Image courtesy of Double Fine Productions

How Psychonauts 2 revamped its roots

Jimmy Thang
More than 16 years after the release of the original Psychonauts, Double Fine Productions returned to the series with Psychonauts 2 in 2021. Released to overwhelmingly positive reviews and nominated for Game of the Year at The Game Awards, Psychonauts' long-awaited return was a smashing success for the studio, with publications like GameSpot calling Psychonauts 2 "an astonishing achievement in nearly every regard and the quintessential display of Double Fine's mastery in story, gameplay, and distinct direction."

In our Spotlight video above, you’ll see Creative Director Tim Schafer recalling how Psychonauts was the first game that Double Fine developed to learn how to make games on console. A studio made up of former LucasArts employees, Double Fine's debut game was also an introduction for many to Schafer’s wit. That same wit attracted similarly minded developers to Double Fine and helped the studio bring some of the most unique projects in the video game industry to life. So, for the team to come back to the series, which Principal Artist Geoff Soulis calls the "soul of the studio," represents something truly special.

"It's very, very important to the identity of the company, and we obviously took building a sequel to it very, very seriously," said Principle Designer Seth Marinello. Schafer added that the main reason for making Psychonauts 2 was because "there are people out there who love Psychonauts 1," which meant they also couldn't get the spirit of the series wrong. And to get that spirit right, Double Fine Productions went with Unreal Engine as the foundation for Psychonauts 2. The studio noted the ability to test new features and iterate quickly as core reasons UE had such a big impact on development.
Image courtesy of Double Fine Productions
"Unreal was a good fit for Psychonauts 2 because it checked all of the boxes that we needed to check on the art side, allowed us to quickly iterate on levels, and build a massive game with a pretty small team," Soulis explained. Marinello continued, saying that Unreal gives the team a "really robust content pipeline" that makes performing multiple tasks and adding new features easier—without the need to "deal with basic rendering functions," which Marinello says they would need to do if Double Fine used its own engine.

"One thing that was a boon to us is that we took the spline mesh actor, and we made our own version of it called the multi spline mesh actor, which allowed us to take a statically built object and organically populate it through the world based on a spline. If we hadn't had that bit of technology, there's no way we would have made enough content to fill this game—and we wouldn't have been able to do that without Unreal Engine," Soulis explained.
Image courtesy of Double Fine Productions
"One of the things that is really helpful about Unreal is that using Blueprints, designers can mock up an idea for gameplay and see if it's fun or not before they actually request a feature to be coded by a programmer. We can do a lot of experimentation, which is always good to test out ideas in a rapid way," Schafer stated.

"It's really nice because they act sort of as a common ground where designers, artists, and programmers can all contribute to logic that's stored in Blueprints," Marinello explained.
Image courtesy of Double Fine Productions
Not only did Unreal Engine help with the speed and ease of Psychonauts 2's development, but when the working world was thrust into home offices during the pandemic, Double Fine was able to quickly create a custom application with Unreal's source code to keep the entire team on the same page.

"Having all of our files be in sync was the thing that helped us the most," Soulis explained. "Having source control on this project was the only thing that kept us going. Without that, it would have been madness. We wouldn't have been able to make this game without it."

With tools like Blueprints and the studio's custom work, Double Fine finished and launched an incredible game while working from home.

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