The first Psychonauts is a classic. Its easily one of the most creative and interesting games to ever come out, and still stands as one of the funniest games ever released. It’s writing transcended its otherwise terrible gameplay, and its originality catapulted it into legend.
While the announcement was surprising, the idea of bringing back Psychonauts for a sequel isn’t, and so at the 2015 Video Game Awards, Tim Schafer came out and announced his pitch. A $3.3 million dollar Fig campaign to get Psychonauts 2. The game will continue the story of Raz from the first game as he visits Psychonaut headquarters and discovers its sinister secrets. Like the first game it’ll feature traveling into the minds of various characters and doing battle with their psyche, all while piecing together the larger hidden mystery.
All of that sounds great, sure, but here’s the thing: Double Fine is sort of the last company we should be trusting with our money at this point. Wait, put down that pitchfork and listen, Tim Schafer and co. are really, really bad with money, and it’s time they learned this the hard way.
Let’s start at the beginning. After years of relative success Double Fine found themselves unable to secure funding for an upcoming passion project of in-house artist Nathan Stapley. The point-and-click adventure genre was deemed far to risky an investment. They turned to Kickstarter, and managed to raise an insanely impressive $3.3 million dollars, with much of that raised in the first few days. This blew the project out of the water, considering the original goal was $400,000. Obviously the final product needed to be adjusted to consider this, since releasing a $400,000 budget title for $3.3 million would be, at best, underwhelming.
Not an edit.
The game, originally titled Double Fine Adventure was renamed to Broken Age and the voice cast expanded to include Elijah Wood, Jennifer Hale, and Wil Wheaton, among others. The game was to be a classic point-and-click adventure title, a la Shafer’s early work like Grim Fandango, Day of the Tentacle, or Full Throttle. With a cast like that, and $3.3 million dollars, what could go wrong?
A lot, since they ran out of money completely.
Double Fine had to start a second Kickstarter for a separate game, plus release Broken Age in two halves, plus release an early access title just to deliver the final product. Massive Chalice was funded for $1.2 million dollars, and released June 1st of 2015, in what some players call a buggy, boring, and unpolished state, despite it’s massive price tag. There’s been some argument over where the $1.2 million was actually spent, and how much effort was really put into Massive Chalice.
Double Fine’s other attempt was SpaceBase DF-9, currently the best advertisement for avoiding Early Access. DF-9 was set to be a Dwarf Fortress clone in space, similar to the still in development Maia. However it sold terribly, and eventually Double Fine gave up and released the barely alpha product as the 1.0, along with the source code for it. Their reasoning was that if the community wanted to they could save the game, but Double Fine was done with it. It’s hard not to think that’s a greasy move, and the result is a staggering 23% user rating on Steam.
Did this really cost $15 million?
All of this fits with what Activision’s Bobby Kotick said about Schafer during the development of Brutal Legend. Kotick commented that Schafer was often late with updates and missed nearly every milestone, and overspent way to much. Schafer’s response was to insult Kotick, and transfer the IP to EA. Activision sued Double Fine, saying they had dumped $15 million into the unfinished product. Eventually Brutal Legend was released by EA, with the suit and subsequent counter-suit by Double Fine were settled out of court.
Given Broken Age’s development time and monetary woes, however, it seems Kotick was on the ball. The fact is Double Fine doesn’t know how to manage time or resources, and it shows. When they do make a good game, it goes insanely over budget, and when they meet a budget the game comes out half baked. They bounced around from publisher to publisher, burning bridges nearly everywhere, and now they’re trying to milk nostalgia for another game. They’ve gotten $3.3 million before, and it’s almost a guarantee that it won’t be enough again.
It’s not that Psychonauts 2 doesn’t deserve to be made. The original often appears on lists of games requiring a sequel, but letting Double Fine have complete control of the project might not be the best way to go about it. The fact is, it seems Schafer needs someone else managing the time and money, someone needs to play the bad guy. Left to their own devices there’s a really good chance this project will go south.
The fact is, that Psychonauts 2 would need to sell nearly 700,000 copies in order to just break even. That’s a really risky investment from any view, and it makes supporting this project hard to recommend. Of course, crowd-funding means that the game can be made regardless of financial risk, since the investors are anyone that donates, but anyone with knowledge of finances can see this isn’t a great way to operate. Yes, the original game is beloved, and it’s managed to move over a million copies, but many of those, an estimated 70% were via Humble Bundles, meaning the return was minimal, if there was any at all. Simply put, the return on investment for this project would get thrown out of a pitch on Dragon’s Den.
It’s worth noting that this isn’t the first appearance of Psychonauts 2, since it was teased earlier this year. The report was that Minecraft creater Markus “Notch” Persson was interested in funding the project. Apparently there were even meetings about it between Persson and Schafer. Why did that funding fall through? According to Persson he was willing to invest up to $2 million, and he’s a super fan of the original. Double Fine wanted $18 million, nine times what Persson offered and still six times their current Fig campaign is trying to raise. Speaking on Reddit, Notch said he wasn’t willing to invest in something like that, at least not at this moment.
There’s a month left as of this writing, and the project already has over 25% backing. People vote with their wallets, and if they decided to buy into Double Fine again, that’s their prerogative. Maybe this will go better, and Psychonauts 2 will live up to the example of the first one and be a smashing success. All we can do now is watch and wait.