Q&A: Psychonauts creator Tim Schafer

Wondering how Majesco landed Psychonauts? How to hear a game talk? Or how many explosions on the game's box is the right number to sell big at retail? Tim Schafer has the answers.

Tim Schafer's work on Day of The Tentacle, Full Throttle, and Grim Fandango set the bar high. So high, it seems, that most in the game industry decided that any attempt to fund products of such enlightened humor and grace are just not worth the effort.

So it comes down to Schafer to reach inside himself to deliver another creative masterpiece to gamers. But even for Schafer, it's not an easy task. His split with LucasArts in 2000 begat a tiny San Francisco startup, Double Fine Productions. The studio's first publisher relationship, with Microsoft, dissolved over a year ago. But the game, Psychonauts, lived on. And just this week, news of Double Fine allying with a new publisher started to make the rounds.

Most reacted with surprise when a video of Psychonauts was shown at an industry event last weekend. The short video displayed the logo for Majesco, a company not usually associated with the likes of Tim Schafer. But Majesco it was.

We checked in with Schafer just as the week came to a close.

GameSpot: About this deal with Majesco... Tim, how did Double Fine and Majesco hook up?

Tim Schafer: At the [last] Game Developers Conference, in about four different conversations, the name Majesco came up as a company that was about to unleash in a big way. Other publishers we were negotiating with at the time were like, "OK, the game is great. We just have to run a series of eight focus group tests." Or, "We love it. Now we just have to get approval from the parent group/company/nation." That whole process is so slow and frustrating. Then Majesco shows up and they just had their stuff together. They knew what they wanted and were prepared to act on it, and when we met them it was obvious that they were for real and that they genuinely cared about games in general and Psychonauts in particular.

GS: How much of a contributor to the game's content (in terms of what goes into the gameplay, the mechanics, the characters) do you see Majesco being?

TS: We've done a lot of that work already, but Majesco is showing up at a good time to have a meaningful impact. There has been a lot of testing and polishing of Raz's moves and mechanics, and we have the benefit of hours and hours of usability testing. Now we have the opportunity to get a fresh perspective on the game. And the timing is good because we are about to jump into a period of intense iteration and polish, and sometimes just the tiniest change can make a huge difference in playability.

GS: How far along is the game, and are you and Majesco targeting a release date or quarter?

TS: We've got a few levels at beta right now, some others at alpha, others somewhere in between, and a new level that we're doing now. We're looking at an early- to mid-2005 release.

GS: How do think a stylized product like Psychonauts is going to do against the heavy-hitting shooters, over-the-top sports, and M-rated products that seem to be in abundance and due during the next few quarters?

TS: One of the good things about the state of the games industry right now is that it's incredibly easy to be original. I mean, if you released a game these days that didn't have any army guys in it, people would freak out. "Where did they get the idea to not use army guys? Are they taking drugs?" I think game makers underestimate the public when they assume they want to play the same game over and over. But it gives us a really good opportunity to stand out to the audience.

GS: Your team is a pretty qualified team, creatively. Can you tell us what your contribution has been on the product of late?

TS: I work with the lead designer, Erik Robson, to come up with the basic designs for the levels. I will have the setting and some basic gameplay elements, and then we'll have some ideas from Scott Campbell's or Peter Chan's concept art, and then Erik will take it all and sit in the back room and be all crabby for days and then come out with some genius gameplay thing that no one's ever done before, and then one of his world builders will flesh it out, and then the gameplay programmers will add ideas, and then I'll wander over five minutes before the whole thing is due and say, "Man this is awesome. Hey, I just got an idea. What if you had to be on stilts the whole level, and we add a giant termite monster?" And then I'll run.

I still write most of the dialogue. I had some help this time around from Erik Wolpaw from Old Man Murray. He wrote some very funny stuff for this game. Other than all that, I mostly provide creative direction. I review the work of our extremely talented team and make sure that each individual element is made so that when added to the other parts it all fits together. And when I don't have time to do that I just wander around randomly telling people to make things brighter, darker, or twice as fast; or sometimes I just frown and walk away. That usually works.

GS: Do the realities of the retail and distribution environment seep into the game development and creation process? Do you stay in touch with the sales charts, the trends, the chatter from the biz-dev guys and let such chatter affect your game?

TS: Yes and no. Man, what a dumb way to start off an answer. Anyway, you do have to keep track of player expectations. You should have an idea of where your game fits in with the other stuff that people are playing. If you think you've invented this amazing new thing, and it's actually been played out for five years, that's pretty embarrassing. The problem isn't in listening to trends and biz-dev. It comes from reacting to those things in a simplistic way. Like, "These two games set in the snow sold really well. So we need more snow games. I can't believe we are publishing games that aren't 90 percent snow! I've been yelling that we need to make more snow games for two years!" And so on. People often imitate the superficial aspects of a hit without really understanding why that game really resonated with players. And that's dumb. Those people are dumb, and I don't like them.

GS: What does it take to sell a crafted adventure game in today's all-Doom-all-the-time environment?

TS: Well, I'm not in sales, but I did learn one thing from Full Throttle. Put a big explosion on the box! Psychonauts is going to have two explosions on the cover, so it will probably sell twice as much as Throttle. As far as people wanting Doom games only--I think we get a skewed perspective in this industry. A lot of the people we know are in the industry or hardcore gamers, and they do want Doom all the time. But there are vast oceans of people out there for whom Doom is not their thing. We just have to get the word out there. And if that doesn't work, we'll ship out a sticker with an extra explosion on it for retailers to slap on the boxes.

GS: What have you learned in the process of going from being aligned with one publisher, to having no publisher, to partnering with Majesco as the current publisher?

TS: Not having a publisher sucks, but it's also awesome in a way. Having a few months where we didn't have to deal with any outside distractions created a nice, quiet place where we could actually listen to the game. Games are like that little daisy in Horton Hears a Who! You know, how Horton puts his ear really close to the daisy and hears a tiny voice inside? That's what games are like. You need it to be nice and quiet sometimes so you can hear the game talking to you. Sometimes the game says, "I need more combat" or "There are too many inventory objects." And that's the voice you can trust--the one that comes from the game. Of course, it's still better to have a publisher, and ideally you have a good relationship with them where you can both listen to the daisy together. Aw, that's sweet.

GS: What impact do you hope Psychonauts will make on game players?

TS: I hope it changes people's expectations for games, especially regarding originality and story. People say players don't want story in games, but I think that's because what they've gotten so far is bad story. I hope to give them good story so they realize that they can enjoy it!

Also, creatively speaking, we're really going for it with this game; I mean we are not trying to be timid. We're putting the crazy stuff in there. And I hope that inspires other developers to do likewise, to make their games more unique and personal to themselves so that we get more variety in games. I'm tired of seeing games that look like they could have been developed by any studio, anywhere. When Psychonauts comes out, I want people to say, "Man, only Double Fine could have made that game." And really, I want it to be that way for all games and all studios. I have a dream, GameSpot, I have a dream.

GS: What sales figures, year one, would make you happy?

TS: I want the kind of sales figures in the first year that encourage publishers to be more open to doing unique games with story, personality, and humor. Oh, and I want to sell enough so that I have tons and tons of money so that I can buy a big gold jacket and wear it all the time, because gold is waterproof, and if anyone spills anything on it I could just sponge it off. And I'd like a little holder for the sponge, so I can have it with me at all times. Same as everybody else.

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