"Flip The Question Around" – Interview with Andy Schatz
by Andreas Zecher
Andy Schatz has been highly influential and inspiring to the independent game development community for a long time, so I’m delighted to have had the chance to talk to him about Monaco and the Venture Games, the growth of indie games and the most important skill to run an indie studio.
Your first two games Venture Africa and Venture Arctic are about managing an ecosystem of animals. Was the theme of the games mainly driven by your interest in the subject, or did you also see a niche that no one was serving at the time?
It’s surprising to me how often I get this question. I design games based upon themes and mechanics that I observe in the real world, not based upon other games, and I have a passionate interest in animals and the environment. I would actually flip the question around and ask the people that design shooters if they are doing it because they love guns, or if they are doing it for business reasons.
Venture Africa was a finalist for the IGF Grand Prize in 2006, the year Darwinia won, when Braid’s prototype was awarded for its Innovation in Game Design and when the Student Showcase featured thatgamecompany’s first game Cloud and DigiPen’s Narbacular Drop that later would lead to Portal. If you look back, how would you describe that particular time for making games independently and how does it compare to today?
There was a period of three years that saw exponential growth in the indie scene, starting with the year Gish won, through Darwinia, and onto the World of Goo/Fez year. This was spawned by the existence of new distribution platforms and the casual game revolution familiarizing game players with digital purchases. These days there are tons of opportunities for indies, mainly because we have a healthy variety of competing options for funding and distribution. Customers and the press have acclimated to the new status quo, and growth continues unabated.
You have been running your own studio Pocketwatch Games in San Diego since 2004. Aside from the ability to design and develop games, what skills do you think are the most important for running your own company as an indie developer?
Every studio succeeds based on its strength. Some developers are great coders – those ones should code. Some are great marketers, some are great with business. Some people are great artists. The only skill that is absolutely required is the ability to actually finish games. Being successful takes more than that, of course, but that’s the only one that is common among all successful developers.
After the success of Venture Africa you hired someone full-time to work on Venture Arctic, which didn’t sell as well, so you had to let that person go again. During that time, did you feel that you needed to change your strategy and move away from the family-friendly brand that Pocketwatch Games was intended to be?
No. I still felt that I was onto something with the Venture series, and so I did 6 months of contract work so I could try again. It was disappointing to me that Venture Arctic flopped, but it wasn’t surprising. Venture Arctic was more interesting than it was fun.
In the end of 2009 you started your current project Monaco, originally to take a break from working on Venture Dinosauria. On your blog you described how Monaco felt like “an ‘easy’ game design” and “very different from the Venture Games”. What exactly was it that made it feel easier?
Working with a singular player character is much easier than working on a god-game. The problem with god games is that the limitations, goals, and player identity must be invented out of the blue. With a player-character, all of these game design decisions flow from answering the question “who am I”. With a god game, it’s up to the designer to invent the immovable rock that stands in the way of the omnipotent god. Without such constraints, there is no game.
After four weeks of development you considered to release Monaco as an Xbox Live Indie Game, but kept working on it until today, effectively turning it into an AAA Indie Game. How did you make the decision to work on it “until it’s done” and thus highering your stakes?
Ha, there’s lots of stuff packed into this question. First off, I despise the term “AAA Indie Games”. I wish Chris had never suggested that. Some of the best selling indie games of all time would never have been described as AAA Indie Games, and some of the AAA Indie Games are bad and sell like crap. Sure, you can see the difference between indie games that are the product of years of work and those that are from a game jam, but I feel like there’s too much emphasis on those differences already, so why would we want to separate the playing field even further?
As for how I made the decision, I can’t really talk about the details of it all just yet, but the [redacted] story is that it wasn’t really intentional, but it was necessary. At every step along the way circumstances would throw up a road block that forced me to plan for another 6 weeks, or 6 months, or year on the project. I’ll talk about it all when I’m done!
Your initial game design for Monaco goes all the way back to 2003, where your previous employer pitched it to Microsoft Game Studios. Do you feel that the best ideas are the ones that you can’t stop thinking about? Or did you ever feel like “If my idea for Monaco was any good, I would already have done it years ago”?
The best ideas are the best ideas. :)
Monaco is a co-op heist game where each of the up to 4 players have their own unique character class and abilities. How do you balance each character class to make sure it’s fun for everyone? Do you constantly play-test with 4 players?
We do play test a lot, though not that often with 4 players. I’ll be launching a closed beta soon, so I should get an idea about which characters are best then. That said, balance is overrated. It really only matters in competitive games. In single-player or cooperative games, all that matters is that each player has a role, a specialty, and each is fun to play. Then it’s up to the players to discover the imbalances that can give them extra advantages when competing with each other for high scores.
You’re planning to release Monaco on PC, Mac and “at least one console”. Are you aiming for the same release window on all platforms?
Yes! It will be a simultaneous launch.
Monaco was one of the first games to be backed by the Indie Fund in 2011. How did you fund the development of the game before that? In what other ways are you benefitting from the Indie Fund besides the funding itself?
Well, I had winnings from the IGF, savings from before I started Pocketwatch, and some income from the Venture Games. Indie-fund is of course a fantastic resource in terms of advice and moral support as well. I couldn’t have done it without them.
One of the highlights during GDC is when you occasionally host the IGF awards ceremony. Do you write your own script, or do you have “professional” help? And why is the telepromter placed in a way so half of the audience can read what you’re going to say?
I do write my own script! That’s why it doesn’t have professionally written jokes ;) I am not in charge of teleprompter placement.
What’s your advise for people who want to make their own games and are just starting out?
FINISH YOUR GAMES! If you don’t finish, you don’t matter!