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The Adventures of a Videogame Rebel: Tim Schafer at Double Fine 

Wednesday, May 23 2012

Illustration by Andrew J. Nilsen with photo by Joseph Schell.

Perhaps choicest of the trophies on display inside the SOMA office of videogame designer Tim Schafer is the row of landmark heavy-metal albums, from Sabbath Bloody Sabbath to Painkiller, each bearing the black-scrawled autograph of a megastar who contributed songs to Brütal Legend, Schafer's videogame ode to metal.

"It's funny. Rob Halford signed records for us until his hand got tired, and then he quit," Schafer recalls. "But Ozzy Osbourne signed and signed for hours, talking with everyone, telling stories."

In this tale of two metal legends, the funny, affable Schafer is more like the latter. With his close-cropped dark curls, salt-and-pepper beard, and unfussy jeans and flannel, Schafer comes off as more a college buddy than a gaming industry titan. When Schafer joined Twitter during the marketing push for Brütal Legend, he adopted the handle @TimofLegend. He swears it was inspired by the game, but to his fans he's no less a rock star than Osbourne and Halford.

Schafer's offbeat, challenging, hilarious videogames have earned him a devoted following, beginning with The Secret of Monkey Island, which he co-authored for LucasArts in 1989. But that following has never translated into the blockbuster sales of, say, Grand Theft Auto or World of Warcraft. For all his success, his relationship with big-league game publishers is one that certain social networks would describe as "it's complicated."

It's about to get even more so. Schafer's game studio, Double Fine Productions, broke records in March by earning $3.3 million on the crowd-funding site Kickstarter. By the end of the campaign, more than 87,000 backers had chipped in for an unnamed — and as yet unconceived — "Double Fine Adventure" game, more than eight times the funding targeted. Now, rather than producing a game at the behest of publishers hungry for a cross-platform smash, Schafer and his team are working for very different masters: their own diehard fans.

Of course, what passes for work inside Double Fine might resemble play at other companies. Schafer sidles up to a duo testing what looks like a computerized funhouse mirror. He wiggles from side to side, and the screen shows him rippling like a sine wave. He turns around, and his virtual body corkscrews.

They're building the sequel to Happy Action Theater, a "video toy" published by Microsoft this year. It uses Microsoft's Kinect controller, a camera that transforms body motion into videogame action. In a recent meeting, designers spent two hours brainstorming different outlandish sequences for the game, such as one where a fox plays bongo drums on a series of eggs, out of which hatches a miniature version of the player.

"So what you do is mess around all day," Greg Rice, Double Fine's public relations manager, says to designer Drew Skillman.

"Pretty much," Skillman says.

Double Fine headquarters is part workplace, part play space, part curio museum. Posters and cardboard cutouts from the studio's catalog line the walls. Almost every desk sports a statue of Eddie Riggs, the roadie hero of Brütal Legend, leaping with axe hoisted overhead and guitar slung on his back. Outside Schafer's office is a half-size version of Riggs' flame-drenched hot-rod, "The Druid Plow."

Black-clad, fresh-faced Paul Levering shows Schafer a brand-new video camera, a post-Kickstarter splurge. Levering is one of the filmmakers behind 2 Player Productions, which is making a documentary about Double Fine's new game. In fact, it's Levering's fault that Double Fine turned to Kickstarter. After interviewing Schafer for a Kickstarter-funded documentary on the success of the independent videogame Minecraft, 2 Player asked to make a film about the production of a Double Fine project.

"We liked the idea of people getting to see how games are made," Schafer said. "But, especially if bad stuff was going on, it might be tricky to get permission." The large game publishers prefer to exercise strict control over an upcoming game's press coverage. "So we thought, 'Let's Kickstart this game to make the documentary.'"

Schafer had considered using Kickstarter before. But at the time most projects were earning $5,000 at most, not nearly enough to produce a videogame. As amounts crept higher, Double Fine and 2 Player decided to take the chance. "With every pitch, you have to make it an event," Schafer said. "Why is this group making this project in this way and why now?" This time, his pitch was to create a graphic-adventure game in the style he helped pioneer at LucasArts. As a bonus, Schafer's LucasArts mentor, Ron Gilbert — seen as the grand poobah of the genre — also works at Double Fine.

The goal Double Fine set was modest: asking backers for $300,000 for the game and $100,000 for the documentary, which will roll out in a series of monthly episodes.

Within seconds of Double Fine's Kickstarter debut, $30 rolled in. In two hours, fans donated more than $100,000. The next morning, during a conference call with the team in San Francisco, Schafer's phone connection was seared by the sound of employees screaming. "They're being crushed!" he joked, but he didn't realize what was going on. When they settled down, he learned they'd made $1 million overnight.

For the first time, Schafer had a blockbuster. Now he just needs a game.

Unlike most of today's furiously paced games, which are predicated on ease of use and constant forward momentum, Schafer's graphic adventures emphasize thoughtfulness, patience, and creativity. The Secret of Monkey Island — his first, co-written with Gilbert and Dave Grossman in 1990 — is typical. Players guide the improbably named pirate-wannabe Guybrush Threepwood about the pirate-infested Mêlée Island by clicking an onscreen command — "pick up," "use," "walk," etc. — and then an item in Threepwood's vicinity. In a bid to become a pirate himself, the hapless Threepwood bumbles about chatting with the island's denizens, gathering items that players will put to unlikely uses (a saucepan becomes a helmet when Threepwood volunteers as a human cannonball), and solving puzzles. All of this is presented with the humor that has become Schafer's trademark.

About The Author

Beth Winegarner


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