Not only has Double Fine raised $1.8m from its Kickstarter campaign, Markus ‘Notch’ Persson of Minecraft has suggested that he would pay the $13m required to develop Psychonauts 2. But why?
Psychonauts is the archetypal example of a noble failure, a game that fans believe failed due to publisher incompetence, but which if it had had its fair shake would have done much better. This interpretation is almost always wrong, and leads me to think that a Psychonauts 2 is a mistake.
Noble failures fail because they don’t tell a remarkable marketing story. They fall into the trap of being very good, meaning well executed yet out of step, and so become the game that woulda shoulda coulda done good. They always have their supporters, but that tribe is usually tiny.
Sometimes, however, it includes a rich patron who wants to set the world to rights. Someone who both believes that the noble failure simply didn’t have its fair chance to make a splash and, if it had its time again, absolutely would. Like a royal prince of 300 years ago, this patron believes it important to pay what needs to be paid and set the world to rights. That it is important to the art itself. And, of course, this earns the love of fans.
While in the minds of some that makes it a worthy endeavour, the likely result will be a game that costs a lot to make, takes a long time to develop and yet still only achieves weak or long-tail performance at the box office. Worthiness by itself is not enough to make a franchise fly, nor is listening to the echo chamber of 1000 true fans if your intent is to spend at least $13m. Simply put, the market is not big enough to pay that back.
Does that mean that the game should be made anyway? No it does not. Creatively speaking, working on a sequel to a noble failure is inherently dispiriting because not only is the game not original, there is the sensation that it is just going to be judged on how much of a fan-pleaser it is. Financially speaking, it’s Notch’s money to do with as he likes, and yet that tap will not last forever. (I am also very troubled by signs of a lack of focus at Mojang, and suspect there will be some amount of retrenchment in the next 24 months, but that’s for another article.)
It is deeply embarrassing to the industry that most of its luminaries do not personally reinvest in future game startups (or if they do, they do it in a predatory fashion). It shows just how zero-sum the industry culture really is. So I thoroughly applaud the idea that Notch wants to take on that role of patron and help independent game makers realise their visions. Perhaps in so doing he will shame a few other multi-millionaire ‘rock stars’ to dip into their own fortunes and do likewise.
I just think that his $13m would be better spent on new works rather than trying to right a wrong that never existed by fuelling a sequel to a game that failed for the obvious reason. There are thousands of independent developers out there who need 100th of that funding to make new franchises come alive, and create the next big things. Why not invest in them, in the future, rather than a past that never was?