Speaking of creative ownership, let's talk about Grim Fandango. It's an Aztec afterlife/film noir mash up. How on earth did you come up with the idea in the first place?
"The only thing I can remember is that those were the only two things I was into at the time. I was just fascinated with that world of the Day of the Dead skeleton, especially in this one book I had where it showed a lot of pictures of those little dioramas where they’re in a brightly painted box. There’s a skeleton dentist pulling a tooth from a patient or a skeleton nurse and a skeleton guy in a wheelchair, skeleton baby with a skeleton mom and dad. You put them all together, and there’s this city of skeletons. I want to go to that city of skeletons! And that was the impetus for it. Trying to figure out what your main skeleton character would do in it, what’s going to happen in that world? Then I was really getting into reading Raymond Chandler novels and watching Humphrey Bogart movies. They’re awesome and everyone should do it. Chinatown got me thinking about the bad guys. It’s just so great to think about the bad guy’s plot in that movie. It was really great and the bad guy had a really good plot. It would be really great to uncover one of those hard cold crimes and corruption. It was just really fascinating to me at the time. So that’s what we did."
From what I've read, it sounds like it was quite a challenging game to remaster. Was that the case?
"There was a lot of digital archaeology; digging up all of these tapes and trying to get them out of the archive. A lot of the people at Lucas Archive were gone and they had hand done the archive and they were all in these crazy formats that we had to find someone who collected SCSI drives as a hobby to read some of these things. We could dig up some things, but not others. We eventually put together all of the audio archives and were able to remaster all of the audio, which was incredible. The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, who we first made contact with in Broken Age, and then finding uncompressed video/uncompressed frames for the cut scenes. Then relying on the brilliant programmers to actually do a lighting model. Nothing was really lit in the way we think of lighting models today. You just had polygons that were kind of shaded. Now, we could actually do dynamic lighting, so Manny could light a cigarette and it glows on his face. The venetian blinds can cast shadows on his face and all of that incredible stuff. So, they were able to work miracles with that."
"It was kind of interesting because there were some things we didn’t touch at all, like the backgrounds. They were rendered at really high resolution, even back then. So they held up better than the characters, which looked blocky and terrible; jaggy textures. We redid all of them. It was funny to do the commentary – it was an old team reunion. We got the old team together and recorded them in a studio and it was really fun.
Have people enjoyed it?
"Yeah, it was nice. A lot of people had no idea what it was. "What’s this game? This game’s really cool!" It was nice for people who played it for the first time. Other people enjoyed playing it again. Both are really rewarding in different ways. Lots of love and of course some people were reviewing it like, "These puzzles are crazy," but I’ve had trouble with some of the puzzles. And some of them were crazy."
"We didn’t do much playtesting back then. If we had done playtesting, I probably would have put in more hints, and that would make the big difference there. Some things with the interface were really hard, and we tried to make them a lot smoother. When you’re in Toto Santo’s office and he’s looking at the medicine cabinet on the wall and his head goes back and forth, it’s really hard to solve that puzzle."
So what happened in the six years between Grim Fandango and Psychonauts?
"I had this spy game idea."
"Yeah. I had started playing Mario 64, Final Fantasy VII, and Tomb Raider on the PlayStation, and I really wanted to make a game that would pan around in 3D and was not so limited by the adventure game interface. You could just push through doors and not have to click it open. I really wanted to do a game like that. Management came by and said, "Maybe instead of an adventure game, why don’t you make a PS2 action game?" And I was like, "I’m working on one right now.""
"The spy game actually had this meditation where you would meditate on an object to have an interactive vision. That vision would give you clues about the real world. Later someone was like, "Tell me about that game where you go into other people’s heads again." And I was like, "No, no, you go into your own head. You’re meditating." And then I was like, "Wait, wait, wait a second. That’s much better." So that idea stuck with me until I left and started the company, Double Fine. I’m going to do this game where you go into other people’s heads. This fit in with a lot of other stuff that I was interested in when I was studying psychology in college. I took a whole Psychology of Dreams class and loved how people would explain their dreams and analyze themselves by telling these dreams. There was this video of this woman who was talking about this fountain. The therapist said, "Now put yourself in the position of the fountain and tell the story." The woman was like, "I’m the fountain and I’m giving all this water all the time, and no one is drinking it, but I’m always full of this water. It’s really fresh." She started crying and I was like, "This is so crazy." This is so interesting how she’s basically done what a poet does: she’s made a metaphor, a very abstract metaphor for what’s going on in her own head, but she did it while she was asleep and she’s not a professional writer or poet or anything. She made this beautiful metaphor for how she feels. I think that’s so cool how everyone has that ability to create metaphors for emotional things. When you’re in your dream and you’re fighting a bear, that means something. Even if it’s just repetition of a feeling you have. So, I just wanted to make this game that went into people’s worlds and you saw that fountain and you saw that bear. And it meant something about that person. It was a whole new way to do environmental storytelling. The environment is someone’s brain."
Do you think it was a little bit esoteric for the average gamer? Did it sell well?
"The initial run sold about 400,000 games. For some reason it’s remembered as selling more like 100,000. Maybe that’s the difference between who is doing the accounting, but I don’t know. The interesting thing is that in that initial run, we didn’t make any money at all, but then we got the rights to it back and have been able to turn it into a moneymaking thing for Double Fine many years later. We probably made more money off of it last year than we ever did before, because we’re recording it, we’re releasing it, putting it on sale and publishing it ourselves. It’s since gone on to sell over a million units and reach a lot of people. We got this word of mouth thing where it’s really well known now."
Do you think it has a certain timeless quality about it because of the art direction and the content? It’s sort of evergreen in a way.
"The cut scenes don’t hold up as well, but all of the other stuff has such a strong visual style, yeah, that… Well, I’m trying to think of what makes a game dated versus timeless. It wasn’t made in any sort of dominant digital style at the time. It wasn’t like we were really into 8-bit retro stuff, so that’s a look. I feel like its emphasis was on story, characters and humor. The script lasts longer than those kind of visual styles."
What do you think of the throwback games now? The 8-bit style, the 16-bit style?
"I can’t help it, but certain chip tune styles and certain color combinations do make me instantly happy because they make me think of the Adventure cartridge or the Combat attract mode. I think that’s why a lot of people are so interested in it. Like Fez. There are certain games that have these weird triggers that make me have this happy feeling, you know? I feel like I would never do it now, just because really good people have done it and nailed it: Sword and Sworcery and Fez and a lot of games like that have pretty much done as good as you can do with that. Now I think it may still be the right choice for a game, but I think only if it fits what that game is trying to do. Just one of the many styles you can choose from. It’s not something that’s easy to be original in anymore. A lot of people have done it really well."
Brütal Legend came after Psychonauts, right? Tell me a little bit about the development of that game.
"Well, it was a big one. It was the biggest game we’ve ever made. It was imagined to be big from the get-go. I had wanted to do an RTS game ever since I played Warcraft. Before that, I played Herzog Zwei on the Sega Genesis. I just loved the idea of winding up a little toy and sending it out on the battlefield and seeing what it does. You give your units these instructions and they go off and do it. I always loved the fantasy of the ending of Evil Dead, when somebody goes back in time and uses their modern knowledge and maybe some of their technology, like their car, to wow the primitives of that time. I love that fantasy. And if it was a roadie for a heavy metal band, if he goes back into a world that looks like the cover of heavy metal albums, how awesome is that? He is like, "I know this world, and I have always dreamt that I would belong here." So I realized those two could go together; those demons and all of the things you see in that world could be the Armies of Darkness, so to speak, of an RTS game."
"It started as an RTS game that should appear like Herzog Zwei in 3D. That’s why all the avatars fly. That’s why Eddie has wings, so he can be like the jet in Herzog Zwei. Your character is the cursor. We worked a lot on playtesting the stage battles, the RTS part of it. Then, our publisher was worried that there were so many mechanics of this stage battle part of it, that people weren’t going to understand it. So I was like, "let’s do the single-player campaign so that each level would be a tutorial on the mechanics". They said, "Ok". At a certain point, we got a new manager team, a new producer. Then it was, "RTS games don’t sell except for in Germany. We’re just never going to say this is an RTS game, right? We’re just going to push out the action-adventure side". We were like, "Whatever – as long as we still get to make the game." Then that was interesting. Expanding the single-player campaign of that game really increased the budget. Then, before we could sign the deal to extend the budget for that, that whole business shenanigans thing happened where Vivendi and Activision merged. A whole new group of people came in. They were like, "What? You’re out of money?" We were like, "Yeah, we’re about to extend the budget." They were like, "Nope, I didn’t sign on for that." All of this bad stuff happened that was all very public. We ended up getting the game reassigned, but we nearly ended up going out of business."
"We almost ran out of money. The same thing happened with Psychonauts too. It was really hard. Psychonauts got so close… I stood in front of the team at Psychonauts and said, we have this payroll and then no more. So we’re going to let everyone here use the computers to find new jobs. I made that speech and went back to my desk and there was an email from Majesco saying they wanted to sign the game. It was really close! That same thing happened on Brütal, too."
"However, we had a whole press event where the demo didn’t have any RTS stuff in it, so people felt they were mislead when they got to that part of the game where the RTS stuff started. They were like, "What’s this?" And they were angry about it. It was one of those situations that was totally shocking to me, because I assume confusion is a fun thing for people. I thought unexpected depth in a game showing up midway through it… I assumed people thought that was fun because I thought it was fun in ActRaiser. Remember ActRaiser? The Super Nintendo game? You’re playing this side-scroller and then all of a sudden you have to plant crops in between missions and you’re like, "Why are you planting crops?" I wasn’t mad when that happened, I was delighted. I was like, "Wait! This is interesting." And I got my ass kicked on this level, but if I plant more crops I end up doing better when I go back in there. So even though it wasn’t my idea to hide the RTS stuff, that was more a marketing choice, I expected people to be happy with it when they encountered the increased depth and complexity. A lot of people weren’t. Some people were, but a lot of people weren’t. Luckily, that issue has gone away over time. People who play the game now already know what the game’s about."
Do you think the game was mis-marketed?
"I don’t want to blame it on marketing."
Without placing blame, do you think it was a similar situation that you get with movies when the trailer might lead you to believe one thing, but when you sit down to watch the movie, it’s not quite what the trailer said it was.
"I feel like I would have avoided a lot of negative reaction to the game if I had somehow made another demo that had the RTS stuff in it. I could’ve pushed for that as well as the Marketing Department. So, I don’t blame them for that. I misread the situation. I predicted people would be happy with it, and they were not. It's too bad because I really do enjoy those RTS sections and I really like the multi-player combat. When we playtested it, it got really high scores. So we were like, this is going to be great, but there was so much of that negative surprise element to it, that it just kind of overshadowed everything. It wasn’t perfect. I mean I would love to work on it some more and make it even cleaner and smoother, but I was certainly really happy with it and I love going and playing it online with people every October 13th."
Do you think that some of the backlash over the game was Internet-driven? A smaller minority being more vocal?
"I think the unfortunate thing is that a lot of people don’t try things out for themselves and they just hear a story and are like, "Well, that’s terrible. That sucks." The name at the time was, "RTS LOL". I think that was said by a lot of people who didn’t really play the multiplayer parts of the game and didn’t try it out."
"I feel bad for the Assassin’s Creed Unity people because that bug that makes people’s faces go all weird… I’ve heard – I don’t know if it’s true – but that it only happens on like two graphics cards, yet that visual has been seen by a lot of people who haven’t got those graphics cards and have taken away that’s what the game looks like. It looks like crap and that’s because how information travels on the Internet. A lot of people who have never tried Assassin’s Creed write it off as a buggy game that's not worth playing, but they did not probably actually try it out and see if it worked on their machine."
Do you think that's a similar situation to your Kickstarter experiences. What are your lessons learned from that?
"They were amazing experiences because we got so in touch with our community during that, and our community was great all the way through. They really were encouraging and really understood what was going on. They watched the documentary and saw our ups and downs. It was really the anti-community; there were some backers who were upset when we said we were extending the schedule, even though we were making the game twice as big and paying for it ourselves. They were just like, "I just don’t want to have to wait that long. I never said you get to make it bigger. Why do you get to choose to make it bigger?" But that was not the majority of the backers. The majority of the backers were like, "Great!" You know? Bigger game, same price, awesome!"
"It was a lot of the people who are distrustful of what they see as anti-consumer features. Crowdfunding, early access and pre-ordering are the big bug-a-boos of people who think these are different ways to rip off players, which they’re not. They’re all optional and they’re all things that are done for different reasons. They’re not methods to rip people off, especially crowdfunding, which is just a great way to put people who want a product in touch with people who want to make that product and allow the most natural funding method in the world, in a way, to exist. Let’s pool our money collectively, and let’s make adventure games happen. We don’t make adventure games anymore, we can pool our money together and get an adventure game. It’s like a win-win; it’s great."
"In Broken Age, we had an exclusive backing community with a walled garden on our forums and all of the backers could talk to the other backers. In some ways, that was a mistake, because they were the only ones who really knew what was going on with the project. And when people outside the company, people outside the backing community heard that we were extending the schedule, it got into the press and it was often mis-recorded in the press as, "Double Fine out of money. Going back to the backers for more money." That was a headline we saw a bunch of times. "Double Fine Somehow Out of Money". We are not out of money, we are putting our own money into it and we are going to take all of the revenue from all of the games and we’re going to put that into it. It was often our backers who would correct the press in the comments section. "No, they’re not out of money. They’re not asking for more money." Anyway, so that was a period where we wished we had been more open; even more transparent even though we’re very transparent with the documentary; it was an extremely transparent production."
"So on Massive Chalice, we didn’t have exclusive forums. We let everybody see all of the Team’s streams. Everyone knows what’s going on with Massive Chalice. On Broken Age we eventually asked the backers if it would be ok to release the documentary and they were all very supportive of that and so we put the documentary up on YouTube. I think the people who are inclined to hate us for crowdfunding, they’re not going to watch the documentary anyway. But if they did watch it, I hope they’d at least understand that we’re human beings and be a little more polite."
"There are a lot of people who aren’t used to game development who think it’s strange when schedules change or features come and go. Every game that they’ve ever played has probably come in later than it was originally slated to come in, or cost more than they thought it would cost when they launched it. They just never know that. They never hear that story, so now they’re finally hearing these stories of game development and seeing some high-profile things fail in Kickstarter and they’re not realizing that all of these things have been late and failing and confused, and not fun to play for months and months until they got fun to play. All of these things go on in every game development cycle, but now they’re transparent and they’re seeing that. The optimistic part of me hopes that after they see it for a while, they’ll learn that this is what game development looks like."
"I really don’t know where that anger that some people feel comes from. They feel like they’re being abused or mistreated. I feel like fundamentally, I don’t want to sound all new age-y, but I feel like it’s this way where you don’t realize people on the other side of the fence are human beings, just like you. I used to think when I was growing up, I could never make video games because teams of scientists who wore white lab coats and robots and these big companies were making them. I didn’t realize when I was 16, there was a 16-year old Mark Cerny making Marble Madness. I didn’t realize that there was someone almost my age right now, making games; that I could have been making them the whole time. I didn’t think they were like, just people. I think other people feel that way, and so when they don’t get what they want from those people, they can talk to them like they’re a big company full of white lab coats and robots. They say the most horrible things about them that they want. I feel like the mission of our documentary was just to humanize game development for everybody; to just let people see that… to increase the empathy between those two groups."
Do you think you’ve done that?
"Well, anyone willing to watch the documentaries; it’s like 20 hours of me talking. I don’t know how many people can stand that, but I think if they’re willing to watch it all, they will at least understand."
So what would your advice be to people wanting to go into Kickstarter projects today?
"I think there are a lot of things to look out for: are you pricing your rewards the right way? Not losing money because you didn’t count for the international shipping costs, or all those ways you can really get screwed on that stuff. If you’re going to be like Double Fine and decide you’re going to make your game bigger than originally planned, then you have to have money to back that up. We didn’t when we started the Kickstarter, but we did by the time we split it. We were getting into self-publishing and getting our money, so that was a big thing. I’ve seen some people getting in over their head. I’ve seen a lot of individuals, some of whom don’t have that much experience, getting a lot more money than they need, but it goes really fast and they’re face to face with a bunch of angry backers. So I feel like there’s more that can be done."
"We basically try to help them through Double Fine Presents. One of the things we sometimes casually, unofficially do is we help people with their Kickstarters. We look at them in advance and tell them their pitch video is too long and their rewards are too cheap and they have too many rewards and they’re promising too much and all of these things that we can help them with. I think crowdfunding is here to stay and will only grow as people start to feel more normal about it and see the benefits of it. Some of the first wave of people seeing high-profile failures, or just big surprises in the world of pre-orders and the world of crowdfunding and early access. One of the takeaways is that there are always crowdfunding things that will fail. There’s going to be early access things that go a different way than people expected. If people learn that that is a possibility, I think that’s a good lesson for everybody. I think clarifying that and setting things really open with the expectation to let everyone know, that will lead to less acrimony, hopefully.
What do you want to do next?
"I’m doing Day of Tentacle right now. It’s fun to see people working on that in the building. I would like to do at least one more. No deal for that yet, though. Then, we are working on a new IP that’s secret and we’re also… who knows. New stuff!"
What’s exciting you about gaming at the moment?
"More than technology is these new changes in funding that have been exciting me the most; the fact that you can be funded by something like crowdfunding or that there are all of these people who have done well in the game industry, like Indy Funds who are giving back to the industry and investing back in it and funding games that will lead to more original and more personal projects and to really advance the idea that gaming is an art form. I think that’s what I’m excited about the most.
So, games that normally wouldn’t come through the auspices of the traditional gatekeepers. Do you think that model is breaking down?
"Well, no, I think that both exist. In the same way that the Sundance Film Festival didn’t destroy Hollywood, it enriched Hollywood. It gave a variety of projects for actors to work on and directors…and it gave a variety of movies for people to see, which I think makes the whole ecosystem better."
So you are like Sundance?
"I’m basically like Robert Redford. I’m surprised you didn’t notice the resemblance already," chuckles Tim.