How the creator of SimCity helped save Psychonauts

Enlarge / Tim Schafer (second from right) and Will Wright (third from right) share more than a love of nice formalware.WikiCommons

SAN FRANCISCO–Since 2004, games from Tim Schafer’s Double Fine Productions have included a “special thanks” to Will Wright, the founder of Maxis and creator of SimCity and The Sims. Schafer disclosed the reason for all those thank yous in a heartfelt and teary-eyed acceptance speech while receiving a LifeTime Achievement Award at the Game Developers Choice Awards here Wednesday night. The reason, which Schafer said he was finally revealing under the influence of four shots of tequila, is that without Will Wright, Double Fine games ranging from Psychonauts on through Brutal Legend, Broken Age, and more would probably not exist.

Flashback to early 2004, when the four-year-old Double Fine Productions was struggling. Microsoft had just canceled a publishing deal for Schafer’s ambitious 3D platform game idea, Psychonauts, and it would be months before Majesco would become the only other publisher interested in scooping up the title. During those months, as Schafer recalled Wednesday night, “there was a long period where we didn’t have any money, we ran out of money.”

“I had to make a talk to the whole company to tell them the next payroll was not coming, and there were 30 people who were like, ‘We’ve been crunching on this game for four years, and nobody will ever know this company ever existed,” he continued. “Which is hilarious…” In desperate need of a lifeline, Schafer said, he reached out to “this friend who sold his company to EA,” referring to Wright’s sale of Maxis in 1997. “I hated to do it, but I called him and I said, ‘I hate to ask you, but if you do it I’ll give you ten percent of my company. Oh my god, please help us out.”

Wright consulted with his lawyers, Schafer said, and found out he couldn’t own stock in another game company. So instead of buying a piece of Double Fine, Wright said, “I’m just going to give you the money, lend you the money,” Schafer recalled. “Anyway, we didn’t go out of business, and we’re still here 18 years later!” he added later in the speech. That bit of generosity from Wright during a moment of complete desperation had a profound effect on Schafer, which he said motivates him to this day to “help people as best I can because I remember how that felt to be in that position…

And so, to this day, if you play one of my games, it’ll say ‘Special thanks to Will Wright’ and so I want to thank Will tonight… “But to everyone else, don’t ask him for money,” Schafer deadpanned. “Don’t do it.” Schafer’s full acceptance speech (which starts around 2:19:00 in this archived stream) is full of his trademark heart and self-deprecating humor and is well worth a watch for anyone who has enjoyed Schafer’s work from LucasArts on through to Double Fine.

We here at Ars extend our congratulations to Schafer for the award and our newfound thanks to Will Wright for his role in Schafer’s continued success.

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