Bringing Sesame Street to the Xbox Wasn’t As Easy as 1-2-3

When Microsoft announced earlier this year that Double Fine would be making a Kinect-based Sesame Street game, many wondered if the developer studio behind Psychonauts and Brutal Legend were leaving their own original ideas behind for a lucrative license. But Nathan Martz, project lead on Sesame Street: Once Upon A Monster, says that it was just the opposite. The game that became Once Upon A Monster actually started internally at Double Fine as an independent project. That fact and more came to light when I e-mailed Martz some questions about the creation of the new Sesame Street game. He discusses how he and his Double Fine colleagues came to grips with creating a game that would star some of the most recognizable characters in the world and why even the worst kids' video games are triumphs of a sort.

Double Fine could ostensibly have done a Kinect game without anchoring it to the Sesame Street characters. What did the license make easier? What did it make harder?

That's true. In fact, OUAM was originally conceived as an original IP. The storybook world, the new monsters who live in it, and the core Kinect gameplay all predated our relationship with Sesame Workshop (though the storybook monsters were certainly inspired by Jim Henson).

Sesame Street made a few things easier. First off, it really helped make the game more visible, especially amongst non-gamer parents. Cookie and Elmo are famous the world around, and for a lot of mainstream media, the idea that they were coming to Kinect/Xbox 360 was big, interesting news. Sesame Street also gave us a curriculum and allowed us to be more educational than we'd originally intended to be. Both the curriculum and the great writers and educators at Sesame Workshop really gave the game educational depth it wouldn't have had otherwise. Lastly, Sesame Street gave us very memorable, funny companions for the journey. The original concept for OUAM was that all instruction and exposition would be given by a narrator. When we decided to partner with Sesame Street, we re-wrote that part for Cookie and Elmo, which guaranteed that all of the critical in game dialog would be memorable and funny.

Bringing Sesame Street to the Xbox Wasn’t As Easy as 1-2-3

The biggest challenge working with Sesame Street is the brand's visibility, not just commercially but politically and socially. There are plenty of huge brands out there, superheroes whose movies do hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue or sci-fi epics that sell boatloads of toys, but at the end of the day, only Elmo gets invited to the White House. The fact that Sesame Street is not just a commercial brand but a highly visible, mission-based cultural institution means that people inside and outside the Workshop scrutinize everything those characters do. Unfortunately, there are also people who would love to use them to justify political agendas like, for example, removing federal funding from public broadcasting. This exceptional level of visibility meant that we had to be extremely careful about virtually every aspect of the game. Sometimes that just meant we couldn't use a funny line we liked, but other times it meant big changes to story or gameplay to work around an issue someone somewhere might have a problem with. As creative people who have always owned our own IP and can basically do what we want with it this was a big adjustment for us. Thankfully, Double Fine, Warner Bros., and Sesame Workshop had a shared vision for what the game could be and, with a lot of hard work, were able to realize that vision in spite of all the challenges.

What are the most memorable Sesame Street/Muppets skits from your childhood? Did you try to pay homage to these sequences in any way?

Man, there are just way too many classic skits to count. It's hard to remember my favorite skits from childhood (being only four at the time), but as an adult my personal favorite is Mystery Box, with Kermit the Frog and Cookie Monster. It's a great example of comedic interplay between two memorable characters, how to pace a scene and just keep on ramping up the funny, and also of the great contrast between Cookie Monster's advanced vocabulary and his caveman grammar.

Bringing Sesame Street to the Xbox Wasn’t As Easy as 1-2-3

We constantly referenced Sesame Street during development. We used skits as reference for our writers of speaking style, cadence, vocabulary, etc. and for our animators to understand how the Muppets move, act, and even lip-sync. Pretty much the entire game is a Sesame Street homage, but there are a few direct skit references in OUAM. One of my favorites is Cookie's line in the intro of To Have and to Hug, where he says "Pshew, it's just a monster. Me thought it was something scary." That's a reference to an old Grover bit. Grover's outfit in the dance sequence at the end of The Greatest Party There Ever Wasn't is an homage to his suit in the Disco Alphabet song. We also work in a few references to Oscar's love of sardine sandwiches in From Seed to Sky.

I've just become a dad and I'm chomping at the bit to start playing games with my child. I have a personal canon of games that I feel like the kid will absolutely NEED to play for me to be a proud papa. To name a few: Metroid, Rez, Portal, Flower, BioShock. Do you and/or some of the folks at Double Fine have such lists for the kids in your lives?

Boy, that's a great question. It's really hard to think of a concise list. How many words can you dedicate to my answer? :) Most of us at Double Fine were part of that first generation to really grow up with video games, to play them from a very young age and at a very early stage of the medium's history. That makes for a very long list of great games. I think, as a parent, you want to share all of the best parts of your childhood with your kids, but the reality is that not everything translates that well. Video games, especially, often don't age well and, due to compatibility and copyright issues, are difficult to play years or decades after they are released. I think my approach, when the time comes, will be to try to make sure that my kids are playing current games, but good ones, ones worth playing. If their interest in games (or in my career :) grows beyond entertainment and they want to understand more about where these ideas came from, I'll be more than happy to fire up the 386, unbox the Atari 800 XL, and blow the dust out of my 8 bit cartridges to show them the great games that came before.

People who don't know better tend to think of video games as juvenilia or as inherently adolescent, but a high ratio of the actual games aimed at most kids tend to suck. Have you ever plodded through a game just to placate a young person? What kind of thoughts go through your head, from a design perspective about these less-than-stellar titles?

It's true that many people, especially in the US, equate video games with being disposable entertainment for kids. Unfortunately, as an industry, I don't think we do very much to prove that opinion wrong. Most games, even the ones with M ratings, are pretty intellectually immature. If you define maturity not in terms of how graphic the imagery is but how thought provoking or moving the experience is, very few games rise above the adolescence. It's a topic I think we should discuss more, but perhaps not the main question you were asking.

I've definitely played my fair share of not-so-good kids games, especially as early research for Once Upon a Monster. The thing that goes through my head when I play them is, honestly, that every time a game ships, even the really mediocre ones, it's kind of a miracle. For those who haven't done it, let me tell you that game development is extremely not-easy. Every day, there are dozens of obstacles that conspire against your game, from an executive staff shuffle at your publisher to big companies poaching your best programmers to changing consumer tastes to rabidly aggressive competitors to buggy hardware and the practical limits on your personal creativity and ingenuity. It's really hard. Very often, developers of kids games start out with the deck stacked against them, carrying the extra creative burden of a license on a much smaller budget than "regular" games and with aggressive deadlines to boot. No developer at any company sets out to make a mediocre game, but there's also only so much you can do to change your circumstances. Given how heavily the deck is stacked against many kids and family developers, people who make budget kids games really deserve a lot more credit than they get.

It's also important to mention that most kids/family games are given low budgets and licenses not because publishers think "kids are dumb and won't know any better" but because the historical sales trends for that category of game make it really hard to make a profit on anything other than a shoestring budget. It's easy to blame publishers, but honestly, consumers shoulder a lot of the blame too. Anyone who has played a competitive multiplayer game recently with voice chat on knows that there are a lot of parents buying M rated games for their 8 and 10 year olds. If more of those dollars went towards age appropriate, original kids games then I think you'd see publishers rush to raise the bar (and budget) on games in that category.

In fact, these are all reasons why I'm personally extremely grateful that Warner Bros. shared our vision of a really high quality family game, and were willing to support that vision with great people, marketing, PR, and of course money and time. They really deserve a lot of credit for taking such a big risk on this kind of game, and I hope that it continues to do well not just for our sake but so that more publishers see the value in taking similar risks in the future. Our industry desperately needs it.

There is a legacy of fondly remembered kids' games-Oregon Trail, Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?-but they've mostly been educational. How did they inform what you tried to do with Once Upon a Monster?

Ahh, yeah. The games from the golden years of edutainment. Like most people in our generation, I played all of those games growing up, but to be honest, I can't say that they had a big impact on Once Upon a Monster, except perhaps that they all share a spirit of trying to use games in a positive, pro-social way. If anything, these games served as a counterpoint to our goals on Once Upon a Monster. They helped us understand that while OUAM has educational elements, we really didn't see it as edutainment, as a game that was about education first and entertainment second.

Sesame Street's known for having great pedagogical structure underneath all the fun. What will kids learn from playing Once Upon a Monster?

Bringing Sesame Street to the Xbox Wasn’t As Easy as 1-2-3

Certainly that ability to be entertaining and educational at the same time is one of Sesame Street's great gifts. As I said earlier, Once Upon a Monster is not primarily educational, and it's certainly never didactic, but we felt like it would be wrong to make a Sesame Street game without having any educational material what so ever. We also wanted to use curriculum that was as age-agnostic as possible (traditional numeracy and literacy are extremely age/grade level specific). Fortunately, Sesame Workshop introduced us to their Whole Child Curriculum, which is all about what we like to call Life Lessons for All Ages. The lessons are about things like empathy, friendship, identifying emotions, cooperation, sharing, an appreciation for the natural world, etc. Basically, it's all the important things you learn growing up that aren't in a textbook. Each chapter in Once Upon a Monster deals with some of these themes, and we worked very closely with both educators and writers at SW to make sure that our material really worked with their educational aims in this area.

Was there ever a golden age for non-educational video games aimed at kids? What games would you throw in there? What will it take to create a new golden age?

That's a really good question. I'd have to say that the golden age of for kids games was the 8-bit and the 16-bit era (NES, SNES, Genesis, etc), maybe a bit before that with the Atari 2600. Those early console games used very few buttons, which made them super accessible, and their limited, sprite-based graphics encouraged more playful, bright aesthetics rather than the dark, hyper realistic ultra-violence that dominates a lot of gaming these days.

I think just maybe we're actually just starting a new golden age, thanks to smart phones and tablet computing. Touch interfaces are just amazingly intuitive, probably the easiest video game interface since the one button Atari joysticks of 30 years ago. I know so many parents who have 16 month olds, kids who are still barely talking, that know how to navigate their iPad UI, launch an app, and play it. It's pretty crazy. Also, the hardware and distribution channels for these devices are really developer friendly. They have much lower barriers to entry than modern console gaming, which means there's literally a whole world of developers who are creating amazing, original, games for people of all ages. I'm very optimistic that the combination of these extremely intuitive devices and open, developer friendly environments will create the perfect opportunity for a great new generation of kids games.

Costume Quest reminded me so much of a really good kids' show where there's stuff in it that's meant to ping off of both kids' and adults' brains. Was there anything you guys learned with that game that was also applied to Once Upon a Monster?

It's easy to label Costume Quest and Once Upon a Monster as "kids games" but internally we always thought of them as family games, as games that were for people of all ages, games that parents and kids could play together. Both games use humor, especially in dialog, to keep the adults engaged while using simple controls and a forgiving design to accommodate the needs of inexperienced gamers (like young kids or non-gamer parents). Lastly, both Tasha and I like wanted to make games whose overall aesthetic and emotional tone was positive/uplifting, and you can really see that in the character designs, color palletes, and animation style.