What Is an "Indie Game"? Gaming Vet Tim Schafer on State of the Industry

Tim Schafer - Double Fine Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy of Double Fine
The veteran game designer is gearing up for the release of 'Psychonauts 2' this year, but he still works hard to help indie developers get their games in front of larger audiences.

For the past three decades, Tim Schafer has been developing games – first at LucasArts, where he wrote much of the dialogue for 1990's The Secret of Monkey Island and its sequel, and then later at his own studio, Double Fine Productions, where he headed such games as Brütal Legend and Psychonauts.

Throughout his acclaimed career, Schafer has infused a welcome sense of levity into the games he's designed, crafting a distinct voice in the gaming industry in the process. 

Fourteen years after the initial release of Double Fine's first published game, Psychonauts 2 is slated for release sometime this year. The game follows Raz, a young boy with psychic abilities who escapes the circus to try to join a summer camp for similarly-gifted young people. 

While the initial release of Psychonauts was critically well-received (the game earned several best writing and game of the year awards), it didn't live up to commercial expectations. It has since achieved a cult following and in 2015, Schafer announced he and Double Fine had raised more than $3 million in crowdfunding to make the sequel a reality.

Apart from the Psychonauts series, Schafer's company also produced the 2009 game Brütal Legend, which starred Jack Black as a roadie transported to a mythical world inspired by heavy metal album covers of the '70s and '80s, as well as remasters of the classic LucasArts title Grim Fandango and the 2014 point-and-click adventure game Broken Age, among many others. 

In 2014, Schafer and his company launched Double Fine Presents, a program that helps indie game developers publish their games. 

Heat Vision caught up with Schafer at last week's D.I.C.E. Summit in Las Vegas to discuss the upcoming Psychonauts sequel, as well as the gaming veteran's thoughts on the current indie landscape, whether he'd ever work on films based on his properties, the use of humor in gaming and what it's like to return to a franchise after a decade and a half. 

One of the hallmarks of your games is their sense of humor. What draws you to making comedic titles?

It may be deliberate but it may just be a compulsion that I have in the same way that people who make jokes a lot can’t stop it. I think it’s a niche in games, but it’s not niche in the world. Comedy is one of the most successful genres of film and a lot of other mediums. It’s just that games, except maybe indie games, haven’t really had a blockbuster hit comedy game — unless you count like Saints Row 4 or other games like that.

Do you consider yourself an indie developer?

We’re a very unusual size. It used to be a very common size, a 60-person studio, but now there are very few of them because things are just collected into these big groups of giant companies that make huge games that have like 200 or 500-person teams. We have been technically independent for years, but we go back and forth. We do a game with a publisher, we self-fund, we crowdfund, we’ve published other people’s games. We’ve just been all over and I think it’s disingenuous to pretend we’re an indie like someone who just got out of school and made a game themselves, because we do have a lot of history, a lot of Twitter followers, we have business relationships, things we can lean on that an indie developer can’t. That’s one of the reasons we started Double Fine Presents because we love the spirit of indie games and we thought we could help them and lend them some of our business expertise or connections to help their games.

If you look at it another way, what people really think about when they think "indie games" is sometimes the means of production but sometimes it’s the spirit of the art and it’s that they were made free of the corruption of the machine of commercialism. I think we definitely have strived to do that and make games that are labors of love.

There seem to be more indie developers now than ever before. How do you feel about the current state of the industry for smaller publishers?

It’s been a great time for smaller publishers like us or Devolver Digital or Annapurna Interactive, people that are helping to spot the really great indies and rise them up above the crowd, because there is a large crowd of indie games out there and it’s really hard to get attention on Steam right now. It helps a lot to get one of these curators to have your back. I remember when the first round of like Limbo and Braid and World of Goo came out and people thought, "Oh, well that looks easy. I’ll just do that and get rich," and that hasn’t really been the case. Some people definitely have done well since then but it’s definitely not a guarantee.

You are an established voice in this industry –

Oh, established voice. I like that.

Does that make it harder for you to live up to expectations when you’re releasing a new game like Psychonauts 2?

I don’t think about that too much. I think the reason we made the first game was that we were just making what we enjoyed. I think we’re doing that again. You definitely think more about your obligations to the characters than to the audience. We definitely keep in mind the player’s experience from the first game, but it’s what’s true to these characters and what situations do we want to put them in and how will they react. That’s more of what I think about.

When do you decide to come back to a series?

For a long time, we never did it. Psychonauts 2 is really my first time going back to a narrative but it doesn’t really feel like going back to it because you get into this frame of mind when I made the first game and we had all these hooks and plotlines that we put in the first game for the next game. We always thought we’d do a second one but it kind of got shelved for a few years. It was surprisingly easy to inhabit those heads again just because you know them really well.

What makes writing a game’s narrative unique compared to other mediums?

There are all different layers of player expression. I think you feel things differently when you cause them to happen. The way you identify with the character is different than it would be with, say, a film. You definitely feel like that’s you and you feel their pain and you empathize with them. I think games can do things that are related to storytelling but not exactly storytelling that you can’t do as well in movies, which is exploration. Exploration is something I love the most in games, and there are movies that take you to cool places, but in a game when you’re parting the jungle vines and finding out what’s behind them, that’s just a thrill.

Do you ever think about working on a project that isn’t a game?

I suspect most creative people have one of everything in their back pocket. I have ideas where I go, that would make a good movie or children’s book or, uh, a mug. I think people who make things, when they see something they can’t help but just deconstruct it and see how it works and think, "I wonder if I could make one of those." But that doesn’t mean I would want to do them instead of making games. I would love to make a board game, a children’s book, a lot of things.