Biography provided by Chris Kohler, Editorial Director of Digital Eclipse, a game developer dedicated to preserving and celebrating the history of video games.
Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area as the 1970s gave way to the 1980s, Tim Schafer had no shortage of opportunities to experience video games. When his father brought home a Magnavox Odyssey, the first ever game console, Tim stayed “obsessed” with the device and its primitive games long after the rest of the family had gotten bored. He’d stare at the rows of rainbow-colored Atari game boxes in the drugstore; he remembers the time he and his dad heard a strange series of otherworldly sounds at the carousel at Pier 39 and discovered they were coming from a new game called Space Invaders.
But making video games for a living? Impossible. Even when a high school friend, together with whom he’d begun programming games in BASIC, suggested that they start their own company and sell their games, Schafer said, nah, that doesn’t happen to people like us.
“I thought I would get a job programming databases and just do writing at night,” Schafer says. But while he was juggling computer science and creative writing courses at UC Berkeley, he came across a job listing for “programmers who could write.” The company? Lucasfilm Games, later to be known as LucasArts.
That job listing was not just the spark of an illustrious career for Schafer, who would grow to be one of the most creative and original storytellers in games, but also for the careers of many more game developers that, years later, he would nurture at his studio Double Fine.
“It’s impossible to overstate the impact Tim has had on the games industry,” says Greg Rice, Head of PlayStation Creators and former VP of business development at Double Fine. “Many are familiar with his incredible games and how they pushed the boundaries of what storytelling in gaming can be, by helping shape and define the entire genre of adventure games.”
“That would be enough for most, but he didn’t stop there, and with Double Fine, Double Fine Presents, and Day of the Devs he shifted that focus away from himself, and helped build, cultivate, and support incredible creators both inside his studio and throughout the wider game development community.”
But before he could accomplish any of that, Tim Schafer had to get through the interview with Lucasfilm. And to hear him tell it, he almost didn’t.
“I was being interviewed by David Fox, and he’s like, what kind of our games have you played?” Schafer told the designer that he really enjoyed Ballblaster, not realizing that the game was actually called Ballblazer and that only the pirated copies of the game were titled Ballblaster. Fortunately, this accidental reveal didn’t disqualify Schafer, and he was hired as one of the original “SCUMMlets,” young programmers learning the ins and outs of Lucasfilm’s in-house SCUMM engine, used for making point-and-click PC adventure games.
At Lucasfilm, Schafer quickly fell in with fellow SCUMMlet Dave Grossman, and the two of them began filling their SCUMM test projects with quirky humor; this led Ron Gilbert to pick Schafer and Grossman to work on his new comedy game The Secret of Monkey Island.
“There's a humor and irreverence in Tim's writing and design, evident in the first few games we made at LucasArts, that has continued to grace his work through the decades, no matter the subject matter,” says Grossman. “It's more than just a stylistic choice, it's a world view. It informs his games, but you can also see it in the way he runs his studio and the shape of his career path.”
If Lucasfilm Games’ output was already leaning towards absurd humor, Schafer and Grossman helped push it all the way. “It was mostly us up at Skywalker Ranch trying to make each other laugh,” Schafer says of those bygone SCUMMlet days. “I had written this dialogue for the villagers, when Guybrush was trying to sneak away, and he says, ‘Look behind you, a three-headed monkey!’”
“Ron came up and played it and he laughed, and I told him that I was gonna change it later… he goes, no, that’s great,” Schafer says. “That was a big lesson for me to learn, that your stilly stupid ideas that you censor… sometimes those jokes are the funniest ones because they’re just raw, and they’re surprising to people.”
In short order, Schafer and Grossman found themselves co-directing Day of the Tentacle, the sequel to Maniac Mansion. And it wasn’t long after that that Schafer found himself directing his own adventure game concepts—first, Full Throttle, about the leader of a biker gang framed for murder, and then a game that to this day is considered one of the creative high-water marks of the genre, Grim Fandango, a Day of the Dead-inspired adventure of a deceased travel agent named Manny Calavera.
“From Full Throttle, I learned to put explosions on the box cover,” Schafer said. “One or two explosions is really good for sales. From Grim I learned, don’t put smoking on the cover. People don’t like that.”
After a decade at Lucas, Schafer wanted to strike out on his own. He wanted to own his IP and take care of his team of developers in a way that he couldn’t do under the umbrella of a giant like Lucas. So on July 26, 2000, he started Double Fine Productions, named in true Bay Area fashion after the DOUBLE FINE ZONE signs prominently displayed on the Golden Gate Bridge.
For 5 years, Double Fine worked on its debut game, Psychonauts. While it is today recognized as a creative masterpiece, the story of a young boy on a psychic journey through the minds of a series of increasingly bizarre characters was fraught with development and release difficulties. Originally funded by Microsoft as a marquee project for its then-new Xbox hardware, Psychonauts was dropped from the lineup and Double Fine’s future was uncertain as it looked for a new publisher. Eventually released by Majesco in 2005, Psychonauts’ sales were not strong at the time, but it never faded away; decades later it continues to sell to Double Fine fans old and new.
Double Fine’s follow-up Brütal Legend, about a roadie played by actor Jack Black sent to a heavy metal fantasy world, had similar publishing issues, and it was becoming clear that Double Fine was going to have trouble keeping control of its own IP while producing massive games for triple-A publishers that took years to finish.
“It was amazing that we kept the IP for Brütal Legend, even though it cost millions of dollars to make, and I just didn’t see those kinds of deals happening anymore,” Schafer says. Fortunately, the advent of Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network in the mid-2000s opened up a new path for Double Fine.
“Digital distribution led us to be able to stay independent by making smaller games,” Schafer says. Following Brütal Legend, Double Fine began to release several smaller, digitally distributed games made by individual groups within the company. Many of these games, like Costume Quest, Stacking, and even a Kinect game called Sesame Street: Once Upon a Monster, originated in a process called “Amnesia Fortnight,” in which the whole company would put down their usual work and split into tiny teams for two weeks to come up with out-of-the-box game ideas.
In addition to providing a lifeline for Double Fine, this let talented developers within the company take on leadership roles. “There are other people with great ideas for games besides me,” Schafer says, “who needed me to get out of the way.”
After a few years, Double Fine embarked on something that would spark a true revolution in the gaming space. It had been approached by a video production company called 2 Player Productions that wanted to document the making of its next game, and was going to finance that documentary by raising what it figured would be a few thousand dollars on a site called Kickstarter.
“If we were published by a publisher, they would never approve this footage,” Schafer recalls saying in response. “So let’s also Kickstart the game, but we’ll just do, like, $300,000 so we can do like a Flash game.” Double Fine’s pitch for Broken Age, a revival of the point-and-click adventure genre on which Schafer had made his name, raised $3.3 million from 87,142 individual backers, the highest totals ever on Kickstarter at that point (later recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records). Double Fine’s shocking success inspired many other game creators to connect directly with their fans, resurrecting other classic concepts and series that the traditional industry had given up on.
Around the same time, Double Fine partnered with iam8bit to launch Day of the Devs, a “a collaborative multiplatform celebration of independent games and developers” that puts an annual spotlight on the best upcoming indie games. Schafer also sat on the advisory board of Fig, an investment site that took the promise of Kickstarter one step further by allowing project backers to share monetarily in the success of ideas they supported with their dollars. Fig’s first game campaign was Psychonauts 2, which released in 2021 to widespread acclaim. Double Fine, which is now part of Xbox Game Studios, continues to produce a variety of smaller projects led by leaders under Schafer’s watch.
“Tim generally cares about everyone at Double Fine and you can feel it as soon as you walk into the halls,” says Greg Rice. “It’s a place where creativity thrives and everyone understands that good ideas can come from anywhere.”
“I mean, anybody who survives more than thirty years as a professional game designer probably deserves to be in a Hall of Fame,” quips Dave Grossman. “But Tim doesn't just make good games, he makes good games that are different from other people's good games. He innovates, he explores. While other developers are trying to make incremental improvements on established successes, Double Fine is spending two weeks every year having a game jam to try to find new kinds of fun.”
Above all, Tim Schafer simply loves to make games, and clearly relishes the opportunity he has today to work on his own new ideas, while continuing to give the next generation of creative game designers the support they need to create the world’s next totally unexpected three-headed monkeys. The Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences is honored to induct Tim Schafer into its Hall of Fame.