As a part of our Psychonauts 2 cowl story, we had the possibility to speak to greater than a dozen individuals who had a hand within the historical past of Double Superb Productions. This text initially ran in Recreation Informer difficulty 336, however we’re republishing it on our web site in anticipation of Psychonauts 2’s upcoming August 25 launch. To see extra of our unique protection, make sure that to take a look at our rapid-fire interview with Double Superb founder Tim Schafer, a brand new Psychonauts 2 stage, and our inside take a look at how the sport is dealing with conversations round psychological well being.
Tim Schafer was on a glacier someplace in Nepal, pondering he was going to die, when he determined to stop his job and located his personal firm.
Not too lengthy earlier than, some pals (he doesn’t say who) prompt all of them go away their positions at LucasArts, the sport division of Lucasfilm, to start out a brand new firm. However Schafer, who doesn’t like “worrying about shopping for printer paper and bathroom paper,” says he was hesitant to take them up on the provide.
“I simply need to make the video games; I don’t need to fear in regards to the constructing and all that stuff,” he says, laughing.
Three weeks in Nepal later, after a “grueling journey,” as he places it, Schafer began to vary his thoughts. “One thing on that journey, I used to be like, ‘I feel after I get again, I’m going to stop and I’m going to start out my very own firm,’” he says. “It was additionally possibly as a result of I used to be sick, and I misplaced 30 kilos on that journey, and I used to be simply marching all day lengthy.”
There was additionally the concern of loss of life, a fast assist in the decision-making of any particular person.
“I assumed I used to be gonna die on this glacier as a result of we took this cross you’re not supposed to absorb the winter and it was snowing,” Schafer recollects. “We’re on this glacier that had these sinkholes in it. It was like, ‘I assume we’re gonna die up right here.’ However we made it. After which I used to be like, ‘Okay, I’m going to start out my very own firm.’”
Whether or not or not the story is embellished, 20 years later, it’s a becoming origin for the corporate Schafer based: Double Superb Productions, which has had its fair proportion of shut calls with closure over its two-decade historical past. However it’s additionally turn out to be a mainstay within the recreation trade, constantly placing out cult classics, corresponding to the unique Psychonauts, Brütal Legend, Damaged Age, and almost two dozen different video games. Whereas Double Superb has by no means launched a quote-unquote blockbuster – fairly the other, in numerous instances – it’s made a reputation for itself creating quirky, ingenious, and off-beat titles. And it did all that whereas remaining unbiased. That’s till 2019, when Microsoft bought the corporate.
To inform the storied historical past of Double Superb, we talked to over a dozen individuals from the corporate, together with Schafer himself, the individuals who have been with the studio since its inception, and the newer staff. That is the often-rocky story of Double Superb, as advised by those that have been there.
[Ed. Note: To avoid confusion with other articles, all job titles reflect people’s current positions on Psychonauts 2]
In quite a few methods, the creation of Psychonauts, the primary recreation Double Superb developed and launched, was hazardous to the builders’ lives.
Double Superb didn’t start in an workplace, however reasonably a storage made into an workplace within the SoMa district of San Francisco, Calif., in 2000 (after a four-month stint in a “haunted” clog store). It wasn’t nice. Rats stuffed the house. It was beneath sea stage, so when it rained excessively, the sewer would overrun, overflowing the bathrooms. Whereas working in a storage supplied staff with parking, in accordance with those who labored there, it additionally meant continuously inhaling carbon monoxide.
Picture Credit score: James Spafford // Double Superb Productions
“You’d drive into the workplace, and like, pull up proper subsequent to any person’s desk and switch your automobile off,” says Nathan “Bagel” Stapley, a senior idea artist for Double Superb.
“There was no warmth, both,” says senior animator Ray Criminal. “And so, within the wintertime, we might simply grasp up massive sheets of plastic and had these little house heaters that might blow the circuits in case you had greater than, like, three of them going.”
The neighborhood, on the time, wasn’t at all times protected, both. Writing in a 2015 postmortem for Gamasutra, Caroline Esmurdoc, Psychonauts’ govt producer, described the workplace as what “began as punk-rock appeal quickly turned miserable, disgusting, and harmful.”
“One night time, a girl from the transient lodge subsequent door jumped out a fifth ground window and landed on our roof, breaking her leg and knocking a gap in our ceiling,” Esmurdoc wrote. “One other day, there was a useless physique within the doorway throughout the road, apparently the sufferer of an overdose.”
They weren’t preferrred – or even perhaps at all times authorized – working situations, however with the unhealthy can be the nice. Speaking to builders that have been there on the time, there’s an nearly garage-band high quality to the early days of Double Superb. They threw events within the workplace, embellished the partitions with fascinating artwork, and general loved the corporate of their coworkers. For a short while, Schafer even made and painted each worker’s desk. “That appeared like a cool startup factor to do,” he says.
Predictably, the interview course of at Double Superb was additionally atypical. Lead programmer Kee Chi says that when he interviewed with the corporate, he talked about Zelda for an hour reasonably than answering any technical programming questions. As a substitute of going via the method of speaking to recruiters and human sources, Levi Ryken, now a senior artist with Double Superb, needed to converse to each single particular person on the firm – to get employed as an intern.
“Clearly, this stuff are all nicer to consider from a distance,” Chi says. “And now that we’ve got functioning bathrooms, we are able to take a look at it [like], ‘Ah, bear in mind the time when issues have been like that?’ However it’s additionally a time when all of us received to know one another and components of the sport got here collectively. There was numerous DIY feeling on the outdated workplace, that the brand new workplaces [don’t] fairly have. However it additionally might both be simply fond reminiscences of various instances or the carbon monoxide poisoning we received on the time. It’s a kind of issues.”
Coincidentally, Psychonauts was initially being developed for Microsoft, which was on the brink of launch the unique Xbox across the similar time as Double Superb’s founding. Whereas pitching the sport, Schafer gave a chat on the annual Recreation Builders Convention about character design. It caught the ear of Ed Fries, then vp of recreation publishing at Microsoft, who signed the sport. On the time, Microsoft handed out ping pong balls with the Xbox emblem on it, which Fries gave Schafer once they first met. 20 years later, Schafer says he had the ball sitting on his desk when he signed the paperwork for Microsoft’s acquisition of Double Superb in 2019. “I had it on a desk in a bit stand like a bit ceremonial factor to convey the entire thing full circle,” he says.
Impressed by the workforce’s love of video games corresponding to Rayman and Tremendous Mario 64, Psychonauts is a 3D platformer telling the story of Razputin “Raz” Aquato, a 10-year-old psychic in attendance at Whispering Rock Psychic Summer season Camp. Raz goes into the minds of varied individuals, confronting their issues and serving to them work via their points. Psychonauts was additionally made to harken again to the workforce’s reminiscences of summer season camp, being youngsters exploring the woods and stumbling upon surprising discoveries.
“We had these childhoods,” Schafer says. “Again whenever you’re, like, free-range youngsters, the place you’d simply wander into actually harmful places and discover. A variety of these reminiscences received into the primary recreation.”
However Psychonauts’ improvement was brutal, and the builders we talked to rapidly introduced up how laborious the corporate crunched whereas making the sport. There have been a number of the explanation why. For one, Schafer, who wrote and directed the sport, had spent the final decade making point-and-click journey video games at LucasArts; he had no expertise with 3D platformers. Neither did quite a few members of the workforce. Compounding points, this was at a time when builders usually made their very own engines in-house from scratch. And this was all on high of the truth that Double Superb was a brand new studio and it needed to develop, workers up, and discover ways to be an actual firm. It needed to invent all its improvement pipelines and processes. There was lots to be achieved, forcing the workforce to crunch constantly.
“Again then, you guys have been rolling your individual engine with a small studio on a brand new IP with a brand-new workforce in a f—ing automotive storage,” says principal artist Lee Petty. “So yeah, that’s gonna be laborious.”
“All processes that you’d suppose a extra mature [studio] would have then, we have been simply all figuring it out,” Chi says. “However I additionally suppose this naive optimism that we had in making the sport additionally made it in order that we might make the loopy recreation that we did [in] Psychonauts, though it got here with numerous rising pains [because] we made it in the best way that we did.”
Psychonauts was in improvement for round 5 years. In that point, Double Superb discovered the way to function as a workforce and make the sport it needed to make. However it got here with some excessive prices. There was, in fact, the crunch. “It was horrible,” Criminal says. But in addition, Microsoft was going via its personal inner modifications. In January 2004, Fries left the corporate. Across the similar time, Microsoft was starting its transition to the Xbox 360 in preparation for its November 2005 launch. This halted funding for unique Xbox video games deliberate to launch after 2004. Costly and delayed, new administration inside Microsoft opted to cancel Psychonauts – though, by this level, Double Superb felt it was lastly making actual progress.
“In February 2004, at what appeared to be our peak productiveness, a time once we felt most assured about transport on schedule, Microsoft determined to discontinue its improvement of Psychonauts,” Esmurdoc wrote in her postmortem. “Microsoft had funded years of errors, course corrections, and studying curves, however it drew the road at underwriting the remaining recreation improvement now that Double Superb was lastly on observe. When Ed Fries departed Microsoft, the brand new administration appeared to suppose that we have been costly and late. The evaluation was correct, although it didn’t mirror the progress we have been lastly making towards transport the sport and recovering the event funding.”
2004 was a tough yr for Double Superb – one it almost didn’t survive. In a number of previous interviews, Schafer has even admitted to telling his workforce Double Superb was shutting down, and that the following paycheck can be the ultimate one. Fortunately, nevertheless, a mortgage from SimCity creator Will Wright was capable of hold the corporate afloat earlier than a late-stage cope with Majesco saved each the venture and the studio. However regardless of all of the laborious work Double Superb put into getting it made, when Psychonauts got here out, it was a industrial failure. It received nice opinions, however nobody was shopping for it. Psychonauts offered lower than 100,000 copies in 2005.
“It was a kind of conditions the place if we’d identified, like most video games, in case you actually knew how laborious they have been going to be by the point they have been achieved, you in all probability wouldn’t have began any of them,” Schafer jokes.
However the classes Double Superb discovered on that first recreation would proceed to form the corporate for years to come back – even when its following tasks have been far cries from summer season camp.
“Is Heavy Steel Price Risking The Entire Firm?”
“Is Heavy Steel Price Risking The Entire Firm?”
In preparation for its subsequent venture, Double Superb went again to the drafting board. From the bottom up, it rethought the way it approached improvement – and crunch.
Double Superb’s subsequent recreation, Brütal Legend, launched in October 2009, was extremely bold for its time. Half action-adventure, half real-time technique recreation, with multiplayer sprinkled on high, the sport tells the story of heavy steel roadie Eddie Riggs, voiced by actor Jack Black, as he tries to avoid wasting humanity. This time round, EA signed on as writer, a deal Schafer describes as getting sufficient cash to complete the venture appropriately whereas avoiding a giant crunch.
“Folks say, ‘Nicely, that’s simply an inevitable a part of video games.’ However it’s not,” Schafer says. “After Psychonauts, all of us simply received a bunch of books on manufacturing strategies and [a software development technique called] Scrum. All this stuff we had by no means achieved earlier than. Like, ‘How will we plan higher? How will we do higher software program planning?’”
“Despite the fact that it was a very lengthy improvement, like Psychoanuts, I feel it was 4 years or 5 years,” says senior designer Gabe Cinquepalmi. “Positively a lot better hours for most individuals on the second recreation. Not having achieved the primary one, simply listening to the tales.”
Brütal Legend acquired optimistic opinions, and to this present day, continues to be Double Superb’s best-selling recreation. “However what’s a giant hit for Double Superb and what’s a giant hit for EA are totally different scales,” Schafer says. For EA, Brütal was not a monetary success, promoting simply over 200,000 copies in its first month (in a 2011 interview with Gamasutra, Schafer mentioned the sport had gone on to promote 1.4 million copies over time). Regardless, it didn’t cease Double Superb from starting work on a sequel. However once more, EA thought in any other case, canceling Brütal 2, regardless of the actual fact Double Superb had invested most of its sources to the venture.
“The Brütal [cancellation] was gnarly as a result of we didn’t receives a commission for, like, a month,” Stapley says.
“Wasn’t that Psychonauts?” Criminal asks.
“That was each,” producer Malena Annable replies.
Up up to now, Double Superb was a one-game studio, so shedding any venture was a significant blow; the studio’s earlier video games hadn’t made sufficient cash that it might afford to coast. When Brütal 2 was canceled, Double Superb was basically on borrowed time. The studio needed to pivot its plans. Quick.
Twice throughout Brütal’s improvement – as soon as within the center and as soon as on the finish – the workforce stopped working to take part in what Double Superb calls “Amnesia Fortnight.” For 2 weeks, the studio breaks into smaller groups, tasked with creating a small recreation beneath a short while span. It’s meant to be a palate cleanser, an inner break that offers the workforce a while to consider and give attention to one thing apart from the sport it must ship. Nonetheless, with Brütal 2 canceled and Double Superb prone to closure once more, the tasks developed throughout this two-week recreation jam turned the studio’s lifeline.
4 video games – two from the primary Amnesia Fortnight, two from the second – have been chosen to pitch to potential publishers. This included Stacking (THQ), Costume Quest (THQ), Iron Brigade (Microsoft), and Sesame Avenue: As soon as Upon a Monster (Warner Bros.). 4 video games, Schafer says, that in all probability wouldn’t have been made if destiny hadn’t compelled the studio’s hand. But in addition, by circumstance, 4 video games that now wanted to be made rapidly.
“We received again from Thanksgiving break, and Tim’s like, ‘By the best way, they canceled Brütal Legend 2, and we have to get some extra money,” Petty, who directed Stacking, recollects. “So, how would you’re feeling about pitching Stacking beginning subsequent week?’”
Successfully, this turned Double Superb right into a multi-project studio; it now not had all its eggs in a single basket. It additionally gave staff at Double Superb apart from Schafer the possibility to direct their very own video games, pitch tasks to publishers, and lead groups. It’s an strategy Double Superb has continued, usually releasing a number of tasks per yr.
“It takes away a few of that ‘betting the farm’ feeling that you’ve got whenever you’re a single firm making a single recreation,” Schafer says. “It’s like, ‘Is heavy steel price risking the entire firm?’“
Greater than 10 years later, smaller tasks now make up the majority of Double Superb’s catalog. This transfer not solely saved the corporate after Brütal 2’s cancellation, however it turned the studio’s major improvement and monetary mannequin, creating a various portfolio filled with genres, publishers, and artwork types. It wouldn’t be the final time Double Superb experimented with the way it funded tasks.
In 2012, Double Superb launched its first crowdfunding marketing campaign, utilizing the location Kickstarter, asking for $300,000 (the bottom price range the corporate would have ever labored with) to make a small journey recreation and $100,000 to movie the method with documentary crew 2 Participant Productions. The marketing campaign raised $3,336,371, making it the most-funded Kickstarter marketing campaign as much as that time. What started as a small venture remodeled right into a a lot bigger, point-and-click journey recreation known as Damaged Age, a well-reviewed recreation, however one which took three years to develop and needed to be break up into two episodes to safe extra funding.
The trials, tribulations, and improvement of Damaged Age have been chronicled in exhaustive element (a product of two Participant following your entire multi-year course of for the Double Superb Journey documentary), however it’s nonetheless an necessary piece of Double Superb’s historical past. On the one hand, it proved there may be nonetheless an viewers for the varieties of video games Schafer made at LucasArts. A proven fact that wasn’t misplaced on Double Superb. After Damaged Age, the studio acquired the rights to a few of Schafer’s outdated video games, corresponding to Grim Fandango and Full Throttle, remastering them for contemporary consoles. “That helped stabilize the studio financially as properly,” Petty says.
It additionally moved Double Superb in direction of the extent of transparency it’s now identified for. Together with Damaged Age, 2 Participant has additionally documented quite a few Amnesia Fortnights, the event of the aforementioned remasters, and produced a retrospective on the unique Psychonauts. The crew’s nonetheless at Double Superb, too, filming the event of Psychonauts 2. Every thing on the studio is for present. Inadvertently, it’s created a singular scenario, the place potential staff can find out about Double Superb to a level most individuals can’t about potential future jobs.
“It was a good way to see what kind of individuals labored at Double Superb and Double Superb’s philosophies,” senior techniques programmer Aaron Jacobs says. “Having watched that, it made it very clear that it could be a terrific place to work. It simply appeared like a very fulfilling place to be. And so yeah, after I then graduated faculty, it was similar to, a no brainer. It made sense to come back to hitch this place that simply appeared like a improbable place to work at.”
Whereas it’s laborious to have cameras continuously within the studio, most workers we talked to say the Double Superb Journey documentary is sort of a yearbook or journal for Damaged Age, permitting workforce members to relive the expertise on YouTube at any time. That mentioned, Double Superb presents all staff the choice to opt-out of being featured in its documentaries.
“I’ve had numerous workforce members being like, ‘I by no means wanna be that uncovered once more,’” Schafer admits about Double Superb Journey. “I had some individuals be like, some programmers, ‘I simply wanna work on instruments to any extent further. I don’t wanna face the general public anymore.’ As a result of it’s uncooked and it takes a toll.”
The event of Damaged Age stands as an inflection level for Double Superb. It supplied the studio with a stage of autonomy over what tasks it really works on, bypassing the standard writer mannequin, going on to followers. It wouldn’t be the one venture Double Superb crowdfunded. All of this may mix for Double Superb’s latest, and largest, venture but: Psychonauts 2.
Nonetheless Right here After All These Years
Nonetheless Right here After All These Years
In 2021, Double Superb is a identified amount. Whereas it nonetheless hasn’t launched a blockbuster per se, the developer has been a constant supply of fascinating and distinctive video games all through its 20 years. Now 20 years after its first staff breathed in carbon monoxide in a parking storage with no warmth, its catalog is filled with cult classics and fan favorites. Double Superb has a greater, safer workplace, too.
It’s additionally a good time of change for Double Superb. In 2015, the studio introduced Psychonauts 2. Once more, it turned to followers, this time via the crowdfunding/funding web site Fig, based by Double Superb’s former COO, Justin Bailey. Schafer additionally serves as an advisor for the corporate. By the top of the marketing campaign in January 2016, Double Superb raised over $3.8 million for improvement. Whereas it’s additionally launched quite a few different video games since, corresponding to Headlander, Grim Fandango Remastered, and Rad, and dipped its toe into publishing, Psychonauts 2 is Double Superb’s largest venture.
Maybe too massive – at the least for crowdfunding. Whereas it’s allowed the sport to exist in a approach that it may not have in any other case, Schafer admits that Psychonauts 2, now a five-plus yr venture, is an excessive amount of for the mannequin. “One yr,” he says. “One yr’s the max.” In 2017, Starbreeze additionally invested $8 million into the venture’s improvement, buying rights to launch the sport digitally on consoles and PC – although that’s since been assigned to Microsoft.
This leads in some ways to Double Superb’s most up-to-date and most important change: It’s now not an unbiased studio. In 2019, onstage at E3, Schafer revealed that Microsoft had bought Double Superb. Within the quick time period, this transfer helps the manufacturing of Psychonauts 2; Schafer advised GamesIndustry.biz in 2020 that earlier than the acquisition, Double Superb had eliminated the sport’s boss fights for price range causes however was ready so as to add them again in as soon as Microsoft received concerned.
Double Superb summer season picnic (2019)
In the long run, it means Double Superb now not should tour round pitching its video games, in search of funding from totally different companions, attempting to strike offers to remain alive. Being beneath the Microsoft umbrella is a safety blanket for Double Superb – even when there are nonetheless unknowns and anxieties from individuals on the studio.
“For me, it was simply, I used to be scared however I used to be additionally relieved,” Criminal says. “I had each these issues. As a result of we’d been via a lot, and a lot of it was monetary. After which I used to be excited about the burden that it could take off of Tim, and that felt good to me, realizing what he’s gone via and what numerous us have gone via. However then there’s at all times – you’re scared, proper? Is that this going to vary every little thing? Is Double Superb, what it’s, simply going to be no extra? Is it going to be totally different?”
“I used to be very very like, ‘I don’t need to be acquired,’” Schafer says. “However once they began speaking about what that they had discovered from buying Minecraft [developer] Mojang […] the way to honor what makes an organization profitable as you purchase it, I felt like that was actually true, that that they had found out a special mannequin for acquisition that’s non-destructive.”
Evaluating the manufacturing of Psychonauts to its sequel reveals obvious progress for Double Superb. For one, speaking to newer members of the workforce, crunch and labor expectations are much better than they have been on the primary recreation. Whereas it’s not excellent, there’s at all times room for enchancment; in accordance with the individuals we talked to, Double Superb makes a concerted effort to maintain hours practical and manageable. The identical may be mentioned about amplifying the creativity of its staff. Simply because somebody works in a single division doesn’t imply they will’t contribute concepts to a different.
“I feel prioritizing individuals is one thing that Double Superb does a superb job at,” says atmosphere artist Janice Bell. “As a result of it simply looks like numerous different studios see their individuals as belongings, the place Double Superb is the primary studio I’ve labored at the place they really see you as individuals, necessary components of the studio with views that matter and enter that matter[s].”
The place Double Superb goes subsequent stays to be seen. It’s an fascinating time for the corporate, although, because it could be one of many solely instances in 20 years that it’s had some quantity of stable monetary safety. By ups and downs, close to misses, and shut calls, Double Superb has made it via numerous tumultuous instances, and someway by no means deserted what made the corporate particular within the first place. It may not be the final time Double Superb falls on laborious instances, however on the very least, it has stability now.
“I joked that Double Superb was actually – the one factor that we actually excelled at was circling the drain,” Annable says about Double Superb’s future with Microsoft. “So, if this put a number of extra inches within the tub, it was excellent for me.”