Psychonauts and Double Fine's Relentless Experimentation

Psychonauts is one of my favorite games of all time, the story of a psychic summer camp for kids, a government conspiracy, and love story rolled into one. The writing is funny and sweet, the characters and world wildly memorable, with some of the most inventive and innovative level design I’ve ever seen.

I first linked to the Psychonauts demo a week before its release in April 2005, and it still holds up incredibly well. If you’ve never played it, it’s deeply discounted on Steam in a $20 bundle with Broken Age, Grim Fandango Remastered, Brutal Legend, Costume Quest, and a bunch of other great Double Fine games for the ridiculous price for the next 16 hours. Or just pick it up for $10 normally.

It’s a miracle the game was ever released at all. As Double Fine’s first game, its development was notoriously fraught with major obstacles — a neverending crunch mode over 4.5 years of development, cancelled funding, and multiple near-death experiences. In the end, the game was released to critical acclaim and relatively weak sales, but built a deep and obsessive cult following over the last decade, eventually selling 1.7 million copies.

To commemorate the launch of their new campaign to fund its sequel, Double Fine and 2 Player Productions made a 50-minute short about the history of Psychonauts. It’s an incredible archive of Tim Schafer’s unseen video footage, design thinking, and interviews with the team talking about their experience making the game, good and bad.

Double Fine, more than any indie studio I know, is defined by its willingness to keep pushing itself to try new things. Some of these experiments work and some fall flat, with other indies able to watch and learn from the sidelines.

Their Kickstarter project for Broken Age paved the way for many other indie game developers and fans to use crowdfunding, and they documented it all in public with the Double Fine Adventure documentary, one of the best accounts of making anything ever, entirely free on YouTube. Their Amnesia Fortnight project, first internal and later public, encouraged experimentation within a team. Their Steam Early Access projects are perhaps the most controversial, with the cancellation of one game, though even that’s found a life of its own.

And, now, with the Psychonauts 2 campaign on Fig, they’re testing the waters for equity crowdfunding: the ability for members of the public to get a financial return on a crowdfunding project, rather than rewards alone.

(As a Kickstarter advisor and shareholder, I’m biased, but I have concerns about equity crowdfunding for indies. If you think backers feel entitled now, wait until they’re expecting a financial return.)

But I admire Double Fine for pushing everything forward, and I’m excited to see the results of their experiment. I supported the Double Fine Adventure, and of the 229 projects I’ve backed on Kickstarter, it’s still my personal favorite. I have my signed poster, backer shirt, and I played and loved Broken Age. But it was worth it for the documentary alone, seeing every exciting and painful moment of making the game with the people behind it.

So, of course, I backed the Psychonauts 2 project and I can’t wait to see what happens. If you want to come along for the ride, you can still back the project until January 12.

As a side note, I played a teeny, tiny role in this story.

Five years ago, when Kickstarter was only a year old and two years before Notch made headlines with a tweet, I read this Joystiq article by Justin McElroy, writing that Tim Schafer was open to making Psychonauts 2 if he could find a willing publisher.

I freaked out, asked my friend Brandon Boyer for an email intro, and sent this email to Tim Schafer on November 12, 2010.

Tim: Huge, huge fan of your work. I recently replayed Psychonauts, DOTT, and MI 1 and 2 with my six-year-old son. Just as good as I remembered.

Anyway, I showed the Joystiq article to the Kickstarter team and we’re all freaking out about the prospects of what Psychonauts 2 on Kickstarter might look like. Jamin from Kill Screen’s at the Kickstarter office right now and they’re all talking about it.

Going directly to fans to pre-sell the game before it exists sounds insane, but it’s very possible. It’s an incredible promotional tool, a great way to show there’s a market for the game to publishers, and doesn’t involve any kind of investment or preclude any kind of future publisher arrangements. And, of course, Kickstarter would promote the hell out of it to the community.

I’d love to introduce you to the team and answer any questions you might have, if you’d even *remotely* consider this.

I never heard back, but three years later, I invited Tim Schafer to speak at XOXO. There, for the first time, I heard the story of what happened after he received my email, the conversation that it kicked off internally at Double Fine with his business manager, and how it eventually led to the record-breaking Double Fine Adventure project. (The story starts at 17:30.)

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