Thursday, March 16, 2023

Double Fine PsychOdyssey recaps / viewing guide, episodes 01-17

Last month, game industry documentary makers 2 Player Productions debuted a massive 32-part YouTube game dev doc series Double Fine PsychOdyssey, chronicling the development of Psychonauts 2 from its earliest glimmers of pre-production in 2015 to its final release in 2021. 

I assumed it was mostly for fans but after watching all 32 episodes (on 2x speed, skipping some parts) I've changed my mind and now I think it's essential viewing for all game designers / devs. It shows the everyday work of medium-scale commercial game dev in unprecedented detail: the creative high of successful collaboration as well as the ugly prototypes, grueling bug fixes, and painful miscommunication. There's also a thrill of access, where the camera captures vulnerable moments it wasn't quite supposed to see. The most epic public post-mortem ever.

As a public service, I've written a short text summary and some notes for each episode. This recap post / viewing guide covers only the first half of the series (episodes 01-17) and I'll try to write-up the second half later.

SPOILER WARNING: obviously, these recaps spoil what happens in each episode.

One last disclaimer -- everyone who watches these videos will have different takeaways and interpretations. These are just my personal observations, and I recommend you use this guide as a jumping-off point to come to your own conclusions.

GREENLIGHT / VR SPIN-OFF DEV (episodes 01 - 05)
If you don't have time, you can maybe skip this block and start at episode 06 instead.


Episode 01: “The Color of the Sky in Your World” reviews the legacy of Psychonauts 1 back in 2005. It was a quirky story-first 3D platformer with jokes that were actually funny. Each level also had unique mechanics and art styles that all tied into a cohesive whole. Other mascot platformers like Mario, Sonic, or Crash, might've had more complex platforming, but Psychonauts told an actual story with memorable characters and human warmth that's still rarely matched in games today.

Episode 02: “Not in the Cards” looks at the Psychonauts VR spin-off game Rhombus of Ruin and DF's bizdev strategy. As an independent studio always running out of money, DF has to constantly seek new deals and diversify its projects: Headlander for Adult Swim, Rad for Bandai Namco, and now some sweet sweet Sony VR money. Back in 2015, VR seemed a lot hotter, yet DF prophetically views it more as a stepping stone for a Psychonauts sequel. Design-wise, they're trying to remember how to make a Psychonauts game 10 years later. Tech-wise, it's a vertical slice "learn Unreal 4" project, a big shift from a studio that used to roll its own in-house engine.

Episode 03: "Awesome Toybox" follows more VR dev, but really it's more about capturing DF's studio culture in 2015. At 5:18, VR project lead Chad Dawson talks about mentoring "new guys" and you see him joking and smiling with two (male) junior devs. Then it cuts to concept artist Emily Johnstone anxiously trying to pitch design ideas to a group brainstorm meeting where she just happens to be the only woman in the room. This is the beginning of Emily's story arc, where she feels a bit imposter syndrome'd and nervously seeks approval. Compare her to the empowered creative lead Emily of episode 28. (In a later episode, Chad does praise Emily specifically, but it doesn't help that his name is Chad.)

Episode 04: “Bringing Back Psychonauts” shows the initial sequel announcement and all the work that goes into any trailer, PR push, and crowdfunding campaign. This is a more business-oriented aspect of game development that we rarely see, and frankly, an aspect we rarely associate with DF either. The initial hope around Fig's crowdfunded-investor model is an interesting historical note, since a few years later it pivoted away from games -- and even Kickstarter is now a somewhat marginal PR platform more than a funding platform, at least for video games.

Episode 05: “You’re Public Now” is the conclusion of the crowdfund and its worries, as the studio prepares for pre-production while iterating on the VR game. Despite the trauma of Gamergate's harassment haunting the studio, the crowdfunding campaign is a big success. Meanwhile, VR dev continues, as artists learn Unreal 4's art pipeline and do lookdev to figure out how to update the Psychonauts art style from 2005 to 2015. Tim Schafer also has to refresh his writing workflow; should the blockout dictate the script, or the other way around, or how do you manage that back-and-forth? The narrative workflow problems are just beginning.

PRE-PRODUCTION (episodes 06 - 13)
This is when they actually start working on Psychonauts 2.


Episode 06: "Creative Promises" marks the start of Psychonauts 2 pre-production and the hiring of project lead Zak McClendon. McClendon unveils "creative promises", a big board of brainstormed notecards to rank core pillars for the game in a very organized hierarchical way. (For more on McClendon's big board approach, see his 2018 PRACTICE talk "Welcome to the Yard Sale: A Practical Framework for Holistic Design Iteration".) (Outside of game design, there's a growing tide against "design thinking" style methods, see "Design thinking was supposed to fix the world. Where did it go wrong?",  MIT Technology Review, 9 Feb 2023.)

Companies often hire senior / leads externally to bring in new thinking. McClendon's decades of experience as QA, producer, and designer, and recommendations from past co-workers, is a hire that seems to make sense skill-wise and culture-wise. He also has a semi-unspoken mandate to "rein in" Double Fine / Tim Schafer's "tendencies", to finish a Psychonauts game on-budget and on-time while shoring up perceived weaknesses. As he says in a later episode, he's basically setup to be the studio's "step-dad" bad guy / foil to Tim. The conflict between him and senior programmer Anna Kipnis begins simmering here already, when his first interaction with her is to interrupt her during a brainstorming session.

Episode 07: "We'll Know Where It Is" covers more VR dev and the semi-departure of animator Ray Crook. For the past few episodes, several longtime staffers have been leaving the company / San Francisco for various reasons, like wanting to raise a family somewhere affordable. There's a sense of a changing of the guard, an anxiety about maintaining studio identity if key personnel are leaving. Yet Crook opts to continue working remotely with an always-on webcam hangout kiosk, an interesting historical harbinger to the pandemic era. Meanwhile, Sony is happy with the VR demo, and the studio is getting more experienced with Unreal.

Episode 08: "A Couple Years of Hard Work" is when they make their first in-engine prototype demo to figure out environment art and player locomotion. They build a small forest camp themed test level to jump around in, but it's difficult to pinpoint look and feel because they don't have an art director. (I have to emphasize: it's absolutely wild that an art-driven game like Psychonauts does not have an art director until episode 16.) Zak argues the demo should focus on gameplay instead of art anyway, because they need to seek more funding and a publisher wouldn't have any concerns about DF's art pedigree. They still need to balance this pre-production with finishing the studio's other projects too.


Episode 09: "One Shot" shows the VR game nearing completion and new hire James Marion. They still need more funding, so they're talking to publishers like Starbreeze (and a bleeped out word that, to me, sounded like the word 'sony'). Meanwhile the dev team ramps up with a new junior level designer James Marion, a self-described DF fanboy who has never made a 3D level but interviewed well enough to take a chance on him. (Disclosure: I taught at NYU Game Center while Marion was a student there.) 

Zak and his imported lieutenant / lead level designer Ryan Mattson frequently criticize James' work (and Anna Kipnis' work) at tense design review meetings. Viewers may see this as a rough unfair way to train anyone, but in the industrial dev culture that Zak and Ryan come from, the conventional wisdom is that the only way to become a good level designer is to "go map" -- stop talking, make levels, watch the playtest go wrong, and iterate. Sharp criticism and failure is what hones your design sense. Through all this, Tim seems to cautiously step back. Zak is shaking up the studio culture, but is it for better or worse?

Episode 10: "Bittersweet Gravity" is about the level team making a blockout in detail while iterating on the core player moveset. You get to see the design process play out. Like how should the wall jump feel? (How do other games do it?) Hmm, how will that affect the level design? How do you make a room and various routes readable to a player? Well, it depends on what looks climbable and wall jumpable... These are all complex interdependent core questions the team is figuring out, and now is the time to do it. Meanwhile, James and artist Jeremy Natividad continue to run the blockout iteration gauntlet and finally get some praise and approval at the end.

Episode 11: "Not Doing the Typical" shows higher level concerns with the blockout-first level design approach. Tim argues James and Jeremy's blockouts are sort of just random spaces with no overall concept, and pushes for more thematic design with memorable scenes. James pitches a miniature Mediterranean town, and group discussion morphs it into like a metaphorical hanging planter about to spill over or something? Honestly the concept doesn't make much sense to me, but anyway they pause everything to prepare for Amnesia Fortnight.

Episode 12: "Amnesia Fortnight" and Episode 13: "I Made A Game" show the annual studio-wide two week game jam, where Asif Siddiky's project shines. AF is one of DF's most famous traditions, conceived as a way to reinvigorate the studio during much longer projects. Anyone can lead a project, to flip the staff hierarchy and try new things. There are a bunch of good projects though one stands out as most relevant: Asif is one of the documentary makers, but leads The Gods Must Be Hungry project, a cooking show game that will eventually become one of the best levels in Psychonauts 2. (In the next episode, Asif joins the team as a designer.) Also, Pendleton Ward hangs out and helps for some reason.

ALMOST PRODUCTION (episodes 14 - 17)
The core concept is set, so now they can start building out the game... maybe?

Episode 14: "Surface Tension" is about the level team still struggling to come up with a strong concept. They need to figure out a process to concept levels now, so they can do it 10 more times, but game design is hard. The mini Mediterranean plant town concept has morphed into a giant moving bonsai world with a porcelain town and pushable water droplets. It still doesn't really work, and no one has really found their groove yet. James especially feels frustrated, because he's doing what everyone's telling him to do and it's still not enough. Shouldn't Tim be giving more direction on the level concepts?

Episode 15: "Hard To Get Old" shows a new level team spinning up and combat iteration for a 'first playable' build to show publisher Starbreeze. They're starting a new library-of-bees book themed level with a second level team, while the bonsai team is moving on to a casino heist level. They're worried they won't have enough progress to show Starbreeze. Meanwhile, Zak and Anna conflict over combat design; Zak seems to want a focus on classical bread-and-butter systems-y interesting set of choices, while Anna thinks combat should be more of a means to convey mood and expression. (This "what's the purpose of combat?" issue returns in climactic episodes 17 and 21.)

Episode 16: "Written Into A Corner" shows multiple shifts in management, and finally they get art director Lisette Titre. There's recognition that James was setup to fail, so leads will now do less hands-on work themselves and give more feedback. (A common dilemma in all industries, where seniors no longer get to do the thing they like doing, and are pushed to become managers instead.) Tim gives more narrative briefings and material for teams to work with. New art director / manager Lisette helps rep the artists at meetings and tries to help mend broken trust. (Lisette: "I have not been in a game where design and artists have not wanted to kill each other.") At 26:30, Zak leaves the room and, seemingly immediately, James vents about his ongoing frustrations with Zak to senior devs... Oh well, at least the Starbreeze meeting goes OK.


Episode 17: "The Heart of Double Fine" shows multiple conflicts peak in the departure of senior programmer Anna Kipnis. There's a side story about the Shanghai-bee-library level finishing up, but really the focus is on a series of fateful combat design meetings: Zak wants bottom-up design with a core enemy type toolbox that they theme later, while Anna wants worldbuilding-first enemy design for specific thematic / story purposes. Anna points out the latter is how enemy design is usually done at DF, and Zak says no. At another combat meeting, Anna shows the flying enemy AI she made, and wants to add an additional attack type that'll look cooler for the Friday studio-wide meeting, but Zak says no again. Then at a design process presentation, Anna warns the current workflow may sideline narrative design and scripting, and level design lead Ryan says no it's not (period)... All of these shutdowns seem to culminate in Anna leaving DF, shocking the rest of a teary-eyed studio and marking a major turning point in the project.


What will happen next? Will the project recover?! I'll cover episodes 18-32 in a future post. Probably.

I'll end this post with some remarks though --

This isn't reality TV. People are more complicated than characters. Hold that complexity in your mind. The people who actually know McClendon in real-life -- they can totally judge him, they have that experience. But viewers like me can only know a "Zak" character, who exists as a sort of villain in this story. If one main question of this whole video series is "where is it going wrong?", the answer is probably more than just "it's Zak's fault." If "Zak" is a villain, then what process turned him into a villain? There's multiple chains of problems and issues to ponder.
  • In later episodes, Zak implies he was sort of setup for failure. Being the studio step-dad does seem like an impossible situation. Is that where things went wrong?
  • How should junior devs be mentored and trained? Too little is neglect, too much is micro-management, both extremes destroy confidence. What's the balance?
  • Is Tim stepping back too much? How involved should he be? Should the entire studio seem to revolve around him? Again, what's the balance here?
  • Does the design department have too much power here, or should design rightfully drive programming and art? It seems like it's bad for artists to not have an art director to advocate for them, why didn't that hire happen sooner?
  • The studio is gradually diversifying, with more women and people of color. Who's in the room when decisions get made?