Ig­nored to adored: how Dou­ble Fine’s trou­bled de­but made a spec­tac­u­lar come­back



Dou­ble Fine’s founder and CEO, Tim Schafer, is a happy man. When we speak, the crowd­fund­ing cam­paign for Psy­cho­nauts 2 has just ended, rais­ing $3.8 mil­lion. It’s now a lit­tle over ten years since the re­lease of its pre­de­ces­sor, a game that came alarm­ingly close to never see­ing the light of day. That’s a long wait for a se­quel, but Psy­cho­nauts is an ex­cep­tional case, hav­ing found it­self in the hands of twice as many play­ers in the past five years as its first half-decade.

Still, that’s a decade of fans clam­our­ing for a fol­low-up. Is Dou­ble Fine do­ing this, we ask, sim­ply to shut ev­ery­body up? Schafer laughs heartily. “In a way, it was a ter­ri­ble fail­ure, be­cause now they’re just ask­ing for Bru­tal

Leg­end 2. Which is good! It’s a good prob­lem to have. If peo­ple like some­thing they like to ask for more, and it’s not al­ways the right thing to do to give them more be­cause what they re­ally liked is what you did the first time, which is make some­thing up from scratch. Psy­cho­nauts is kind of the ex­cep­tion – there’s more story to tell.”

He’s right: there is much more to tell about a game whose rep­u­ta­tion has grown over time, with con­sis­tently en­thu­si­as­tic word-of-mouth turn­ing what was orig­i­nally per­ceived as a fail­ure into an un­likely suc­cess. It may have taken longer than an­tic­i­pated, but this strik­ingly funny and in­ven­tive plat­form ad­ven­ture has fi­nally amassed a pas­sion­ate au­di­ence, one that Dou­ble Fine had been told dur­ing fo­cus test­ing would prob­a­bly elude it. “They’d just say, ‘It’s got some prob­lems,’” Schafer tells us, “namely the hu­mour and the sum­mer camp [set­ting]. So they wanted us to make it not funny and not set in a sum­mer camp.” He laughs again.

Yet a happy end­ing for Dou­ble Fine had looked all but im­pos­si­ble in 2004. Psy­cho­nauts had been in de­vel­op­ment for four years when orig­i­nal pub­lisher Mi­crosoft dropped the game, and Schafer had failed to find an­other buyer. He stood up in front of the whole com­pany, then num­ber­ing around 30 em­ploy­ees, and had to tell them that the fol­low­ing week’s pay­roll would be the last one. “My throat got all twisted up and I couldn’t talk any more,” he re­mem­bers. “Be­cause we’d put ev­ery­thing we had into the game. We’d worked our asses off in crunch mode and now it was go­ing to die and no one would ever see this game we made. It was all go­ing to be for noth­ing and this whole com­pany was for noth­ing. It was just too much. I couldn’t even speak, and we just sat there in si­lence for a long time.” Schafer even­tu­ally told his staff they could all stay and get their CVs to­gether, be­fore head­ing back to his desk, de­spon­dent.

It was a par­tic­u­larly bit­ter blow, as by that time Psy­cho­nauts had rep­re­sented a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of Schafer’s ca­reer. Dou­ble Fine was founded in 2000 and it was now 2004. But the ini­tial seeds of an idea were sown dur­ing his time at Lu­casArts al­most ten years ear­lier, dur­ing the mak­ing of Full Throt­tle. “I’ve al­ways been in­ter­ested in psy­chol­ogy and the idea of go­ing on an in­ter­ac­tive vi­sion of some kind,” Schafer says. He con­ceived an in­ter­ac­tive pey­ote trip, where pro­tag­o­nist Ben would take the psy­choac­tive drug be­fore hik­ing into the desert on a vi­sion quest. Lu­casArts, al­ready con­cerned about the neg­a­tive im­age sur­round­ing biker gangs, wasn’t keen on the idea. “They ba­si­cally thought I was go­ing make Sons Of An­ar­chy way ahead of its time,” Schafer re­calls. “And that was not the kind of biker story I wanted to tell. I wanted to tell a more ro­man­ti­cised [story], like a pirate ad­ven­ture or a samu­rai movie. But I think go­ing for a drug ref­er­ence in Full Throt­tle was just too much for a fam­ily com­pany.”

At the turn of the mil­len­nium, with his own com­pany, Schafer was fi­nally able to pur­sue a more dar­ing idea and con­ceived the no­tion of a boot camp for gifted young­sters with psy­chic pow­ers. This wasn’t to be the kind of ad­ven­ture game with which he had made his name, but work­ing in an un­fa­mil­iar genre was less about a de­sire to step out­side his com­fort zone and more to do with the games he was play­ing at the time. “I made ad­ven­ture games be­cause I was play­ing a ton of text ad­ven­tures: I loved Zork, I played ev­ery­thing In­fo­com [re­leased], so it made sense I would make ad­ven­ture games. What first drew me to [3D plat­form­ers] was Su­per Mario 64, and then Fi­nal Fan­tasy VII and the first Tomb

Raider. By then, it had started to feel a lit­tle fid­dly to have to point and click – to se­lect ‘open’ and click on a door to walk to the door and then go through it. I wanted to make a game that was still [about] puz­zles, in­ven­tory and di­a­logue, but have the in­ter­face be less fid­dly.”

Schafer knew he had an un­usual idea, and wasn’t sure how he was go­ing to pitch it. But he soon found a sym­pa­thetic ear. Af­ter de­liv­er­ing a speech at GDC, he was ap­proached by Mi­crosoft’s Ed Fries, who was seek­ing to ex­pand the Xbox port­fo­lio. Fries promptly in­vited Schafer to a party for speak­ers at the event. “He gave me this lit­tle ping-pong ball with an X on it that was his call­ing card at the time, and he started talk­ing about games as art, and that was some­thing I had al­ways been push­ing for.” Schafer re­veals, too, that he also ap­proached Sony, but Mi­crosoft’s terms proved more favourable. Sony, aware that this was new ter­ri­tory for Schafer, wanted to first see a de­tailed de­sign doc­u­ment for a level be­fore con­sid­er­ing Dou­ble Fine’s pitch. “Whereas Mi­crosoft were like, ‘Here are mil­lions of dol­lars – we’d like to go,’” Schafer dead­pans. “I mean, they did due dili­gence – ‘We want to meet your team, we want to know what your ex­pe­ri­ence is’ – but they were more ready to go [for it] than Sony.” Not that he blames Sony, con­ced­ing the pub­lisher was right to be con­cerned about the stu­dio’s lack of ex­pe­ri­ence. “I was pitch­ing to Dave Jaffe at Sony, who wasn’t the God Of War guy at the time. And [Jaffe and I] joke about that a lot. I’m like, ‘You were prob­a­bly right, but that doesn’t mean I should’ve dealt with you guys. Who knows what would’ve hap­pened?’”

Hav­ing struck a deal with Mi­crosoft, Dou­ble Fine set to work. Th­ese were uncharted wa­ters

for Schafer: hav­ing been part of an ex­pe­ri­enced team pro­fi­cient in its genre us­ing a fa­mil­iar en­gine, he found him­self lead­ing a fledg­ling team fac­ing a steep learn­ing curve, with much still to learn. It was al­ready an am­bi­tious pro­ject: in­spired by Michel An­cel’s work on Ray­man 2, Schafer en­vi­sioned a game where ev­ery level would of­fer some­thing new, not just a fresh aes­thetic. “I don’t want to name names,” he says, “but in so many games you ar­rive on the scene, the theme of the level is ex­plained, there’s a bar­rier, you find a switch, you throw the switch, a bunch of plat­forms ap­pear and you go for­ward – and that’s re­peated over and over again.”

All of this proved time-con­sum­ing: staffers worked sep­a­rately on in­di­vid­ual game me­chan­ics, but it was a while be­fore they could be as­sem­bled into some­thing tan­gi­ble. Fries of­fered as much sup­port as he could, but an in­creas­ingly anx­ious Mi­crosoft, it­self a rel­a­tively in­ex­pe­ri­enced pub­lisher in the con­sole space, be­gan to de­mand more ev­i­dence of progress from the stu­dio. “There’s a neg­a­tive cy­cle you can get into with pub­lish­ers where if you’re strug­gling for any rea­son, they start try­ing to quote-un­quote ‘help’,” Schafer says. “They end up putting a kind of tax on you, be­cause they want you to pro­duce more doc­u­ments to ease their worry that you’re mess­ing up. So you cre­ate more doc­u­ments to show you’re not and you go on th­ese side cour­ses and make spe­cial demos for them, and it all starts to put more and more of a bur­den on the pro­ject and makes things worse, not bet­ter.”

Even­tu­ally, the prob­lems came to a head and Mi­crosoft asked for a ver­ti­cal slice, task­ing Dou­ble Fine with mak­ing a com­plete level and prov­ing that the game was go­ing to be fun to play. The stage cho­sen was Black Vel­ve­topia, a daz­zlingly colour­ful Span­ish city pa­trolled by a ram­pag­ing, neon-pink bull. Ev­ery­one at the stu­dio was happy with the re­sults. And Mi­crosoft? “They agreed!” Schafer says. “They said, ‘It’s fun – we’re go­ing to keep go­ing with your game. We’ll give you the ex­tra money – we think this is worth it.’ And then, just months af­ter that, Ed Fries left.” Fries’ re­place­ment was quick to jus­tify his ap­point­ment, can­celling seven projects.

Psy­cho­nauts was, of course, one of them. If the sit­u­a­tion seemed dis­as­trous, for a time it was also lib­er­at­ing: now Dou­ble Fine could work on the game with­out any kind of pub­lisher in­ter­fer­ence. Re­moved from the pres­sure to prove it­self, it could sim­ply keep it­er­at­ing on the game, so by the time it was ready to pitch again, it would be in a health­ier po­si­tion – par­tic­u­larly fromm the stand­point of a po­ten­tial pub­lisher. “They would im­me­di­ately be able to see it was great and just want us to fin­ish it,” Schafer says.

Find­ing a part­ner, how­ever, proved more dif­fi­cult than an­tic­i­pated. Many pub­lish­ers ex­pressed their ad­mi­ra­tion for Psy­cho­nauts, but Schafer soon be­gan to sense when a ‘no’ was im­mi­nent. “One by one, they all said the same

thing. We’d pitch it and we’d be ter­ri­fied to hear the words, ‘Oh, that’s very cre­ative,’ be­cause that was a sign that they weren’t go­ing to sign it.” An ad­jec­tive stu­dios would wel­come in a re­view was poi­son from an in­vestor, be­cause it meant pas­sion pro­ject, not mon­eyspin­ner. “We thought be­ing cre­ative, be­ing new, was [good]. Look at all the big­gest hits, all the re­ally big fran­chises in games: when they first came out they were ex­tremely cre­ative. GTA broke tons of ground, Tomb

Raider... They weren’t de­riv­a­tive games, you know? Peo­ple shouldn’t fear cre­ativ­ity the way they do. I mean, there are tons of de­riv­a­tive games that don’t sell very well at all. I think the idea that if you play it safe you can make more money isn’t nec­es­sar­ily true.”

Things were look­ing bleak as pub­lisher af­ter pub­lisher passed, but at the 11th hour a saviour ap­peared to have been found. “One pub­lisher was re­ally in­ter­ested,” Schafer tells us. “We had one great meet­ing af­ter an­other, they re­ally liked us and wanted to do it, and then they said, ‘We’re go­ing to have one more ap­proval meet­ing.’” But Dou­ble Fine couldn’t wait: it had just about run out of money. The pub­lisher asked for the stu­dio’s bank de­tails to wire the money as soon as the deal was signed, and while Schafer was re­lieved, this didn’t help with the im­me­di­ate prob­lem of pay­ing his staff. He found a gen­er­ous friend to loan him $250,000, which would just about cover the next pay­roll, be­fore the pub­lisher called back with bad news. The deal was not go­ing ahead.

Af­ter in­form­ing his staff and sit­ting back down at his desk, Schafer be­gan to leaf through the un­read emails in the com­pany’s generic ‘info@’ inbox. Among a se­ries of spam emails he spot­ted a mis­sive from Ma­jesco, of­fer­ing to pub­lish the game. Schafer raced from his of­fice: “I said, ‘Don’t quit, you guys! Things are look­ing up!’” Rel­a­tively speak­ing, de­vel­op­ment was plain sail­ing there­after. “This is a re­ally strange anal­ogy,” Schafer says, “but have you ever dated some­one where you fight a lot and you keep mak­ing each other change? And they keep mak­ing you change, and you be­come a bet­ter boyfriend or girl­friend be­cause of all the de­mands, but then there’s all th­ese hard feel­ings be­cause they asked you to make all th­ese changes. Then you break up and you do all those new things for the next per­son you’re dat­ing, and they just think you’re great.”

Keen not to in­ter­fere, Ma­jesco let Dou­ble Fine get on with fin­ish­ing the game, which fi­nally launched in April 2005, to a pos­i­tive re­sponse from play­ers and crit­ics. Yet his­tory would record it as a flop, with wide­spread re­ports of just 100,000 copies sold and Ma­jesco suf­fer­ing se­vere fi­nan­cial dif­fi­cul­ties as a re­sult. It’s a rep­u­ta­tion Schafer is keen to re­dress, not­ing the first run of around 400,000 copies sold through, al­beit not all at full price. “I was pretty happy it sold that many, but the story out there was that it was a flop and that was re­ally frus­trat­ing for us. Even peo­ple who were sup­port­ers of the game liked [that nar­ra­tive] so much they ex­ag­ger­ated the flop­pi­ness of it, be­cause they like that un­der­dog story: ‘Look! No one ap­pre­ci­ates great art!’ I mean, of all the things you could talk about with Psy­cho­nauts, were its sales re­ally the most im­por­tant, ex­cit­ing story to tell?”

Psy­cho­nauts’ own story cap­ti­vated enough play­ers that Dou­ble Fine reac­quired the rights from Ma­jesco in 2011 and has sup­ported it ever since: just last month it patched the PC ver­sion of f the game to make the in­fa­mously chal­leng­ing Meat Cir­cus level a shade eas­ier. Lit­tle won­der so many peo­ple have been happy to in­vest in the se­quel, for which Schafer and Dou­ble Fine are now much bet­ter pre­pared. “This time we’re start­ing from a much more in­formed po­si­tion,” he says. “With Psy­cho­nauts, we threw a bunch of me­chan­ics to­gether from games we liked at the time. Now we know what Psy­cho­nauts is, and we just want to make a bet­ter one.”

Raz’s de­sign dif­fers sig­nif­i­cantly from that of orig­i­nal pro­tag­o­nist D’Art, who can be seen in the fi­nal scene




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