It’s been roughly four years since Pocketwatch Games made waves with the release of the award-winning Monaco: What’s Yours Is Mine.
Now the studio is shipping its next game, the anthropomorphic animal RTS Tooth & Tail, but Pocketwatch chief Andy Schatz traces the genesis of the project back over twenty years.
“The sort of proto-design to this actually was something that I was thinking about a long, long time ago. In like ‘97, ‘98,” Schatz told Gamasutra earlier this year.
“The idea of a real-time strategy game where you didn't control the units. Where they kind of did their own thing. And then towards the end of Monaco, my codesigner and I, Andy Nguyen, really fleshed out this design for Tooth & Tail.”
With an emphasis on quick (sub-20 minute) matches and customizable armies (players assemble a "deck" of unit types and defenses before each match), Tooth & Tail stands apart from both Pocketwatch's prior work and the RTS genre in general.
More notably, Pocketwatch's latest aims to be something of a rarity: an approachable real-time strategy game that plays best with a gamepad.
"We're trying to Hearthstone StarCraft"
A few years (and at least one name change) ago Schatz walked Gamasutra through the practical challenges of designing an RTS best played with two analog sticks. In a more recent conversation about the state of the RTS genre, Schatz opened up about another interesting aspect of Tooth & Tail’s design: it aims to condense the best bits of classic RTS entries like StarCraft and Command & Conquer into an approachable, accessible game.
“We're trying to Hearthstone StarCraft,” is how Schatz puts it, noting that Blizzard has a proven track record of streamlining complicated genres into approachable, accessible games (Hearthstone, Heroes of the Storm, etc.) but has yet to do the same for its own eSport-grade RTS. That's the niche Tooth & Tail hopes to fill.
“Using StarCraft as an emotional target, what we did is we took the genre, we boiled it down to its components, and we rebuilt it, keeping that goal in mind," Schatz said. "But we rebuilt the whole thing around the limitations of a controller."
So what does it mean to make a gamepad RTS that aims to replicate the feel of a game like StarCraft? Tooth & Tail doesn’t stray terribly far from the RTS mold; it has base-building, it has resource harvesting, it has flag-bearing commander units (a la Total Annihilation) that can fight, scout, and construct structures. What it doesn’t have, according to Schatz, is a lot of room for players to excel by micro-managing their forces.
"We use poker a lot in our design discussions, as an analogy; hidden information is really fun to play with."
“As a low- or mid-level StarCraft player, it's frustrating to be in the middle of battle and then realize you forgot to queue up a bunch of Marines and you needed to be doing both at the same time,” he said. “So those are the types of problems that we wanted to solve [in making an approachable RTS]. We wanted to take anything that felt like a chore in your classic RTS and dump it. Or automate it. Or build a mechanic that is fun to interact with.”
That’s easy to say, but tricky to quantify -- what’s fun about playing an RTS? What can hold players' attention if you throw the multi-tasking and micro-management out the window?
For Schatz, there’s at least two big things: the joy of control and the thrill of holding hidden information.
“I I think a big part of it is actually control,” he said. “People just like the idea of controlling these big armies, and seeing these armies going to war, and also combining that with this SimCity aspect of building this big base and defending it from the enemy.”
That wide-ranging sense of control over units, buildings, and terrain affords players room to improvise and set up their own strategies, then spring them on an opponent, something Schatz hopes Tooth & Tail’s design encourages.
Designing an RTS to capture the thrill of a good poker play
“I’m talking about things like map control and the idea of like...unit counters,” Schatz said. “We use poker a lot in our design discussions, as an analogy; hidden information is really fun to play with, and when a player can slap a card down on the table that the other player didn't know that they had, that's a really satisfying thing to do.”
Here’s a concrete example of what he’s talking about: since it's tricky to move a camera and select units on a battlefield with a pair of analog sticks, Tooth & Tail is designed such that each player’s camera is tied to a hero unit that can move, attack, and build things.
This increases the risks of scouting, especially early on, because every second you're off looking at what your opponent is up to is a second you're not focusing on your own base. Schatz believes this makes it easier for players to trick each other in T&T than in a more traditional RTS, since they're under pressure to make quick judgement calls.
“So at the beginning of a StarCraft match you send off an SCV to go check out what the enemy is doing, right?” Schatz said. “Well, because [our] camera is tied to the commander, you are the scout. So when you're scouting, you can't be building and you can't be fighting. So attention is a resource.”
Tooth & Tail players can also build defenses to stymie opponents’ scouting efforts, and Schatz says that the unit production buildings themselves have also been designed in such a way that it leaves room for players to trick each other or make calculated bets on what an opponent is making.
Within the game, units are divided up into three tiers based roughly on how valuable they are. Tier 1 units are cheap, weak, and quick to churn out; tier 3 units are costly, powerful, and take a while to produce. While there are different types of units at each tier, the structures which produce them were made to look identical tier-wide so that players can only tell roughly what tier of unit opponents are producing, not what type.
“The warrens -- these are the factories that produce the units -- all tier 1s look the same. But you know if they're building a tier 1 vs a tier 2,” said Schatz.
“So you can guess; you can say ‘Oh I know they're building a tier 2. Which means I have more time to be able to respond to whatever this is. But if he manages to get it out, I might be in trouble. I don't necessarily know what it is, though. That's the side that is hidden information. So we give you enough information to make interesting decisions, but not enough information to totally give away what the opponent is doing.”
This is all spiced up by a bit of (Hearthstone-esque) deck-building; Tooth & Tail players enter into matches by assembling a “deck” of six different unit types or defenses, and matches are then played on procedurally-generated maps. That means there’s a fair bit of luck and randomness at play in any given match, which Schatz hopes will set Tooth & Tail apart and makes it both more approachable and more replayable.
“Our focus is on improvisation,” he said. “We see that as a way to spice the game up, rather than just making it random. It means that every game is a little bit different.”
He acknowledges that this level of randomness might deter competitive players, but adds that in the course of working on the game he’s come to appreciate the benefits of chance.
"As a company we far prefer to make games that are about improvisation and creativity, rather than discovering solutions to puzzles."
“It actually makes it more fun to lose. Because you can always blame the map. And when you win you get to take credit for it,” he said. “It keeps the game interesting. As a company we far prefer to make games that are about improvisation and creativity, rather than discovering solutions to puzzles. And by throwing the player into a unique map every single time, against an opponent where they don't quite know what the opponent's configuration is going to be, it really puts that focus on improvisation.”
Here, Schatz draws a line back to Monaco. Devs may recall that in that game the maps were handmade, but the locations of loot and the paths of guards across those maps were randomized; Schatz believes that’s why the game continues to maintain a community of speedrunners.
“We actually have a really strong speedrunning scene with Monaco. One of the best speedrunners in general, in the world, lists Monaco as his favorite game And I think it's because it's not just about building the muscle memory to do things exactly right,” said Schatz.
“It’s gotten to the point where he's solving the puzzle almost from a statistical perspective, where he's like ‘the coins tend to spawn in these areas and these areas. If I can get a sense of how they're spawned, I have to change my route through the level in order to speedrun it.’ And that creativity and improvisation is really core to these games, even in Tooth & Tail.”
Schatz is quick to acknowledge that Tooth & Tail is not meant to be the next StarCraft. As much as Pocketwatch would love for it to take off as an eSport, it's primarily focused on making a game that would be fun to play on a couch.
"The goal is we want to give people the sense of being king of the dorm room, rather than king of South Korea," said Schatz. "Build something that is more of, like, a Smash Bros. type of game. Something that friends can play together, you know?"
From a certain perspective, this looks much akin to what MOBA games have achieved: they’ve taken the base components of RTS design (in a very literal sense, given that progenitor Defense of the Ancients is a Warcraft 3 mod) and recombined them into a high-skill game that captures some of the appeal of an RTS (pushing through waves of enemies and defenses to destroy an enemy base) while also being more character-driven and approachable.
In the process, they've eclipsed RTS games (specifically, StarCraft) in terms of both playerbase and public profile. From Schatz's perspective, that doesn't mean RTS is dead; it just means MOBA games have overshadowed a healthy, vibrant community, in large part because they can seem less intimidating to new players.
“MOBAs certainly have grown faster than the RTS genre has, unquestionably,” said Schatz. “While I don't believe that the genre is dying, I do think that it hasn't grown as much as it could have. And if I think there's any reason for that it's because everyone is trying to do the same thing. So maybe try something a little different!"
For Pocketwatch, that means releasing a $20 indie RTS (across both PC and PlayStation 4, with cross-platform mulitplayer) that's less about ladders than couches. How it fares, in a year that has already seen a bumper crop of RTS releases (including StarCraft Remastered, Dawn of War III, and even another RTS built for gamepads -- Halo Wars 2) remains to be seen.