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What's Next? Greg Rice and Double Fine's 'creativity factory'

What's Next? Greg Rice and Double Fine's 'creativity factory' Exclusive

October 2, 2013 | By Patrick Miller

[In advance of November's GDC Next, GDC's Director of Online Community Patrick Miller reached out to many games industry luminaries to see where they think the future of video games is headed. This interview is the latest installment of a multi-part series that will run up until shortly before the 'future of games' conference, which takes place in Los Angeles, CA from November 5-7, co-located with the App Developers Conference.]

No one makes games quite like Double Fine does. They've zeroed in on a particular kind of scrappy, whimsical, creative cool that has been integral to their surviving (and thriving) over the last thirteen years. I spoke with brand manager Greg Rice -- who, along with Tim Schafer, Lee Petty, and Oliver Franzke, will be presenting a talk on their point-and-click-adventure-revival game Broken Age as part of the GDC Next 10 spotlighted talk series -- about Double Fine's unique sensibilities and structure.

Patrick Miller: You've spent most of your professional career at Double Fine, right? You must have a rather unique perspective, seeing Double Fine grow as a scrappy indie game dev right smack in the heart of the tech industry; what do you see as the big emerging themes or trends for the next 5-10 years of video games?

Greg Rice: My first major gig in the games industry actually was as assistant to Seamus Blackley in the games division at the Creative Artists Agency. Most of our efforts in my time there were focused on enabling creatives in the industry to make awesome stuff, with deals that allowed them to maintain creative control as well as the rights to their IP and ultimately profit from their creations.

We were on the tail end of a long period in which publishers determined what games were being made and on what terms. But with the rise of digital distribution platforms as a place for games to be self published and titles with smaller budgets able to find an audience and financial success, it was quickly becoming clear that the power was shifting to the developer.

It's something that happened long ago in the film industry and was only a matter of time before we saw it here. I believe it will be really healthy for our industry in the long term. New platforms will come and go, new payment models will rise and fall, but the only thing I believe will stay constant is that good games will drive the industry forward. The more we enable creatives with strong unique ideas to deliver on their vision, the better the landscape will be. It's that desire that naturally led me to Double Fine and I've been extremely proud to be a part of all the incredible stuff that's happening here.

PM: From my perspective, Double Fine isn't a specialist studio -- you're not known for excelling at one particular genre, or on one particular platform, or with one particular IP. Instead, Double Fine has a remarkably creative character that passes through everything you touch. What do you do to cultivate that creativity? Do you think that Double Fine "flavor" has built a core fanbase around your studio? Do you think we'll see more and more studios emphasize this in the future (over, say, proprietary tech development, for example)?

GR: [Double Fine founder Tim Schafer] likes to say that he wants Double Fine to be viewed as a creativity factory, and I really like that analogy. Something I've always loved about his games, all the way back to his days at Lucasfilm Games, is how drastically different they all are in terms of art, story, and universe. You never really knew what to expect from Tim, and that has only continued to be more true at Double Fine. Every game we've released has drastically different art styles and game mechanics. The only thing that stays constant is our desire to provide a unique, interesting, beautiful, and entertaining experience for our fans.

I think a lot of this is owed to our internal game jam process, Amnesia Fortnight. During development of Brutal Legend, right after the game lost its publisher, Tim decided to split the team up into smaller groups and allow anyone who wanted a chance to pitch a game and make a prototype over the course of two weeks. The idea was to spark creativity in the studio, allow for new voices to be heard, challenge people in new roles, and ultimately to get new game prototypes that could be pitched to publishers.

This became a repeated process at Double Fine and one that has resulted in many of our recently released games. With ideas coming from so many different people of varying backgrounds and disciplines, it's only natural that they would all be distinct. It's not really something that we go out of our way to maintain though. It really just seems to be a byproduct of our desire to pursue whatever is creatively stimulating to us at the time. I think our fans tend to be more of the creative type, and this variety of ideas we're exploring seems to really resonate with them.

A lot of studios run game jams from time to time and I hear nothing but good things from those who do. Game development is hard and it's really refreshing to take a step back at times and just mess around with a new idea. Regardless of how the prototypes turn out, it's always a reenergizing period that gets you excited to get back to whatever you were working on before the jam began.

PM: Double Fine's creativity seems to extend to the biz model side of things as well -- how do you see the future of making and selling games changing? How do you see the relationship between dev-publisher-player changing?

Tim likes to encourage the whole studio to think differently and to take chances, and the business side of things is no exception. Double Fine has been an independent studio for 13 years now, which not a lot of studios can say. I think a lot of that can be attributed to this willingness to be flexible and try new things, as well as an ability to adapt to the state of the industry.

PM: From my perspective, Double Fine kind of occupies a strange place in the industry as a "big indie." I imagine that places a rather unique strain on your studio -- I'm guessing you're too big to go in for shoestring budgets (and games with smaller scope) compared to small indie teams of one to five people. How do you balance your internal drive for creativity with your need to attract and retain talented staff (meaning, consistent paychecks)? Do you think that as the current generation of indies grows in the industry and some of them start to attract bigger teams and more resources, we'll see more indies occupying the same space you're in?

GR: Making good games is not cheap, especially when doing it with a team of experienced and highly talented individuals living in an expensive city like San Francisco. But our internal structure is such that it allows us to make it work. We have had small teams working on games with lower budgets such as Dropchord and Happy Action Theater, and they're doing it right alongside larger teams working on multi-million dollar publisher-funded titles like The Cave. I think the reason it continues to work for us is that we put the creative first and find a way to fund the games we're most excited about making. This results in games that we really care about and I think our fans can feel that.

PM: How do you think the mainstream game audience's expectations of a video game will change in the future? Will people be more receptive to games that make us feel more complicated emotions than simply "entertained"?

GR: The core gaming audience is definitely maturing, with kids who grew up in arcades and in the 8-bit era entering adulthood. I think these people have been demanding new experiences for many years, and they're definitely seeing them more now than ever before. It remains to be seen if these kinds of games can have a vast and extended reach outside this group of enthusiastic and passionate gamers.

As for the mainstream audience, it's only getting larger and wider thanks to the ease of access to mobile and social games, and more and more people are coming to realize the power a good game can have. It may be utopian, but I do believe these people will always be on the lookout for something new and exciting and will naturally be drawn to deeper and more interesting content.

PM: What (and who) do you and your peers look to for inspiration? What influences currently inform the your work and those you admire?

GR: I try and stay open to inspiration in any form. Any time someone can present an idea in a new way and execute on that at a high level of quality, my gears get turning. I'm playing games all the time that excite me, especially in the indie scene, but I also find inspiration in animation, music, food, and this golden age of TV we've got going these days. Really though, it just comes from experiencing new things and often times is not from media at all, but exploring the beautiful nature surrounding San Francisco and traveling to exciting new places. Oh, and thinking about space.

PM: Sometimes it seems like the best ideas in tech and games simply didn't happen at the right time. Can you think of anything that we might see come back once the time is right?

GR: The biggest thing that comes to mind is virtual reality. It's something that we've been seeing in science fiction films and TV for many years and has always just seemed like the future. Early attempts just didn't have the fidelity to pull it off, but what I've seen with Oculus Rift has really blown me away. I think the tech is finally there, now we just need people with the talent, ideas, and understanding of how to best take advantage of the technology to make games that deliver on the promise.

Online registration is in full swing for GDC Next and the co-located ADC; register now and save up to $200 on ADC, GDC Next, or a combined VIP All Access Pass. For all the latest news on GDC Next, subscribe for updates via Facebook, Twitter, or RSS. Also, check out ADC's recently announced design talks: Intel on building scalable and secure APIs for enterprise apps, and ChaiONE on pairing the latest wearable technology with smartphones.

Also, check out the previous 'What's Next' interviews with Chris Crawford, Starr Long, Thomas Bidaux, Teut Weidemann, David Cage, Warren Spector, Sunni Pavlovic, James Paul Gee, Raph Koster and Chris Pruett

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