Pitching a "Creative" Game
Schafer says during the pitching (and re-pitching) of sleeper hit Psychonauts, the word "creative" was oftentimes said as a slur. "People would just kinda be like, 'Oh, it's very creative.' And it really seemed like the more you could make your game seem more like something else or more derivative of something else, the more comfortable they would be with it."
The problem, he says, is publishers don't want derivative junk, either. More often, he says, a game will start out creative and have the edges gradually rounded off by an extended vetting process, but he's still optimistic about the opportunities for creative design. He says you just have to want it more. "You're going to be expressing to somebody why this is a good risk of their money," he says. "So you have to really believe, yourself, that it's good risk of money, and you have to figure out why you think it's going to be a big hit."
Belief factors heavily into Schafer's worldview. He says even the best ideas can eventually be killed in committee, which is part of why he decided to start his own studio. "What's going to happen a lot," he says, "is that someone goes to a publisher with a really creative idea, and the publisher goes, 'OK, we like it, except we don't like these three things.' And those three things may be the most important things to the developer, but depending on where they are, if their company is running out of money, and they want to stay in business, they just have to say yes. They'll say, 'OK, we'll cut out those cool parts.' Sometimes you'll do anything to keep your company afloat."
So with companies churning out carbon-copy, unoriginal games and whittling down creative offerings to a shadow of their former selves, does Schafer feel that the industry is in a slump? "Well, there have always been bad games," he says. "I don't know if there are really more now than there were before."
What he does know, however, is that it's much easier for a game to be whittled down or stamped out, and that the reason boils down to one word: risk. "If you're a publisher that's a public company," he says, "and you have to be responsible to your shareholders every quarter, you have to justify a decision you made that sounded risky. Like, if you lost a lot of money for your company and it looks like you took a risk ... you'd be in big trouble. So it's easier for people at big companies to make the least risky move possible."