I've been plowing my way through the excellent Double Fine Adventure documentary recently, and if you care about the video game industry in any way shape or form, it's a treasure. Seriously, go get it.
There are a ton of really excellent, informative moments in the series, but none has stuck with me more than the above clip, wherein Double Fine boss Tim Schafer recalls what marketing research had to say about focus group feedback on Psychonauts. Go, watch the clip, it's a minute long, I'll still be here when you get back.
Like any sane person, I initially found the above video horrifying. Marketers wanted to make the humor secondary, wanted to axe the summer camp theme and thought the story was the weakest element. Basically, anything that was cool or special about Psychonauts had to go.
It gets scarier when you consider how many game developers are receiving this exact feedback, a careless, heartless killing machine focused on mindlessly slicing away everything that makes nascent games cool and special and different. A Michael Myers of of Mediocrity, if you will.
How many cool game quirks (or movie scenes or book chapters or ... the list goes on) have we missed out on because creators didn't have enough strength in their convictions to ignore outside voices and trust their instincts?
"Thank goodness Tim Schafer wasn't listening," I thought to myself. And I was right. For me.
The Big One
On the same day I watched the clip, I also read this feature about how giganto success had persistently eluded Schafer and his team.
"We’ve always had games that sold moderately well," he says in the piece, "enough to keep going and pay everybody, but not enough to not worry about money."
That's when the nagging thought crept up into the back of my — I don't know, cerebral cortex? Cerebellum? Into my think meat, let's go with that: "Should he have listened to the marketing research after all?"
Maybe Double Fine will never have that massive hit.
If Shay had had a sweet laser pistol and Manny Calavera had been able to perform even sweeter scythe combos, would Double Fine be floating on a river of cash all the way to Securitytown? It's impossible to say for sure, but I can't stop wondering.
Psychonauts, despite being widely regarded as an indispensable classic, was basically a commercial non-starter. It was released in April of 2005 and by the end of the year had managed to move just 100,000 copies. Considering its $13 million budget, that's a deficit of, roughly speaking, $8 million. Ouch.
As evidenced by the frequent races against time (read: money) in the Double Fine Adventure doc, things don't seem to have changed much, financially speaking, for Schafer in the ensuing 10 years.
Get rich or die tryin'
The question of artistic compromise is a very old one of course, and the cultural landscape is littered with the forgotten shells of work that fell at extreme ends of the spectrum. There are plenty of massively popular works that were so broad as to appeal to many but be really treasured by very few. But there are just as many works of art that are so deeply personal that few other than the artist were able to penetrate them.
Creators of art can define success however they like. Maybe they wanna make popcorn, maybe they want to make chocolate so bitter that even they have trouble enjoying it. I don't get to make that call.
But from my perspective, the bravest path is somewhere in the middle. I'm always gonna be pulling for the creators that want to share the absolutely unique perspective that everyone on the planet is gifted with in a way that welcomes you into their world rather than forcing you to peer through the windows.
Artists who take that approach may not be giving mansion tours to Robin Leach, but the money has a funny way of finding them anyway. Here's the second half of the Psychonauts story. Through multiple re-releases on innumerable platforms, Psychonauts had managed to sell over 400,000 units by 2012. As Schafer told us at the end of that year, "We made more on Psychonauts this year than we ever have before."
Maybe Double Fine will never have that massive hit. But being able to reach people — and I mean really reach them, in that way that leaves the pleasantly unnerving sensation that someone's been reading your diary — all while keeping food on the table and gas in the tank? I think that's a pretty big success indeed.