Cheese talks to: Double Fine (about cross platform game development)

This week, Greg Rice (Brand Manager and Producer on the Double Fine Adventure) and Nathan Martz (Technical Director) from Double Fine took some time out from their super busy schedules to answer some quick questions.

In this interview, we talk about Double Fine's adventures in PC cross-platform gaming across the past year, ranging from their record breaking crowdfunding success with the Double Fine Adventure (DFA) through to next week's simultaneous Linux, Mac and Windows launch of The Cave.


First up, can you describe a typical day at Double Fine?

Greg: I don't think there really is such a thing as a typical day at Double Fine. With so many games in development at one time there's always something interesting going on. I guess the only thing that stays constant is that there's a group of 60 or so really rad people each bringing something interesting to the table.


Last year seemed to be a big year for Double Fine. What do you feel were the key highlights of 2012?

Greg: Yeah we had a lot of really cool stuff happen last year! We started the year by launching Happy Action Theater, a totally goofy Kinect party game with support for up to 6 players (a first for Kinect). In February we launched a Kickstarter to make an adventure game that went on to raise over $3 million for the studio and earning us a spot in the Guiness Book of World Records. In November we held a crazy public game jam experience in which we live streamed all day for 2 weeks, released daily video episodes, and released 6 new game prototypes. Then in December we launched TWO games in the same month. One, Middle Manager of Justice, was our first iOS title and the other, Kinect Party was our first sequel!


At what point did Linux and Mac support start to become a priority for Double Fine? Have Double Fine's forays into Linux and Mac gaming been the result of careful long term planning, or timely responses to unforeseen opportunities?

Nathan: A multiplatform engine has been a technology priority for Double Fine ever since Psychonauts was dropped by Microsoft and had to, with little time and a lot of aggravation, very quickly become a multi-platform game. We designed our "next generation" Buddha engine (named after BrĂ¼tal Legend's original code name) to make multi-platform game development as easy as possible. When it came time to do more 2D games, we adopted Moai in large part because it had also been designed to be a cross platform engine.

While our early focus as a studio was on consoles, our goal has always been to create technologies that can easily bring our games to any every platform that makes sense for them, and we are adding more platforms all the time. Of course the Windows PC market is the largest desktop gaming market (and also the easiest to get to from an Xbox 360 game), so we went after that first (after consoles). But everyone knows that Mac computers have become much more popular over the past years and Linux looks set to take over the world, one Steam box at a time. Ultimately, my goal is that ultimately, whenever Double Fine talks about releasing a game on the PC, we mean "personal computer" regardless of whether it runs Windows, OSX, or Linux[1].

As to how carefully or opportunistic the planning has been, it's a bit of both. We had the great opportunity to partner with companies like Dracogen, Transgaming, and Humble Bundle to bring Psychonauts to Mac and Linux, which allowed us to learn more about those platforms and, test the waters as it were. But we've also done a lot of work and planning to build an engine and toolchain that can support releasing games on many platforms at once. As with many things, it's been planning and luck in roughly equal measure.


What hurdles and challenges have you encountered in branching out on to these two additional PC platforms, and what pleasant surprises have been found along the way?

Nathan: So far the work to bring our Buddha engine to Mac and Linux has been pretty good, in large part thanks to partnering with some great OSX and Linux experts. It's also nice that OSX and Linux have a lot in common (OpenGL rendering, Unix-y OS design, similar compilers, etc) so much of the work you do to support one helps you out on the other.

So far, one of the biggest challenges has been dealing with Linux fragmentation. There are a lot of distros and package managers and all that out there. Like Valve, our plan is to start with a small number of distros we feel we can support really well and then branch out from there.

Also, every platform we add usually strains our build process in some way. As an example in this case, we needed to find a way to automatically and reliably convert our shaders, which are written in HLSL into GLSL, which is what OSX and Linux use. Finding the right technologies that would integrate well with our build system, generate good shaders, and all that was definitely tricky.


What kind of feedback have you had from the Linux and Mac user communities about the in-progress Double Fine Adventure and Psychonauts?

Nathan: So far the most valuable feedback from our fans on Mac and Linux has just been about what matter most to them in games on those platforms. Our number one priority is always to make games that please our fans, and getting the tech right is a big part of that. We also have come to understand that doing well on a platform isn't just a thing you do once, but it's an ongoing conversation between our developers and our customers.


Are Linux ports of Double Fine games likely to be maintained in-house or externally through contractors like Ryan 'icculus' Gordon, who ported Psychonauts for the Humble Indie Bundle V?

Nathan: We've been lucky to work with external partners, especially to help get us off the ground on these platforms, but our vision for Double Fine has always been that we treat every platform we ship on as a first class citizen, which we can do best when we develop and maintain the code internally. Especially as we try to realize that vision of games on the Personal Computer, regardless of which operating system you use, it'll only become more important that we know, love, and are masters of our engine on Mac and Linux.


What decisions lead to the selection of Moai as the engine for the DFA?

Nathan: Oliver has written some great posts[2] about this on the DFA forums, but the two main reasons were that it's good at 2D and it's on all the platforms we needed for DFA. Our proprietary Buddha engine is great, but it's very focused on 3D and we weren't confident we'd be able to bring it to iOS and Android (which DFA promised as platforms) in time for DFA's release. Thankfully, MOAI is already on Windows and Mac, iOS and Android, and very nearly on Linux, too. Also, very critically, it's totally open source and suitable for commercial use, which means that we would still be totally in control of the tech for the game and able to implement whatever crazy ideas Tim wanted to realize in it.


How has the process of working with an Open Source engine differed from other projects Double Fine has worked on? Has ability to pull from/contribute to upstream sources been a positive or negative experience?

Nathan: So far working on an Open Source codebase hasn't been so very different. We are fortunate to have a great relationship with the creators of Moai at Zipline, and we frequently send them fixes and improvements as we grab the same from the community. We also talk a lot with them about where they want to take the engine and what our own priorities and aspirations are. We haven't had the bandwidth yet to engage with a lot of other Moai developers, but we hope to be more involved and contribute back even more in the months ahead.


In what ways did Amnesia Fortnight (AF) 2012 differ from prior Amnesia Fortnights?

Greg: This year we decided to take Amnesia Fortnight public, and it was a great success! It was really awesome to get to share what happens behind closed doors at a professional gaming studio such as ours. And ultimately the fact that people would be playing these prototypes was good motivation for the teams.


What kind of feedback have you received to AF 2012? Has having broader community input highlighted things that would otherwise not been as visible?

Greg: It's great to get so much feedback early in the process like that. Typically we have to hide in our offices making a game for a year or so and then just hope people like it when it comes out. It was really fun to see which ideas the community was excited about and getting to hear feedback after the prototypes were released. Plus it will help inform our decisions should we decide to move forward with any of these projects.


What kind of response have you had regarding the DRM free versions of Psychonauts, and planned DRM free versions of the Double Fine Adventure? Will you be considering DRM free releases of future and/or existing Double Fine Titles?

Greg: We saw great success with the Humble Bundle that our new DRM free versions of Psychonauts for Mac and Linux launched in. Our fans love having the ability to play our games wherever they want however they want and we love pleasing our fans!


Where do you see Double Fine in two years' time?

Greg: With all the self-published games we're releasing I'm hoping that in two years we'll be totally self sustainable and will be working on all our own stuff!


And to finish off, what is your favourite game?

Greg: Is it kissing ass if I say Grim Fandango?


Thanks for your time, Greg and Nathan, and best of luck for The Cave's launch!



A note from cheese

A note from Cheese

Thanks for reading!

[1] I liked this so much that I needed to hint at how much I like it in a footnote.

[2] The forum thread mentioned is only available to supporters of the Double Fine Adventure's crowdfunding programmes. If you missed out on the Kickstarter campaign, you can still get onboard and gain access to the documentary, beta and full game (as well as a whole bunch of anciliary content on the forums) by visiting this page.

The keen eye may notice that this is one of my shorter interviews and also lacks community questions. With The Cave's release looming, Greg and Nathan's availability was pretty limited. I'm happy to wear responsibility though, as it took me a little longer than usual to get questions together. Apologies to everybody who submitted questions.

If you'd like to find out more about Double Fine, you can visit their website.

The Cave can be pre-ordered for Linux, Mac and Windows from Steam (at the time of writing, only Windows and Mac ).

You can email me at cheese@twolofbees.com

This interview was first published on the 18th of January 2013.