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How Psychonauts Turned From A Flop Into A Success Story

Today, Psychonauts boasts an 87 Metacritic score with an 8.8 user score. But that doesn't tell the whole story of the whimsical game — which was nearly killed multiple times during development.

Released in 2005, Psychonauts is a surrealist action-adventure in which players use psychic powers to delve deeper into the subconscious minds of both friends and enemies. In these realms, players must use a combination of puzzle-solving and platforming to find the answers they need. But while Psychonauts may have eventually become a cult classic, selling 1.7 million copies, its initial reception was harsh. Players met the unique game not with malice but with apathy — few even bothered to pick up a copy. When people did play the game, they pointed out that the story and the characters carried it while the gameplay itself was fairly lackluster.


Still, 15 years later, the Psychonauts franchise is on its way toward resurrection. What caused the resurgence of interest in the initially maligned game?

Psychonauts nearly destroyed its own development company

Psychonauts was ambitious. Perhaps overly so. According to the developer himself, Tim Schafer, the project was plagued with issues from the start. They were creating a game engine from scratch for a platform — consoles — that they had little experience with. Psychonauts was initially supposed to take two years to develop, but it ended up taking five. And, unfortunately, when they finally did create a playable game, they found that it wasn't fun. It had to be reworked.


While Psychonauts started its development with Microsoft, Microsoft pulled the plug in 2004 – just a year before release. It was both too expensive and too slow. The developers needed to court multiple other publishers, finally landing with Majesco. But Majesco was only able to sell 100,000 copies of Psychonauts in 2005, losing money on the game, which ultimately cost $11.5 million to develop.

How Psychonauts ultimately became a cult classic

How does a game go from selling 100,000 copies to selling 1.7 million? Psychonauts was always a critical success, but it simply didn't sell. While the game was both action-adventure and puzzle-platformer, its story required paragraphs to explain. Today's Metacritic scores indicate that once players bought the game, they enjoyed it.


It also didn't hurt that Psychonauts was featured on platforms such as the Humble Bundle — Double Fine's 20th-anniversary bundle sold 60,970 copies and raised $537,925.56. This additional exposure created more fans and more word-of-mouth buzz, especially combined with the VR game.

Like many cult classics, Psychonauts' popularity developed as a slow burn because it required word-of-mouth to spread. And because it's such a unique experience, players could only find that type of experience in one place: the mind of Tim Schafer, who has been the writer for classics such as Day of the Tentacle, Grim Fandango, and The Secret of Monkey Island.

Ready for more Psychonauts? Psychonauts 2 has been slated for release since 2019. The game is partially funded by fans, who raised over $3.8 million to see it come to fruition, and expected to be released sometime in 2021.