Fungus Zone

The Elephants in the (Meeting) Room: PsychOdyssey and Eight Uncomfortable Truths About Game Development

  • June 25 2023
  • 22 min read
Illustration by Flynn Nicholls |
Illustration by Flynn Nicholls |

On February 10th, 2023, Double Fine and 2 Player Productions released a 32-part, 22-hour episodic documentary series called PsychOdyssey, covering nearly six and a half years of development on Psychonauts and the Rhombus of Ruin (2017) and Psychonauts 2 (2021). With over five thousand hours of footage of people on the studio floor, in meetings, in interviews, and early gameplay footage, it’s one of the most honest and in-depth looks into the lives of game developers that we’ve ever seen, or likely will see, for quite some time.

It also calls attention to a lot of the industry’s most glaring issues.

Some of these are explicitly mentioned and generally well known across the industry, such as the gender and racial disparities in game development, the high costs of living in tech-centric cities, the ever-looming specter of crunch, and the pressure of delivering a worthy sequel to a beloved game.

Over the course of its run, there’s a lot that’s explicitly said about all of the above topics that helps train viewers to understand how these issues are systemic, a result of larger social or organizational structures than the explicit fault of any one person or group. It’s a real testament to the folks at 2PP that the series was able to toe this line so well. In other hands, this could have easily been more sensationalized, distorted in the edit like a funhouse mirror. More “Reality TV” than Reality.

What’s more interesting to me, though, aren’t the things the series’s subjects talk about but what they all know and make an effort to not talk about: the elephants in the room. And not the (figurative) ones operating the cameras.

Pay close enough attention while you’re watching and you’ll see them: a pause as someone reflects on something before they say it. A verve mid-sentence. A shift in body language as the interviewer segues into a question the subjects hoped wouldn’t be asked. A nervous laugh in response. Or maybe, like Tim Schafer, a lot of spoken truths masked as jokes, whether the speaker means them to be or not. These are the moments I find most valuable about the documentary series. Thankfully, with a much longer runtime than your average film or TV series, 2PP allows their footage the room it needs to breathe, with plenty of time to include all of these little… elephantisms, we’ll call them. And they’re easy to spot once you learn to recognize them.

Here are the elephantisms that stuck out the most to me:

Elephantism #1: The games industry has a scheduling problem

Many times in the past I've made the choice to invest more in a game than the original budget specified. And that's because in the end, my highest priority is the quality of the game. Most of the games you play, not all of them, but more than you think, went over budget and extended their schedule at some point.

Tim Schafer, DFPO EP05 (17:39)

With all that in mind, we are estimating that Psychonauts 2 will be finished for a release in 2018.

Psychonauts 2 Fig Campaign (Archived Link, Dec 3, 2015)

[...] The hardest thing about this project has been the fact that we–we've had–we thought we had four months left for, like, three years. You know what I mean?

James Marion, DFPO EP32 (39:30)

to all the game devs who said your project **this time** would be small and only take 2 years how's that going 🤭

Victoria Tran, Twitter

The sad truth is that in commercial game productions, schedules are more than likely to be inaccurate. There’s a myriad of factors that contribute to this. On one level, this is the fault of individual actors who make inaccurate assessments of the work involved (intentionally or not) or their mismanagement of studio resources and priorities. On a deeper level, this is the fault of game industry culture at large, of the tension between releasing a commercially viable product and creating a personal work of art, and of the way we gate and hoard production data. It’s a wonder this has been able to persist for so long, because there are serious consequences that come with ever-extending, inaccurate deadlines:

  1. Developers take on a heavy mental and spiritual toll. At the start of any new project, it’s common to think, “This time the schedule will work.” And just as common, deadlines are extended as teams reassess the work that still needs to be done with the resources on hand to meet the goals that leadership has set for them. For the workers on the ground, each extension of that goal post is like a carrot being dangled further and further from reach. At some point, the carrot doesn’t even feel real anymore. It can feel exhausting and demoralizing. And so devs burn out or drop out to pursue new career paths, taking their experiences with them while a newer, younger class of workers step in and take their place. As an industry, we have an alarmingly low number of industry veterans still working and it shows.

  2. Leaders who sign off on inaccurate schedules will continue to do so with little consequence. As the leadership running a studio, their goals are fundamentally different from (and often opposed to) its rank and file, the individual contributors of a project. Both groups are striving to deliver a quality game, but leaders are beholden to their financial stakeholders and the promises they make to them. Promises that affect the scope, schedule, and specifics of the game they plan on delivering. And when those promises aren’t met? The ICs bear the brunt of the impact, not the CEO, either gritting their teeth through the worst of it (with the scars to prove it) or spinning out. Meanwhile the studio leaders stay on, falsely believing that the next project will be better without taking responsibility over their own complicity. The cycle continues.

Scheduling is a problem that’s endemic to commercial game production that has not been given the attention it deserves. Period. This isn’t something we can solve with shorter games and timelines (or putting less emphasis on graphics or treating employees better), but we can look to other industries for help. Movies have lived with the tension between creative and commercial interests for over a century now, but their film crews are also better organized than game developers and can push back against unreasonable demands or working conditions through collective action.

Being more open about our production stories is necessary, too. What if we didn’t treat everything we did like classified government documents? What about aiming for “education that facilitates a better, deeper knowledge of production principles across the board - scheduling early, knowing when to start cutting, working within your financial means,” as Aura Triolo wrote? What about making an effort to uplift and learn from productions that manage to successfully stick to a schedule AND treat their workers well? Until we start taking this issue seriously, we’ll just keep perpetuating the same problems over and over again.

Elephantism #2: The games industry isn’t built to facilitate long careers

But I want to say happy birthday to Psychonauts! And congratulations to the Psychonauts team! Who is still here and... [LAUGHTER] ...has survived. Or haven't thought of anything better to do.

Tim Schafer, DFPO EP01 (1:13)

Like, my blood pressure is off the roof because of the crunch I did on Psychonauts.

Kee Chi, DFPO EP27 (52:58)

It just sucks coming into work. Um... I, like... I have anxiety attacks before having combat meetings. Um, like, my heart just, like, starts beating really fast. I start getting, like, dizzy. Um, and I have to, like, spend time to calm myself down.

Anna Becker, DFPO EP21 (58:56)

And I think that’s a– that’s a really good point. Like… Product-wise, you know, consumer-wise, it is a thing that you play for a little bit, and then you have memories of it, but then you move on. But this is the product of the last five years of our lives! Of all our collective shared experiences together.

Kee Chi, DFPO EP32 (1:25:01)

I touched on this briefly in the previous elephantism, but it deserves to be mentioned again: people in the games industry don’t tend to last long. A large part of this stems from the strenuous working conditions developers face and their inability to maintain that pace over decades. The career isn’t conducive to raising families either (especially with current paternity leave laws in the USA), as we see when Brad and Ryan leave the studio to start a family and Ray moves to better accommodate his. The support structures simply aren’t in place to take care of the people making games. Taken with the fact that studios are trending towards longer production cycles, devs may only get to work on a handful of games before they throw in the towel.

Now, you might think that a constant influx of young and passion-driven developers is an overall boon for the industry. That surge of fresh perspectives is vital in a medium that has so much more room to explore and ways to break out of stale thinking. However, it also means that they’re relearning all the same hard lessons that those before them have thought of and tried, too. Or that they aren’t coming with the experience needed to properly manage other people, let alone a studio. As vital as their energy and enthusiasm are, it’s crucial to be able to balance it out with age and experience.

How many Shigeru Miyamotos (age 70) are still around to help direct new cohorts of developers? How many Roberta Williams (age 70) are still here to reflect and build on the projects that shaped a medium? How can we ensure long-term stability for our own Martin Scorceses (age 80) or Hayao Miyazakis (age 82) to continue to push the medium forward? Or to create spaces that encourage people to come to game development later in life and flourish? Where are all our late bloomers?

If we hope to grow as an industry, we need to set conditions to ensure our overall long-term health. And that’s explicitly about the health of the people making games. If we have to rely on younger workers to maintain our current production pace, then maybe the issue isn’t with the workers themselves but with the working conditions they’re placed under.

Elephantism #3: There are more people critical to an operation than those making the most noise

Heather Alexandra, Kate Barr Kelly, Dan Bruington, Bert Chang, Monica Chin-Perez, Gabe Cinquepalmi, Amy Dallas, Matt Enright, Tyson Erze, Seth Forester, Oliver Franzke, Tristan Gallagher, Eliza Gibson, Denise Gollaher, Steve Green, Juli Gregg, Sarah Grissom, Aaron Hayes, Justin Honegger, Samantha Iturralde, Sammy James, Kevin Johnson, Adam Kelsey-Giddings, Matt Leach, Tony Lo, Ebbe Loenborg, Brooke Maggs, Nick Maksim, Nick Marshall, Jerry Matsko, Jared Mills, Jason Morales, Paul Moya, Faith Mun, Tru Narla, Paul O’Rourke, Kris Orpilla, Sammy Qubain, Miyuki Richardson, Kollin Stewart, Rebecca Taylor, Alex Turner, Rebecca Vessal, Sarah Will, Evan Williams.

List of credited studio staff on Psychonauts 2 who are listed as appearing in 3 episodes or less on the PsychOdyssey IMDB page

This is more of a media literacy thing, but still applicable, so bear with me.

People might believe that on-the-ground documentaries are the best tool at our disposal to represent the captial-T Truth of events. They’re the closest we can come to an objective view of a given situation, since these are real people who happen to be captured by cameras at just the right moment to give a rawer, more honest portrayal than actors in fiction films. How could it ever be otherwise?

Well, even if a filmmaker had the time and resources to capture an incredible amount of footage from every possible vantage point at all times of the day… that in and of itself isn’t something audiences would want to watch outside of experimental film or art installations. It needs to be edited: Which shots do you play in full? Where do you cut? Which angle do you use? What are you trying to draw attention to and what do you believe can be left out? And finally, what’s the driving question of the documentary, its thesis? Five editors can cut five different sequences with the same footage with vastly different results.

Documentarians have to make important decisions around who to interview and when, how involved they want to be during filming, and what kind of central question they want us to consider. In PsychOdyssey, 2PP are doing the best they can… with the people most comfortable and willing to have themselves filmed. And that’s a crucial point to remember.

Double Fine is more than just the central “cast” of workers on constant rotation. There are so many more people who consciously choose not to be part of this series (as is within their right) that nonetheless could have provided some much needed insight. What would they have said? What were their thoughts on the unfolding situations? How would they have reacted? We’ll never know.

As much as we want to believe that we’re getting the Truth from workers, we’re only ever hearing from the people who want to speak up and like to be heard. It doesn’t mean they’re right or the best people to talk on the subject, they’re simply the only volunteers.

Elephantism #4: Combat is a trap

I don’t consider our core audience to be super combat heavy. They seem to be more narrative.

Anna Becker, DFPO EP21 (15:55)

We are making– we are making a narrative action-adventure that has a bunch of different, um– different components to it. And combat is one of those components.

Zak McClendon, DFPO EP21 (27:41)

You are making it much harder for yourself essentially, because... you are fighting fundamentally what's good about… the type of games that's, like-- that the studio produces, right? You are fighting the nature of the studio and you are making it something completely different.

Tazio Coolidge, DFPO EP 21 (1:00:32)

They were spending so much time talking about [cutting combat] and I was yelling at the TV, “Just cut combat from your game!”

Greg Lobanov, MinnMax - What PsychOdyssey Taught Us About Game Development (20:50)

Let’s do an exercise together: pause for a moment and reflect on which 3 aspects of Psychonauts 2 are the most memorable and stand-out attributes of the game. If you haven’t played it yet, that’s alright, too. Instead try to think of the first 3 words/terms/expressions that come to mind when you think of the game.

Does combat factor into any of them?

And I don’t mean the boss battles, I mean all the filler combat sections littered throughout levels, where you’re artificially gated from progressing to the next major set-piece and forced to clear an area of enemies. Are those sections defining moments of Psychonauts as an experience to you? To most of its players? I wouldn’t bet on it.

So if combat is not the most interesting aspect of Psychonauts and players aren’t coming to the game expecting deep, layered, and artfully-crafted combat design (à la God of War: Ragnarok) then why is it included in the first place?

Pacing is one reason why. Adding combat stretches out sections of a level in-between larger, more impactful moments and it provides designers with tools to control the flow of tension and release that can keep players engaged. Adding combat to a game is also an easy way to fine-tune the relative challenge level for players. To those developers, combat is simply a given in any game. Like gravity. Or petting dogs.

But instead of (unquestioningly) catering to audience expectations, consider that there’s a real cost to adding combat to a game that can balloon your project in scope and sour the overall experience of your game, for combat- and non-combat-focused players, alike. Daniel Cook summed the issue up well on his blog (emphasis mine):

A thing I’ve realized making non-combat focused games is how expensive combat mechanics often end up being in the end. “The basics” to get you in the door take immense effort. Enemy design, encounter design, player design, attack/defense systems, game feel, all the art and fx. [...]

Players are fans of specific game feel often tuned over decades. The tiniest aesthetic deviation invalidates all your labor. [You can] balance your game for 12 months, [and] still get comments like “feels floaty. sux.” [...]

And the amusing part is most of the clever differentiators that I care about exploring as a designer have nothing to do with combat. Story, progression, building, discovery, social systems, emergence? You only really get to work on those after you overcome the Olympic-level challenge to ‘make combat perfect’. Often your inclusion of ‘a little combat’ ends up starving your actual design dreams of precious development resources.

If combat was restricted only to boss fights, how much would it have affected production? What resources were pulled away from writing, art, animation, and tech to ‘make combat perfect’ in Psychonauts 2? Would it have diminished the game’s overall reception? How would you feel about it? Because it’s high time we start seriously addressing the question of, “Is combat necessary in my game?” It might surprise us how often the answer is no.

Elephantism #5: As people move into leadership positions and their teams grow, they become less aware of what’s actually happening on the ground.

The bigger the team gets the more demand there is [for your time as a Lead]. And I think that's what's happening. It's just, like, you have to be there to kind of help everyone else with their goals. And make sure-- and you have to know everything that is going on. Because your goal is to make sure that that plugs into that. That everything strings together and it works.

Andy Alamano, DFPO EP16 (9:29)

Yeah, everyone seems in very bad spirits right now. People were out drinking a couple of weeks ago. There were a ton of people just, like, mass-- like, airing everything out. And so, like, I learned a lot of stuff, and I'm like: "You guys should talk to other people." Because, like, Tim, just--No offense to Tim, he just doesn't know what's going-- what's happening out on the floor. He is not aware of these things that we are talking about.

Michael Tucker, DFPO EP 21 (26:10)

I'm at a point right now where I'm, like... second guessing a lot of my communication. Because I've done a lot of communication where it's like: ("Everyone hated that.") And I'm like: "Oh, okay, I thought that was pretty good."

Zak McClendon, DFPO EP21 (52:37)

Managers have a hard time facing the fact that they will never fully know what’s going on in their teams. I feel it too, having recently transitioned into an Art Director role. Once that position changes, there’s a power dynamic shift that subtly starts to drive a rift between you and your team. It’s a rift that can never truly be mended, try as you might to maintain those friendships and relationships. Surely, you may think, things haven’t changed that much between us. Right?

I hate to break it to you, but your responsibilities and allegiances have fundamentally changed now that you’ve moved up. Now you spend most of your days in meetings, conversing with other leads, planning and scheduling more often than doing the actual work. Now the only way you can track your team’s pulse is by talking with them, asking them questions. The right questions. But how can you know people are telling you what you need to know rather than what you want to hear? As a manager, your team members are constantly gauging how candid they should be knowing you’re in a role that can have serious repercussions over their employment status. They’re more likely to be honest with their peers than with you.

So what happens when you need more information about how your team is doing but can’t spend all your time with them? You turn to reports. Facts and figures. When managers see work getting done and tasks being completed it’s easy to sit back and think, “Well, no problems here!” much as what happened with Tim Schafer for the first half of the series. The metrics don’t lie, right? But the metrics aren’t enough. They’re quantitative in nature, not qualitative, and thus veil a lot of messy, emotional data. And it’s that messy, emotional data that will really tell you what’s going on with your team.

Elephantism #6: Adding more channels of communication makes it harder to have discussions, not easier

Tim Schafer: Like, it seemed like there was all this discussion on Hollis [the level] of, like: “I didn’t know you guys were working on this puzzle, I could have wired that up in one day, and we would have met our milestone.” And all this–
Lisette Titre-Montgomery: Information falls through the cracks around here a lot. Even though we assume people are talking, and they are not. I mean, we could get rid of Slack. That will force people to talk to each other.
Andy Alamano: Getting rid of Slack would fix the problem.
Tim Schafer: Interesting.

DFPO EP27 (18:07)

Slack, like most internal messaging applications, makes it easier than e-mail to discuss in-progress work and make quick decisions. Slack is also an incredible distraction that can be more trouble than it’s worth if its users aren’t in sync on how to best leverage it as a communication tool.

How many times have you had to repeat yourself because a message you sent wasn’t properly read by all the concerned parties? How often have you spent more time trying to clarify a message through text before realizing it can be solved in a fraction of the time with a call? How many times were crucial decisions buried in a DM or a thread that was impossible to trace afterwards? For fully-remote or hybrid teams, it’s still essential. No doubt about it. However, to properly wield Slack, there needs to be agreement on when a conversation needs to happen elsewhere and for its users to monitor their own uses and habits carefully.

And even when it feels like conversations are happening and all is well, Slack can still mask a studio’s underlying problems. For leads and managers, it can easily seem like work is moving along and the team’s overall health is well… until, like with Amy Price and Anna Kipnis, it suddenly isn’t.

As a messaging tool, it demands our constant attention, breaks our concentration, and can lead to more miscommunication than we may realize. At that point, who does it really benefit? The people working on the project or the people monitoring the workers?

Elephantism #7: We need more stories like this and we absolutely don’t need more stories like this

It’s just a natural thing that happens. Like the more and more you get, like… deep into covering something and learning more about it, and see how other people create stuff in that medium, like, makes you just want to do it more and more.

Asif Siddiky, DFPO EP20 (3:25)

Paul Levering: But just by having observed game development for the past eight– however long it’s been, number of years, that you have a slightly better expectation of how things happen and how it will come together?
Asif Siddiky: Yeah, I mean, you would think so, right? It’s just like… I can watch every episode of CSI and I have no idea how to, like, solve an actual crime.

DFPO EP12 (12:41)

You know, I watched the Broken Age documentary between getting hired and showing up for work. I probably watched that documentary three times. And that was probably the reason the project has been just so difficult. It’s because… there was such a cognitive dissonance between, like: “I love Double Fine. And here is what I think I know about Double Fine. And this is not the way my job is.”

James Marion, DFPO EP32 (40:32)

This one’s tricky. On the one hand, game development needs to be demystified. We need testimonies, experiences, and realities of our day-to-day to be to be more commonly understood. Studios can’t act like Walt Disney, building up their reputations on the backs of their workers and talking about a production with an air of innocent wonder. Workers are just people, clicking their way through Jira tickets and trying to repro some extreme edge-case game-breaking bugs. It’s a job, like any other. And the “banal-ification” of our work is an important part of what this documentary accomplishes

But on the other hand, how can we trust that the next documentary will care as much about the people being filmed? About their privacy? Their lives? Presenting them as real, complex, messy, multifaceted people instead of characters in an overly dramatized arc? Indie Game: The Movie may have introduced people to the scene, but as others have pointed out, we also had a lot to recover from what that movie was suggesting in terms of which developers have stories worth telling and what constitutes an “independent” game. What cultural impact will the next documentary have on the layperson’s perception of what we do?

And all the while, game workers will have to do their jobs with the added stress of their every word and action being recorded. Can you imagine working under that additional level of scrutiny? The constant self-analysis and awareness to say what you need to say but also to have those moments preserved and played back to people who don’t know you?

Being under full-time observation affects how you carry yourself and your interactions with others and I don’t know if the next game dev documentary film crew will have such a close, respectful relationship with their subjects while also presenting them in as honest a light as possible. That’s one of the reasons why PsychOdyssey is such a gem.

Maybe the solution is a Park Lanes-style documentary that presents an entire day, start to finish, filming people on the job. Maybe we should get workers to write down literal dev diaries to be collected, bound, and printed later into volumes like Hayao Miyazaki’s Starting Point and Turning Point memoirs, but as more of a shared history with multiple viewpoints. I’m all for devs being more open about what goes on behind the scenes but we need to make sure they’re respected as people, not just objects of curiosity, and find a way that works best for them to tell their own stories.

Elephantism #8: Would we feel the same way if the game failed?

You know, like, Psychonauts is everyone in this building. And every one of them is contributing to it being a good or a bad game. And I would really like to make a good game.

Geoff Soulis, DFPO EP27 (44:57)

I don't want to come off as, like: "Oh, failure is not an option!" But we really do, like-- Like, it's gotta be good, so we keep working on it.

Tim Schafer, DFPO EP32 (1:04:26)

It's not like we are in that position where we are just kind of noodling with something and changing colors back and forth, because we can't decide about what's great or–It's more, like, we are worried like: "Ugh... you know, this game can't be bad. And our first game with Microsoft can't be bad. And Psychonauts games can't be bad. And Double Fine games can't be bad."

Tim Schafer, DFPO EP30 (27:37)

It’s a fascinating experience to watch this documentary series knowing how it ends: the game releases to critical acclaim, picks up awards, and satisfies fans above and beyond their expectations as to what a modern and mature Psychonauts game can be. Seeing the level designers toil over a greyboxed scene knowing how it’s so far off from what they ultimately deliver (like in Bob’s brain), or conversely, to see how close they are to fully realizing that one idea if only they knew what we know now (like in Hollis’s brain) gives us an unprecedented look at the iterative and collaborative process of games. It’s also argument enough as to why you should play Psychonauts 2 before watching the documentary: knowing where they end up and how successful they are at it deepens your appreciation for the people and processes behind the pixels.

But what if the game turned out to be a dud?

The truth is, and the documentary emphasizes this, Psychonauts 2 could’ve easily been a huge mess. The series could still hold its own (and feel more tragic) if the launch played out a little differently. Sadly, the game’s tumultuous production is not an experience unique to Double Fine, either. Many studios have their own war stories, and workers bear those scars. Jason Schrier’s book Blood, Sweat, and Pixels is evidence enough to support that (even though I have issues about Schrier’s choices for the book’s subjects and framing). A lot of those same studios go through similar trials as Double Fine yet somehow come out with a game that receives middling reviews and evaporates from the public eye. There’s no magic formula or certified method that guarantees you a 90% Metacritic score and a GOTY nom, no matter who’s name is attached to it.

In which case we have to wonder: would we have had the same tolerance for people’s behaviour, management styles, or creative processes observed in the documentary if we knew the game wasn’t destined to be a success? What do we permit in our own day-to-day? And at point do we finally agree that a game is “good enough” to be released?

What now?

I’m still grateful for all the hard work that 2 Player Productions put together to make the series as personal and thoughtful as it turned out to be. This is the closest thing our industry has to a long-form case study that industry workers and laypeople alike can watch, analyze, and discuss. Honestly, it’s surprising that we haven’t had anything up until this point that dives this deeply into the banal granularity of game development, but it also feels like we’re in the midst of a turning point. We’re no longer hidden away to preserve an air of innocent wonder, or sensationalized, and misunderstood to the point of absurdity in the way that a lot of popular media depicts our profession.

The Double Fine team is full of real people who love what they do and are trying to make the industry a better place for others. As game devs, it’s easy to see the ways their challenges are reflected in our own lives. The passion that fuels us is used against us by studios that place profits over people, but we must also wield it to speak up about our collective struggles and build towards a better future. We need to share our stories, uplift others, and openly address our industry’s elephantisms–regardless of whether or not there’s a camera crew there to film us.