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[In this interview, Double Fine project lead Nathan Martz and studio creative director Tim Schafer discuss the team's intent with Sesame Street: Once Upon a Monster, explaining how it fits perfectly with the team's desire to bring an ethos to games that's often absent.]
San Francisco-based independent studio Double Fine has a knack for surprising the games industry and gamers, with unique original titles like the brain-diving Psychonauts, metal-loving Brütal Legend, Halloween-themed RPG Costume Quest, and the Matryoshka doll-based game Stacking.
Last week, Double Fine pulled another surprise by announcing its first game based on a licensed property: Sesame Street: Once Upon a Monster, due to ship for retail in fall this year, and published by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment.
The kid- and family-friendly game, made for Microsoft's Xbox 360 Kinect sensor, might seem like a departure for Double Fine, which is known for creating games based on original properties.
But if one steps back and looks at the kind of characters Double Fine is known for creating, furry monsters with loads of personality are actually a perfect fit.
In this first interview for the game, Nathan Martz, project lead on Sesame Street: Once Upon a Monster and former lead programmer on Brütal Legend, explains how the game actually started out as an original title that just happened to fit extremely well as a Sesame Street-branded experience. He's joined by Double Fine creative director, founder, and industry veteran Tim Schafer, who's also working closely on the game.
For Martz, the creation of Sesame Street: Once Upon a Monster is about crafting an "uplifting" game within an industry "known for space marines who like violence."
How did Double Fine end up with the Sesame Street license?
Tim Schafer: In the middle of Brütal Legend, we broke our team up into four teams for our Amnesia Fortnight project, and they all had to make a game in two weeks. And one of the very, very first ones we ever did -- I think the first one we ever signed up -- was Nathan's idea for a game that involved cute, furry little monsters, making music and having fun. It was immediately just this charming experience, and it kind of evolved from there.
Nathan Martz: Yeah that was probably three-and-a-half years ago.
TS: Yeah, the prototype was three-and-a-half years ago. And I just liked it and we kind of kept working on it over the years. We got a chance to work on it again and polish it up. Then the idea of Kinect came up, it seemed like an interesting way to interact with these monsters.
And there's the idea of tying this to Sesame Street. Nathan's original pitch to the company had a lot of Jim Henson in it. It referenced Sesame Street and The Muppets and how much they meant to us and how much they were an inspiration for these characters.
As we talked about the game, it just came up with more and more people, "Have you thought about this as a Sesame Street game?" And it seemed like such a natural fit. You know, Double Fine doesn't really "do" licensed properties. So we kind of laughed it off the first time. But the more we thought about it, the more it actually made sense, and seemed to kind of fit naturally.
Our characters that we design, those original Scott Campbell drawings, fit so well with the Sesame characters, and we have a soft spot for Sesame, so we decided to pursue it. We had other options, to go with the game as a completely original property, but we just really wanted to do it with Sesame.
NM: It was funny, actually, when we were originally trying to shop the game around and try to talk to a lot of publishers, the reaction we got a lot was, "So, hypothetically, if you had the Sesame Street license, what would you do with it?"
And actually it was in Gamasutra that I read an article that was the announcement that the Sesame Workshop and Warner Bros. signed a deal together, and that was right around the same timing. And Tim and I were both like, "Erp?!" [the sound of one's attention being grabbed]
TS: That was the last straw. We just thought, "Okay!"
NM: For me, the genesis of the project, the real thrill about the whole thing... the thing I was passionate about was doing a game that was uplifting. I was really impressed by games like Loco Roco that were kind of so overtly and passionately upbeat.
TS: Unapologetically upbeat.
NM: Yeah, unapologetically. And actually the codename of the project was "Happy Song." It was basically like a prototype of almost a musical toy where these happy monsters of different shapes and sizes help you make your own personal happy song.
Marco, an original character designed by Double Fine, celebrates with Cookie Monster and Elmo.
And that monster is actually Marco, who you see in the screenshot. He was the very first monster that we built. Like Tim said, they were big influences. I'm a child of the very late '70s and '80s, and Jim Henson's character designs were a huge part of that. We looked to his inspirations to design characters that were original but inviting, complex but accessible. Of course he came up with a lot. Sesame Street was a huge influence for both Tim and I. I actually grew up maybe just 30 miles south of where they filmed the TV show, where they still film it, actually.
All that came together, the early ideas of making a game that's uplifting, then we heard about Kinect, and we thought, "This is great." We want to do something good with mechanics, here's a great, innovative interface that we know is going after that family market, which just seems natural for it.
Sesame Street was actually just the final piece of the puzzle, getting characters and a franchise that we felt really supported our values, and we support its values. It's really a great opportunity for this title to just springboard off of Sesame Street's very well-known brand.
And we're working with a partner whose values are very, very compatible with this product. We're not a non-profit, like Sesame Workshop, we're not officially, governmentally a mission-driven company -- but the truth is, we are a mission-driven company. At Double Fine, we do games that we think will make our medium better, or at least more interesting. There's a lot of synchronicity between what we want to do with games and what Sesame Workshop wants to do with television and entertainment properties.