He says being risk-averse is human nature, especially in large companies where you're viewed as replaceable. "People have to stand up and take a risk, people have to stand up and expose themselves to the possibility of failure in order to make something great. You have to say, 'This is my idea, this is something I believe in, and I will take the hit if it turns out to not be true. If it fails, it's on me.'"
The Big-Ticket Item
Psychonauts, despite a poor initial run, enjoyed delayed-reaction critical acclaim and eventually became a fan favorite. Schafer thinks he knows why.
"Platformers were less popular when the game came out than when we started the game," he says. "Little things like that that may have made people take more of a 'wait and see' approach with the game."
"Some games just do better by word of mouth," he adds. "Some games get a ton of hype right out of the gate, and some games are the kind that you play and you love so much you tell all your friends about it, and that's how they get heard about."
Schafer says word of mouth from the game's fans kept them going, and positive reviews from the press validated the team's work.
"Sometimes it is a really depressing, hard day at work," he says, "and you'll get that letter that's like 'Oh my god I just finished Psychonauts, and it's the best game I ever played,' and I'll read it and send it around to the team, and it really does matter. Fan mail does actually keep you going sometimes."
Don't Give Up Hope
Schafer admits that in today's gaming arena, pitching an original idea, opening a studio or going your own way can get a little disheartening. "It's exasperating," he says. "If we had not been able to re-sign Psychonauts, I probably would have walked away. It can be very depressing, and you get so little encouragement to do good work. You just have to kind of decide to do it."
The pitch process, Schafer goes on to say, can be the most taxing element of game design. "You work your hardest to come up with not just a good idea but a really good presentation of the idea, and you really think you have something, and you take it out there, and the response you get sometimes is just appalling. It can be really depressing because, you see, the people in charge of green lighting projects are just lame. Some of them are really cool, don't get me wrong, but a lot of the people making decisions did not come to that point in that company because of their awesomeness."
But his message is ultimately one of hope, and of motivation.
"A lot of people think creativity is just about coming up with goofy ideas," he says, "but that's just the beginning. Coming up with an idea, editing it, crafting it to where it's cool, but also fighting for it. In the end, it doesn't matter unless you're willing to fight for it."
Chase Murdey is a freelance contributor to The Escapist.