Who was there: Andy Schatz, founder and owner of Pocketwatch Games.
What they talked about: Last year, the big winner at the Independent Games Festival was Monaco, a top-down, four-player cooperative stealth-action shooter. The game won not only the Seumas McNally Grand Prize, but also the Excellence in Design award. Its developer was Pocketwatch Games, an indie studio founded by Schatz in 2005. Since then, the studio has developed several titles, including Wildlife Tycoon: Venture Africa and Venture Arctic.
Schatz himself was the only programmer, designer, and producer on both titles. He also flew solo while developing Monaco, which became a finalist after just 11 weeks of work and took home the IGF Grand Prize after just 15 weeks of development.
How did Schatz do it? Today's presentation is designed to answer exactly that question, with Schatz himself presenting the techniques he used to pump out an award-winning title in such a short time.
The game's genesis began on September 29, 2009, and Schatz showed his Facebook update to prove it. It read, "Andy Schatz is bored silly. Not as fun as it sounds." He was depressed. He was seeing a therapist. He was downtrodden. He was "in a rut." He was working on a new game that he admitted "sucked." He ran out of funds and had to lay off his only employee.
Schatz wanted to do something to cheer himself up, so he decided to develop some board games. He pitched a concept based on Venture Africa to a German company and got rejected. It was basically an eat-or-be-eaten version of chess featuring African wildlife. "It's actually a fun game but not one that sells," he lamented. He also tried to salvage the game that "sucked," which featured dinosaurs in a board game, and that also was rejected.
So, to cheer himself up, Schatz decided to make a heist video game, which he described as "Pac-Man crossed with Hitman." He was surprised there wasn't a "rogue-like" algorithm for such a title on the market, so he decided to explore it. He grappled with the view distance. He wrestled with tile diagrams and "computationally expensive" problems to get the base gameplay down. But he wasn't annoyed. "This was a really fun problem," he joked.
Lighting also played a key role in the game, with tiles the player could see being rendered in color and tiles the player couldn't see being rendered in black and white. The result was a striking visual style that helped the game win at the IGF awards.
Schatz said Monaco's genesis was in XNA, Microsoft's development framework, which he credited with letting him make a much more creative game than he would have otherwise. He soon began to ignore the game that "sucked," titled Venture: Dinosaura. However, he had high hopes for the project at first. "It was not just going to appeal to kids, because it's f***ing dinosaurs," he joked about the failed endeavor. He even went so far as to hire a studio in Colombia to create art assets for the game. "It was a cool idea…in concept," he deadpanned.
But as of October 9, Monaco had become Schatz's obsession. On that day, his Facebook update read, "Andy Schatz stayed up all night working on my one week diversion that is increasingly looking like I'll spend 3 or 4 weeks. I think I'll have an XBLIndie release just a few weeks from now. Exciting!" This is the key to his "holistic approach" to development. Working on Monaco became fun, whereas working on Dinosaura had become a grind long ago.
Schatz then worked out a basic schedule with an IGF entry target of November 1. By October 3, he had created basic items like doors and lights. By October 4, he had added user interface. By October 9, music had been added. By October 12, the game was bug-free and running well. He then showed some slides of his game being played at the Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) and said that he wanted people playing his game as soon as it was playable. "Even if it's day two [of development]," he joked.
He also emphasized the fact that a good developer wants non-gamers playing a game in its early stages, saying, "Their impressions of the game are always right." He said he always asked three questions: "What do you like? What did you not like? What confused you?" He thinks game designers should then improve on everything the non-gamers advise on.
Another aspect of Schatz's holistic design philosophy is to believe in what he's making. He said if someone makes a game that's just designed to make money, you'll either make money or it will be a critically panned flop. If someone makes a game that they believe in, it will make money, be critically recognized, or both. That latter scenario is essentially a no-lose situation, other than financially. He also thinks quality games will build a studio's fan base--something critical in getting repeat business.
By October 23, Schatz was building bank heist and museum heist levels for Monaco. He feels the holy grail of game design is marrying beautiful mechanics with enjoyable gameplay. To that end, he wanted to craft a very impressive soundscape, which is one area where he feels indie games can compete with big-budget games. Visuals, however, are not such an area. "You're not going to have an Uncharted if you're an indie," he joked.
Then, out of the blue, Schatz revealed he actually came up with the idea for Monaco in 2003 and had pitched it to a publisher he worked for with the condition that if it wasn't made, he would own the concept. He also said the movie Confidence, released that same year, was a partial inspiration for the game.
Some 10 weeks into development, on December 10, 2009, Schatz was really enjoying himself. He said that he took pride in knowing that he was leaving the game more fun than when he found it every day.
After Monaco won the IGF the following March, Schatz felt his next step was to bring Monaco to console companies--who weren't very receptive to his pitches. (He didn't say if the game had been approved or not.) He also began to look at the greater entertainment value of the game and said that the "psychotic" Cleaner character was inspired by movie critic and game detractor Roger Ebert--a jape that received a hearty round of applause from the audience.
Quote: "F*** it, do something awesome."--Schatz's philosophy on game development.
Takeaway: Schatz's presentation boiled down to one thing: If designers believe in their games and enjoy developing them, they will emerge with something that at the very least they'll be proud of.