anything in particular. I feel that when you're doing something creative for a living you have to follow what you're inspired by at the time. In the middle of Grim Fandango I was getting more and more into console games, like Mario 64 and Ocarina of Time and Final Fantasy VII. I realized that's what I wanted to do next with Psychonauts. There's a real danger in not following those instincts. It's too easy to say "No, no, no, I don't make those. I make this other thing." And that's what people want to force you into. The publishers and the fans all want you to make something like what you made the last time. And then you give them something different and they like that, and then they want you to do that again. So you have to just do what you are inspired to do no matter what anyone wants you to do. If you don't you'll run out of creative steam.

Playboy: Does that mean we're not going to see a Grim Fandango 8?

Schafer: I've toyed with that because I love those characters and that world. I would love to go back and spend time with the characters from any game I've worked on, and I would love to make a sequel to any of them. But I also want to make something new. If there were five of me I might make sequels, but there's always some new idea I want to explore.

Playboy: What if you had the opportunity to farm out a sequel -- not farm out in a negative sense, but...

Schafer: Phone it in? Squeeze it out?

Playboy: If you could give the reins to someone you trusted to execute a Psychonauts sequel, where you had basic veto power and could do general shaping...

Schafer: It just all depends on the person. If it was a team that I knew and trusted then, yeah, that would be great. The team that made Monkey Island 3 was not under our control at all. They were really clever, smart guys and they wrote really great dialogue so in that case it worked out great.

Playboy: How big is Double Fine?

Schafer: We're about 45 people.

Playboy: That's relatively small from what we understand.

Schafer: It's funny, that's about as big as the entire LucasArts team was when I started there. The games were so much less complicated. When I started there Larry Holland was making his Battle of Britain and we had a team finishing up Loom and we were starting on Monkey Island and some of the guys were working on Pipe Dream, and a lot of people were doing R&D stuff. We always had five things going at once.

Playboy: When you go back and look at the scope of Monkey Island or even Grim Fandango, does it ever make you want to create something on that scale and just crank it out quickly?

Schafer: Those games were incredibly easy compared to what we're doing now. And there's definitely a part of me, especially after we have a long meeting about texture blending or something, that's like, "God, I wish I could just go back and do that." You paint a background and that was it. It didn't have to be lit. It never did anything, it just was what it was, the way the artist created it. So that's appealing, but I also have a little voice that tells me to never do anything that's motivated by fatigue. If you want to go back and do things the old way just because you're tired, that's never a good choice, and it leads you to taking the easy way out in other choices, too. Maybe what you really need is a rest, a breather, and to keep moving on to more challenging, sophisticated games.

Playboy: What if you had a strong idea for a one-to-two hour game that could go up on Xbox Live or PlayStation Network? Something that you could crank out in a month using today's tools?

Schafer: I do think about that. Maybe, if you could do something in a month. Maybe we've gotten smarter, and that definitely does appeal. But then I look at the kind of wild, creative games that I'm playing now, like Okami and Katamari Damacy, and I think it's just important to move forward. In some ways I think I've been blessed with a really bad memory and I've forgotten things I've done in the past. It's kept me moving.

Playboy: Can you characterize how interactive writing is different from writing for conventional media?

Schafer: There are so many more variables. You have to write every line of dialogue without being able to count on what the previous line of dialogue was. You have to write dialogue that works when one of 30 different things is said and whether or not the character has a gun or not and whether or not he's met the love interest before. It's a very interesting challenge, and you have to be both a programmer and a writer to pull it off. You've got to think and write in conditionals. Part of it is a technical problem, and part of it is a writing challenge where you think, "How can I write this sentence without using this character's name because the player may or may not know this character's name?" You have to write so it works in all these different situations. And you have to figure out how to subtly give clues to the player about what they should do next. The writing has to serve many, many purposes. When you write straight, linear narrative, you get to go a lot deeper because you're in complete control of the user experience.

In interactive writing, it's like you're giving dialogue to this improv actor, the player, who gets pulled up on stage and is trying to kind of just wing it in this world where he's the only person who didn't get a copy of the script. You've got to write all the canned responses for the other actors who try to deal with this crazy guy who got on the stage. And then you've also got to give the dialogue to the player and tools for them to pick and choose and say at the right time to stay in character. It's fun.

Playboy: Do you end up writing much more than most players end up hearing?

Schafer: A lot. And sometimes I'll write something on purpose for a weird place in the game that a lot of players don't get to. But the players that do get to it feel such a connection with the game when they stumble upon that little moment. Really, you're making a world that someone's going to step into and interact with, so you have to write a bunch of stuff that they may or may not do. And everyone will have a different experience. That's what's great about it.

Playboy: How much does money influence game design?

Schafer: Well there's definitely this constant pressure. The more you spend on game assets, whether that's environments or characters, the more you want to rub the player's nose in it. You want to bring them over and be like, "Look at this! Now look at this! I paid millions of dollars for this and you're going to come look at it and you're going to have fun with it whether you like it or not!" And there's a bit of a debate going in the industry now. You've got Gabe Newell from Valve on one side saying you've got to channel the player along the path of where you spent your money. Whereas Warren Spector's take is that you've got to put your money everywhere and let them see it or not see it. I feel that to give the player the feeling that they're in a real world, you have to do the broad approach where you make everything and you let them explore it, otherwise they can tell they're on rails. Even if they're in a big world, they can tell. It's the difference between being on a ride at the fair and being at the fair itself.

For me the fun is making a real world that you can go to. In Psychonauts there's this big open environment you can go through and we wanted it to feel like summer camp and there's all this optional content that you just kind of stumble upon and you don't have to do it for game play but it helps you feel like you're in a real place, which is part of the addictive quality of games to me. When you're not playing the game you don't think of wanting to get back to play the game, but wanting to get back and hang out in that world.

Playboy: Psychonauts felt very personal.

Schafer: I would love to see more of that in games, for people to base things on their own lives. I think games should not be able to easily move between developers. I think a game made by a certain developer should only be able to be made by that developer because they put their heart and soul into it and made it unique. Too much, it seems like games are made generically and could be shuffled back and forth and half of it could be outsourced. In the end those games mean nothing because they're very general experiences that anybody could have worked on. I'd like to see people who design games bring the whole of who they are to the process. Then each game becomes a unique work of art that broadens your perspective when you play it because you're encountering this other person's artfully expressed point of view.

Playboy: As an independent studio how well do you feel publishing and financing is working these days?

Schafer: A lot of people think it will move toward the film model where you have independent production companies that are small and flexible and that you could farm out chunks and grow and shrink according to what you needed at the time using freelancers. But right now there aren't these big roving bands of freelance content creators and programmers that you can hire for three months and then let go. Everyone's hoarding the programmers. Right now it's almost impossible to hire a good programmer because people are snatching them up and holding on to them. As the games get more complex and team sizes increase, the big companies with the money to do it are just swallowing up all the talent.

Playboy: You guys have 45 people, but we've talked to people saying next-gen games take 80, 100, 150 people. Does that mean that your next project will take you guys longer, or are you just more efficient?

Schafer: We are taking our time with it, but you start losing efficiency when you get above a certain team size. With a small team you can iterate faster and avoid some of the pitfalls that come from just throwing a million people at the problem.

Playboy: Are you involved at all in the programming at this point?

Schafer: No. The last time I touched programming was the very beginning of Psychonauts. I've just been scripting. I think the secret in life is to surround yourself with people smarter than you. That definitely applies to programming.

Playboy: Have you thought about producing episodic content?

Schafer: It's a really interesting idea. We were talking about the possibilities of episodic content 20 years ago at LucasArts. It was always shot down by the marketing department. It was always a pricing issue; it was never shot down for creative reasons. Hopefully a viable pricing model will emerge. With any luck, folks like Telltale will figure it out and once they've made their mistakes and learned from them, everybody will just start doing it.

Playboy: How do you feel that video games differ from other media in terms of how they affect the viewer?

Schafer: I don't usually feel as enriched when I'm playing a game as I do when I read a book. A book or a movie can change your perspective on the world, and I've never had that experience with playing a game. I would love to make a game that did that for people, and anyone who is writing games is aspiring to that and trying to make something that is experienced on a deeper level and that has an effect on you. I think the medium has the potential to do that more so than books and movies, more so than any art form that's ever been created. We just have to fight through the early days of the medium where people haven't decided what it is yet and hopefully manage it well so it doesn't get relegated to kid stuff.

The thing that scares me most about the games industry is what's happened to the comic book industry. Comic books are an incredibly powerful art form as well, but they've been relegated to kid stuff for so long that now the comics that aren't kid stuff are called "underground" comics. So the comic books that are mature and have adult themes and are about emotional issues and are really powerful, those are underground? Those are the ones that should be the most mainstream because they apply to all people, not just the plots that are supernatural or fantasy oriented. So I feel comics is a medium that hasn't found its whole potential because it got locked into a limited corner of popular culture. Games could be teetering on the edge of that. And the problem is that very few publishers want to go in the directions that I'm talking about. A lot of the fans do, but there is no publisher in the world who is saying right now they believe games are art. They just want to go after where the money has been so far. And that's exactly the kind of thinking that killed the comics industry.

Playboy: You seem to be living proof that critically acclaimed, but low-selling games aren't a death sentence.

Schafer: Psychonauts only sold half a million copies, and we're still in business. The quality of games matters more than people give it credit for. If you make a really good game, publishers still want to talk to you, no matter how it sells. Make a really bad game, though, and publishers do not want to talk to you.

The hard part is that when you're an independent developer working in the straight publisher model, between each game you have to do a very hyperactive tap dance before you run out of money and your company goes out of business. So you try to start doing that dance before the first game ends.

Playboy: It seems like part of the difficulty there is the brutal retail market where games get squeezed off shelves very quickly.

Schafer: We hope that downloads are going to change that. The only thing is that the download market on the consoles is still really controlled. It's not the Wild West. The PC market is great, though. You can put stuff on Steam and reach a lot of people.

Playboy: It just seems so odd that it's hard to find even critically acclaimed games that are more than six months old. Good books stay on shelves for decades.

Schafer: That's one thing I don't understand. The business of how books can do that and games can't. I don't know why.

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