Video game industry works to generate money, style
Cookie Monster, meet brutal legend Eddie Riggs. Brutal legend, Cookie Monster. Money’s tight, but for now, the worlds of heavy metal and Sesame Street will not collide because under Double Fine’s Roof, everyone can still be different.
Tim Schafer is renowned for his creative video design. His video San Francisco-based company , Double Fine Productions, has a style that moves from a video game on heavy metal to a Tim Burton-esque story about kids at summer camp to. He serves on the advisory board for the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s upcoming exhibition, “The Art of Video Games.” But despite his popularity and cult following, Schafer said making payroll for his company is still very challenging.
“My goal has always been to bring things to games that are not typical to games because games have a very standard art style,” Schafer said, “like muscly, space marines, veins in their neck and you know, big guns.”
Double Fine Production’s concept art for “Stacking”. Image Courtesy of Double Fine.
“More inspiration is needed on the art side of video games,” Nathan Martz said, who was the project lead for Double Fine’s “Sesame Street: Once Upon a Monster,” which was released last October. Most video games are very drab, Martz said. “They are realistic, but post-apocalyptic.”
Consumers in the U.S. reportedly spent an estimated $4.5 billion on video games in Q2 2011, according to market researcher NPD. The popular “post-apocalyptic” style described by both Schafer Double Team Technical Director Nathan Martz was not used in Ninetendo’s colorful New Super Mario Bros., the top selling video game of 2010. However, it was used in both the second (Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 by Activision) and third (Battlefield: Bad Company 2 by Electronic Arts) top selling games of that year.
Electronic Arts’ “Battlefield: Bad Company 2″ (left) and Activision’s “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2″ (right) were the second and third top-selling video games in 2010, respectively.
In 2005, Double Fine’s “Psychonauts” received more than 15 awards. The majority falling into two honorable, but distinct categories: The “Best Game No one Played” or the “Overall Game of the Year”/”Editor’s Choice” award. The games are beautifully refreshing, but just not enough for what Schafer calls the “cash cows.”
The big question, Schafer said, is how to make a game that is both artistically different and profitable.
“We always think that if we make a game look beautiful and make it look interesting then a lot of people will come play it,” Schafer said. “But sometimes, it seems that games that just look like other games sell better.”
Martz said there is “constant pressure” for the company to sacrifice its artistic style.
“Sesame Street: Once Upon a Monster,” which was developed for adults to play with children and published by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, did not need to be stylized to appease its ranging age groups because according to Martz, “real creative quality is often not age specific.”
“Art is one of the most important tools for telling you how to feel,” Martz said. “Because it is such a powerful tool, we used it to set the emotional tone of the game.”
Double Fine’s Sesame Street video game is the company’s first product based on a licensed property. Schafer said they knew Sesame Street’s familiarity with people would help broaden the game’s audience.
“If you are going to do a license,” Schafer said, “you shouldn’t do something that is a cheap cash in. Sesame Street is something that has a higher purpose. They are there for the good of children and they really want to do good in the world, so I think they were a great partner for us to have.”
“We also have a very big soft spot for the cookie monster, so it just had an appeal to us,” said Schafer, who is the father of a 3-year-old girl.
Schafer said it can be really difficult to predict why or what people are going to like. “But for the most part, we are just trying to make games that look good and will appeal to people. We might not have the same taste that the vast majority of people have, but I think a lot of interesting stuff becomes a mass hit all of the time.
“Video games aren’t like movies where everyone goes to the movies, Schafer said. “There is a kind of movie for everybody: A romantic movie, a comedy, a movie your grandparents like, and a movie little kids like … games aren’t like that yet. Mostly, some are action games or some are puzzle games. They are limited in number for different types that people can go to.”
Schaffer admitted that this is changing, saying the invention of mobile apps and Facebook game’s is leading many people to try iPhone games or Facebook games who are not typically “hard-core gamers.”
“The video game industry is broadening out,” he said, “but I would like to see it broaden out in ways different than Farmville or Angry Birds, to just broaden out in terms of deeper narratives and characters, and fantasy worlds that are unique, fun to go to and interesting and thought provoking,” he said, all of those things that great books and movies are.”
The company is currently working to develop mobile games. Both Schafer and Martz would not discuss further details as to what games they are currently developing. Developing mobile games is “a strictly business move,” Schafer said. “To be honest, we are just trying to see if that’s an area where we can make money,” he said.
Schafer said the mobile games will encompass the narrative style typical to Double Fine games. “We just first want to see if we can sell any and if we can make money,” he said. “Of course, we don’t want to do anything that wouldn’t be in our our style so it would still have our sort of quirky art style and sense of humor.”
“But mostly,” Schafer said, “we are just an independent company that is trying to stay alive,” he said. “We try to stay true to the things we care about, but we are also trying to make payroll every week.”
“It’s funny to say that originality and creativity are at odds with commercialness,” Martz said. “That is often true, but if you look at any big break out- usually it is original. When enough people try out new ideas and they catch hold, they become what people copy. “We try to lead that by having ideas that are strong and worth making.”