James Spafford’s voice pipes in from the darkness, over the assorted conversations happening from people staring up at the stars.
“Would anyone like whisky,” he asks the group, referencing the bottle of Maker’s Mark sitting at his feet.
No one has the chance to answer, because right at that moment a comet streaks across the sky, leaving a long trail as it travels through the opening we can see between the redwood trees at Fern River Resort in Felton, Calif. Everyone gasps. One person yells “Holy shit.”
Spafford again offers a drink to the group.
It’s late, approaching 1:00 in the morning. It’s the end of a long weekend of laughter, eating burgers, drinking and celebrating. Collected are families, fans and 40 to 50 employees of the game studio Double Fine. They’re all here for the same reason: to celebrate Double Fine’s upcoming game Psychonauts 2. The independent studio brought Psychonauts 2 backers from around the world to spend time with its employees as an appreciation of their support, and their money.
As companies like Double Fine aim for a transparent development process with their crowdfunded games, I wanted to know how the relationship between creator and fan can evolve. Hearing the company was taking a group of its backers to a makeshift Psychonauts-themed summer camp, I asked to tag along to watch it come together.
Over the weekend, I saw nervous fans become friends with their idols. I saw the barrier between fan and creator be broken down. I saw more tie-dye shirts, plastic cups of liquor and board games than I could count. All thanks to crowdfunding, and donations from fans.
The idea for this trip began three years ago, in 2015, when Double Fine launched its Fig crowdfunding campaign for Psychonauts 2. Scroll down the page, past all the other backer options, and you’ll find the company’s premium reward: a camping trip with Double Fine. The cost? $10,000.
“Camping trip for you and a friend with members of the Psychonauts team at Double Fine to ‘Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp,’” the tier read. Backers claimed five of the 10 spots, and were given the chance to bring friends or family along. Double Fine brought in $50,000, which it largely split between the development of the game and this trip.
For Rosco McMahan, one of those backing at the highest tier, this is charity. Not for Double Fine, but rather its fans.
“I know Fig isn’t really a charity for legal purposes, but putting money into something like Double Fine and Psychonauts 2 helps not just make me happy; it helps also bring the game to other people and make them happy,” he says a few days before the trip. “So, in a way, it is kind of like donating money to a charity.”
It’s Tuesday, Aug. 7, when we speak, three days before he travels down from Bellevue, Wash. with a friend for the trip. McMahan says he doesn’t really know what’s happening at the campsite. Spafford, Double Fine’s senior communications manager, sent out an itinerary to attendees a few weeks before the trip, but it featured few specific details. McMahan says he hopes to use the time to get to know the Double Fine crew — specifically its founder and CEO Tim Schafer. McMahan spent some brief time in the game industry, testing games for Nintendo and Bandai Namco for a summer, and now works in computer science. He’s hoping to talk shop.
Brad Jones, a backer from Sunnyvale, Calif. who didn’t put in the $10,000, but still gets to go on the trip thanks to a raffle Double Fine held, says he just wants to soak the whole thing in. He’s excited to bring his two sons, Peter and Michael, along, he says a week before the trip, letting them meet and interact with the crew.
Michael, his oldest son, wants to get into 3D rendering, Brad says. So this trip is a chance for him to talk with developers in the field. Like his father, Michael finished the first Psychonauts with 100-percent completion; he’s a big Double Fine fan. Brad’s younger son, Peter, isn’t really into Double Fine games but he’s still looking forward to it.
Similar to McMahan, Jones doesn’t know what to expect from the trip. He thinks, maybe, Double Fine is intentionally keeping people in the dark about the trip to keep it a surprise. All he knows is to show up around 3:00 p.m. and which cabin he’s staying in.
One thing he wonders, though, is the level of interaction Double Fine plans to give to the backers coming along.
“This is certainly beyond ‘We chat on Twitter occasionally,’” Jones says. “This is, ‘You’re spending [three] days together.’ That’s definitely a different level. I’m not sure where the boundaries are yet. I don’t know if [they’ve] sorted that out yet.”
I, too, don’t know what to expect. Only the day before I’m set to arrive does Spafford send me the weekend’s itinerary.
DAY ONE: Two questions
My first day begins around 1:00 p.m. at a cowboy-themed restaurant appropriately named Cowboy Bar & Grill, only an hour or two before backers are to arrive. Sitting with Spafford, Greg Rice, Double Fine’s vice president of business, and Paul Levering and Paul Owens from video production team 2 Player Productions, I’m introduced to Timothy “Bales” Bridges, a Double Fine forum moderator from Melbourne, Australia. Today is his first full day in a country that isn’t Australia, he says.
“This is a hell of a place to come to for your first international trip,” I say to him.
“Oh yeah,” he replies, laughing, sounding surprised he’s even here in the first place.
Over lunch, Rice and Spafford open up about the people coming. It turns out, of the five people who pledged the $10,000 to be here, only two are actually coming. Kind of. A third, James Willems, a producer at Rooster Teeth, didn’t pay the $10,000; a Rooster Teeth fan did for him. Everyone else coming are either lower-tier backers that won raffle tickets — like Jones — or forum moderators.
When we get to the campsite, Fern River Resort, I get a chance to look around. It wasn’t originally built to look like Whispering Rock, the fictional summer camp from Psychonauts, but it does. Red cabins litter the area. There’s a gazebo with a stage where Double Fine sets up a PA system to play the game’s soundtrack. There’s a kitchen and a check-in area that, I’m told, will become a bar tomorrow night. The entire campsite is surrounded by redwood trees reaching high into the sky.
As Double Fine sets up, bringing bottles of booze and food, and assembling a large Whispering Rock sign to hang above the stage, fans slowly start to arrive for check in. There’s Hannah McVeigh and Matt Sephton from Liverpool, England. Ginger Larsen and Chris Hawkins come from San Francisco. Peter Silk, another forum moderator, is here from London, England. Jones and his two sons, as well as McMahan and his friend from San Francisco, Melissa Web, make their way to the campsite, too. The second backer who spent $10,000 makes his way later. Willem and his coworker Adam Kovick will arrive tomorrow.
Two questions enter my mind as people begin showing up. First, why did these people travel across the country and world to be with this company? And second, how did this whole thing come together?
For Bridges, he sees Double Fine as a company that’s accepting of all different walks of life when hiring new employees. He also thinks it isn’t content with following industry trends when developing new games. These two philosophies, he says, draw people to the company and its games. Enough so, that they want to come all the way here to meet the people behind the products.
“I think Tim Schafer, specifically, the reason people are interested in him is because he cemented this same idea of creativity with his three games that LucasArts [produced],” he says. “That was Full Throttle, Day of the Tentacle and Grim Fandango — all completely different, by the same person. So you have a huge team of people doing completely different things. That’s interesting.”
For Jones’ oldest son Michael, this trip is a chance to humanize the people behind the games. In his opinion, communication between fans and developers is rare, or lost, online. But now, he’s here, seeing people he knows of but hasn’t met.
“It’s kind of weird meeting someone who is a person that I follow, really seeing them for the first time,” he says. “I’m glad that I get to do it. Communicating is one of those things that’s always seemed really hard for the game [industry].”
“It’s really interesting to see that the people making these games are actually people,” Jones’ younger son Peter adds, laughing.
A lot of the backers I talk to are surprised to see the extent Double Fine is going to with this trip. Many say they’re taken aback by just how much Fern River resembles Whispering Rock. Web, who isn’t a fan of Psychonauts or Double Fine — she just came for the experience — says she’s impressed to see how far the company seems to be going to give its fans this opportunity.
“Just the idea of a company going out of their way to make their investors and their people — and their fanbase, really — feel included and important, that’s pretty amazing,” she says.
It was expensive, too, Spafford tells me.
Half of the $50,000, he says, was put into the development of Psychonauts 2. The other half was put into this trip. This is effectively a $25,000 camping trip. Though after telling me the cost, Spafford says Double Fine put a little more company money into the trip to make it a bigger event — something that wasn’t just for fans, but for Double Fine as a whole.
“It’s as much for the studio as it is for backers at this point,” Spafford says.
Early in the day, people don’t really stop working, setting up the camp and getting everything in order before the festivities really kick off. For Spafford, setting something up this involved is a “dream.” He’s usually the one who organizes events for Double Fine, such as PAX or E3. But this trip seems different for him. His voice fills with pride when he talks about it.
“This is a once in a lifetime thing, and we got to actually make a little taste of Whispering Rock, so I hope everyone can just feel connected,” he says. “For us, we can connect with our fans and remind ourselves why we’re even doing any of the stuff. Especially when you’re in the middle of a project, it’s really easy to forget why you’re making games. For the fans, they get to meet the people behind them and the humans that create them.”
And the fans will very soon do just that. Though, at first, maybe it doesn’t run as smoothly as everyone hopes.
Friction and tie-dye
A few hours in, Double Fine team members start to show up. First comes Tim Schafer, a key reason these backers are here in the first place, arriving by car with his wife Rachel and daughter. Then the majority of attending Double Fine employees arrives by bus — with more arriving tomorrow. Everyone exchanges pleasantries and makes brief introductions before settling into the campsite, sitting at the assorted tables, pulling out board games and finding drinks
At first, things seem kind of weird for the two parties. Double Fine and the backers, after the introductions, collect mostly into disparate groups. Coworkers sit with coworkers and fans sit with the friends and/or family they’ve brought along. It kind of looks like a high school cafeteria, divided by cliques. This isn’t lost on Jones, who, early on in the day, brings up how seperate the two parties are.
“I think right now everyone’s still finding their feet, figuring out how this is all going to work,” he says. “Most of people here at this point are the Double Fine folks who know each other, so there’s kind of a bit of friction just in the interfacing as people are getting used to each other.”
It’s not exactly lost on Double Fine people either. Rachel Schafer compares humans to cats, saying, “it takes a few hours to get them into a situation.”
“And it’s Tim Schafer,” Rice adds. “That’s a big deal, right?”
But Spafford, Rice and Tim all seem to be going out of their way to make people feel included, like a part of the Double Fine “family.” While it helps that they’re some of the company’s most recognizable faces here, each constantly walks the campground, stopping to talk to everyone, asking them how they like the set up, and just shooting the breeze.
Another way they plan to get everyone mingling is by providing activities. There’s board games littering the camp. There’s a small sandy river near the campsite people can go to and relax. And there are more scheduled events — such as the first one, making tie-dye shirts and friendship bracelets.
Collected to the right of the main communal area are six wooden tables, a box stuffed with white “Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp” shirts, bottles of dye and trays of water. Everyone grabs a shirt, decides on what color they want, and begins the process of tie-dying.
Given the limited space for everyone to stand around and work, people finally begin to mingle. One person I notice take a similar charge as Spafford, Schafer and Rice, is Double Fine contract artist Scott Campbell, one of the artists primarily responsible for the look and design of the original Psychonauts. He stands in a group of fans and employees, telling jokes and asking people how they’re enjoying their time. The barrier, even if slightly, is breaking down.
“It’s a bit surreal, really,” McVeigh says when asked what it’s like to be spending time with Double Fine.
“It’s going to make [playing] the game [feel] different,” Sephton adds.
The first day is pretty short. But there’s a lot to see and do. Schafer leads a game of Captain Sonar for backers and employees. Around 6:00 p.m., Rice, Spafford and 2 Player Productions director of photography Asif Siddiky make dinner for everyone, grilling burgers, hot dogs and sausages. More alcohol comes out, more people talk, and the barrier continues to lower.
“I think when you show up to a new space and you don’t know anyone, there’s a tendency to be coy and chill,” Spafford says while preparing portobello mushroom burgers. “But I think the activities, for example, were really good at just kind of getting everybody together and messing about and laughing. The Double Fine crew is such a happy bunch of smiley people; it’s hard not to get sucked into it.”
Admittedly, he adds, the trip as it is now isn’t exactly what Double originally planned. But for Spafford, that’s a good thing. Since only two people who paid $10,000 made it, the trip feels less exclusive, he says.
“And in a way, I kind of like that it isn’t just the people who paid for that access,” Spafford says, before Schafer, standing within earshot, quickly pipes in.
“Nothing wrong with those people,” he shouts over to us.
“No,” Spafford replies. “But it’s nice that it ended up being something else.”
I leave after dinner. Double Fine planned ways to make fans and backers feel involved, but it didn’t feel forced. Watching everyone come together felt organic. Though I leave early, the night is far from over. There’s going to be a bonfire with smores tonight, and I assume the board games and drinks are far from stopping. And yet, Rice promises tomorrow will be even bigger.
“We’re just getting started,” he says. “Tomorrow is the real day.”
DAY TWO: Almost like a dream
When I show up in the morning, the weirdness from yesterday is pretty much gone. The scene I’m faced with, I assume, is exactly what Double Fine wants from this trip: everyone sitting together, no more cliques.
Grabbing breakfast, I find a spot with McVeigh, Silk, McMahan, Jones and Campbell. Campbell, sitting at the head of our table, introduces himself to some of the backers he didn’t meet yesterday and asks how everyone’s night was.
“The cabins were really nice, actually,” McVeigh replies to the group, which everyone agrees with.
“I think the cabins over there have, like, spiral staircases,” Silk says, laughing.
As conversation goes on, McMahann asks Campbell about his job. Finding out Campbell was the art director on the first Psychonauts, McMahan immediately follows up with “Who gets credit for the Milkman,” referencing a character from one of the game’s most famous levels, “The Milkman Conspiracy.”
“That was me,” Campbell replies, to applause from the table.
He continues, giving a whole run down of how the Milkman in the first game came to be. When Double Fine moved into its first office, a former car garage, the landlord told the company the building came with a homeless man named Dougie. Every Thursday, Dougie would come clean the street outside Double Fine’s office, and the company would give him a check for $15. As it turned out, Dougie was very involved with conspiracy theories.
“He’s like, ‘I gotta make sure I pick up the glass, because the [satellites] hit the glass and they ricochet off each other and that’s what’s filming you,’” Campbell recalls Dougie saying. “‘So I have to make sure all the glass comes up first because that’s the little cameras, so I know they know what I’m doing.’ He had all these things about how it worked and why the street had to be cleaned like that.”
“He was very good. Everything was very clean,” Campbell adds.
As he talks, the fans and backers appear enthralled with the story, often laughing and asking follow up questions about other characters. Campbell answers each, giving the fans a look behind the curtain of a game they’ve grown up with. And this is only the beginning of day two. It’s still early, but there’s a lot for everyone to do.
Between breakfast and lunch at noon, crafting activities continue. And Double Fine encourages everyone to walk around the campsite, go on hikes, sit by the river or just do whatever they want. At night, after dinner, Double Fine has a live Psychonauts table read planned. After that, Double Fine will open up “Mia’s Dance Party” and the “Black Velvetopia Bar.” And then finishing the night everyone can watch the Perseids meteor shower.
One of the first people I catch up with is Bridges, who says he’s enjoying how lowkey this whole thing is. He brings up a typical convention setting, where it’s nice you can meet a developer you really like or respect but lacks the relaxed atmosphere. This is different, he says. It’s welcoming.
“It’s more like just hanging out with people, new friends,” he says.
I ask Bridges what I missed yesterday, having left early. After dinner, he says there was a lot of board gaming, a lot more rounds of Captain Sonar. The campfire at the end of the night, though, really seemed to bring people together, he says. For one reason, there’s not a lot of room around the firepit, so people have to sit close to one another.
“There’s something about a campfire scenario that really does break it down,” he says. “I learned how to make smores, which I’d never done before.”
He’s not surprised, he continues, that the whole thing is working well. Even before meeting the team in person, he’s always seen Double Fine as a welcoming company, even online.
“[The] forum culture they’ve cultivated is one of they’re not speaking above you,” Bridges says. “You can speak with them, and they’re just people like yourself.”
“It’s really strange,” Michael says about the second day. “I was making jokes about dogs with Tim Schafer, because that’s just what happened. It’s really an odd experience.”
“I assume you don’t mean weird negatively,” I ask.
“No, no. Unexpected. Almost like a dream,” Michael says.
Left to their own devices from 10:00 a.m. to dinner at 7:00 p.m., a lot of people spend their time playing board games in the communal area again. A lot new tie-dyed shirts are hung up to dry, too. But people also spread out.
Throughout the day, I see Rice driving groups to and from a hiking trail, lots of children running around and playing, and even the campsite’s two cats get into a fight. I also play witness to one of the most heated games of badminton I’ve ever seen.
Today feels like everything’s to speed. Fans don’t hesitate anymore to talk to their heroes; the barriers that were slowly breaking down yesterday have completely disappeared. As I walk around, I don’t think of people anymore as backers, heroes or employees; I begin to think of them all as friends. I struggle to think of any other event I’ve covered — or seen, for that matter — that’s felt this open, friendly and inviting.
I also wonder how many companies other than Double Fine, one valuing openness and transparency, might do this for its fans. People spent a lot of time, energy and money just to be here, and Double Fine spent a lot of time, energy, and money to have them here. So, finally noticing he has some free time, I ask the man in charge about it.
“I got VIP tickets to go see some metal band once,” Schafer says. “You supposedly hang out with the band but the band’s kind of being forced to stand in a room with a bunch of people they don’t want to stand with.”
This isn’t like that, he says. It was never supposed to be like that. “You’re legitimately just hanging out,” Schafer says.
The inspiration for this trip comes in part from Psychonauts’ own summer camp, obviously. But also, Schafer and Rice’s love of spending time at camps as children. Those camps were relaxing, Schafer says, and that’s something Double Fine wanted for this trip. The company wanted this to be intimate.
That intimacy is helped by the fact that Double Fine invited only backers to be here. Crowdfunding, Schafer says, creates a “tighter” bond between fan and creator. The former being able to contribute to something they love, and the latter needing their support to make a project a reality. That’s not lost on Schafer, who says the company wants to show its appreciation for that support.
“If you appreciate some creative work and then all of the sudden you’re a part of it — you actually can help fund it — how else do you express [your appreciation as a creator] than just by hanging out,” Schafer says.
“It’s part of the values of the company, too,” he adds. “Besides the fact that we have these backers here, we also have the team here who voluntarily have come to hang out with each other. One of the best things about starting your own company is that you can hire people that … all get along and all really enjoy each other’s company. That’s a nice thing.”
Just enjoy this
As day turns to dusk, it’s time to eat again. Much like at breakfast, everyone is fully integrated. Myself included.
Talking to the person sitting next to me, Paula Ngo, who came with a friend, Double Fine gameplay programmer Rebecca Vessal, we both agree this trip is unique. While neither of us are particularly fans of Double Fine’s games, watching everyone come together to celebrate a similar cause has been interesting. I’m here to cover this event, so I do my best to just be a objective observer, but I find myself enjoying my time with everyone. I’m kind of sad thinking I’ll be driving back to San Francisco tomorrow.
After dinner, the first of Double Fine’s three big evening plans begins. Everyone assembles to take a group photo and then Schafer begins casting the first round of table reads. First up is the first scene from the original Psychonauts.
As Schafer directs the scene via megaphone, a mix of Double FIne employees and backers, as well as Schafer’s daughter, read the scene, each doing their best approximations of the character’s voices. Silk accompanies the whole thing with the Psychonauts soundtrack, played on his guitar. Everyone else is either sitting or standing around the tables in the communal area, laughing at a scene they’ve ostensibly seen and heard numerous times before.
After the first read, Double Fine gives the fans a sneak peak at a scene from Psychonauts 2, the only caveat being it isn’t a rendered cutscene from a game; it’s another live reading from backers and employees. Again, everyone laughs during the read, the “actors” do their best to match the voices from the game and everyone cheers at the end of it.
And then it’s time to drink. The makeshift Black Velvetopia Bar is outfitted with blacklights, paper crafts, and a Psychonauts-themed menu, featuring such choices as the “Hand of Galochio,” which is just a whiskey on ice. The bar is a hit, crowded all night by people getting more and more lubricated.
The dance party, on the other hand, isn’t quite a hit. During my time observing, I notice, at most, five people dancing. Though I appreciate Rice putting on The Hold Steady, an alternative band from Brooklyn, I’m not exactly sure it was better dance floor music than techno or pop might’ve been.
I make my way to the campfire to sit with others. Everyone is laughing, making smores, and cooking Bisquick biscuits on a stick. Behind us, a dangerous game of tetherball is being played by buzzed Double Finers who are hitting the ball around the poll as hard as they can. I sip a Hand of Galochio and take pictures of the scene unfolding around me. I’m here to cover this thing, but I think I wish I could’ve come as a fan. I wish I could’ve soaked it in more.
I mention this to Ngo, who tells me I’ve worked enough. Put my camera and recorder away, she says, just enjoy it. So, I do. Which is also why I don’t have any quotes here. For the rest of the night, I stop asking people for interviews. I stop trying to capture every moment. I just let myself go.
The night takes me to the edge of the water, with others, waiting on the meteor shower and making up fake space facts to pass the time (“Did you know if you see a very slow moving meteor, that’s actually just an airplane?”). Everyone collects near the water, laying on blankets, sitting in lawn chairs, and staring straight up.
And then the stars fall. Everyone says “Ooh” and “Ahh.” Spafford asks the group several times if they’d like shots of whiskey.
It’s late when we make the walk back up to the campsite. The trip, for the most part, is over, and tomorrow it’ll be time for everyone to leave summer camp behind.
DAY 3: Going home
After a late night, the campground is relatively empty when I show up the final morning. I assume a lot of people are still feeling last night, taking their time getting out of bed. Grabbing breakfast, which is mainly leftovers from the previous two days, I sit with the Jones family and McVeigh to get their thoughts on the weekend now that they’re all about to head home.
“Wow, that was awesome,” Michael says.
“It’s been so easy to chat with everyone,” McVeigh agrees. “Just sitting around the fire last night with everyone from Double Fine and just being part of the family, the team, it was brilliant.”
“This is giving me a major dilemma for the next time they crowdfund something,” Brad adds, making the table laugh. “This has been amazing.”
Speaking to the backers, it’s hard to imagine a better weekend for a group of Double Fine fans. A lot mention they feel like they’re now friends with their heroes and that Psychonauts 2 will have a sentimental place in their hearts. Furthermore, many backers and fans plan to keep in contact with each other. Some even add if Double Fine did this again next year, they’d come.
As I pack everything back up, getting ready to drive to San Francisco to catch a flight, I say my goodbyes. Spafford gives me a hug. I shake hands with Schafer and Rice. I walk around saying farewell to everyone and thanking them for letting me spend time here.
As I get into the car, I think to myself, “Double Fine didn’t have to do this.” It would’ve been easy to have an expensive tier for Psychonauts 2 with some kind of swag or early access to the game. But the fact it invested so much time, energy, and money to do something like this for its fans — and employees — felt special. It obviously was, but this didn’t feel like a backer reward. It felt like a party, a celebration of Double Fine, its games and the people who play them.
Update: We originally reported that Peter Silk’s last name was “Cline.” We have fixed it in the story and regret the error.
Photo editing: Levi Ryman