Monday, November 8, 2010

Interview: Costume Quest's Tasha Harris, Part 1

I loved Costume Quest. From the first time I heard about it, I had a feeling it'd be one of my favorite games of the fall, and after playing it to 100% completion (the first time I've done that!), I can say that it met my expectations. It's cute, breezy, funny, easy on the eyes and pretty much entirely enjoyable in just about every way.

So, you can imagine how excited I was when David told me that he had met the game's project lead, Tasha Harris, at the Alternative Press Expo a few weeks ago. After David mentioned Gamer Melodico to her, she'd said she read the site and would be down to do an interview. Because we are just that frickin' cool.

Last Monday, I met up with Tasha at Double Fine's offices in San Francisco's SoMa district. After showing me around their very groovy workspace (they have a wall of Psychonauts concept art that'd blow your hair back), she and I headed across the street and grabbed lunch. We talked for about an hour about all sorts of stuff—from her time as an animator at Pixar to the process of developing Costume Quest to the art of designing a game's "Peggle Moment." The final transcription wound up being long enough to break into several parts, which I'll be running throughout the week.

But enough gabbing from me. Shall we begin? We shall.

KH: So, Costume Quest! Maybe tell us a bit about the game's origins, and the Amnesia Fortnight Project.

TH: Tim [Schafer] had the idea for Amnesia Forthight to foster creativity in the studio and maybe get people's minds off of what we were working on (Brutal Legend) for a couple weeks. So we divided the company into four teams and each team has two weeks to make a demo of a game. And one of those games was the demo for Costume Quest.

And the other games are currently getting made as well, right?

Right. The other three games we're working on are all from Amnesia Fortnight.

Was the idea a bit born from the exhaustion of working on one huge project?

Yeah, a little bit. It really turned out well because later, when we found out we're not doing Brutal Legend 2, we had all these demos ready to be pitched. Some of them were good ideas! So I think it turned out really good for the company that we had done that, that we weren't just stuck saying "Uh oh, now we need to come up with some ideas!" Instead, we had a demo, and we just did a little more work on it during the time we were pitching to make it playable and more user-friendly.

Did that original idea wind up being at all different from the game that was released?

Really, the demo was pretty similar to the final game. You knock on the doors to trick-or-treat… the core game loop was all there. One thing was, originally we had a store where you bought your costumes from. I think you could buy heads and bodies, but later on I wanted to make it so you were crafting your costumes more, to emphasize that these were homemade costumes. So, we brought in the whole gathering the pattern, gathering the materials around the neighborhood. But originally we didn't have that.

So you guys started in February, and you made the whole game in about six months… when was the game truly finished?

I think it was in the beginning of September. 'Cause you know, you need to submit the game ahead of time because of the whole "Approval by Xbox" thing.

Was there a moment before then when you knew it was done? Like, "Oh man, we've got a game here."

That's a good question. I don't know if there was really one moment, because it seemed like all the way to the end, we were trying to squeeze in little things. You know, whatever we could put in there.

Was there anything that you had to cut that was heartbreaking, a thing you really wanted in the game?

Hm. I don't think there was anything that was heartbreaking. There were some technical things, like, I wish we could have put in a better save system, that's one of the thing that the reviewers...

Yeah, that got me the other day.

We've been getting a lot of feedback from that, and it just comes down to time, and priorities, and the amount of people that we had.

What was the size of your team?

It was probably around fifteen core people. Plus or minus some, at times.

Some of the backdrops during the combat, they remind me of Brutal Legend… did you guys use some of the same textures?

Costume Quest uses the same engine, and we borrowed some models from Brutal Legend and Psychonauts just to have a start. It might look similar because the same artists worked on both games. Scott [Campbell] and Raz [Mavlian] did the concept art for it, and they also did the concept art for Brutal Legend.

It's interesting actually, a lot of the Double Fine monsters have this distinctive look—did that factor in how you designed the creatures in Costume Quest?

I think a little bit; when you're working with people every day you kind of influence each other all the time. That's kind of one of the reasons I came to work at Double Fine—I like that style of art. And I like the style of humor, so [I said] when I make a game, this is the kind of game I want to make. Tim's sense of humor and his style just meshes with the style that I like.

It seems like it does, from what I've seen. Whatshisname, that monster driver in Grim Fandango...

Oh, Glottis?

Aah, Glottis. I miss you, buddy.
Yeah! The monsters in Costume Quest kind of remind me of Glottis. Like, they're not really scary…

Yeah, they're just kinda goofy.

Though there are a couple scenes… was there anything that you had to cut because you thought it was too scary? There was a scene where they're holding the kids off the top of the ferris wheel, shaking candy from their pockets, for example.

There were a couple of things that we had to tone down a little bit because I really wanted an "E" rating. That was one of the reasons I consciously made it so that you don't kill anyone in the game, they just explode like a pinata, like candy. And I definitely made it so there's no blood, that was a conscious decision on my part.

One thing we toned down was when Everett is kind of getting beat up by a bully, and right now in the game they're tugging on a candy bag back and forth. But before, the Bully was actually punching him. And it always seemed… it was kind of cute and cartoony just because of how the characters look, and there wasn't any blood or anything, you know… but then, once the sound went in and there was this punching sound that was really loud, it just seemed much more violent for some reason? (Laughs.) So we ended up changing it so that they're just kind of arguing, tugging on this candy bag.

(At this point, I kind of go on a digression about how I thought the movie Earnest Scared Stupid was really scary when I saw it as a kid. I sort of rattle on for a while, and Tasha hadn't seen or heard of the movie, and it's all fairly mortifying. Eventually I get back on-topic.)

TH: We had some kids come in for playtesting, and that helped out a lot, too.

Of course, you must have playtested with kids! What was that like?



Because kids play games somewhat differently than adults do. So yeah, it was definitely a learning experience.

Do they give different feedback than adults do?

They were one of the reasons right away that we went with the fixed camera. If they haven't played a lot of videogames before, it's tricky for kids to move and operate the camera at the same time.

Adults, too.

Yeah. Casual players who haven't spent a lot of time using a controller. As gamers, we're so used to it…

But it's that right thumbstick that gets ya.

Right, like, you don't even think about it. But then when you see a casual player or a kid play, and that might be really hard for them. Also, the fixed camera is a throwback to the old-style RPGs, so it kind of fit with what I wanted to do anyway.

Were the kids more honest or less honest than adults?

Hm. Yeah, probably more honest. Because you know, they can't hide it if they're getting bored. But kids always seem to really like the concept of the game, right from the beginning.

Well, yeah, because it's trick-or-treating!

As soon as you tell them it's is a game about Halloween, their faces light up!

It's funny that there hasn't been one until now. It seems like such a natural fit.

I know! (laughs) That's why I feel really glad that I was able to make it before someone else made it.

So, it's a really pleasurable game, if that makes sense. A lot of the feedback loops are really positive, like when you get candy from an adult, they dump it into your bag and it's this glorious rain of candy…

(More laughter) That was in the original demo. It was one of the things that I really… I dunno, the idea of "Let's just push it". It's almost like… we would sometimes sell it as a "Peggle Moment," like, here's the reward part, let's just make it be super, super, super satisfying.

Hee, "The Peggle Moment." I love it!

Getting the candy in your pail, that should be a super happy moment.

And it really is.

I think it's funny because the animation of the adult is just, like, "Ooh, I'm giving you this one little piece of candy," and then it cuts and it's this rain of candy. When Christine [Phelan] was animating it, I kept telling her, "No, add more candy, add more candy, add more candy" until it was just this huge rain of candy.

It seems that way, it's so over the top. And then the game tells me "You got 25 pieces of candy!" and I'm all, "Dude, that looked like more than 25 pieces of candy."

(Laughs.) Yeah. I know. We'll just look at it and keep tweaking something until it makes us laugh. And then we're just like, "Yeah, okay, that'll be good."

It worked. It's a really kinesthetically rewarding game to play.

Good! That's the kind of game experience I really appreciate, and it's something I've really liked about Nintendo's games. They all have this really solid feel to them, like when you're playing a Mario game or a Zelda game, there's something about how your character reacts to the controls and just the feel of jumping or sliding—it just feels really solid.

So, you were the project lead, you oversaw everything, designed the gameplay and all of that, too?

Yeah. I mean, not all by myself. (Laughs.)

And it was the first time you'd been lead on a project?

YES. So that was another huge learning experience.

I bet. Who were the gameplay designers on Brutal Legend? Did you have some of the same people on your team?

Well on Brutal Legend it was Tim, and we had two other main designers, Brad [Muir] and Erik [Robson], and also we had a guy who came in maybe about halfway through named Colin [Munson]. But then after Brutal Legend two of those guys left and are at other companies, and Brad is now leading his own project.

Oh really, so you were on your own for gameplay?

Tim is overseeing all the projects, but basically we had no official gameplay designer on Costume Quest—it was me and a couple other guys on the team. We had to really step up.

The battles are well-balanced, I think—they go fast, and they're always kind of right down to the wire. Was it a challenge to balance?

It was a challenge, because there're a lot of things you have to take into consideration. Like, "What costumes would the person have at this time," or "What stamps would we have available," and the order that the stamps would come unlocked....

So I presume you just have a bunch of charts for that?

Yeah. Making RPGs is hard!

It's a simple battle system, and I can still imagine it getting really complicated.

It is, I know! During the process of making this, I kept wondering how they do World of Warcraft or something like that. The amount of collectables and stats that you have to balance in Costume Quest, by comparison, is a lot less, but it was still like, "Oh my God!"

We had all these charts and would realize oh, if this becomes available at this time, well you don't have enough candy to buy this stamp at this time... or, if we add a monster to this area, we have to adjust all the other monsters… and how much XP they give you...

Sounds tricky.

It was very tricky, but I had a lot of help. Our producer Gabe [Miller] did a lot of helping balance the game, and helping balance systems. It's almost like I've gone from the huge scale of Pixar, to the smaller scale of Double Fine, to the super super small scale of just this one team... so, everyone has to do a lot of different things. I did a lot of different things on this game, and a lot of the team members did, too. So yeah, it made it really challenging, but also really fun.

I would think it'd be nice to have your first experience as a project lead be on a smaller game.

And even then I was just, like, "Oh my god, why did I choose to make an RPG? It's so hard!"

Heh, you could've just made a platformer and been done with it…

(Laughs) Yeah. But, you know, I love RPGs.

Next up in Part 2, Tasha talks about transitioning from Pixar to Double Fine, why you should stay in school, and how making games is different than making movies. Then in Part 3, we cover a ton of other stuff. Read on!
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