The curiously ordinary desire of Tim Schafer

One of the world's most successful game developers is missing something: a really big hit.

Sonoma Valley High School senior Tim is strolling the corridors between classes. It's 1984. He's wearing a Toshiro Mifune T-shirt and jeans. Tim bumps into Lisa, a pal of his girlfriend.

Tim normally hangs with the nerds who lurk in the computer club. Lisa is a smart, popular student who is mostly seen with the cool kids.

They're not close, but they have an affinity, a particular cultural kink that draws them together. They talk about this one thing, because there's no one else at the school who shares their mutual passion.

That one thing? The Ramones.

While the other kids are listening to Prince, Van Halen and Culture Club, Lisa and Tim are comparing notes on End of the Century, the Ramones' fourth album, released in 1980.

Following the Ramones' hugely influential 1970s work, which helped to define punk, End of the Century is slightly more mainstream and pop-friendly. It's an attempt to break into the major league of music sales, the Bruce Springsteen level of success that the Ramones yearned to achieve.

In 1980, End of the Century topped out at number 44 on the U.S. album sales charts and number 14 in the U.K. It was the highest ever album sales ranking for a Ramones LP.

Both Lisa and Tim love the sound of the Ramones and, being smart teenagers, they like that their taste sets them apart from the crowd. Tim and Lisa make a connection based on their appreciation of the quirky and the unusual.

Thirty years on, Tim Schafer is one of the most famous game developers in the world. He's lost touch with Lisa, but he still loves the Ramones. He has built his career on connecting with people through the slightly offbeat, the curiously unusual.

He attracts and is attracted to people who embrace the unexpected. Fans love his games for their quirkiness, their refusal to wholly embrace the mainstream.

But he shares another, enduring commonality with the Ramones.

He really wants a big, big hit.

Broken Age

Weird, unusual things

"I like unusual things," says Schafer, sitting on a lounge chair in his cramped, cluttered window office. "All through high school I liked weird, unusual things. I still feel like, if done well, they can be really successful."

Schafer has been running San Francisco-based Double Fine Productions for 15 years. It's a company with a history of innovation and survival. Over the years, Double Fine has averaged almost one release every year. Generally they are well-liked, highly personal games that sell pretty well, but are not blockbusters.

"We have always tried to take as many turns at bat as possible," he says. "When we finally find that thing that’s both very personal and meaningful to us and appealing to a large, wide commercial audience, we’ll have a chance to really hit that."

This suggests a desire to create something that reaches a Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty level of cultural domination, which Double Fine has never done.

"That’s something we’d love to do," he says. "But we don’t want to compromise our approach to games. It would just be wrong if we tried to make a game that was imitating some other successful game."

He points out that the most hugely successful games tend to do something original before they become mainstream, before they become the things that are imitated and endlessly imitated again.

Double Fine has been through the wringer plenty of times. The company has been screwed by publishers, severely tested by new forms of distributing games, barraged by publicity challenges associated with raising public funds for development. It has survived by grasping the necessity of daring.

But all the while, it has tossed the likes of Broken Age — a sweet-natured adventure game about growing up and accepting responsibility — into battle against all the big brand first-person shooters and the splendid fantasy dragon epics.

Schafer has loosed humorous, characterful oddities like Psychonauts, Brutal Legend and Costume Quest into a world where conformity, humorlessness and derivation is often rewarded.

Dozens of companies of Double Fine's size and expertise have disappeared in the last decade. Schafer's has stuck around by seeking new ways of doing things commercially, while adhering to certain artistic principles.

Double Fine has never had a major hit. But it is still here.

"It’s a dream job, to make games," he says. "Working with people is always fun. But it’s stressful. Going to bed at night wondering how you’re going to pay everyone?

"Until you’ve had that big hit game, you always have to worry about that. We’ve always had games that sold moderately well, enough to keep going and pay everybody, but not enough to not worry about money. So that causes anxiety. But you get used to that once you’ve had a few brushes with death. You feel like you can probably get through it."

Tim Schafer

The game fame game

Schafer is one of perhaps a dozen game developers who are instantly recognizable to a large number of people.

Back in the late '80s and early '90s, when Schafer was just beginning his career as a writer with Lucasfilm Games (later called LucasArts), he held a strong sense of his own difference, of the advantages of his identity as a brand.

On games like Grim Fandango, his name appeared prominently in the marketing. When he set up Double Fine in 2000, this name recognition helped him walk into the boardrooms of major publishers and secure contracts for work. It gave him leverage.

Later, it helped him publicize games sold directly through digital distribution. And it helped him raise Kickstarter funds for games like Broken Age and the forthcoming turn-based team-based battle-sim Massive Chalice.

His persona has consistently been of the individualist-artist. People are nice to him. He is popular, generally speaking. He is invited to speak at conferences and awards ceremonies (see panel). He is recognized in the street, he says, every day. Trading on his fame within gaming circles has also fed his fame.

"Really, EA is marketing something and you’re just the guy sitting on top of EA’s marketing rocket."

"I’m not really famous," he says. "I’m not Brad Pitt famous. If Brad Pitt walked down the street he would get just jerks coming up to him. A lot of people don’t like me. But for the most part, if someone comes up to me in the street, it’s because they like the games I made.

"They want to take a picture. It's nice for me, to learn that there’s a real human being at the other end of the game. It’s always been a really positive thing to me. People will rarely come up and say something abusive. That’s more from the anonymous people ... on the internet."

Game-fame, he says, is a tool. It is not to be taken personally and certainly not to be taken seriously. But there is always a price.

"If you’re going to create a high-profile media version of yourself, you have to accept that person is sometimes going to be a magnet for animosity. But early on, I always realized there was a difference between me the person and me the media creation who was generated to help me get games funded.

"Some people get driven kind of crazy by confusing the two things. They think, 'Oh, I was in a magazine. I was on TV. I’m super famous. I must be awesome.' But really, EA is marketing something and you’re just the guy sitting on top of EA’s marketing rocket.

"When you’re on TV or at a press conference and everyone cheers for you, it's tempting to feel like you must be awesome. No. It’s just that you’re part of this marketing machine.

"You can’t take seriously the overwhelmingly positive stuff that comes. But you also shouldn’t then let the negative part worry you.

"That said, of course you do. You read 20 nice things about you on Twitter and then one horrible thing and you sit there thinking about the horrible thing all night. You try to eat dinner and not think about it. I won’t say I got used to that over time. But it comes and goes."

In the age of developers selling games direct to consumers, of development funds being raised through Kickstarter campaigns, of the useful buffer of publishers taken out of commercial equation, of politicized social media campaigns, the relationship between Schafer and the public has become more complex. It has darkened.

Broken Age

Cutting Broken Age

Double Fine launched a Kickstarter campaign for Broken Age in February 2012, with a target of $400,000. It raised $3.5 million and ushered in the age of major crowd-funding initiatives for well-known game developers, most of which have now come to fruition.

But Broken Age ran into trouble. Having expanded from a small project to a much larger one, the game looked certain to be delayed. It was also running out of funding.

In the summer of 2013, Schafer announced that the game would be split into two halves, with revenues from sales of the first half going towards paying for development of the second half. The team used a documentary series which followed the game's development to explain the decision to Kickstarter backers.

The news was not universally welcomed by the public, nor was it entirely understood.

Broken Age

"We had this private backer community where there’s a forum you have to be a backer to read, and it created a nice safe place to talk to the backers, but it didn’t let the rest of the world know what was going on," recalls Schafer.

"It led to a lot of confusion, especially when we extended the game to make it bigger. There was a lot of misinformation out there about how we were going back to Kickstarter, which we weren’t, or we were asking for more money, which we weren’t. I’m like, 'Why do people not know what’s going on? Oh, only our backers have watched this documentary.'"

The lesson taught Schafer to be more careful about any change or public pronouncement regarding Early Access, Kickstarter or even pre-orders. And to accept that there are always going to be confused people and there are always going to be angry people.

"There were a lot of really personal attacks against me for basically making a game bigger and investing my own money in it," he says. "I thought, something’s wrong here."

The problem is that game development transparency has increased enormously, while game creation has not really changed. Schafer likes to create large projects and then hone and trim. When a consumer has paid for a project up front they naturally feel like they already own it, like they have a stake in the way it is developed.

"I always get to a point in a game where I cut it in half," he says. "A lot of the time no one knows about that and no one ever sees the cut part. Day of the Tentacle and Brutal Legend were [originally] much larger than when they eventually came out.

"If you’re making a documentary about the process, though, and you tell them you’re going to cut [the game] down, it kind of removes a lot of options.

"We had to choose whether to cut it down or to just find some other funding or just go for it. At that point I just could not imagine cutting the game in half like that, so we split it in half and we used the first half to fund the second half. I was against the idea at first, but it turned out to be a great idea, because it allowed us to make the game we wanted to make."

Broken Age

The lure of adventure games

Broken Age is credited with resurrecting the adventure game, a genre recalled fondly by many consumers, but eschewed by publishers, who saw such games as niche. Kickstarter allowed Broken Age to happen. Schafer has said, on a number of occasions, that no publisher would ever have sanctioned or funded such a game.

When the first half of the game was released in early 2014, it received widespread acclaim for its humor, its charm, its world and its puzzles.

"I really tried to capture what I liked about adventure games," he says. "They engage your brain in a different way. They move at a different pace than most games. You don’t have to worry about being shot. They’re slower. But they’re more thoughtful. You really have to think through what you know about the world in order to solve the puzzles.

"They should take you to another world that you miss when you’re not playing the game."

Adventure games allow the developer and the player to inhabit specific worlds of stories, emotions and dialog. This creates an unusually deep connection with the player.

"I wanted to tell a coming-of-age story about these two characters, about fighting to get control of your life from what’s been scripted for you, but then all of a sudden realizing that you’re in control, so now you’re responsible for everything you do. You have the power to not just free yourself, but the power to hurt other people.

"A lot of times growing up is learning that you can actually cause harm to people, emotionally. That’s what I wanted to deal with in this game."

The second half of the game was not generally received as well as the first, with some critics remarking that it seemed to tread a lot of the same ground.

"The first game is them busting out," says Schafer. "And then, 'Oh God, what have we done?' The second half is them, in some ways, putting the pieces back together and coming to terms with that, making peace with the world and reaching a balance."

Adventures are among the most difficult games to design, because they are based on binary puzzles. Either the player solves the puzzle, or the puzzle bests the player.

"There are people who like stories about characters and worlds," says Schafer. "They are always drawn to adventure games, but there is always this off-putting thing, which is the puzzles.

"People who like adventure games want them to be as hard as possible. Other people just can’t understand why you would want to be stuck in a game. You hit a hard wall.

Broken Age

"A lot of games where it’s like, 'Oh, I hit a wall,' I’m going to go grind and kill rats in a field and then I can buy the new weapon and take on the boss. Adventure games are a hard stop until you finally figure it out.

"But people who like adventure games love hitting their head against the wall, because it feels so good when you stop. It is really satisfying when you do that in an adventure game."

Some reviews complain that the puzzles are too difficult. Schafer seems perplexed at this charge. He comes pretty close to the game developer nuclear option, which is blaming the reviewer.

"The first half, there was a lot of talk about it being beautiful, but it’s a little short and a little easy. The second half, a lot of people seemed to have forgotten that. They said it’s really long; it’s really hard.

"I don’t want to say someone is playing it wrong, but people have a whole range of ways of playing adventure games. A lot of people will find them too hard. A lot of people can’t even solve the first cupcake puzzle. A lot of people say it’s too easy. It’s hard to hit on that right response, because people feel angry when they don’t get a puzzle.

"For every puzzle in there, I’d say there are obvious hints if you talk to everybody — if you talk to the right person. If you’re playing the game on a deadline and you’re in a hurry, you’re not going to dig deep to find those things and you’ll hit that one puzzle that you get stuck on and it makes you angry. It tears the whole game apart in your mind."

Broken Age

The writing life

One of Schafer's striking qualities as a game-maker is his interest in creating memorable characters, whether they be Vella and Shay (Broken Age), Eddie Riggs (Brutal Legend) or Manny Calavera (Grim Fandango).

Modern game development, he says, offers lots of opportunities for character development because there are so many lines of dialog. The player spends a lot of time with the characters. But many game designers do not bother to invest characters with, well, character.

"You need a guard to stand by a gate. So you just build a guard who stands there," he explains. "You’re not thinking about, is he rich, is he poor, where does he come from, why is he a guard, what does he do when he’s not working, does he want to quit?

"But if you think about any of these questions, you don’t have to then tell all this stuff to the player, but when you go to the guard and say, 'Can I come in,' the guard’s going to say something unique.

"I still remember, to this day, this character. A 12-year-old girl who likes to take pictures of dead horses."

"You now know that he wants to quit his job, and his parents sold him into indentured servitude. If you know this stuff you’ll come up with a more interesting line when you write that character."

This thinking goes back the earliest part of his career, when he worked with author Orson Scott Card on Monkey Island. Schafer, who had studied creative writing as well as computer science in college, spent a lot of time reading books about creating screenplays. He also workshopped character-development with Card.

"We designed characters together by asking simple questions. 'Man or woman? What age?' We chose a 12-year-old girl. So instantly in your head, that’s a really specific thing compared to, 'We just have a character.'

"'What’s she into?' She’s into photography. 'What’s she like to take pictures of?' Someone said horses. Someone else said dead horses. I still remember, to this day, this character. A 12-year-old girl who likes to take pictures of dead horses. Within five minutes of asking questions he had us design a one-of-a-kind character. It’s a great example of how it’s not some sort of magic trick you do."

Schafer wants his work, and Double Fine's output, to always be about personal perspectives, unique ways of looking at the world, about 12-year-old girls who take pictures of dead horses.

"Video games are not a statement, like a message, but a personal perspective on the world that’s consistent within that world. It's not something that was designed by committee or designed by a marketing focus group.

"Someone really dug deep into their own mind to pull out something personal to say in a game. I hope that’s what we accomplish. I feel like when you do that and people connect with that, it’s a really strong connection. Those fans and those backers and those community members really feel like they made a connection with you by playing their game. It’s an important thing for us to do."

Broken Age

Be the Ramones

With Broken Age done, and his responsibilities of talking to the media winding down, Schafer is preparing to sit in his office, his cave, to work alone. To write his next project, sitting at his desk, scribbling in longhand.

In his office there is an old-style turntable, common back in the 1980s, but now an artifact. There are vinyl records.

"I watched a documentary recently about the Ramones," he says. "It was sad, because for every album they put out, they were like, 'This is gonna be it ... this is going to be our mainstream breakthrough hit!'

"And they were mad after every album came out. 'That wasn’t a hit either.' They were so upset all the time in this documentary. And I was like, 'How could you guys be upset all the time? You were the Ramones. You were making all this cool music.'

"If they could have just relaxed and been the Ramones, they could have been so much happier. I always feel like I never want to be miserable. I never want to be miserable until I have a hit. I just want to try and relax and be happy and be the Ramones." Babykayak