Before anyone knew they could make a million dollars with Kickstarter, there was Tim Schafer of Double Fine Productions and a game with no name. This was back in 2012 before anyone knew what a record-breaking Kickstarter looked like. Schafer was about to show the world. But his team's success didn’t start with crowdfunding--it ended up there, thanks to their lack of focus.
Double Fine’s now-ingrained tradition of the "Amnesia Fortnight" involves a two-week period where the entire 60-person studio simply forgets what they're working on. Instead, they divide into four teams, and each team makes a small game prototype unrelated to the company's main project.
“Our first couple games took about four or five years to make. So it was a long investment of time and everybody was immersed in this fantasy world that was really specific,” says Schafer. The first Amnesia Fortnights happened during the development of Double Fine’s second game--a heavy metal-themed action game called Brütal Legend that starred Jack Black--as a way to keep the team from burning out. “I thought, I love being in this crazy heavy metal fantasy world for five years, but maybe not everybody does. Maybe they would like a break,” says Schafer.
The development of the Jack Black game happened to coincide with the release of Geometry Wars, an addictive, low budget, arcade-style game that changed industry perceptions of what a successful game looked like.
“There was this idea that you could make smaller games and not everything has to be this huge 20 million dollar epic or more,” said Schafer. “There's a place in this world for small ideas as well as big ideas.”
Schafer was also imitating acclaimed Chinese filmmaker Wong Kar-wai who, as the story goes, paused a languishing film project, took a spare crew and almost no script, and went off and filmed what would become two incredible (and complete) films: Chungking Express and Fallen Angels.
“I just thought that was so inspiring, because you [take] these big projects, with these elaborate plans, you've got this enormous document that you're trying to implement--all of these features, all of these people and moving parts,” Schafer says. “And then you just step away from that for a second and say, 'What if I just did something tiny and quick really fast?' And sometimes that tiny quick, small, idea, can be even more rewarding than the big ones, but finding their own place in the world for sure.”
Despite his company's internal Amnesia Fortnights, Schafer's intention was always to build a sequel to the Jack Black game. But when that sequel was canceled, what started as a morale-boosting creative experiment--the Amnesia Fortnights--would keep the studio alive.
With their sequel game dead, the team had four small games developed during their Amnesia Fortnight experiments. All four--Costume Quest, Iron Brigade, Stacking, and Sesame Street: Once Upon a Monster--were released within two years' time.
But even though Schafer’s studio had stumbled upon a way to remain in business almost entirely by accident, it wasn’t going to rest easy.
“I think even the act of experimentation has to be experimented with,” says Schafer. “So we change how we do the format of Amnesia Fortnight every year, and we come up with new twists to it all the time. Because even if you're doing this wild and crazy experimental thing, if you just do the same thing every time people will start to repeat ideas.”
This was taken even further in 2012, when Double Fine’s make their next Amnesia Fortnight a public event. All Double Fine employees were invited to pitch a game, and fans who followed along online would vote for the ones they thought were best. Then, the studio would break into teams to develop the winning ideas into game prototypes over two weeks, in a process that was filmed and put on YouTube for the world to see.
“[One] of the essential things about it is that we try to have a blend between low stakes and high stakes, because one of the things about a big multi-million-dollar project is that the stakes are so high you're afraid to experiment,” Schafer says. “So you say, we'll just spend two weeks, and then the stakes are low, right? It's an experiment, it's a goof, it doesn't matter. Let's just try something crazy! That releases your brain from all the self-censorship that you normally do. And that allows things to happen.”
But go too far in that direction and the end result can be nonsense, cautions Schafer. So while the structure of the experiment allowed for a lighthearted, anything-goes mentality, it would be mitigated by the very real chance that any one of these pitches could be Double Fine’s next game.
Schafer wanted to make an adventure game, but he also wanted to fix what he believed was a major problem in the industry--the uneven distribution of power between the publishers who market a game and the developers who make them.
“You definitely feel accountable to the [Kickstarter] backers, and those people we always want to please--but they were the people that you wanted to please before anyway,” says Schafer. “It's just that now you don't have this middleman, of a publisher or some other person who's risking their money, who wants to tell you what they think the players want.”
Schafer’s Kickstarted game--now called Broken Age--was a wild success. It also ushered in a new era of transparency and interaction with fans; one full of quirky videos, episodic documentaries, and lots of forum conversations. But Double Fine had one more new thing to try, another quiet subversion of the established order: It would become a publisher.
“It started out as--we had just wanted to publish our own games,” Schafer says. He cited his prior frustrations: creative control, and financial deals that require every game to be a huge hit if the developer wants to see any money. “After we went through that process many times, we realized we had this infrastructure for testing and localizing and distributing and publicizing games that other people can benefit from.”
“We'd see other indies come up with that feeling of like, 'Oh gosh, I just want to worry about my game, I don't want to worry about this other troublesome stuff, maybe I should go to some big publisher and let them worry about it.' And our message to them was, 'You really don't!'”
Just by tinkering around over the past five years, Double Fine went from a studio on the brink to becoming a new kind of publisher, to one that does business in a way that allows indie studios to survive and maintain their independence. Even the fact that Schafer himself--likable, funny, and beloved by gamers--is so open about his studio’s work is notable, and all too rare in the industry.
“I really like laying it all out there for people, because people really appreciate seeing how games are made,” says Schafer. “A lot of people in our fan community are people who maybe want to make games themselves, or maybe had not thought that they could make games themselves, but now they watched our documentary and they see that, 'Oh, I guess there's not really any magic formula to it. These people are just figuring out as they go like I would.'”
[Image: Flickr user Darwin Yamamoto]