Saturday, March 31, 2012

NYU Game Center Lecture: Tim Schafer

Tim Schafer gave a wonderful talk at NYU Game Center, discussing his background and entry into game development, and Double Fine's internal game jams known as "Amnesia Fornights." The highlight of the event was when he showed the Kinect adventure prototype that Double Fine developed. 

Specs Prototype

Around the time of Heavy Rain's release, Double Fine was approached by a publisher to prototype a similar game. As a twist to the multiple character concept, a programmer at the company proposed the idea of playing as a cursed amulet that lets the player control whoever picked it up. Tim wanted to make an adventure game, but rather than using the standard library of "verbs," this game lets the player control the characters emotions and relationships. For example, you have "like" and "hate" buttons. You make the character like a glass of water and he'll start noticing it... like it more and he'll walk towards it... like it again and he'll pick it up to drink it.. hate it and he'll spit it out. Tim showed off an early version and a final version of the prototype.

Early Prototype

The first prototype included simple character models that Tim calls "pizza box man." This version only had two actions: like and hate. The game used Kinect, where players point at an object with the left hand to like it and the right hand to hate it. There are two characters locked in a prison cell and a shiv in the middle. Tim showed several scenarios.
  • Like the shiv and the char picks it up. Like the other prisoner and the two will scheme a way to escape.
  • Like the shiv and the char picks it up. Hate the other prisoner and he will walk over and stab him.
  • Like the other prisoner and he'll walk over and engage in conversation, leading the other prisoner to get annoyed.

Final Prototype

The company continued working on the prototype for 6 months with a small team. Now the game has real fully-textured character models, a storyline, intro cutscene, voice acting and music, and more actions. The actions included like (place one hand on the heart), hate (shake fist in the air), courage (both arms raised above the head), fear (both hands covering your eyes), trust (both arms out as if to hug someone), and distrust (both arms clutching the chest).

Conversation with Frank Lantz
  • Tim started out at LucasArts as a "scumlet," a programmer who worked with SCUM, the adventure game engine used for Maniac Mansion.
  • He was hired because he had both programming and writing skills. He feels that programming lets him be a better writer. Since he was doing both simultaneously, he would find clever ways to write dialogue so that the dialogue trees would have less paths.
  • Frank likens the death of adventure games to its use of puzzles as a game mechanic. Tim has asked fans before, "Why do you play adventure games" and their answer would be "Because it feels very satisfying when I finally solve those puzzles." He compares this to asking someone "Why do you bang your head on the wall?" and they respond "Because it feels good when I stop." He does think that there can be entertainment from confusion.
  • Richard Lemarchand from Naughty Dog and Erik Wolpaw from Valve have described how their companies have such a flat structure. At Double Fine, although there isn't a defined hierarchy, Tim says there is an invisible hierarchy since many people don't want to lead and they would rather just follow someone and get told what to do.
  • The most frustrating aspect of game development is the process of getting creativity through the anti-creative gates (publishers, risk mitigation, etc).
  • Part of game designer's job is to play a lot of games. Tim likes Japanese games like Katamari Damacy, Loco Roco, and Okami. These games are atmospheric, packed with emotions, sometimes insane, and never take themselves too seriously.
Audience Q&A
  • Does Double Fine design games with mechanics first or content/characters/environment first? Usually both. Brutal Legend was a convergence of Tim's desires to make a action RTS game and to make a game about rock history. Psychonauts was inspired by Legend of Zelda, so it naturally had the mechanics already.
  • How come more developers don't make comedy games? When you watch a bad action movie, it's still alright because there are some explosions and fighting. When you watch a bad comedy movie, it's just painful. It's too easy to make a bad comedy game, so developers are afraid.
  • How do you mix comedy, gameplay, and narrative? Comedy comes to solve problems. For example, in Monkey Island, the main character falls in love with the girl in 4 lines... this can only be done with comedy. By bringing the situation to absurd proportions, the game was able to throw away logic and leave players laughing. Humor is a tool to cover up the fact that this is not a solvable problem.
  • After the major success of his Kickstarter project with $3 million backed, is it stressful to design the game with a bigger scope to meet expectation? Tim replied, "I find that it's not that stressful to get a whole bunch of money all of a sudden. It's actually kind of relaxing. That's the kind of stress I can get used to."
  • With Mass Effect 3, many fans have spoken out against the ending and petitioned the developers to change it. Tim ultimately thinks that control should be left to the authors.
  • How do they choose which games to greenlight or reject from Amnesia Fortnights? It's a subjective decision, they can see the potential and fun of some games. Some games turn out to be awesome tech demos but they don't know what to do with them and some games don't come together in the end because the team tried to tackle too much. With only 2 weeks of development, you have to focus on one mechanic and execute on that mechanic.
  • Would they make amnesia fortnight more transparent and allow fan participation like they are with their Kickstarter adventure game? They might open up a special gamejam with fan involvement, but for the most part, the answer is no. They might go back to their backlog and revive rejected games, so this is classified information.
  • How do they run Amnesia Fortnights? They let teams self-organize. Tim chooses 4 leaders who come up with an idea and try to convince developers to join their team. This is a great way to filter out which games will be successful at the first step. Since resources are so tight, many people step out of their assigned roles... some programmers take on designing, some audio artist take on concept art, etc. Usually, human resources, admin, and business don't take part in amnesia fortnight because they finally get to catch up with all their work during the 2 weeks. The gamejam is run during business hours and it's up to the team to decide if they want to crunch, but they all know that crunch comes with consequences.

Revival of the Blog

Hey everyone,

Haven't made an update for three and a half years now, but I've been feeling the itch to start writing again. If anyone has noticed, the mission statement for the blog has changed. It will still cover video game design, theory, and criticism from my personal point of view. But in addition, it will document and summarize video game events that I attend, including developer meetups, lectures, seminars, and conferences. I also plan to cover, review, and document important takeaways from a variety of media on the subject of video games, including books, films, and podcasts.

I hope I will write and update this blog often. And I hope you readers will enjoy and follow.