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Tim Schafer on the return of a cult classic: ‘Soon all games will be Psychonauts’

Tim Schafer on the return of a cult classic: ‘Soon all games will be Psychonauts’


A decade later and the series is just getting started

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Psychonauts is back. Ten years after the original was released, the cult classic game is making its return in the form of both a crowdfunded sequel and a virtual reality spinoff for Sony’s upcoming PlayStation VR headset. The first game was never a massive hit, with modest sales after release, but it proved to be something of a late bloomer: between 2005 and 2010 it sold just under 480,000 copies, and that number jumped to 1.2 million over the following five years.

"It’s the kind of game where it really depends on word of mouth, because it’s hard to explain to people what’s special about it," Double Fine’s Tim Schafer says of the game’s resurgence. "It just takes a while for that kind of information to get out there."

Released in 2005, Psychonauts was the first game from Double Fine, a new studio formed by Schafer, who was best known for classic adventure games like Monkey Island and Grim Fandango. Psychonauts was something different: instead of a point-and-click game for PC, it was an action-adventure designed for consoles. But it still maintained the trademark humor and charm that Schafer’s games were known for.

Psychonauts told the story of Raz, a young boy who runs away from the circus to join a summer camp for kids with psychic powers, who can "enter" the phantasmagorical worlds inside other people’s minds. Each level took place in a dream world inside a character’s own head, leading to a spectacularly diverse and strange set of locations to explore; one moment you’re venturing through a twisted take on suburbia, the next a hellish butcher shop. Think of it like Inside Out, but a lot weirder. The sequel, which is still in the pre-production phase, continues Raz’s story as he ventures into the titular headquarters of a group of psychic super agents. Not only is Schafer returning, but the original voice cast is also on board, as are other key parts of the team, including writer Erik Wolpaw (who went on to work for Valve on the Portal series) and artist Scott Campbell.

In order to create the sequel, Double Fine is once again turning to crowdfunding. The studio created Kickstarter’s first blockbuster game with Broken Age, a classic-style point-and-click adventure that raised a then-record $3.3 million. But for Psychonauts 2, the studio is turning to a new platform: Fig, a crowdfunding service that turns backers into investors, earning them a share of any profits it might make. After less than a week the game has already raised more than $2.1 million, far outpacing Broken Age.

"I think people are going to want to know how we plan to make money from this game."

Profit-sharing was something Schafer had always wanted to try, he says, but it wasn’t until the JOBS act made it legal, and Fig launched, that it became possible. "Ever since we started crowdfunding, I really believed in the mission of Kickstarter and supporting the arts and enabling creative people to do their work," he says. "But you start to hit a ceiling where, if you’re getting a certain amount of money, it starts to get hard. Because you’re really asking for a lot of money, and it brings up this awkward question of, you’re investing so much money, what happens if this thing turns out to be huge? What if it’s a big hit and you get rich? Where does that leave the backers?"

For a developer as prominent as Schafer, crowdfunding forces a new level of transparency — "You can’t just take the money and run," he says — and Double Fine embraced that for Broken Age with a documentary series that provided an unparalleled look at what goes on behind the scenes of game development. It’s something the studio is doing once again for Psychonauts 2; in fact, 2 Player Productions has already started filming in these early stages. But the added wrinkle of backers also being investors means that the studio has to be even more open this time.

"With rewards-based crowdfunding, we only really had to show them creatively what we’re doing," says Schafer. "Now that we have investors, we’re going to be transparent about talking about our business plan, too. I think people are going to want to know how we plan to make money from this game. Before they weren’t interested in that; they wanted the game to be successful, but they weren’t asking questions about profitability, and now they will be."

Psychonauts 2 isn’t the only game in the franchise on the way. At PlayStation Experience this past weekend, Double Fine also revealed its first VR game, called Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin. It’s a stand-alone spinoff and, according to Schafer, it was a perfect fit for the studio for a few reasons. For one thing, Double Fine seems to love to experiment with new technologies, having already released several games for Microsoft’s Kinect motion control camera. VR also makes a lot of sense for a game about letting players explore bizarre new places.

"The team is kind of bonded to it for life."

"Our main thing is making crazy worlds and dropping the player into unique environments, and I think VR does that really effortlessly," Schafer explains. "We were looking at what we could do [with VR] and thinking about Psychonauts a lot, and it just seemed like instead of doing some abstract experience, can we do this narrative thing we’ve been honing for years. That’s what we do as a company."

Over the 10 years since Psychonauts first launched, Schafer has kept a Google doc filled with ideas. Whenever he meets someone new, someone with a strange obsession or fear, he jots it down just in case it would make a good level for the game. "I’d write it down even though we weren’t technically working on it," he says. Double Fine has released a lot of games since, but there’s something about that debut release that made it stick with the studio. "When you work really hard on a game," says Schafer, "the team is kind of bonded to it for life." And as long as his ever-growing document of ideas doesn’t run out, this probably won’t be the last we see of the series, either.

"It’s the age of Psychonauts," says Schafer. "Soon all games will be Psychonauts."