Sitting down with an industry legend
Tim Schafer is a busy man as of late. As if the stress of developing Psychonauts 2 weren’t enough, he’s also managed to find time to sell his studio. At E3, Schafer took the stage at the Xbox press conference to announce that Microsoft had acquired Double Fine. It’s a tremendous get for Microsoft who’s looking for accomplished developers to add variety to Xbox Game Pass.
Big things are on the horizon for Schafer and Double Fine. We had a chance to sit down with Schafer at PAX West to chat about all sorts of stuff — the future and the past, successes and regrets, big games and small games. And, of course, we get into the Microsoft acquisition and what that means for Double Fine.
[The following interview transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and flow.]
Destructoid: How has work been since the Microsoft acquisition? I imagine things are less stressful on your end — not needing to constantly worry about the business and financial side of a lot of things now. That’s the parent company’s job.
Tim Schafer: Soon. The deal was agreed upon but there’s this due diligence period. It’s like we’re in escrow. It’s gonna be finalized later this month and then we’ll find out what it’s really like. Right now, there’s still a lot of business stuff to do to wrap it up. To officially stitch the companies together.
Destructoid: Once that does go through, what’s the stuff you’re looking forward to — I guess the old parts of your job that you just want to let go?
Schafer: Biz dev. I have great biz dev people doing stuff for me but still, I have to get involved with the eternal question of “Where’s the next chunk of money coming from?” “How are we going to change what we’re doing creatively to go after that money?” “What are publishers signing these days?” “Do we have to do stuff like free-to-play?” All those kinds of things are gone. Microsoft wanted us to join them so that we’d add our own type of games to their platform and to Game Pass. That’s all we have to worry about doing. Just worry about “What’s the best Double Fine game we can make?” That’s all we have to think about.
Destructoid: As a privately-owned company for the better part of two decades, what was important for an acquisition to make sense?
Schafer: I asked two questions. First, what would happen to our culture. Would we change our email to be @microsoft? These little things that are really important to me. Would you put up a logo in the lobby? And they don’t want to do any of that. They said “No, keep everything the way it is. You’re Double Fine, you stay Double Fine.” It’s what Microsoft talks about as being their unplugged studios — Ninja Theory, inExile, and Obsidian. They’re still doing their own thing. That makes sense to me. When [head of Xbox Game Studios] Matt Booty told me about that, I could see why it’d make sense for a platform-holder like Microsoft to want a diverse group of creative studios creating content just for their platform. I could see why they wouldn’t want to buy us and turn us into a Halo outsourcer. It doesn’t make any sense.
The second thing was like “Are we protected?” I wanted to make sure that we don’t just disappear overnight. That’s always a worry, but I feel like I take them for their word that they want to do this and that they’re very serious about it. They seem to have a nice long-term strategy that I believe in about how to adapt to this new world of subscription models and all that.
Destructoid: You mentioned that they don’t want to change the studio culture, and you don’t want to change the studio culture. That’s all presumed to kind of be from the development side. Do you guys still plan to publish indies or is the Double Fine Presents program being sunsetted with Samurai Gunn 2?
Schafer: Well, that’s a great question because how Double Fine Presents will evolve is kind of an unknown. It doesn’t make sense to do exactly the kind of publishing stuff if we can’t do it– like if the platforms are limited. From a business sense, I don’t know if it structurally makes sense to have a publisher within [another publisher]. It’s a complicated issue.
But, if you go back to why Double Fine Presents existed, a lot of it came about because there’s so many games and it’s really hard for any individual game now to get a lot of attention for itself. We’ve been around for a long time, helping people run their Kickstarters and giving advice here and there. People like [vice president of business] Greg [Rice]. We’ve both been through a lot of deals, seen how they happen, how platform-holders operate, how the press works. All these different things that maybe a first-time indie dev doesn’t know about. We thought we could help them with that and also kind of pick our favorite games and give them more exposure. Whether or not we’re still hands-on publishing those games ourselves, we can still be fulfilling that mission of just helping indie devs even though we’re a part of Microsoft.
We can also still do things like Day of the Devs which is another part of Double Fine Presents that helps elevate 70 or 80 games, and we let people come meet those developers and play those games, and it’s free to the public. It’s a great way to approach that same mission, and we can still do that without officially putting our name on it and taking a share of the revenue. We don’t have to do that anymore.
Destructoid: Psychonauts seems like a bigger project compared to other recent games of Double Fine’s — from a budget and personnel standpoint. Moving forward, do you want to go back to projects that are smaller in scope–
Schafer: Yes! [laughing]
Destructoid: So, you want to go back to things that are more along the lines of like Rad or Headlander?
Schafer: Only because I like to do the opposite of what I last did. When we did Broken Age, I really like that game but afterward I was like “I want to make a big world. I want to make a big world to explore again.” Now we’re making Psychonauts. After Psychonauts, I want to do the opposite. I want to make something really small. I just naturally cycle back and forth between things like Psychonauts and Brutal Legend which are really opposite. Just try different things. When you’re doing something creative, I think it’s natural to try to do the opposite. Especially when something takes four years to make.
It’s nice in some ways to have the scope to tell a big story. But, there are also some smaller ideas that have been kicking around in my head that I never thought I could get a publisher to sign. Now I’m thinking about them again because I don’t have to go through that same process.
Destructoid: This is probably the end of the road as far as crowdfunding goes for Double Fine. Can you give me a postmortem of sorts? Like, you got to make some stuff that probably wouldn’t have otherwise gotten funded, but it puts you in a position where every single person feels like they’re an investor.
Schafer: They literally are an investor in the case of Psychonauts. They made some money. That was important to us. It happened a little bit with Oculus. When Oculus got bought for billions of dollars, some of the original Kickstarter backers were like “Umm, you wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for us.” There was a little bit of a backlash about that. They gave all those people a free Oculus and kind of made up with them. That’s an example of what I was afraid of. These people feel like investors and they’re going to have expectations as an investor. That’s one of the reasons we helped to get Fig off the ground. We wanted to have a platform where people could get back.
We probably won’t be doing any crowdfunding anymore because we have this relationship with Microsoft. Looking back on it, it was amazing how that experience of having that Broken Age Kickstarter go so big so fast. It was really something I’ll never forget. We had a relationship with our community before, but this felt like the end of It’s a Wonderful Life where George Bailey knew people loved him. But then all of a sudden, everyone came to his house and dumped a bunch of money on his head. It’s an emotional thing where the town comes and helps him in his time of need. It felt like that and it has changed things with our community ever since. We started to relate to them a lot more and know them a lot more. Whether they see themselves as investors or more like patrons, they believed in something and made it happen. That wouldn’t have happened without them.
Crowdfunding has definitely evolved and changed. I Kickstart a lot of board games now. It has been normalized. It’s not so much an exciting story, but more like a business model. It’s just a way that it’s done. And in that way where we always said it wasn’t going to be done, which is that it’s not a pre-order. You’re investing in this thing with risk. Hopefully it’ll happen but there’s a risk, but you believe in the creator and you want to help them achieve their dreams. That’s not really what it is a lot of the time. Those projects still happen once in a while but you have to have a really unique story to make that work. You have to have project that actually couldn’t ever happen through the normal gatekeeping system of film, television, games — anything. And we’re making it happen through this democratized path. I think it still is a cool thing, but people have to come out with projects that really speak to it and tell that story.
Destructoid: Where do you think the industry is going with subscription services? Game Pass is so good that it feels like Xbox’s competitors have to figure out something similar, right?
Schafer: I don’t know where it’s going and that’s one of the reasons we felt good about getting acquired. Is it going to go like Netflix or is it going to go like Spotify? Is it going to be a great opportunity where a lot of people are funding a lot of original content? Or is it going to be this thing like Spotify which is great for the consumer but bands don’t make any money? I’ve never been very good at predicting the future, so it’s a good time to be indoors.
Destructoid: Only one Double Fine game came to Switch, and it was the game that released last week (Rad). A descriptor people use for Double Fine games always seems to be that they’re “charming,” and in a lot of ways that seems like a perfect match for Switch. How do you feel about not having more of a presence on Switch, and that it’s presumably going to stay that way with the Microsoft deal?
Schafer: I love the Switch, and a lot of people at Double Fine are huge Nintendo fans and I think we always have been and will be. Early on in my career, Super Mario 64 was obviously very influential for me. And it always felt weird that I feel like I just cannot sell a game in Japan. Japanese games people would come to visit at LucasArts and they would look at Grim Fandango and they’d be like “Are these characters done?” One of them actually said that. I was like “Yeah, that’s the final art,” and he was like “They don’t have skin.” I always thought that we had very Japanese sensibility in our love of design and love of character. But, I guess our taste and aesthetic are more American than I realized. Some day we’ll have a game that Japanese people will like.
Destructoid: Kind of along the lines of the last question, but with VR — except the Switch is thriving and VR seems to be flailing. Would you have liked to do more with VR given the creative tools it affords?
Destructoid: You’re done with it?
Schafer: People always ask if I have regrets, and the only regrets I have in my career are financial. If I had invested more in VR, I would’ve made a lot more money. We lost a lot of people to VR. A lot of people on our team were really interested in VR and wanted to mess around with it. They went on to do huge things. Both Tilt Brush and Medium are ex-Double Fine people. Tyler Hurd obviously does a lot of cool things.
Part of me thinks “Wow, if I bundled those people into a subsidiary of Double Fine, I could’ve sold that for millions.” But that’s a financial regret. I don’t think that was the right thing to do creatively for me because my heart wasn’t in it. I could’ve made more money at that period if I loved VR, but I just never did. Now, I don’t regret that at all because I don’t think I’d still be interested in even if I was interested in it back then. People are doing cool stuff in VR, but it’s just not for me. I think a lot of the creative people I know that got into VR, they got into it because it opened up a bunch of creative possibilities. It doesn’t mean they intrinsically love VR, they just love exploring new spaces. When another new space opens up, they’ll all move onto that.
Destructoid: Not holding you to anything here, but from a personal standpoint, which of your games would you like to make a sequel for? I’m sure a lot of people would like to hear you say Brutal Legend, but I think it’d be really neat to get another Stacking or Trenched.
Schafer: We tried to make a Stacking 2. Publishers wouldn’t go for it. For years, I was really anti-sequel because I always have a new idea that I want to do. They wanted me to make a sequel to Full Throttle but if I did that, I wouldn’t have made Grim Fandango. If I did that to Grim Fandango, I wouldn’t have made Psychonauts. And on and on. So, I didn’t for years. Then the first one we did was either Costume Quest 2 or Kinect Party, which is technically a sequel but kind of more like an expansion to Happy Action Theater. Psychonauts 2 is the first time I’m really getting into it. I like it because jumping back into it, it’s weird how natural it is to write those characters again. We might do it again someday.
Broken Age was a look back to adventure games, a whole genre I hadn’t done in a long time. Then the remasters of Grim Fandango, Full Throttle, and Day of the Tentacle were looking back. Psychonauts 2 is brand new but it’s also a sequel, so it’s also kind of looking back. Since 2012, I’ve just been looking back in some ways. I’m really looking forward to doing something completely original and not connected to anything.