Asif Siddiky / Dabe Alan
Tim Schafer discusses possible ideas for Psychonauts 2, including the act of getting in YOUR head
So now that we’re this far out and looking back on all the versions and the ports and the history of it, how well did Psychonauts end up selling once everything is said and told?
Tim Schafer: Well it’s interesting. It sold about 400,000 copies which was not as much as we hoped it would sell, it’s not Ratchet and Clank, but it kept going on Steam and it’s been on Steam for a while and it was crazy when the publishing rights reverted back to us and we started making money off of Psychonauts and we’re like, “that’s weird, this game is really old and people are still buying it on Steam.” We had our first big sale and made a lot of money off of Steam. Every time we have a sale, I’m like, “that’s interesting.” This is part of the discussion about how it’s really hard to predict how well a sequel will do. The publishers are nervous about it because the first game is not famous for selling well, but I feel like it’s gotten in the hands of so many people since then from all the $2 sales on Steam, that it’s reached slowly over the years to more and more people. Or it’s just the same people buying it four times because they feel bad for us. Which I wouldn’t be surprised.
There’s also kind of this awareness thing you have going on now for Psychonauts that you didn’t have before. I don’t want to use the term infamous, but it’s a cult hit. Is there a way to kind of quantify that when you have these discussions about the future?
It’s interesting, it creates a lot of different things. It creates a backlash, there’s a lot of people who maybe just didn’t care for the game and now they’ve got to speak up and say why they didn’t care about it because why is everybody freaking out about this game? Sometimes there’s a movie like that where you’re just like, “I don’t get it, why does everyone talk about this movie?” And so sometimes we encounter that, but it’s a small price to pay. It's like making a Monkey Island game or something. You’re always gonna compete with people’s memories of the game, not the game itself, because the games just get better and better sometimes in the people’s memories. So that’s not necessarily a fair fight. I mean that’s a tough challenge, I’ve never been cursed with that opportunity, so far.
You’ve been through this really weird series of things and opportunities that have popped up in the past few months, but it seems like right before that hit a lot of people were getting the sense that you’ve kind of been ground down by the industry a little bit. Do you think that’s a fair assessment? Do you feel like you’re coming out of the tunnel into the light a little bit now creatively?
I don’t know why anyone would think I was ground down by the industry. I mean we did split into smaller groups that made smaller games so we were not riding that huge Brutal Legend wave anymore, not because we were ground down because we really just wanted to stay creative and stay risky. We always wanted to make games that were new. We like to make up new stuff that hasn’t been done before, and that’s always going to seem risky to a publisher and I realize that asking for twenty million dollars to make one of those, games publishers would ask more and more from me to remove the risky elements and stick to proven tropes like you said and we just didn’t want to do that. I was just dreading – I could just feel things becoming more and more conservative as games get more and more expensive, as people talk about the death of the middle and triple A games becoming quadruple A games. That’s starting to sound like a scream, like “Aaa aaaa!” As games get bigger and bigger you’re just gonna be able to take fewer and fewer risks and a new IP, I just fear for its future. And so making games that were smaller on platforms like XBLA and PSN just seemed like an exciting way to go. So it was really trying something new - I was not feeling ground down, I’m not saying I don’t need a vacation, but we’ve always been a very resilient company, and it’s here for the pleasure of making these games. Like the founding of the company was just because there was this game I wanna make, and as long as we’re able to make the games that we wanna make I don’t think we’d ever lose motivation or lose our belief in what we’re doing.
Assuming the stars aligned after the Kickstarter project and you’re given the chance to make a Psychonauts 2, how much of that are you kind of aware of in your head? How much of a game is there for you? Do you have it scripted out? Are there sketches anywhere?
I had this kind of three game story arc thing that I was always working with even during Psychonauts. Like here’s where I could tie it in this kind of circular, three game cycle. Not that that was set in stone, but there’s just an idea I had for it and put a couple hooks in the first game for it… or maybe just one hook, and there was also some just loose ideas about new brains, because you’re always thinking of new brains that you go into in Psychonauts. Every time you meet some new person, like what’s it like in Ben’s head? That’s a level. See how easy that is? What would it be like inside your head?
Are you asking?
Gosh, I don’t know, I think kind of the point is you don’t know what your own head would look like. I think you probably know what other people’s heads would look like.
I think the difference between what you think your head looks like and what it actually looks like would be a really interesting thing to explore. I always want – my dream was like I wish we could generate levels for Psychonauts on the fly that people would go online and take a personality test. What’s that – with the four letters?
Yeah, they take like a Myers-Briggs personality test and really focus on extra questions like “What animal are you most afraid of?” and “Tell us about your phobias,” and things you like and “Do you have any obsessions?” and it would take that and pull out from its bag of tricks and generate a level of Psychonauts that’s your mind. Which would be like, “You’re afraid of spiders? Here they are.” But use them in just the right way to – you know, based on your personality type, like if you’re a megalomaniac like every single level looks like you and you’re walking on your own face and every character looks like you, or just taking those personality types and turning them into levels, that would be an awesome thing to do I think. But hard.
Can you tell us what the hook was in the first game that we might have missed that you would have picked up for the second one or that you might?
I don’t know if I should say. Until I make it, until I make the connection with that hook some day. It’s very small.
Can you hint at it?
I think I mentioned this before that there is just this one vault where you’re inside of Raz’s mind and you’re seeing him in the circus and you’re seeing how he gets a pamphlet for Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp and he reads it and that’s where he gets the idea to run away from home. But he gets the pamphlet because he was handed it by some shadowy figure in the audience, and we never explained who that character is or why they gave Raz the pamphlet, and that’s what I’m talking about. Some day the story will be back to explain who that person was.
It’s crazy for you guys right now, right? I mean I have to imagine this is a pretty exhilarating time to be Tim Schafer.
It’s exciting to be at Double Fine, I mean everyone at Double Fine got so excited about it and I thought it was – you know, for a while it was just this little small thing that me and Greg and 2 Player, you know, we talked about with Ron and a couple people and it seemed like a really tiny, it was gonna be a really tiny thing, and we put it up. Even people who were not remotely involved in the project just felt excited and gathered in the conference room to watch the number going up ‘cause it was it was just, you know, it just felt like an outpouring of good will, like it just felt like a big vote of confidence and so it was a big shot in the arm to the team and a big – just a really fun thing to happen for the whole company.
Very cool. Well have a great rest of your day. I hope your teeth feel better. [Tim Schafer had just gotten back from having work done on his teeth before the interview]
And we’re really grateful and humble, did I mention that?
Grateful and humble, got it.
We are humbled in our gratitude, but anyway, yeah my teeth are feeling great, I’m on a lot of pain killers right now.