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Double Fine Happy Action Theater

Platform(s): Xbox 360
Genre: Action
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Developer: Double Fine Productions
Release Date: Feb. 1, 2012


'Happy Action Theater' (X360 Kinect) Developer Interview With Tim Schafer

by Adam Pavlacka on Nov. 14, 2011 @ 1:00 a.m. PST

Double Fine Happy Action Theater is a collection of 18 minigames designed to activate gross motor skills, inspire imagination and entertain players of all ages.

WP: Who has the honor to speak with us? State your name, rank and occupation!

I'm Tim Schafer, and I'm president/CEO of Double Fine Productions.

WP: We're looking at Double Fine's Happy Action Theater for Kinect. You've essentially created a game that's not a game; it's more of an interactive toy. Isn't that kind of a risk for a game developer?

TS: Well, now that Double Fine is doing little projects, the great thing is that we can take risks and we can try out things like that. It was such a crazy idea that I came up with while I was trying to play a Kinect game with my daughter, who is, in all fairness to that game, younger than the age that they recommend, but I still wanted to play with her because the content was really appealing to her. She can't stand in one spot for too long, she can't hold her hand up while the timer goes down, and she can't do a lot of the basic stuff for menu navigation with the Kinect. So we thought, "What if a game had no menus?" and what if it's just as simple as one of those installations that you might see where an advertisement or something tries to grab passersby who come in front of it and interact with them. Just have basic level interactions, like you kicking a bunch of balls in a ball pen or a bunch of balloons or chasing pigeons. Simple interactions without any kind of goal, win conditions and especially no failure conditions.

WP: How does something like that handle people coming in and out? Even Dance Central, when you switch players, you have to log in and log out. That can be kind of annoying. How do you do that in Happy Action Theater?

TS: Well, a lot of it is for technical reasons. Games that require a lot of accuracy, like Dance Central, use the Kinect's skeletal tracking. We don't need a lot of accuracy. We're using the video feed, the depth buffer and the player blobs, where you can just see the outline of a player.  All of our activities, where you're kicking balls around or you're making a crazy effect on the screen, all we're using is these player blobs, which the Kinect is capable of tracking six of, unlike two for the skeletons.

WP: Activity-wise, you've got being a monster, some crazy photo stuff going on, and kicking balls. Where did the ideas come from? Did you toss them around at the office? Can you attribute any of those to your daughter? What's the creative inspiration?

TS: Well, some of them, like Pigeon Chaser, you're just in a room, and we show your living room, but we use the depth information to find perches for pigeons. Pigeons come land on your arms, on your couch, wherever. A lot of that came from being out in public and watching how crazy kids are for pigeons. They chase them with this kind of anger that makes you wonder why kids hate pigeons. They'll scream at them and chase them around. "What do kids have against pigeons?" I don't know, but let's make an activity about it. Sure enough, when we test it, kids go after those pigeons like crazy.

WP: My mom has two dogs, and they love staring and barking at the TV. Have you put any pets, cats or dogs, in front of Happy Action Theater yet?

TS: Actually, in the trailer, there's a short segment where a black lab kicks around a lot of the balls. It works with whatever the Kinect can recognize as a potential player blob. Sometimes it can recognize a yoga ball as a person. It sometimes has trouble with the color black because it doesn't work that great with the IR sensor, the infrared depth camera. We should try it with a nice, white poodle. I think it'd be a great game for a large dog.

WP: With Costume Quest and Psychonauts on Steam, Double Fine is now a self- publisher. How much of a change is that for you as a company?

TS: The greatest thing about self-publishing, besides just determining what we're doing, is having that relationship with the fans. It's so direct. We don't have to ask anyone's permission. On Steam, if we want to do an update, we just do an update. We can set the price to whatever we want. If we feel like a sale, we can do a sale. We can give our own fans what they have demanded. They have demanded PC versions of the games, which may not have been interesting to a publisher at the time, but we knew our fans wanted it. I have a long history on the PC, and I've always tried to establish that I did care about the PC even though we hadn't done a PC game in a long time. So now that we're self-publishing, we can do exactly the right thing for our fans.

WP: One question about your recent release, Once Upon a Monster: How cool was it to interview Cookie Monster?

TS: I got to hang out in New York City with Cookie Monster and Elmo, and those actors are so talented. They're improvisational comedy actors, so they have this great sense of humor on and off stage. When they're performing the characters, it's really magic. It's a cliché to say that, but it has an effect on you where you start to think the characters are alive. When they're in the room with you, you don't look at the performer. You don't look at Kevin Clash or David [Rudman]; you look at Cookie Monster or Elmo. It was as exciting to me as meeting Ozzy Osbourne [when working on Brutal Legend].

WP: Were you at all surprised at the positive reaction you've gotten from the 30-year-old set for what is ostensibly a game targeted at 5- to 7-year-old kids?

TS: I'm not surprised at all because there are a lot of people in the same boat as me. We grew up loving games, and we're at that age where we're having kids now. You hand a little kid a controller, you want them to enjoy something you enjoy so much, but it's really hard to teach them what a left bumper is and push in on the stick and hold these two buttons together. I knew a lot of people would be like me, people who love games and want to share them with their kids in a positive way. Once Upon a Monster and Happy Action Theater will be games that whole families can play together, especially those who love games and have kids.

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