We were invited to have an interview with Tim Schafer about the recently release Kinect Game by Double Fine studios: Happy Action Theater. Tim couldn’t make it, as he had some urgent and important matters to attend to, but luckily we got in touch with Drew Skillman who has an equally compelling story, and a great dosis of humor to go with it. Check out the first part of our interview with the person that turned out to be the project lead for Happy Action Theater, and share your thoughts in the comment box all the way at the bottom.

123KINECT: First I’m interested to know, as we all know Tim Shafer but we don’t really know you: Who is Drew? Could you give us an introduction?

Great question; yes sure. I’ve been at Double Fine for about 5 or 6 years now, and I’ve been a technical artist and worked on a lot of the visual effects. I have been involved in Brutal Legend, Stacking and Trenched where I’ve done lightning and visual effects. But then, on this most recent project – Happy action theater – it was a really fun opportunity as we worked in a small team, and I got to work really close to Tim. The team was literally like four or five people for most of the development, so it was kind of a fun and indie experience for me. [In this project] I started doing more and more different things outside of normal visual effects and technical arts. Towards the end of the project – around ¾ of the way through – Tim got super busy running the studio, so I took over from him as the project lead on Happy action theater.

123KINECT: So for this Kinect game, the team was around 4-5 people?

Yes I’d say the core team is around 4-5 people. Double Fine is a big studio and we have a lot of people that we can draw from for like concept art, for modeling, and animation. Definitely, the whole studio is contributing to it, and over the course of the project we’ve had a great number of people working on it. But, the core team that has been there throughout the development is around 4-5 people.

123KINECT: Because this game has such an indie-feel to it, did that draw people in, as they wanted to be part of this experience?

That’s a great question! It is a pretty popular as it is such a different experience from working on traditional games, that I think there’s a draw from other people in the studio to kind of like want to – and I think people have enjoyed chances to jump in and work on things like an activity or make art for things. You know, the fun thing about Double Fine is the other projects that we have going on. Which I can’t really talk about right now,

123KINECT: Sure you can! I’m fine with that.

Yeah, but they’re very very exciting too, and luckily everything happening is interesting enough to keep all the other artists and programmers well fed.

123KINECT: But, you are trying to have a special kind of development experience with Happy Action Theater?

Yeah, it really is. It’s kind of, you know, for me it’s the closest experience I’ve had to what I thought it would be like as a kid to make games. This really naïve image I had of game designer. We did come in in the morning, and if you had a crazy idea then you could be already half way through it by the end of the day, and that has never happened before with any other games at Double Fine.

123KINECT: So you had a lot of freedom and were able to use your creativity as well there?

Yes, definitely a situation where you could be talking about a ridiculous idea during lunch and have it done by the end of the day. To see it shipped tomorrow, I’m so excited about it! I hope people will have as much fun playing it, as we’ve had creating the game.

123KINECT: Why should Kinect owners be enthusiastic about Happy action theater?

One big thing is that, especially for people that have been looking at YouTube for all these different of what the Kinect is capable of. You look out there and you see all these amazing different Kinect hacks that people have been doing all over. And, I think, this is the first consumer product, the first actual software that people can buy for their Kinect that lets them experience some of the wonderful things that hobbyists have been doing since it came out about a year ago. That’s one of the most exciting parts, so that people at home can experience what their hardware is capable of doing.

Because up until now, it tends to be crammed. You know, you take the Kinect technology and you try to wrap it into a traditional game. The more you wrap it, the more it almost kind of obscures what’s really happening and how much fun it is. What the Kinect is just natively doing is so much fun. Our game actually strips away the unnecessary clutter that stands between the player and his Kinect.

123KINECT: Was this also the assignment of Microsoft, the publisher of the game? “Just go crazy” or “Show what Kinect can do”?

That was actually the idea behind the pitch. So, Tim was playing Kinect with his daughter Lily, and I don’t know if you’ve played Kinect with small kids before, but sometimes it can bring people to the verge of tears. Some of the things you have to do can be really really frustrating, which is obviously not what you want, because it is so perfect for kids and casual gamers. So, you don’t want to frustrate them. So Tim kind of had his epiphany while playing some other Kinect title with his daughter, how much fun it would be to play a game that really doesn’t have any rules, and doesn’t have any profiles you have to sign into, and there’s no way to loose. It just lets you play around. That was the core of the original pitch that went to Microsoft. Microsoft really liked the idea of following those defined pillars, and they really encouraged it to stick with it and gave us really positive feedback. They also helped us with doing lots of kids play testing, so were able to refine it as lots of kids played with it. Definitely a joint effort between Double Fine and Microsoft in that regard.

123KINECT: You mentioned that there are lots of Kinect hacks online, and you’ve now had the experience of creating a consumer product that tends to take some stuff from those hacks. Where is the difficulty in making a Kinect hack ready for consumers in your view? So, what’s that last like 10% to make the hack perfect for the consumer market?

Ooo, I think that uhm, I think that a lot of it is polishing off the rough edges. For some of the development I’d say that we were doing Kinect hacking in the office. The things that we started with like a seed of something fun. Then we would play it on the PC and think: “Men this is fun!” We just had that kind of raw feeling (i.e. this is fun!) but it was definitely not something we could package and give out to the world. So, a lot of it as trying to understand what it is that makes some of the really really simple Kinect hacks fun! What kind of interaction is it that makes it so enjoyable? That would usually inspire like a concept or a context to play around that we could kind of build a whole world around of. I would say that this last 10%, being 90% of the work, was very much around creating a living, breathing, world where this interaction just happens to take place. So, to make it easier for people to discover the same kind of fun that we were having, but not really have to suspend their sense of disbelief as much as the developer. As a developer it’s kind of easy to ignore the rough edges.

123KINECT: You are pushing the limits of Kinect in a way. Could you give two examples of how you did that, or what people should look out for in this game that really showcases what Kinect can do?

Definitely a bunch of things there. How many did I get to pick?

123KINECT: Two, you get to pick two.

I get to pick two. Okay, okay, okay. I’d say that … one easy one is that I think that we are one of those first games to use a lot of computer vision techniques in order to identify player motion. So that’s how we’re able to support over two players in this game. We’re able to support six players in this game by applying a lot of pretty cool computer vision techniques, and a lot of those were inspired by early experimentation. I actually did a Game Developers’ Conference talk in China on some of the technology behind that. But, mostly I hope that people will enjoy playing it with more than two people, even though I don’t think most people will be aware of how much work it took to make that possible (laughs).

123KINECT: It was all worth it right?

Definitely! We actually took it to a bar last Friday and had it playing in the background and it was so much fun having people play it in the background.

Also, I think it’s one of the first games to heavily use shaders ánd video feed. We are really taking all of the graphics card power and are able to pipe the Kinect’s data directly into the graphics card, and do all kinds of crazy processing on the graphics card. And I think this is one of the first cases of all these techniques traditionally being applied to games, are now being applied to you in the video feed. So, it kind of lets you be in the video game in a way that in some respect is traditional, but it’s unique because you’re the one in it. So, we have like a blizzard level, and in that level you get snow accumulate on all the flat surfaces and snow accumulating on your body, but that’s actually all done on the graphics card and it’s all done in ways that traditionally might be done in a snow level in an actual traditional video game. If I’d had to pick to, I’d say those would be the two, but there’s more I’d like to say.

123KINECT: Okay, one more.

Okay, the LAST one (laughs). You don’t have to use this one, but I just say this because I’m thinking of it. We’re also generating a background plate by continuously scanning your room and identifying where people aren’t and over the course of the game we’re kind of building an image of what your living room looks like without anyone in it. That’s cool, because then we can actually extract you from the scene. So, if you get hooked by fish hook, or you get turn into a hot lava statue and shattered, we can actually map in the room behind you, so it looks like you disappeared. That actually ended up being a really fun little kind of hook to put in.

I’ve actually doing too much augmented reality I think. I found myself going on a run the other day, and actually reaching out and touching things, just to confirm that they are really there (laughs). So, there’s definitely some kind of funny psychological fallout to claim with all this augmented reality technology.

123KINECT: We will be playing the game tomorrow, and do a review on it and planned a whole party around it. Beer and all.

Oww no way, awesome! Fantastic! Will that be on your site? Yeah, that’s going to be so much fun. That’s the perfect venue for it. That’s one of the things we’ve been kind of trying to let people know; to remind people that it’s NOT a game. It’s a series of interactive experiences, and so that’s the perfect venue having a bunch of people relaxing.

I actually gave a review code to my parents last night, and I could barely talk to my mom as she was laughing hysterically. So, I think that’s the first video game that I made that my mom could play!

For part 2 of the interview I’ll take a dive into Kinect’s future and try to get an answer from Drew Skillman to some of the questions you posed earlier this week. For now, thanks for reading and share your comments, below!

The 123KINECT review of Happy Action Theater is right here.