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Road to the IGF: Pocketwatch Games' Tooth and Tail

Tooth and Tail looks to simplify and streamline the RTS to make it approachable, quick, and focus on improvisation and strategy over reflexes and memorization (plus add fun animal units).

Joel Couture, Contributor

February 12, 2018

5 Min Read

This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. You can find the rest by clicking here.

Tooth and Tail looks to simplify and streamline the RTS to make it approachable, quick, and focus on improvisation and strategy over reflexes and memorization (plus add fun animal units). By honing in on elements that slow the game down and cutting them, finding ways to discourage map memorization, and make the game more approachable for new players, it looks to open the genre up to those who might have previously been intimidated by it. 

Gamasutra spoke with Andy Schatz about his IGF-nominated title to learn a little about why he chose to make such sweeping changes to the genre, and how he worked to create an RTS for someone who doesn't have hundreds of hours to practice and study.

What's your background in making games?

My mom got me a book where I could transcribe some code on a Commodore 64 and make a little ASCII slalom ski racing game. I've been hooked ever since. In the mid nineties, I had an internship making games in Shockwave in the early days of the internet, and then later I got an level design internship with Presto Studios on a Star Trek game, which led me to a variety of jobs in the AAA industry. In 2005 I left to start my own company, and I've been indie ever since. My game, Wildlife Tycoon: Venture Africa, was nominated for an IGF Grand Prize in 2006 and Monaco won the Grand Prize and Design awards in 2010. I'm incredibly honored to have another game recognized!

How did you come up with the concept?

My college roommate and I loved to play Command and Conquer: Red Alert in the dorms back in the golden age of RTS games, and we both wanted to make games on our own. We designed and prototyped a split screen RTS called Dino Drop with indirect control of units, which we abandoned as "life" got in the way. As I get older I have less and less of the patience and dexterity required to be good at a traditional mouse and keyboard RTS' like Starcraft, so a "distilled" RTS that focuses on strategy and improvisation over manual dexterity is right up my alley. 

What development tools were used to build your game?

We built the game on XNA, then ported to MonoGame for PC and PS4 and FNA for Mac and Linux. We used GIMP and Photoshop for art, FMOD for audio, and we built the rest ourselves! 

How much time have you spent working on the game?

We started working on the game in earnest in January of 2014.  It took a little over three and a half years till launch. 

What drew you to create a 'popcorn' RTS? Why design one for quicker play? 

Back before RTS was YouTube, winning at an RTS meant inventing strategies on your own. Strategy was a creative exercise. But, in many ways, low skill RTS is a "solved" problem - all you have to do is study and practice build orders and dexterity-based skills and you will win against other low skill players. I wanted to make an RTS that encouraged experimentation and unpredictability. Part of that is making the matches short.

How did designing an RTS to be open to newcomers and short matches affect your design process? How do you feel it veers away from traditional RTS design?

Anything that felt like a chore, we cut: returning to your base to queue up more unit production. Anything that felt like an un-fun skill to perform at a high level, we simplified: microing a scout unit while also moving units and keeping production going at your base is a frustrating experience for low skill RTS players, so we tied all player interaction to a single on-screen character. We wanted everything about the game to still FEEL like a traditional RTS, but have it feel totally natural on a controller, and accessible for RTS noobies and veterans alike.

Tooth and Tail uses procedural generation to create its maps. What unique benefits did this bring to an RTS? What new challenges did it provide in developing an RTS?

Without procedural generation, players can optimize for a particular map. Build orders get memorized and the game boils down to the player who can execute more efficiently. Random levels means that players are not just responding to variety from the opposing player, but also from the map itself. It encourages creativity and rewards improvisation.

What thoughts went into designing units around types of animals? How did the concept help you get creative with unit design?

Animals as a theme were attractive for a number of reasons, but part of what makes it really work is that the player generally already understands the function of a unit simply by knowing the species. Foxes are sly hunters - in Tooth and Tail they are the swift sniper unit.  Skunks have gas - in our game they fire gas grenades. It gave us a point of inspiration for character design, but also makes the game more accessible for newcomers.

Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you've particularly enjoyed?

I wish I could say that I had, but aside from playing some early builds of Night in the Woods and Heat Signature, I haven't played a single one. Being a dad kills my non-work time. Sigh. 

What do you think are the biggest hurdles (and opportunities) for indie devs today?

This time last year everyone was freaking out about the Indiepocalypse. I never really bought into that. I do think it's true that many, many more indies are failing now, even some indies that had seen previous success, but I also think many more indies are succeeding too.  If there's twice as many successes, but ten times as many games, of course it's going to raise the bar and force some people out of the market. Still, the challenges are the same as they always were: how do you make a game that will get people talking, and how do you do that efficiently? Ten years ago the simple combination of making a "good" "indie" game was enough to get attention. It's not anymore.

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