Double Fine head Tim Schafer says publishers "will cut you loose and let you die" if developers don't meet sales expectations.
Psychonauts may not have flown off shelves when it came out in 2005, but in the seven years since, it's gained cult status from positive word of mouth and releases on various downloadable platforms. After not performing well as a PS2, PC, and Xbox retail title, Psychonauts went on to be released on Steam (for PC and Mac), Xbox 360's Xbox Originals, and most recently the PlayStation Network's PS2 Classics. Last year, developer Double Fine gained the publishing rights to its first game, which helped the studio realize how much money it was missing out on by not owning its games. In an interview with Polygon, studio head Tim Schafer stated, "We made more on Psychonauts this year than we ever have before."
Schafer didn't accompany that statement with any sales figures, so it's unclear if he means Double Fine made more from Psychonauts in 2012 than any previous single year, or all of the years it's been on the market combined. Either way, it's an impressive feat for the developer, which just a few years ago was in danger when its follow-up to Psychonauts, Brutal Legend, was dropped by Activision. Schafer elaborated on some of the problems that come from working with major publishers on big-budget retail titles in the interview. "A publisher is a business. If you're making money they'll be in business with you, and if you're not important to their bottom line, they will cut you loose and let you die... That's what businesses should do. They're not here for emotions; they're here to make money."
Since the kerfuffle over Brutal Legend (which also included a legal battle with Activision and EA canceling its planned sequel), Double Fine has shifted directions, having multiple teams working on smaller games. "It's weird to say, but I'm glad it didn't work out that way... what was really inspiring to me, was what saved us, and why we didn't go out of business after Brutal Legend, was that not me but the team had a lot of great ideas. And we made our salaries off of those great ideas for the next two years. And so that creativity saved the day."
By getting back the publishing rights to Psychonauts, which "instantly started making money" for the studio, "we realized how much money we're losing out on, by not controlling our own destiny." Because of this, Double Fine is finding new ways to get funding while retaining the rights to its creative works, like investors and the immensely successful Double Fine Adventure Kickstarter from earlier this year.
In an era where it seems like veteran studios are being shut down left and right, it's heartwarming to see a developer like Double Fine find its way despite things not going quite as intended. Now that it has found a publishing model that appears to work, maybe Double Fine can get around to making that Psychonauts sequel.