The lights are on
My career puts me in a hugely privileged position. Not only does my job involve playing and writing about games, I get to visit the development studios and peek behind the curtains at how these magical things are made. Save for the occasional one-off documentary like the wonderful Indie Game: The Movie, it’s hard for outsiders to find in-depth looks at how games are made. Even these are heavily abridged glimpses into the ups and downs of development. And then came along 2 Player Productions’ unparalleled, extensive documentary series chronicling the development at Tim Schafer’s Double Fine studio (Psychonauts, Broken Age). These videos not only offer gamers without my journalistic privileges an eye-opening look at how games are made, they’ve also educated me in ways I couldn’t have possibly predicted. Now that many of these insightful videos are available without a price barrier, you should be watching them.
2 Players Productions began filming Double Fine back in 2012, part in parcel with the company’s record-breaking Kickstarter campaign. Backers of the Double Fine Adventure (eventually named Broken Age) gained access to occasional mini-documentary episodes chronicling the development progress and highlighting key staff. 2 Players’ involvement partially intended to offer full transparency to backers so they knew how their funds were being used. The ongoing Broken Age documentary is still limited to paying backers (save for the first episode), but 2 Player kept the cameras rolling during the studio’s quasi-annual Amnesia Fortnight hiatus in 2012.
Amnesia Fortnight is when the Double Fine crew takes two weeks off from big projects to pitch new concepts, split into teams, and develop working prototypes. Games like Stacking, Costume Quest, and Spacebase DF-9 are Amensia Fortnight projects that were later released as fully realized digital titles. Spacebase DF-9 came about from Amnesia Fortnight 2012, which has recently become free to watch. Most of the greenlit Amnesia Fortnight concepts are undeniably unique, and watching their development is fascinating.
The final day of this year’s Amnesia Fortnight was released last night. I’ve been keeping up with this year’s episodes, hungry for more game details and bits of insight into the development process. Adventure Time creator Pendleton Ward guest-pitched an ambitious, goofy A.I.-centric title called Little Pink Best Buds. I loved watching this goofy creative genius lead a team of talented developers, despite his admitted unfamiliarity with the process. I also watching the first-person noir title, Mnemonic, evolve from a cool, underdeveloped idea into a moody puzzle game as team members added their ideas. Over the course of Amnesia Fortnight new leaders emerge, hidden strengths are uncovered, and refreshingly original prototypes are born.
Aside from being consistently entertaining, the Amnesia Fortnight and Double Fine Adventure documentaries have offered me invaluable insight into the development process. I’ve visited studios like Epic Games and Insomniac for a few days at a time to prepare for large stories. Unlike these visits, Amnesia Fortnight offers a window into long-term development. 2 Player has obviously edited these episodes to be as compelling as possible, but else nothing like them exists.
These videos have educated me as a gamer and as a journalist. I’ve been guilty of suggesting seemingly simple solutions to deceptively complex problems. While my tastes as a critic remain unchanged, I have fuller context for why games succeed or fail. I now understand how frequently assets and code is borrowed from past games and modified to save resources, how much care the tedious-yet-necessary job of placing fences can be, and how often happy accidents become part of the game. Double Fine is just one developer ¬– and is by no means representative of all game makers – but I leave these videos feeling more educated about the art of game design.
2 Player and Double Fine’s videos have been available to paying fans for years now but, now that a variety of them are free to view, I hope more people watch them, partially because I want more folks to experience the revelation I’ve had and partially because I want more developers to follow suit. If you haven’t already stopped reading this and started watching the first episode of Amnesia Fortnight 2014, then get to it.