Written by Eric Yee Wednesday, 08 February 2012 00:00
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Double Fine’s technical artist on Happy Action Theater, Drew Skillman to discuss the game and his time working at Double Fine.
Thanks for letting me talk to you Drew, I enjoyed playing Happy Action Theater much more than I thought I would.
Yeah just playing through it with my girlfriend or sister was great and I had a few younger cousins over to play which was a lot of fun.
Oh that awesome, I’m curious did you guys have any favourites?
My favourite one is the giant black and white monster one. Something about it, I just don’t know what it is; destroying buildings made it feel like I was playing Rampage back on the 64.
Even just the lava one was a lot of fun too, surprisingly I really enjoyed the disco one too. I’m not sure why but I did.
The disco one was so funny making, we took a bizarre route because we were doing some experiments and kind of stumbled across something that made the screen all wobbly.
And we were like hey its like we’re dancing, it had this really organic evolution. In the end we all really liked it but it certainly was not something we really expected to be fun. You moving your body like that.
Make sure to check out XboxEdge.com's review of Happy Action Theater.
Yeah its funny it’s just like your gyrating your hips the entire time.
Yeah our animator, Tyler, went through all these old 80’s movies and put classic dance moves in there...it’s pretty funny.
I really love the worm in that part.
Yeah the worm is the best. It’s just like just so funny seeing yourself animated like South Park.
The other thing that is funny is we noticed this thing in testing that when people see themselves moving, they tend to want to match the movements. It was kind of an unexpected side effect. I think for most people, seeing a video of yourself dancing, it’s like you subconsciously just want to match it for some reason. I don’t know, it’s just an interesting side effect.
That is interesting. So when you had kids in front of that game for the first time did they do some unexpected things as well?
Yeah you mean in general across all activities?
Yeah across all activities.
Oh yeah for sure absolutely. The one that kind of comes up again and again is that the kids were the first ones that jumped into the lava, like went underneath the lava. We had it in there for months and never even considered submerging ourselves in it. That is something all the kids seemed to want to do.
That is so weird because as a kid I remember playing the lava game, where the floor was lava and we would try to stay on the couches to avoid it. That is what I would automatically assume they would do too. Not jump right into the lava.
Yeah exactly, exactly, totally. Obviously they are going to try to stay out of the lava but no they were not afraid of the lava at all.
That’s funny. I guess when it is a game like that they just want to have fun with visually what is on the screen.
Yeah we actually wanted to put some more classic hot lava mechanics into it but seeing how they played with it I’m glad we didn’t. We were going to make it more of a traditional hot lava game where you actually are supposed to stay out of the lava and get rewarded for it but in the end having it be free form actually worked better for kids.
That is one thing I really liked about the game is that there are no objectives, it never tells you what to do but it lets you experiment with the game and see how you want to play with it.
Yeah absolutely. We did spend a lot of time when we were designing it, we tried to add mechanics that kids or anyone would just be able to build their own games out of. Anytime we added something and we felt like we could see a kid coming up with a reason for this activity to be there or behaviour. It felt like anytime we could give them the tools to make their own games it was most accessible. The monster building crushing one is kind of like that and also the one where you clone yourself.
That one is really cool, I think first thing I did with that was Goro from Mortal Combat and build four arms for myself.
Oh Yeah! That’s awesome.
The first thing I thought of doing was that. I don’t know why.
That is what I like about the game. It is kind of like a toy where you don’t tell the child how to play with it, they just play with it. Where a traditional game you have to set up the menus and explain the buttons to them. With this game they can just jump in and decide how to play themselves.
Yeah I felt like it was pretty successful when I talked to my mom on the phone and she was playing it. Like okay this has never happened before.
Even with my mom if I try to get her to play any game, I even bought her some other kinect games because it’s controller free gaming, navigating the menus to her is still a barrier to entry. With this game she can just stand there and start playing it.
Yeah just zero barriers. That worked out really well, it was definitely in Tim’s original pitch document we put together. We tried really hard, with every decision to make sure that we were able to have that zero barriers to entry. It’s always cool when you have a high concept in your original pitch document and it does translate to the final product. Sometimes that is kind of rare so I’m really glad it worked out.
It did, it is a really great game. I wanted to ask you, as a technical artist at Double Fine what are you main responsibilities?
I take care of a lot of different things over the course of my time here. It is really, really varied. Early on in Brutal Legend I did a lot of tools and pipelines and then visual effects. So like all of the blood, explosions, climate systems and sky and stuff. Then I worked on Trenched and Stacking and in those games, I did more visual effects and a lot of lighting. Like designing our lighting engine and basically going through the levels and adding lights, colors and stuff.
On Double Fine, Happy Action Theater I ended up doing a lot more experimentation. The project was really fun because it was a small team and we all got to do some things we hadn’t done before. For the first half of the project I did a lot of the strange graphic tricks like trying to get blizzards working, snow would accumulate on upward surfaces and you know trying to make it look like a fish tank when your under water with caustics projected around you and all these kind of weird little...I’d say somewhere in between visual effects and graphic features. The second half of the project Tim got super busy with running the studio and I actually of took over as active project lead for the second half of the project.
So you bounced around quite a bit with different roles?
Yeah Double Fine is great for that. It is just a matter of doing what ever is needed. Luckily we’ve had such a run of fascinating projects and they all had different challenges. It has been a real nice opportunity to jump around and do all kinds of different things.
I would think working on a multiyear game where you’re doing the same thing day in and day out would be kind of exhausting. Now that Double Fine is working on these smaller projects that are creative in different ways, how has it affected your creativity and working mentality day to day, doing different projects all the time?
You know I think it has had a fantastic impact. At the end of Brutal Legend I was super burnt out and if we had done another sequel, I might not even be in the games industry anymore. Investing four years of your life in anything is kind of crazy. In terms of a work-life balance, you may have a year where you’re not working as hard and year where your working insane hours and weekends. And that, as you can imagine is just super unhealthy.
A nice thing about the smaller projects, you know you go through the process so much more quickly and you don’t have the opportunity to...your always doing new things and things are always changing. You’re always creating something new, everyday your coming in a creating something new and I think that is why a lot of us want to be here in the first place. It’s been a really nice change and then going into Double Fine Happy Action Theater, we’re making essentially eighteen unique small games. [Laughs] for me it is even better because we get to come into the office and if we have an idea we just immediately make it, which is just ridiculously fun. Games are not supposed to be like that, games are not supposed to be that much fun.
You probably had a lot of concepts you thought up that didn’t make it into the game that were just fun to create and play around with in Kinect.
Yeah absolutely. Just learning something new and playing with something new like that, we had absolutely no idea what would be fun, well we did have some idea because we worked on Once Upon a Monster but in terms of kind of like this new direction it was really unpredictable. As you can imagine the brainstorming sessions were pretty out there like [Laughs], pretty ridiculous.
Is there anything you thought would be fun that didn’t end up being so fun or some new ideas that came out of people playing the game?
Oh yeah for sure. Microsoft was great, they had these Thursday play sessions up in Seattle. They would give us a video feed of the play sessions so every Thursday we could watch kids playing with activities as we were adding them. One of the things we saw was that there were some kids who really liked to just stand there and need a little bit of encouragement to get moving and some kids just run in circles like crazy, just hyperactive, just going completely bonkers.
One of the things that came out of that was in blizzard if you just stand there for awhile you’ll just freeze and shatter. That was kind of in response to seeing kids who were just a bit more of the wallflower type and just not really sure how to interact with it. That was the case where we decided we better add something for the kid who needs a little bit of encouragement to run around and go crazy.
Then the fireworks, in that activity we added some fun stuff where you high five. When you high five you get these fake XP points and that was another one where we were just watching kids who were running around and get really excited and hug, high five and stuff.
Our art design process has been, come up with a crazy idea and then put it in front of kids to see what they want to do. Which is usually different from what we thought they would want to do.
That is something I wanted to ask you about. Double Fine games are very visually fun to look at, they have a very unique art style and remind me that I’m playing a game not some super serious experience. What sort of discussions were there when your team was developing the art style for this game and how did it evolve to the final product?
One of the big goals more than anything was that we wanted to just take advantage of this opportunity we had to have lots of different art style. It was really empowering, normally you have an art direction for the game and you sit down and have a style guide, colour sheets, model sheets and you have a pretty long pipeline you need to go through so all of the different elements, visually gel together.
In this case we knew we wanted to have an overarching theme to thread through the whole game so you don’t feel, you know, like it’s a super jarring experience and that’s kind of where the motif of the curtains and the stagehands and stage play came from. Now we have this kind of unifying menu where you’re being presented with all of these kind of, like, absurd unexpected little worlds. Then once we had our framework and connected it all, it was really a process of being able to focus on keeping it fresh and all kinds of different things.
We have great concept artists here, so we would often have a lot of different artists work on the game and that is one of the ways we kind of kept it different. It all feels, I think it does feel very Double Finey but part of the variety I think comes from giving concept art to lots of different artists and then giving them a chance to be like “hey what would I like to make?” So even down to the concept art level people have a lot of freedom. Our concept artists were driving the games we would make. I think hot lava came from early concept art and was not something we even thought was technically possible.
So we weren’t planning on doing augmented reality when the game first got off the ground but we started getting crazy concept art from Nathan Stapely, one of our artists, and his art was full of these crazy augmented reality ideas so we had to go and talk to the engineering team and see if these things were possible. It turns out they were, so some of that process was very art driven both on the design side and from the artists themselves.
That is one thing I noticed about Happy Action Theater compared to any other Kinect game, when you talked about augmented reality, is that it really makes use of the Kinect’s depth sensors. Whether it is having pigeons landing on a couch or objects, like in the black and white monster one, where building are behind you and can interact in 360 degrees, how difficult it is to create art assets for the game to take advantage of the depth sensors?
Oh god yeah that is a great question. The answer is that it is pretty difficult. I think its super successful but in some ways, we are using it, I think, in ways that it wasn’t initially designed for. So you’ll notice the colour itself, the colour feed is 640 by 480 pixels, which is pretty much the same as any standard webcam and you blow that up on your HDTV and it’s going to look pretty grainy and chunky. So it was a challenge to make art that would feel like it was integrated into that world. The depth sensor is extremely powerful but we also have a lot of artifacts, so one of the things was we usually try to use a lot of fog, typically in our games, we use lots of fog to push the backgrounds back and particles everywhere, all of these atmospheric elements to tie the scene together. But we actually couldn’t use any of those in this game because the depth detail in your living room just isn’t high enough and the more of the atmosphere you push into it, the more it kind of exposes those inconsistencies.
So we had to get more creative so that’s where some of the ones like fish tank and monster attack...fish tank has these caustics and blue rippely underwater look to everything and that helped us combine the color feed and the 3D elements. In monster attack, where we have this kind of old, 50’s film look, part of the reason we went with the old 50’s film look is because it let us add all kinds of dust and scratches to the video feed and it really helped unify the colours of the buildings and your video feed. So definitely it had all kinds of unexpected challenges and some things that we thought would be really, really easy ended up just being totally impossible. We had some where we wanted to extract your living room and put it on top of an anvil in a heavy metal video and we thought that would be totally awesome but then we’d go to do it and it just absolutely doesn’t work and we’d go back to the drawing board.
That anvil game sounds really cool, maybe for Happy Action Theater 2.
[Laughs] Yeah Exactly.
Especially with the whole heavy metal theme that Tim Shafer kind of has with Brutal Legend it would be really cool to see that come to life.
Yeah we have a list that is probably over a hundred ideas long of new things that we want to do, so obviously we’re focused on the first one right now but hopefully it sells well so we can do more.
I hope it sells well too. Developing this game for the ground up for Kinect, what are some of the differences when you approach a game for this platform as opposed to a game like trenched that was strictly for controller?
Really our approached was all over the place. It felt completely different. I mean of it came with some of those original design philosophies that we wanted it to be something anyone can play and that it would be something you would see at a Best Buy kiosk and would be playable. The fallout from that is that we really didn’t know what would be fun. I’d say that was the biggest difference. On this game we really had no idea what was possible or what would be fun. On trenched Brad Muir, he had a really clear idea.
He had been playing a lot of tower defence games and he had just led up the multiplayer effort on Brutal Legend, and he is a super solid experienced designer. Of course that project still had some unexpected twists and turns but in terms of knowing, kind of having a vision of what the final result should be, that was very much a result driven process where it’s like we know where we want to get and we have a roadmap and we have to get there and have to make course corrections along the way.
With Happy Action Theater it was much more like every day we would take a step forward and look around and see if its fun and course correct. I guess sum up, Happy Action Theater was far and away the most organic development process I’ve ever been on. It was just a living breathing...we actually have snapshots of the build we’ve saved. Every time we do a build, once a month we take a snapshot so it would be fun to go back and see how it evolved along the way. I think it was very Darwinian, it was just like lots of new limbs growing and other limbs just getting chopped off when they weren’t fun enough.
There must be a sort of freedom there because developing a game like trenched, you kind of know what gamers want or what the game is going to end up like but with Kinect there wasn’t really any precedent of this kind of game that has been released so far, so your kind of pioneers making this game.
Yeah absolutely. I think it’s nice too because we put ourselves out there and kind of letting people know that this was kind of a grand experiment and that we were just going to try and explore this new ground and I think that players have been really responsive to that, which is awesome. I mean players come to it and I think it comes across as this is all kinds of things that we’ve never seen before and some are more successful than others but the spirit of it, the spirit of discovery and doing something new I think comes through and people have been really receptive to that, which is awesome.
If you had to describe Happy Action Theater to someone who has never seen it before how would you describe it to them?
Oh wow I would probably say that it is a way to transform your living room into a series of alternate realities. It is really just kind of a series of different worlds that we can extract and put you into. We don’t need to tell you anything about what those worlds are, you can just discover them for yourselves but they all behave differently, look differently. I would try to summarize it that way. It’s a series of eighteen different worlds that you’ll get transports to.
That point drives home. The main thing I took away from playing Happy Action Theater was that playing with other games, even Kinect games, your interacting with their world where in this game, it interacts with your world. It takes up your living room and you’re playing in your living room, which I thought was really cool.
Yeah absolutely I couldn’t agree more. Definitely the game is coming to you. [Laughs] as opposed to you suspending your disbelief and going into the game world. Very much a reversal for sure.
One final question for you Drew, what is your favourite activity in Happy Action Theater and why?
Oh thats a great one! Oh god you know because that one changes. Over the course of development it has changed so often. Right now I think it is probably the clone-o-matic activity where you take snapshots of yourself. That is largely because I’ve been keeping my eye on YouTube and I have been laughing my ass off at the videos people have uploaded. For me it is really fun to get to see the people who are playing this game at home and get to hear them laughing and seeing the bizarre stuff they are making. As much fun as I have playing it, just getting to see other people having fun playing the game is kind of the best feeling. So right now that’s my favourite game.
It must be a real cathartic experience to see people enjoying your game all around the world.
Oh absolutely, you never know, you never know. So it’s really nice to feel like...all we want to do is help people have fun. Make people have fun, give people a chance to laugh. It’s really cathartic and super rewarding.