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A Journey to Monaco: Andy Schatz Looks Back

April 18, 2013 Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next
 

"It was a six-week project. It was going to be an Xbox Live Indie Games release."

But top-down stealth game Monaco: What's Yours is Mine was not a six-week project, nor is it coming to Xbox Live Indie Games. Three and a half years later, with multiple IGF awards and game show exhibits under his belt, Andy Schatz is finally ready to show the world how he rolls -- and he's feeling the pressure.

"I'm feeling completely terrified," he says. "This GDC was racked with nerves. It's an online game, so there's always the potential for major technical issues at launch. If it happens, we're prepared to fix anything that comes up. But yeah, I am utterly terrified right now."

It hasn't been an easy journey for Schatz and his baby. The last few years have thrown plenty of obstacles his way, ranging from publisher issues, to engine porting, to family health. But it's a fascinating tale, especially the years that came before Monaco in its current form even existed.

TKOed

To get a real feel for we have to go back to the turn of the millennium. Schatz was one of the lead programmers at the Santa Cruz-based TKO Software, where he had a hand in titles like Goldeneye: Rogue Agent and DLC pack Medal of Honor: Allied Assault: Breakthrough. However, the team suddenly found itself without work.

"We had been working on another project that got cancelled," Schatz tells me. "We were working on a game for that movie Sahara, the one with Matthew McConaughey, and it was a trainwreck.

"To be honest, the whole company was a bit of a trainwreck. But while the biz dev people were scrambling to find us more work, I was thinking, 'We've got a bunch of people just sitting around doing nothing.' So I went into my boss and said 'If I bring in some game concepts of mine, would you mind if we prototyped them?'"

His boss said sure, why not, and the team began piecing multiple different ideas together, including one in particular that had the name Monaco. "The original version of Monaco was actually very similar to Jason Rohrer's Castle Doctrine," notes Schatz. "In fact the tagline of my game 'What's Yours Is Mine' was really inspired by the idea that you were literally stealing from other people."

He continues, "Back then I used to describe it as 'The Sims meets Diablo meets Hitman,' in that a good third of the game was in building your mansion, to defend it from other people who were trying to steal things from you, and then you would then go out and meet other thieves and steal things from other people's mansions. Which I think is still a real awesome concept! I still haven't played Castle Doctrine unfortunately, but it just sounds so cool, so I'm really happy that someone had a similar idea."

TKO worked on the concept for Monaco for around three weeks, until paying work was found. At that point the game was shelved until a later date -- although that later date never came, as TKO was shut down in 2005.

Fortunately, Schatz had the common sense to set up his contract so that he retained the rights to all of his concepts, including that of Monaco. Schatz left TKO to found his own independent company, PocketWatch Games, at the start of 2005, but his idea for Monaco was forgotten in favor of a string of simulation games.

His Next Venture

Wildlife Tycoon: Venture Africa came first, a sim game about animal life on the African plains, with plenty of focus on balancing the ecosystem. The game was released in October 2005, and was a huge success for Schatz. Besides the IGF nomination and the streams of press he received, the game sold nearly 100,000 copies online and at retail.

But it was a short-lived success story. In Schatz's words, "it all sort of petered out."

"I made Venture Africa, which did pretty well at first," he says, "then I made Venture Arctic, which flopped horribly. With Venture Africa, I felt like I had found a way to appeal to people, and with Venture Arctic, I figured out how to make an interesting game, without making it all that fun."

Venture Dinosauria followed, and with this next in the series, Schatz attempted what he couldn't achieve with Venture Arctic -- to create a game that was both interesting and fun. "But I worked on it for like a year, and I never discovered it," he admits.

"I think sim games in general are like the Quadruple Lutz in ice-skating, or whatever the most difficult move is," he laughs. "They're incredibly difficult to design, because at their heart they are defined by what the game does, and not what the interaction with the player is. In almost every other genre, things are defined by the interaction with the player, and it's a lot easier to find the fun in a game that focuses on the relationship with the player."

But the real problem with building simulation games, says Schatz, is that they're never any fun until well into the project, making it difficult to assess whether you've actually got a good game until months and years into development.

"Part of the interestingness of many sim games is that the underlying systems are complex enough that they're not instantly deterministic to the player, and they do things that you don't expect," he adds. "I heard an anecdote that The Sims wasn't actually fun until around four months before it shipped, and Will Wright was trying to get that thing made for about 10 or 15 years, or something like that."

Schatz goes on, "So sim games are really difficult to work on, because there's just no defined goal. And you know, when there are defined goals, that's sometimes the least fun part of the game. Sim games are often just a toy that the player can poke at, and they're not easy to design."

And yet despite all this, the PocketWatch founder spent so long on Venture Dinosauria because he believed that he had found the right mixture of appeal and marketability to make it a hit. Unfortunately, as he looks back on it now, he realizes that he just never managed to figure out the game's design, such that it would actually be any fun.

"I just never found a way to make it both fun and open-ended, but also a small, self-contained experience at the same time," he says. "With Dinosauria, I wanted to make the defining piece on what the world looked like when it was just dinosaurs. What did an actual dinosaur ecosystem look like? How did dinosaurs sleep, how did they pee -- but we don't think about them that way. We think about them as ancient monsters, and I wanted to portray them as animals."

"But I never discovered that game," he sighs.


Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

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Comments


Thomas Happ
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I'm still baffled as to why Microsoft would cut support for XNA.

Joel Bennett
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I too, wonder about that. Maybe it was political infighting at MS. Maybe it was pressure from some of the big dogs in the industry. Maybe it wasn't turning a profit. I don't know what did it, but it would be interesting to find out.

With regards to the last bit of the article, I find that totally rings true: people so often forget all the work that goes on before success happens. It's like saying "Oh, I really like that one Beetles song. The Beetles are great!" without realizing that they played for something like 9 years before getting particularly popular. How many songs did they sing before they started sounding 'good'?

Sometimes someone does strike gold on their first attempt, but the majority of cases out there, there's usually years of work involved before any sort of success comes. And the problem is that once you are successful, people only recognize the success, and not the work and effort that it took to get there. I know I'm just as guilty and seeing only the success of other people, and not everything that it took to get there.

A S
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Probably cost benefit. Basically Mono provides almost everything you could want from XNA without MS having to invest anything, and now Unity can target w8 as well as xbox, all they are doing is competing with free variants that are just as good as their own products. Given that context, why not stop supporting it?

Keith Nemitz
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"You really should talk about them (your games) as they are, and not as you imagine them to be." = wisdom. Wisdom that I still fail at. Glad I'm not the only one.

Best of luck, Andy!

Wasin Thonkaew
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I'm like in the similar "Screw this!" moment after i realized that my focus is heavily towards company and forming such entity, instead of game itself. It led me to continue living healthier and making game in a proer ondie way. I would say it's one of my life saving moment. Yeah, ive failed a couple of times but i learned something from that.

Apart from that it's annoying to know that they denied the pitches.

Josh Robertson
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I really love this article. It hits home for me on so many levels. I'm only in the beginning stages of creating a business and I hope I can make it through like you did. Doing random activities not remotely related to computers has helped me a bunch and I highly recommend it. I wish you the best of luck in everything you do.

Finn Haverkamp
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A potter was demonstrating at an arts festival. He threw a very fine mug in front of a crowd, and a spectator said, "how can you charge thirty dollars for something that took you ten minutes to throw?" The potter replied, "It didn't take me ten minutes to throw this mug; it took me twenty years."

Sven Van de Perre
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We've just passed the 3 year mark with Monkube, and are having a similar trajectory. First game did well, 2nd game swapped some 'gamer' choices for business choices and didn't do well, so we changed the 3rd and 4th game back to being just stuff we want to play. The problem with being a small team is: there's no room for a separate biz guy and game designer guy, so one (or both) suffer. We've made that mistake as well.

By the way, our newest game got a big chunck of funding from AppCampus (a fund bringing 6 month exclusive games and apps to wp8). We pitched two games, and they ended up picking the one that is really edgy. So if you're an indie looking for funding to kick off your game, www.appcampus.fi

Carlos Rocha
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This was absolutely Amazing, thank you Andy and Mike, this has taught me a lot, being an indie myself and wanting to enter the fray for a while, I was thinking things get easier after a first hit, or a prize, and knowing that's just part of the way helps a lot, to know you just have to keep on going, and hopefully get my games out there! (I would still like to be in his position tough, jeje).


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