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"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.
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.
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.