Finding Time for Games and "Sweet Revenge:" An Interview with Double Fine's Tim Schafer

Finding Time for Games and "Sweet Revenge:" An Interview with Double Fine's Tim Schafer

We talk to industry veteran Tim Schafer about developing games with Microsoft, his favorite games, and the inspirational powers behind cult RPG Skies of Arcadia.

Tim Schafer, the founder of Double Fine Productions, is a rare specimen in a swiftly changing industry. He's been in the business for decades, and his work is still easy to pluck out of a crowd thanks to his talent for writing strange adventures with memorable characters like Raz and Guybrush Threepwood.

But making games isn't just about writing dialogue and crafting bizarre journeys. There's a lot of frustration, a lot of heartbreak, and in the case of Psychonauts 2, a lot of delays. When I sat down with Schafer at PAX West 2019, we talked about Double Fine Productions joining Microsoft Studios, what it's like making games for Microsoft after they dropped Double Fine as a publisher in 2004, and how the cult Dreamcast RPG Skies of Arcadia helped inspire Psychonauts.

USgamer: Psychonauts 2 has been delayed a number of times, as you would know as well as anyone. Do you think 2020 will be the year it comes out "for keepsies?" Can you confidently say that?

Tim Schafer: Yes, 2020. We are coming out in 2020. Until further notice. [Laughs] You know, we just want the game to be good.

What kind of problems are you running into with development? I know Starbreeze's problems probably caused some delays.

One of the problems of being a creative person and trying to run your own company is fighting for control of your mind. Like, what do you think about all day? Do I think about writing, do I think about psychic powers? Do I think about acrobatics, or do I think about getting funding? One of the reasons we signed up with Microsoft is to take a big chunk of that off my brain. I won't have to think about trying to run out there and beat bushes for money.

That's been a distraction for me and kept me farther from the project than I'd like. Now I get to move closer to it. If I'm distant from a project, it can create delays because people are doing work and then I show up and go, "What's all this?" If I feel like it's not the direction I want to go, I end up changing stuff. Out of respect for people's time, I need to be as close to the project as possible.

You mentioned being able to breathe a little easier under Microsoft. How is Microsoft treating you overall? I hear they can be hands-off with the creative process, which is good. Do you find that's the case, or do you feel like you're being a little bit policed?

Well, we worked with Microsoft for years and had a lot of different licenses with them. Some of it was very hands-on, and some of it was more hands-off. But I had never worked with [Head of Microsoft Studios] Matt Booty. I did research and talked to other people whose studios had been acquired by Matt's group, and they all supported his basic promise of "We want you to be you and do your own thing." They all said that's been the case. The deal's not fully closed yet, so we're not operating under them like we will in a month or so. Come back in six months and ask me again. [Laughs] But so far, so good. I have high hopes. It makes sense: Why would you want to buy a company like Double Fine and then not make it Double Fine?

See, when authority tells me not to snitch, it makes me want to snitch. | Microsoft/Double Fine Productions

Do you have anything planned either before, during, or after Psychonauts 2?

With RAD finishing up, we have people available to work on new stuff. So there are new things we've been cooking up for a little while. They're just in the early stages. Then I have a bunch of ideas I want to work on.

If you had free rein to work on any game you wanted-genre wise or story wise-what would you love to do?

So far, I've been trying everything that I've not done yet. But we've done a lot of different genres, except for shooters. Well, Iron Brigade had shooting. I do feel like for narrative stuff, action-adventure games provide a lot of the stuff I like, which is human interaction with characters, and also exploration. I feel like my number one thing is exploration, but there's a lot of stuff I haven't done yet. I really feel like I want to try to do more experimental, procedurally based system stuff. But who knows?

Would you say you'd love to do an exploration-based game because you love them yourself?

Breath of the Wild is my favorite game right now. Going out in the world of Zelda and just finding stuff in a tree trunk-that kind of stuff I just love. I think ever since I read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, I just love those kinds of discoveries.

I bet Link never sold out Jesus Allegory Lion for some crummy candy. | Nintendo

What's it like to have Microsoft publishing Psychonauts 2 given the relationship you had when you were dropped the first time around [before publishing the first Psychonauts]?

We were signed by someone who left the company, and often when that happens, things change. But also, things were taking a long time, and [Microsoft] was moving on to the next generation of hardware. They were dialing back support of games for the first platform; they were shutting down development of all their original Xbox games. That was just them having a general strategy they followed through on.

I maintained a relationship with them. I stayed friends with [Head of Xbox] Phil Spencer over the years. I made him feel bad about it whenever I had the chance, and I feel like this is my sweet, sweet revenge: Making them finish paying for a game they never got to finish paying for. [Laughs] Now they'll own it, so they got what they paid for after all."

Double Fine has published games in the past as Double Fine Presents. You recently had to drop Ooblets, but you published Knights and Bikes. Is there any criteria for what can stay and what has to go?

Knights, with a side order of Bikes. | Double Fine Productions

We don't know how that's going to evolve. Double Fine Presents was always meant to-after being around in the industry for many years, you start to realize you've figured out some problems that first-time developers haven't figured out. So, we have a lot to offer. A lot of people were coming to us for advice about Kickstarter. We were just like, "We should find the game we like the best and help them."

It was a way of answering the "discoverability problem." There are so many games and the best ones might get lost in the shuffle. Here are the ones that are the best that, you know, we don't have a lot of money to share, but we can tell them how to get in touch with platform holders and exclusives and press and all the things they don't realize. While it might not make sense to literally publish games while we're part of Xbox, especially since publishing for the platform could be a problem, but we're still able to fulfill all the things we started, like Knights and Bikes on all platforms and Samurai Gunn 2. We're still following through on those games. But in the future, that mission of helping out indie devs and helping to bring our favorite indie games more attention can still be done. We're not doing it for money, though. We're doing it to help out with the indie community.

We still do things like Day of the Devs, which is another part of Double Fine Presents. We were showcasing 70 or 80 games from promising developers. It's free, and people can come see the games and meet the developers and all that. We still want to do that, and there's no reason why we can't.

What are you playing now, if anything? I know you must be busy.

It's weird to say I'm still playing Breath of the Wild, but now that the sequel's announced, I'm like, "I gotta go back and finish this sidequest." I just love being in that world. As soon as I go in there, I'm like "Why do I play other games?" But I've also been enjoying Ape Out, which is really striking and artistic-it really makes an impact. My daughter and I will play Pikuniku together, and now we're playing Knights and Bikes together.

You know, you get busy and you get older, and you find yourself saying things like, "Oh, I don't have time to play games." If you're a developer who says, "I don't have time to play games," you should quit. I think it's bad for you to stop playing games if you're going to make games. For me, it's the only way to remind yourself what it feels like to enjoy a game. It's an important part of the process. It's not just about keeping up with the latest mechanics. When I'm playing a game, my brain feels little moments of joy, then says "Why did I feel that joy just then?" Then it goes back and tries to dissect that. Then I'm like, "Oh, I wonder if there's a different way to do that." It doesn't give you literal ideas, but it gives you the inspiration to try things, and I think that's important.

Dreamcast is still a dream machine. | Capcom

That kind of ties into my last question. We're doing a feature about the Dreamcast, and we're asking developers what their favorite Dreamcast games are.

First, it's probably one of my absolute favorite consoles. My memory's a little dim, but we had a service that was kind of like Pink Dot [a food and drink delivery service] in L.A.-you could order stuff online and have it delivered to your door. It was very cutting-edge. Anyway, I had a bad flu and I was stuck at home, so I used this weird app to order a Dreamcast, Code Veronica, and Chu Chu Rocket. But I'd say my favorite game on the console is-well, there's actually two: Rayman 2 and Skies of Arcadia.

You can see how if you mash those games together, you get Psychonauts. I played those games, and then I went and made Psychonauts. You know when you're walking around in Skies of Arcadia and the ground underneath vibrates because there's a Cham underneath? That's where the Arrowheads come from in Psychonauts. And the basic "painterly" look and textures of Rayman 2 were very inspiring to us as well.

Psychonauts 2 is coming to PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC in 2020.

Disclosure: USgamer is owned and operated by ReedPop, which also runs the PAX family of shows.

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Nadia Oxford

Staff Writer

Nadia has been writing about games for so long, only the wind and the rain (or the digital facsimiles thereof) remember her true name. She's written for Nerve,, Gamepro, IGN, 1UP, PlayStation Official Magazine, and other sites and magazines that sling words about video games. She co-hosts the Axe of the Blood God podcast, where she mostly screams about Dragon Quest.

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