"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.
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.
In the Business
It wasn't just Schatz's tussles with the simulation game genre that haunts his first years as an independent developers. One of his main goals as a fresh new indie was to focus on making PocketWatch not just a developer, but a fully-fledged business.
"I actually intended to go to business school, but I didn't get anywhere," he notes. "Which I'm incredibly glad about, because I don't think I would have liked anyone in business school. I think I'm happy to say for the record that people who go to business school are typical douchebags. So I'm glad I barely escaped being one of those people myself -- and not even of my own accord, as I didn't get in!"
Running PocketWatch like a business meant not only making games that Schatz believed in, but also building a brand around the company name.
"Everyone's style is different," he says. "Someone like [Gratuitous Space Battles developer] Cliff Harris is really good at actually maximizing all of those things. He's also a really good designer and game developer, but he is a master at the business side, and running a tiny business.
"I was really trying to maximize conversion rates and things like that," he continues. However, he adds, "One of the things that I have discovered it that those things matter a whole lot less than it seems."
After Venture Arctic flopped and Schatz found him grinding along with Dinosauria, he had completely stopped paying attention to the business side.
"When I was running PocketWatch like a business, I was very worried about alienating fans of the Venture games, by making a game that wouldn't appeal to them," he notes. "People who watch Planet Earth aren't necessarily the same people who are going to watch Ocean's Eleven. I'm not saying there's no crossover demographic -- there certainly is -- but there's no crossover appeal.
"So really only when I hit the lowest of the low points, when I had failed on Venture Dinosauria and I had to lay off the one guy who was working for me, and I felt like I had spent all the money that I was willing to spend on this crazy adventure that had been my lifelong dream, I was only weeks away from quitting and going to find a job."
Desperate times call for desperate measures, and with Schatz bordering on depression, he made a bold decision that would define the next four years of his life.
"I said, 'Screw this, screw the fanbase, screw the marketing and the idea of building a brand and all that,'" he laughs. "I threw it all out of the window and said to myself, 'Just make whatever game you're passionate about in the moment.' It's not that I wasn't passionate about the Venture games, but I think I had too much pride in the brand. I didn't allow myself to follow the winds of the moment, which often are what end up producing the most inspired content."
Around this time, he had been taking breaks from Venture Dinosauria to dabble in another passion -- creating board games. One of his board game projects just so happened to be based around his previous design documents for Monaco, a project that he found had never really left the back of his mind.
So when he decided to jump the simulation game ship and create something completely different, it's no surprise which concept he launched into.
And then there was Monaco
"I pulled out my old design for Monaco, and decided to prototype it in XNA, and see if I could get it running on Xbox," explains Schatz. "And after two days it was really fun.
"It was so refreshing to work on. Working on any sort of game with a player character, you're starting with that relationship to the player. It's so easy to get to the core emotional connection the player has to the game and to their character. I just knew instantly that I needed to carry on."
But it wasn't just the excitement at having a fun prototype that appealed to Schatz. It was the emotions that working on Monaco brought back too, emotions that he hadn't felt while working on Dinosauria.
"I was a kid again," he says simply. "I was making games like the way I'd imagined I would make games as a kid. I wasn't paying attention to anything other than sitting down and making a game. In junior high I'd stay up late on my old PC and code until one in the morning in the family room at home. That's kinda how I felt. I was just making a damn game. And I was making it all myself -- I wasn't worrying about dependencies or schedules or anything like that."
Switching to an entirely different genre from what he'd been working on also meant that he could tackle development in a different and exciting way. "Every day, I was saying, 'What can I do today that would be awesome?' Working on the game in tiny chunks like that was my most productive period of my entire career."
Of course, as mentioned at the beginning of this story, Schatz didn't have the grandest of ambitions for Monaco. An Xbox Live Indie Games title made in a couple of months was the goal, as a means to simply recharge his batteries and give him a fresh perceptive on game development -- or at least, one that didn't involve simulation in any form.
"Back then, I had a very strong suspicion that XBLIG was primed for a mega hit, and I don't think that I was wrong," says Schatz. "What I didn't see coming was all the Minecraft clones."
He laughs, adding, "I mean, I think those made a shit-ton of money on XBLIG. Unfortunately, XBLIG hasn't really been home to an original mega-hit -- something that is truly original. I'm not saying those other games are bad, but you know... you understand."
The way that the XBLIG has been treated by its creators, however, is what really gets at Schatz. "I think that if you look at what Microsoft's goals seemingly were with XBLIG, it was supposed to provide a breeding ground for smaller games to potentially graduate up to the XBLA marketplace," he notes. "And if you look at what games came out of XNA, it seems to me that that was a rousing success. We've had Fez, Bastion, Monaco."
While XBLIG itself hasn't often lived up to that goal, Schatz reasons that it was an important stepping stone to making XNA the unbelievable success that it was, and Microsoft's decision to stop support it is "the only major mistake that I feel they have made in this transition."
"I'm generally a fan of the 360, and I think they did a great job with it," he notes, "but it bums me out to see that fading away. I don't know why they can't look at it and say, 'Hey, we met every single goal and went way beyond what we hoped for.'"
How Six Weeks Becomes Four Years
Schatz's plans to create a quick-and-easy six-week game expanded a fair bit, as all small projects usually do -- but it was when Monaco was nominated for the Independent Games Festival based on a build of the game that was 11 weeks in the making that the developer realized he probably had something a little special on his hands.
Yet despite going on to win not only the Excellence in Design award at the awards, but also the "best in show" Seumas McNally Grand Prize, he still found that getting recognition from the bigger names in the industry proved tricky.
Monaco was an XNA game -- was. That's no longer the case, as the developer was later forced to switch gears as a potential deal with Microsoft didn't work out.
"I pitched Monaco to Microsoft Game Studios to be published by them right after the IGF, and they turned it down," he says. "I told them they were crazy and asked them to let me repitch, and they said 'Well, we don't normally let people repitch, but given how early this is, and given that it's all programmer art, sure, go ahead and repitch it.'
"So then I tried to make it something really marketable for a year or so," Schatz tells us. "Then I pitched it again, and they turned it down again."
At this point, it became quite clear to the creator that his game was not going to be on the Xbox 360, "because indies don't like publishers, and if I couldn't go through their first-party, then I wasn't going to be on the Xbox.
"That really bummed me out," he adds, "because I felt like the Xbox was the ideal platform for this particular game, because of the prevalence of headsets, the marketplace being strong, and the Xbox being the easiest console to work with. And of course the game was written in XNA, so it was a no-brainer."
Having suffered this rejection, Schatz opted to port Monaco to C++, with the aim to release the game for PlayStation 3. But there was even more heartbreak to come.
"I thought we were going with Sony for a while, but then things just sort of didn't work," he says. "Especially after the hacking scandal, their marketplace took a hit. They've done a good job clawing their way back into a decent position at this point, but back then, it was a little touch-and-go."
Running out of options, Schatz finally relented, and spoke to a publisher. Majesco is distributing the Xbox 360 version of the game, while Schatz self-publishes the PC edition as part of a simultaneous launch -- and as it turns out, he's actually pretty happy with how everything has turned out.
"I've ended up with a deal that is probably better for me than anything that I could have got from Microsoft," he notes. "I would have had to deal with exclusivity there."
But part of this move involved porting the game once again, this time to the RapidFire engine from Empty Clip. Those wondering why Monaco has taken nearly four years to get here: wonder no more.
"In the end, looking at what the Bastion guys did, it's not entirely clear whether it was a good decision in hindsight to port the game, because it took a significant amount of development time," Schatz admits. "But it was sort of one of those forks in the road that you can't see what's beyond the horizon, and you've got to take the one that provides you with the most options.
"It wasn't the wrong decision -- it was the right decision," he adds, "but in hindsight you can see that probably things would have been different had we decided to stick with XNA."
In 2011, Schatz was on the lookout for testers for the game, when he stumbled across a financial scholar with a huge passion for video games. Andy Nguyen had absolutely no experience in making video games at all, but you wouldn't have guessed that from the three months he spent writing an in-depth analysis of Facebook game Zuma Blitz.
When Nguyen sent the analysis across to Schatz, it was clear that Nguyen's inexperience in making games wasn't holding back his insight into the industry one iota. Schatz originally brought him on as a tester for the game, but once he realized Nguyen's full potential, he was quickly promoted to producer and level designer.
"Working with someone that you really click with and that you share a design philosophy with is incredibly energizing, and helps keep you on track, keeps you honest," Schatz notes. "I'd been looking for someone that I could call a business partner for a long, long time. Andy doesn't own part of the business, but he's definitely a design partner."
Nguyen was particularly critical about Monaco, but Schatz was extremely willing to listen to everything he had to say.
"The thing I always tell people is that you should always listen to feedback, and never listen to suggestions," says the creator.
"What I mean by that is, you want to take very seriously what someone's experience of your game was. If they tell you 'I didn't like it because I was lost,' and you say 'Well there's a minimap in the corner,' and they say 'I didn't even realize there was a minimap' -- sure, that's user error. But it points to something wrong about your minimap."
He continues, "Now, if they say 'What if I press a button to make the minimap come up in the middle of the screen?' at that point you just ignore them -- but you do need to take seriously that they didn't see the minimap. Why is that, and what can you do to improve that situation?"
The solution, says Schatz, isn't always obvious. In this case, should you remove the minimap altogether and make the game less reliant on a map, or should you change up the UI?
"I think it's very important to break down why someone had the emotional response that they did towards your game," he notes, "but it's generally a bad idea to take the specifics of a suggestion and use them, because the people giving the feedback just don't understand the game like you do."
The three main questions that Schatz put to Nguyen and the other testers -- questions that Schatz believes are the most important when it comes to feedback on your game -- were: What did you like, what did you not like, and what confused you?
"The things that they liked, you want to try and emphasize those," he adds. "It's important to know these, as it's important to know who your game is going to appeal to.
"The stuff they didn't like is what you try to fix -- or it could just be that they're not in your target market, so some of those things you might need to ignore."
And then there are the bits that confused the players. "These are absolute must-fixes," says Schatz. "If there's something about your project that a person just felt confused by, that's just a killer right there."
However, "None of these things say 'What should I do about it?' That's the designer's job."
There was another side to bringing in Andy number two as well. "Before Andy, and before I got married, the biggest challenge of being an indie developer was just loneliness," Schatz tells me. "I haven't had problems with loneliness in a few years -- being married is probably the biggest factor in that -- but also having someone that just eats, drinks, breathes games really gives me that outlet on the professional side as well."
For the Fund of It
2011 saw Monaco receive more than just a new team member -- the game also bagged itself a monetary backing from the Indie Fund project.
"For me, it was insurance, and the ability to work with a bunch of people that I really respect," notes Schatz.
"Indie Fund is essentially a no-risk loan. It's like a soft pillow. You still have to pay it back -- you have to wash the damn pillow -- but at the same time, you know it's okay at that point."
This funding helped take the pressure off, and allowed Schatz to take his time. "I never felt desperate on Monaco," he adds. "I would have without them. I would have been making decisions based on nothing to do with the game. I certainly wouldn't have taken until 2013."
Of course, there can be downsides to taking your time. Some developers have said that taking longer than expected to complete development on a title led to them questioning the content late into the project. Schatz himself found that certain elements he had planned for from the beginning simply wouldn't work with his final vision.
"In particular, the cops versus robbers mode, a PvP mode that was like thief versus thief -- we built those, and there were design issues with them," he says. "We felt like we would need to rebuild the content itself in order to make those game modes work.
"It's interesting, because it really made me sympathize with a guy like Peter Molyneux, who talks about his games in the way that he imagines they'll be like when they're done. If you're talking about a game in development, it's very difficult not to talk about them as you imagine them to be. You really should talk about them as they are, and not as you imagine them to be."
Schatz discussed his cops and robbers mode with plenty of people, and had most of it implemented in the game, but in the end it all had to be removed.
"We wanted it to be a mode in the existing levels, where one player was the cop," he adds. "But we found that if you added a cop to the earlier levels, if people knew what they were doing, it was super easy to finish those levels, and the cop had no chance. Then if you added a cop to the later levels, it became essentially impossible."
Hence, to make it work, Schatz would have had to build an entirely different set of levels to support the mode -- you know, just in case the three and a half years of waiting wasn't enough for you. As we know now, he opted to leave this out, although he tells me that he's left the potential to build it in later.
During Monaco's development, Schatz's life up to this point had been filled with porting, designing, and tough decisions. But his life became even more difficult for entirely different reasons, when his wife discovered that she had cancer around a year and a half ago.
"She was denied insurance due to pre-existing conditions, and ended up getting on Obamacare," he explains. "Then two weeks later she discovered that she had tumors on her scalp. So that led to..."
Schatz trails off, gathering his thoughts for a moment. "I got married in June 2010, just three months after the IGF. So you know, there's all sorts of things in life...
"I don't know if the tumultuousness of my life over the last three years has slowed down development," he continues, after a short while. "I really have no idea as to how it changed development. Aside from getting married, I did take some time off. But I really do feel like I'm... in a marathon or a bike race or something, they tell you to pedal or sprint through the finish line, and I kinda feel like at this point, I'm going to have to learn how to stop walking, because I'm so trained to put one foot in front of the other."
Transitioning from the life he's led for the past few years, back into perhaps a more regular existence, is something that Schatz is keen to experience.
"Hopefully I'll manage to become a normal person again who has hobbies and interests outside of my work," he says. "Because for three years I've been held up doing nothing except work. It has started to take its toll. I used to have a much easier time being inspired to write. Writing the narrative for Monaco was something I really believed in, and believed that I could do well. But it was probably the biggest decision struggle that I had throughout the entire course of the whole thing.
"At this point, I feel like the words are sort of locked inside me," he adds. "They're in some past life that was creative, and that went to museums, and that played ultimate frisbee, and that sort of thing."
Life after Monaco
Besides returning to the human race from his Monaco-shaped hole in the ground, the designer is already considering what his next big project will be.
"My design philosophy has always been to design games around things that are not games," he explains. "Venture Africa, Venture Arctic, Venture Dinosauria, those are not homages to other games."
"Monaco isn't either," he adds. "It's actually a homage to heist movies, which I dearly love. And sure, the game uses a lot of language from other games. But it's not a game about games. Most of the designs I'm passionate about trying out next are games about games, which is not my typical design philosophy."
Schatz reasons that this is most likely down to the fact that he's lost touch with humanity somewhat. "It's gonna be interesting to take that next step, and try to find that side of me again that is in love with the world, and not just my work."
His work on Monaco isn't completely done. The two Andys will continue to support the game well after its release, and a level editor for the game is due out a week after the launch. Schatz is also considering DLC level packs for the game.
But the video game industry, and in particular the indie scene, is a far cry from how it was when Schatz first began work on Monaco.
"I imagine things will change a little bit for me," he says. "What I'd really like to do is start rebuilding my dream of what I wanted when I started PocketWatch eight and half years ago. That dream is something I lost sight of when I decided that it was all about the game and not the company."
He adds, "I don't think that that's wrong, but I think that the dream of the company was a personal dream. It was one of, 'What do I want development to look like?' For everyone else, the experience is the game, but for me, the experience is the creation of the game. When I started the company, I actually had a stronger idea in my head of what I wanted my life to look like, and what I wanted my games to look like. And now that I have a better handle on how to make those games, and a better vision of what I want to make, it's time for me to get back in touch with what I want it all to look like. How can I create an environment that is more like the utopia that I imagined eight years ago."
One of those goals is to "get the wheels back on the business", and attempt to run PocketWatch like a business all over again. Monaco's development may have laid waste to these plans, but that won't stop Schatz from giving it another go.
Have You Made It Yet?
Back in 2011, Schatz said that he didn't feel like he'd "made it" as a developer, despite all his prior success. I ask Schatz whether he feels like he's made it yet.
"This is something I've been thinking about a lot lately," he answers. "If Monaco does really well, that does not meanthat my next game is going to do really, really well. And nor does it mean my previous game did well! Each piece of work, I have to treat on its own.
"I think I can only say I've made it when I retire," he laughs. "And I may never do that! Or when I stop caring, and I hope I never stop caring."
While Monaco may have gathered a huge amount of press and attention even before its release, Schatz doesn't feel like this entirely reflects on him as a developer.
Says the dev, "I don't like to say that I won those IGF awards. I like to say that Monaco won them. The thing that's printed on the trophy is Monaco, not Andy Schatz. And while I hope that has some reflection on my reputation and abilities, it doesn't provide any sort of guarantee that I'll continue to have any sort of success.
"I mean, that's sort of a dodge, right? Someone who is not in this situation, and who dreams of winning an IGF award, could look at me and say 'I'd love to be in your position! That would mean I've made it.' That may be true, but at the same time, if I make myself feel like I've made it, that's sort of a lazy excuse to make bad games."
Taking home his IGF awards was by far the proudest moment of his life so far, especially off the back of just 15 weeks of work. But, as he notes, "I've been making games since I was seven.
"If I only pick out those 15 weeks of work, and say I only made it because of those weeks, it sort of ignores the fact that the other 28 years of game development produced no awards!" he laughs. "So yeah, it's the game that won those IGF awards, it's not me."
Schatz laughs again. "Monaco has made it. I haven't."