Illustration by Andrew J. Nilsen with photo by Joseph Schell.
Perhaps choicest of the trophies on display inside the SOMA office of videogame designer Tim Schafer is the row of landmark heavy-metal albums, from Sabbath Bloody Sabbath to Painkiller, each bearing the black-scrawled autograph of a megastar who contributed songs to Brütal Legend, Schafer's videogame ode to metal.
“It's funny. Rob Halford signed records for us until his hand got tired, and then he quit,” Schafer recalls. “But Ozzy Osbourne signed and signed for hours, talking with everyone, telling stories.”
In this tale of two metal legends, the funny, affable Schafer is more like the latter. With his close-cropped dark curls, salt-and-pepper beard, and unfussy jeans and flannel, Schafer comes off as more a college buddy than a gaming industry titan. When Schafer joined Twitter during the marketing push for Brütal Legend, he adopted the handle @TimofLegend. He swears it was inspired by the game, but to his fans he's no less a rock star than Osbourne and Halford.
Schafer's offbeat, challenging, hilarious videogames have earned him a devoted following, beginning with The Secret of Monkey Island, which he co-authored for LucasArts in 1989. But that following has never translated into the blockbuster sales of, say, Grand Theft Auto or World of Warcraft. For all his success, his relationship with big-league game publishers is one that certain social networks would describe as “it's complicated.”
It's about to get even more so. Schafer's game studio, Double Fine Productions, broke records in March by earning $3.3 million on the crowd-funding site Kickstarter. By the end of the campaign, more than 87,000 backers had chipped in for an unnamed — and as yet unconceived — “Double Fine Adventure” game, more than eight times the funding targeted. Now, rather than producing a game at the behest of publishers hungry for a cross-platform smash, Schafer and his team are working for very different masters: their own diehard fans.
Of course, what passes for work inside Double Fine might resemble play at other companies. Schafer sidles up to a duo testing what looks like a computerized funhouse mirror. He wiggles from side to side, and the screen shows him rippling like a sine wave. He turns around, and his virtual body corkscrews.
They're building the sequel to Happy Action Theater, a “video toy” published by Microsoft this year. It uses Microsoft's Kinect controller, a camera that transforms body motion into videogame action. In a recent meeting, designers spent two hours brainstorming different outlandish sequences for the game, such as one where a fox plays bongo drums on a series of eggs, out of which hatches a miniature version of the player.
“So what you do is mess around all day,” Greg Rice, Double Fine's public relations manager, says to designer Drew Skillman.
“Pretty much,” Skillman says.
Double Fine headquarters is part workplace, part play space, part curio museum. Posters and cardboard cutouts from the studio's catalog line the walls. Almost every desk sports a statue of Eddie Riggs, the roadie hero of Brütal Legend, leaping with axe hoisted overhead and guitar slung on his back. Outside Schafer's office is a half-size version of Riggs' flame-drenched hot-rod, “The Druid Plow.”
Black-clad, fresh-faced Paul Levering shows Schafer a brand-new video camera, a post-Kickstarter splurge. Levering is one of the filmmakers behind 2 Player Productions, which is making a documentary about Double Fine's new game. In fact, it's Levering's fault that Double Fine turned to Kickstarter. After interviewing Schafer for a Kickstarter-funded documentary on the success of the independent videogame Minecraft, 2 Player asked to make a film about the production of a Double Fine project.
“We liked the idea of people getting to see how games are made,” Schafer said. “But, especially if bad stuff was going on, it might be tricky to get permission.” The large game publishers prefer to exercise strict control over an upcoming game's press coverage. “So we thought, 'Let's Kickstart this game to make the documentary.'”
Schafer had considered using Kickstarter before. But at the time most projects were earning $5,000 at most, not nearly enough to produce a videogame. As amounts crept higher, Double Fine and 2 Player decided to take the chance. “With every pitch, you have to make it an event,” Schafer said. “Why is this group making this project in this way and why now?” This time, his pitch was to create a graphic-adventure game in the style he helped pioneer at LucasArts. As a bonus, Schafer's LucasArts mentor, Ron Gilbert — seen as the grand poobah of the genre — also works at Double Fine.
The goal Double Fine set was modest: asking backers for $300,000 for the game and $100,000 for the documentary, which will roll out in a series of monthly episodes.
Within seconds of Double Fine's Kickstarter debut, $30 rolled in. In two hours, fans donated more than $100,000. The next morning, during a conference call with the team in San Francisco, Schafer's phone connection was seared by the sound of employees screaming. “They're being crushed!” he joked, but he didn't realize what was going on. When they settled down, he learned they'd made $1 million overnight.
For the first time, Schafer had a blockbuster. Now he just needs a game.
Unlike most of today's furiously paced games, which are predicated on ease of use and constant forward momentum, Schafer's graphic adventures emphasize thoughtfulness, patience, and creativity. The Secret of Monkey Island — his first, co-written with Gilbert and Dave Grossman in 1990 — is typical. Players guide the improbably named pirate-wannabe Guybrush Threepwood about the pirate-infested Mêlée Island by clicking an onscreen command — “pick up,” “use,” “walk,” etc. — and then an item in Threepwood's vicinity. In a bid to become a pirate himself, the hapless Threepwood bumbles about chatting with the island's denizens, gathering items that players will put to unlikely uses (a saucepan becomes a helmet when Threepwood volunteers as a human cannonball), and solving puzzles. All of this is presented with the humor that has become Schafer's trademark.
In one scene, Threepwood chats with a man in a jail cell:
Prisoner: You gotta get me out of here! I'm a victim of society.
Threepwood: Not to mention halitosis. Yuck!
Prisoner: Hey, it's hard to keep my breath minty-fresh when there's nothing to eat in here but rats.
Silly, but also something of a puzzle. What items on Mêlée Island could Threepwood use to help this sot out? Later, in a shop, Threepwood will have a chance to acquire breath mints, which he can then use to win over the prisoner — a far cry from the gun-barrel diplomacy of today's most popular games.
“A lot of people think Tim is really funny,” says Michael Capps, president of Epic Games, home of Gears of War. Capps cites an example from Double Fine's Psychonauts: “'A bacon phone! How droll. What will he think of next?' they think. What they don't realize is that Tim actually sees the world that way, and he's just communicating those delusions to us through games.”
Whatever Schafer was communicating, fans adored it. Monkey Island sold “north of 100,000, far south of 1 million,” Grossman says. “Back in those days, a few hundred thousand was a giant smash hit.”
Schafer, Gilbert, and Grossman made a sequel in 1991, followed by 1993's Maniac Mansion: Day of the Tentacle, both in the graphic-adventure mold. By then, they had won over a breed of thoughtful, patient gamer. “Adventure-game fans have a high tolerance for being stuck,” Schafer says. “And then they solve it and they feel great.”
Even in the early '90s, that wasn't necessarily the norm, though. “A lot of people will say 'I don't know how to do this; I will move on to something easier,'” Schafer says. “They want that flow and momentum, and that's valid, too.”
That same year, Doom hit the market, and gamers got that flow and momentum. id Software's space-marine bloodbath was the first 3-D first-person shooter to gain massive popularity; experts estimate that more than 10 million people took aim at Doom's demons in the first two years after its release. Suddenly, LucasArts' adventure-game sales looked weak.
If that weren't enough, Sony unveiled the PlayStation in 1994. It was the first gaming console to use CDs instead of cartridges, allowing for more storage space and sharper graphics. The PlayStation was the first console to sell more than 100 million units worldwide. The gaming market began to shift away from PCs and, to large extent, graphic-adventure games.
“Advancing technology caused budgets to rise, and adventure games weren't able to expand their sales to keep up the pace,” says Kurt Kalata, author of The Guide to Classic Graphic Adventures. Meanwhile, he adds, many game critics at the time felt that the graphic-adventure genre “had grown stale and wasn't innovating enough.”
Major publishers stopped making these games, even though the fanbase hadn't budged. “Ron and I have always felt adventure games have the same market they always did, which is about 200,000 units sold. But with Call of Duty people expect 15 million units sold,” Schafer says. That left his audience neglected. “People were told, 'You guys like these kinds of games, but you're not worth it, so we're not going to make this kind of game for you.'”
One of the things graphic-adventure games got right — in part due to their technological limitations — is their focus on story and characters, argues Patrick Chin, one of Double Fine's Kickstarter backers. Each new generation of gaming consoles drives designers to dazzle gamers with bleeding-edge graphics. That's partly due to cost; it's more expensive to build games for brand-new systems, so most of the cash goes toward visuals likely to grab gamers' attention and result in a hit. As consoles mature, studios return their attentions to character and narrative, according to Jordan Weisman, who designed the original Shadowrun role-playing videogame and recently raised $1.8 million on Kickstarter to create a sequel, Shadowrun Returns.
“We're at the end of the lifespan of the current generation of consoles, so the focus has been on the depth of story,” Weisman says. There's also evidence that gamers hunger for better storytelling: Earlier this year, fans of the action role-playing hit Mass Effect 3 launched major protests over the game's unsatisfying ending, ultimately winning an apology from BioWare, the game's publisher, and a new downloadable epilogue. “When the new generation of hardware comes out, people will revel in the graphics and story will be swept aside again,” Weisman says.
For Schafer, storytelling has been a life-long love affair.
Born in July 1967, Schafer grew up five blocks from Sonoma's sleepy downtown, well before the town of 11,000 people became a major winemaking hub. Early on, Schafer got hooked on stand-up arcade games like Night Driver and Space Panic. His father bought the family a Magnavox Odyssey — the first videogame console — and, later, various Ataris.
“I loved them all, but the one that was special was a game called Adventure,” Schafer says, referring to Warren Robinett's innovative 1979 Atari title in which a cursor collects swords and keys and avoids dragons. “It was the first, you might say, graphic-adventure game. It triggered that feeling of space existing in a computer, which felt like magic to me,” he says. Soon, he started writing his own games — and discovering an appreciation for the offbeat, especially in the small town kids at his high school called “Slownoma.” “As a teen, I listened to the Ramones, and identified with them, when everyone else was listening to Journey.”
After graduation, Schafer studied at the University of California at Santa Cruz, and later transferred to UC Berkeley. He majored in computer science, even though he found the classes boring — too much science — and preferred tinkering on computers at home.
Classes outside his major made him a better game designer, he says. Literature professors exposed him to Thomas Pynchon and John Updike. A UCSC course on the psychology of dreams paved the way for the subconscious romp of Double Fine's Psychonauts. Alan Dundes' legendary folklore class at Cal exposed Schafer to the Norse mythology that suffused Brütal Legend and the Día de los Muertos iconography that became the backbone of Grim Fandango.
Schafer was working at Cal's computer store and finishing his computer-science degree when he landed a job at LucasArts, then headquartered at Skywalker Ranch. His first job was play-testing, but before long, Gilbert had roped him and Grossman — who started the same day as Schafer in 1989 — into designing the goofy pirate game he'd dreamed up.
“He was always hilarious,” Grossman says of Schafer. “But he wasn't so self-assured then. These days, he has a little rock and roll around him.”
“Skywalker Ranch was kind of a dream,” Schafer says. “It was beautiful … and isolated. There was no Internet that we knew of. It was just us entertaining ourselves.”
That pirate game became the first Monkey Island. After its success, and that of Day of the Tentacle, Schafer convinced LucasArts to let him lead production on Full Throttle, a dystopian graphic adventure in which Ben Throttle, the leader of a biker gang, must clear his name after being accused of murder. Schafer worked hard to make the game more accessible than his first efforts. “We had this theory that maybe if your hero is tough and cool, and if there's a lot of hot rods and explosions, people will like it,” he says. His team also made the game shorter, and the puzzles easier, which disappointed some longtime fans. Still, the changes paid off: Full Throttle sold 1 million copies after its 1995 release.
“Every game has compromises,” Schaefer says. “George Lucas used to say if you get 40 percent of what you want, that's a success. I always feel like I get 85 to 90.”
By then, Schafer's following included future big-name developers. “I never really enjoyed the adventure game genre, with the notable exception of anything by Tim,” said Will Wright, creator of The Sims. “Every game he has designed I have loved and played all the way from start to finish.”
Next, LucasArts handed Schafer $3 million to make Grim Fandango. The game's main man is Manuel “Manny” Calavera, a travel agent at the Department of Death who helps souls book passage for the four-year journey through the land of the dead. Styled after noir films such as The Maltese Falcon, Grim Fandango won top awards from critics and sold roughly 500,000 copies, according to Schafer.
But some blamed Grim Fandango for killing the genre it exemplified, if only because it didn't sell millions. Grossman doesn't agree that Grim Fandango was the nail in the coffin of adventure gaming, though he concedes that the game “might have killed it at LucasArts. It was pretty ambitious and expensive, and I don't think it made very much money back. People looking out for the bottom line were wondering, 'Should we be making these?'”
Schafer left LucasArts in 1999, in part because the company was planning a Full Throttle sequel without his input. (It was later canceled.) The publisher's last graphic-adventure game was 2000's Escape from Monkey Island.
At LucasArts, Schafer had the luxury of working in-house for a publisher, but that changed when he founded Double Fine Productions in 2000. The price of independence: struggling to survive from game to game.
Brütal Legend seemed like a slam dunk. Just as heavy metal was kicking ass worldwide again, Schafer pitched his headbanging action-adventure to publishers, and Vivendi Games picked it up. The game's $20 million budget helped Schafer lure major talent, including rocker/funnyman Jack Black as Eddie Riggs, a roadie who is sucked into a cartoonish heavy-metal universe. There, he meets allies and demons voiced by Motörhead's Lemmy Kilmeister, Halford, Osbourne, Brian Posehn, and Tim Curry.
Of course, not all $20 million went to Double Fine. Typically, when a smaller studio produces a game for a big-name publisher, the studio receives some money up front and then more when it meets major milestones. Some of the cash pays actors, production costs, marketing, and so on. And, once the game is published, there's no guarantee the studio that created it will see any of the profit.
“Publishers might pay themselves back at a royalty rate, like 20 percent,” Schafer says. “Once they make their money back, they consider that breaking even and begin splitting the money with you.”
He continues, “The hard thing is, they don't pay themselves back at 100 percent, so it takes a long time for them to recoup the cost. It causes developers to end their development process with nothing in the bank, and then you have to pitch again and hope you get something before you run out of money. You get desperate.”
During production, Brütal Legend became a Spinal Tap-like nightmare. Activision merged with Vivendi and Blizzard, acquiring the rights — and then dropping them. Redwood Shores-based Electronic Arts picked up the game in late 2008, but Activision/Blizzard challenged the deal and sued Double Fine, blocking publication and claiming the studio owed them money. Double Fine countersued, charging that Activision dumped the game in part because Schafer refused to turn Brütal Legend into a Guitar Hero sequel. At the time, Schafer told the website GameSpot, “Hey, if Activision liked it, then they should have put a ring on it. Oh great, now Beyoncé is going to sue me, too.”
It was everything Schafer didn't want when he founded Double Fine, named for the “double fine zone” signs on the Golden Gate Bridge. He had hoped to get closer to making the videogames he wanted to make — and gain better financial control. But Double Fine's size — it has 60 employees today — puts it in a strange position. It's too small to be considered a major studio, and too big, with too many industry ties, to be considered independent. “It's fun, because we can do crazy things like Kickstarter, and also games with Jack Black in them,” Schafer says.
Many in Double Fine's stable of writers, artists, and programmers grew up on Schafer's graphic-adventure games and were thrilled to work with one of their videogame heroes. “It's ridiculously fun,” Skillman says. “He's super easygoing, funny and friendly, and he gives us a ton of freedom to explore our ideas.”
However, Schafer frequently sends his artists back to the drawing board, and his computer science background gives him the means to challenge his engineers to innovate, according to programmer Paul Du Bois. “Tim definitely understands what kinds of things are difficult. He can call you on things when he thinks you're playing it too safe.”
Schafer's close relationship with his workers strengthens the games, but it also comes in handy when times get tough. While Brütal Legend was in publisher limbo, Schafer called an “Amnesia Fortnight,” where everyone was ordered to forget all about the game for two weeks, split into four teams, and each create a demo for a new videogame. Then, they put their noses to the grindstone again. Brütal Legend launched in 2009 and sold roughly 1.4 million copies by early 2011 — not a blockbuster, but still the most successful sales Schafer had ever seen.
By that time, Schafer was weary of running the gauntlet of big-name publishing. The problems had started with Double Fine's debut, Psychonauts, in which a gifted boy named Raz crashes a summer camp where campers polish their mind-hopping techniques. Schafer had been kicking around the idea since Full Throttle, after LucasArts nixed a segment in which Ben Throttle trips on peyote.
Microsoft planned to publish Psychonauts exclusively for Xbox in 2004, but pulled out of the deal. Double Fine negotiated a new contract with Majesco that would put the game on Xbox, Windows, and PlayStation 2. After many delays, the $13 million game hit stores in 2005. It won plenty of awards — including Best Original Game at the 2005 Electronic Entertainment Expo — but was considered a flop after topping out at 400,000 copies sold. Still, fans adore it and often ask Double Fine for a sequel.
These struggles with the major publishers forced Schafer to re-evaluate. “Those conflicts made it clear how powerless you are in that relationship, when they have all the money and you need it,” he says. “If they stop giving it, your company will die. It makes you feel so helpless and insecure.”
Like a player in one of his own games, Schafer was stuck. But he realized he still had a few items rattling around in his inventory. After Brütal shipped, Double Fine pitched the “Amnesia Fortnight” demos to publishers, winning contracts for Costume Quest and Stacking with THQ and Iron Brigade with Microsoft. Doing smaller games on smaller budgets took some of the pressure off Double Fine, and Schafer began to feel freer again.
Another breakthrough came when the rights to Psychonauts and Costume Quest reverted to Double Fine. Investor Steven Dengler chipped in to publish both on Steam, which distributes games digitally. Even after splitting revenues with Dengler, Double Fine was earning income from a published game for the first time. Schafer got a taste of financial freedom. He wanted more.
Nobody, including the folks at Kickstarter's New York headquarters, expected Double Fine's campaign to break records. In the two and a half years since Kickstarter launched, Communications Director Justin Kazmark has seen plenty of projects come and go, many of them without reaching their funding goal. “To see Double Fine go well beyond $1 million was incredibly exciting,” Kazmark says.
Double Fine broke other records, too. More than 60,000 people joined Kickstarter to donate money to the adventure-game campaign, but they didn't stop there. In the month before the studio's project debuted, Kickstarter's videogames category averaged 629 pledges per week. After the launch, those pledges jumped to 9,755 per week, not including donations to Double Fine. Double Fine fans backed more than 1,200 other projects, giving $877,000 to help launch videogames, film, comics, and music projects. They even gave $83 in the dance category.
Soon after Double Fine hit the jackpot, other forsaken videogame projects publicly rebooted. Gabriel Knight creator Jane Jensen sought money to launch a new adventure-game studio, and Al Lowe garnered $655,000 to make a sequel to his Leisure Suit Larry games — which feature the adult-themed romantic misadventures of a lovable-but-sleazy loser — in a campaign dubbed “Make Leisure Suit Larry come again.” A sequel to the post-apocalyptic RPG Wasteland raised $2.9 million. Double Fine's fundraising record has since been broken by Pebble, an e-paper wristwatch, which collected $10.2 million in donations.
Wasteland developer Brian Fargo took Double Fine's inspiration even further. He launched “Kicking it Forward,” in which developers who seek Kickstarter funding promise to give 5 percent of their donations to another Kickstarter project. By late April, 61 projects had joined. “I loved this concept of fan funding so much that I was thinking, 'How can I help perpetuate it?' To have the fans pre-fund it, that's the best financing,” Fargo says.
However, some game fans are already tired of studios asking for money. After geek-news site Slashdot highlighted a $340,000 campaign for video-capable glasses — glasses which never materialized — gamers on the NeoGAF forum agonized over Kickstarter's lack of guarantees. Some complained that complex projects, such as films, backed just a few months earlier had not been finished. Over on the Quarter to Three gaming forums, members debated how long it would take for disingenuous marketers to launch Kickstarter campaigns, pocket the donations, and flee. One even jokingly wrote, “Quick, check Tim Schafer's Facebook for photos of him on a beach.”
“I reserve the right to go to the beach,” Schafer says. “There's bound to be backlash, but the system is self-regulating. People will stop funding projects when they get sick of it.”
Given Schafer's track record of producing games despite obstacles, many fans feel like donating to Double Fine is a pretty fair bet. Game developers' reputations could be permanently damaged if they fail to deliver, says Fargo.
Fans backed Double Fine's project knowing nothing but Schafer's place in the graphic-adventure genre. Their multimillion-dollar support will buy them a longer game, available on more platforms and due out next spring. Schafer and Rice, the game's producer, are just now developing the story, characters, themes, and art style, and have shared tidbits with backers. Down the road, Schafer may seek fan feedback that could shape the game. So far, backers are doing a good job of protecting their exclusive access and catching leaks before they get out.
Backers will also have to contend with seeing inside the design process — including the ugly parts — as the documentary rolls out. “We are going to show you how the sausage gets made,” Schafer deadpans in Double Fine's Kickstarter pitch. “We are going to take our sausage and shove it in your face, warts and all.” Although Schafer doesn't want 2 Player's film to give away too many game secrets, he does want the design process to be transparent. “If we have fights or whatever, that's what I want to show.”
That's a big change from his days designing The Secret of Monkey Island in seclusion at Skywalker Ranch. Many major game publishers — none of whom would comment for this story — demand secrecy because projects can go off the rails, budgets can skyrocket, or a role-playing game can turn into a shooter halfway through development.
Those things can still happen with Double Fine Adventure, which leaves Schafer wrestling with just how much sausage-making actually to reveal. “You're kind of like a magician on stage, and that's why it's so frustrating when something gets leaked,” he says. “You feel like you're backstage, stuffing the rabbit into your hat, and someone yells, 'Hey, he's stuffing a rabbit into his hat!' You want to entertain people, and part of that is surprise.