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Road To The IGF: Pocketwatch Games' Andy Schatz

January 17, 2006
 

Introduction

Over the next few weeks, Gamasutra will be presenting a regular 'Road To The IGF' feature, profiling and interviewing each of the finalists in the 2006 Independent Games Festival main competition. Today's interview is with Andy Schatz, the founder of Pocketwatch Games and the creator of the 2006 IGF Seumas McNally Grand Prize finalist Wildlife Tycoon: Venture Africa.

The official description for this PC indie title, which was created from scratch in just 9 months using the GarageGames indie-friendly Torque Engine, explains of the game's overall concept:

"Build ecosystems of lions, elephants, and more in this unique Tycoon game. Take control over any animal, from a devious hyena hunting for zebra meat to the leader of a herd of wildebeests migrating across crocodile-infested waters."

Schatz sat down with Gamasutra to answer some of our questions about his eco-strategy title, the state of independent development, and what made him decide to become an indie developer, and even revealed information on the just-starting sequel:


Wildlife Tycoon: Venture Africa

GS: Tell us a bit about your background in the game industry, when your developer was founded, your location, your previously developed games?

AS: I was a game industry burnout in a dead-end career.

I started San Diego-based Pocketwatch Games in January, 2005, after suffering a severe case of industry burnout. My skills are as a generalist, but the increasing size of the development teams meant that I was getting pigeonholed as a niche programmer. I’ve never been one that could compete with some of the brilliant technical minds in our industry, but I also felt that I couldn’t move into game design – which is where my heart lies – without suffering drastic professional emasculation.

The position of “Game Designer” has moved farther and farther away from “Programmer” and the job of the designer has become much more focused on directing content rather than designing the logical systems that truly make up the game design.

The independent gaming world called to me – I could be a programmer-designer and gain experience in business as well. I saw opportunity with the increasing size of the gaming audience and the possibility of a tiny, multitalented team. As I had significant experience with 3D game engines, the Torque Game Engine also seemed like a toolset that I could exploit.

I was also excited about making games that I truly valued – games that could be interesting and fun for adults and formative for children. The game ideas that I tossed around included a post-apocalyptic oil-trader game reminiscent of M.U.L.E., and a Lewis and Clark-inspired New World exploration game in the vein of Seven Cities of Gold.

After I went to work in my bedroom, I initially worried that all my industry contacts would dry up and I would have no one to help out with my first project. Luckily, I was wrong. The independent gaming world is very attractive to many game developers, but the risk involved is generally too great for most to take the plunge. I was able to provide an opportunity to a number of talented colleagues to be involved remotely in a fresh, fun project that they really cared about without the risk of losing their day jobs.

Wildlife Tycoon: Venture Africa is Pocketwatch’s first title; we are just starting production on the icy sequel, Venture Arctic.

GS: Tell us a little about your game - genre, how long it took to make, what it was inspired by, why you wanted to make it?

AS: Wildlife Tycoon: Venture Africa was developed in 10 months with the Torque Game Engine. I did all the programming, game design, and management; a team of tremendously talented contractors created the art, music, and poetry.

The broad game design evolved from my desire to make games that would inspire thought and curiosity from the game itself, not just from some super-imposed learning element or retro-fitted didactic storyline. The game is much more than stealth-education, though – it is not a documentary in disguise. The thought-inspiring and meaningful moments in the game are too closely intertwined with the entertainment and the game design to be talked about as separate entities.

The game may have the word ‘Tycoon’ in the title, but don’t let that fool you, either. It’s a unique Artificial Intelligence based strategy game that is one part RTS, one part Zoo Tycoon, and one part Lemmings. In each level, you attempt to achieve some population total for a certain species of animals by building up stable ecosystems of autonomous creatures.

I designed the game around the following idea: how can I take the concept of a Tycoon game and make it appeal to players of downloadable games? From this question arose two main conclusions:

A) The game must have goals and rewards, unlike a typical Tycoon game
B) The game must have a small total download size

To give the game goals and rewards, I needed to redesign the idea of a Tycoon game. I introduced a level-based structure and goals for each scenario. The goals are derived from the simple rules of Tycoon-gameplay, but force the player to focus on developing different skills each time. To keep these variations fresh, I needed to put an emphasis on the strategic differences in the landscapes of the levels themselves, and so rather than giving the player blank-slate landscapes, the worlds come halfway pre-populated with foliage and water for the animals. Because each level is different, the game also has a minor exploration element that is not present in most Tycoon games.

Reducing the total download size required more drastic changes to the Tycoon gameplay. Total numbers of animal species was reduced to save on texture, sound, and animation data, and so the game complexity had to revolve around emergent animal behavior. I strove to add as much realistic animal behavior to the game as I could – lions hunt in packs, zebras and wildebeests warn each other of predators, flamingoes die of drought and habitat disturbance which elephants in particular are masters of causing. Hyenas commute to work and bring home meals for their young, baboons will eat virtually anything, and crocodiles can last for a year without a meal by shutting down their metabolic systems. Many of these elements are not immediately noticeable, but are central to the strategy of the game, and evoke the real ecosystems of Africa.


Wildlife Tycoon by night

GS: What was the smartest thing you did to speed development of your title, and the dumbest thing you (collectively!) did which hindered development?

AS: By far the dumbest thing that I did was putting out consistently buggy releases of the beta version and even the final game. I was unable to get much valuable beta-testing feedback because my volunteer beta-testers immediately lost interest in helping out due to the nearly-unplayable state of some of my releases.

This problem snowballed because I didn’t have enough people playing the game just before release, which caused me to launch the game with unpardonable bugs – there was even a blatant misspelling in the first tutorial box.

The best thing that happened during development was not initially positively received. In December of 2004 I quit my job in the industry, and submitted applications to four top-flight business schools. I knew that I would be starting school in the following September, so I wanted to make a game that I could finish before I started school. A tight 9-month schedule was born and I was forced to design within these constraints.

In March, one-by-one, the rejection notices came rolling in. By May, my fate was sealed: I was not going to business school. In a way, I breathed a sigh of relief. I was having too much fun making my game.

The imposed schedule forced me to make a lot of design and business decisions that might have otherwise been undesirable.

GS: What do you think of the state of independent development? Improving? Changing for the worse or the better?

Independent development is in an upswing right now. Increasing audience awareness of the online distribution model is making more niche products possible, similar to the way that cable and satellite TV allowed niche TV stations to be viable. Some of those niches are becoming crowded (puzzle/casual games), but there is a huge amount of space left for unique content.

The concern I have right now is with the consolidation of the big distributors and exclusive deals being put into place with the big portals. These developments seem obliquely aimed at taking power away from the developers and handing it to the publishers/distributors. Hopefully the content being created outside of the big distribution networks will remain compelling enough to hold onto the audiences.

GS: What do you think of the concept of indie games on consoles such as the Xbox 360 (for digital download) or on digital distribution services like Steam? Is that a better distribution method than physical CDs or downloads via a website/portal?

AS: Which distribution method do I think is the best? All of the above. One of the best things about the independent game industry is that publishers/distributors don’t own the IP and are usually not exclusive. Developers don’t just want one of these distribution methods to succeed, they want them ALL to succeed.

But, of course, three cheers for whichever method provides the highest percentage of royalties to the developer.

GS: Have you checked out any of the other IGF games? Which ones are you particularly impressed with, and why?

AS: Computer and board games may share similar roots, but each medium has it’s strengths and weaknesses. Thomas and His Magical Words seems to exploit the strengths of our medium and avoid the weaknesses of a straightforward Scrabble clone.

Darwinia is visually breathtaking. My hat goes off to that team for having the courage to make something with such a unique and cohesive look.

Weird Worlds and Professor Fizzwizzle took variations on existing concepts and did absolutely everything right, from the visuals to the game design to the music. I’m personally very jealous of both of these games for their quality and cohesion.


Relaxing on the plains.

GS: What recent indie games do you admire, and what recent mainstream console/PC games do you admire, and why?

AS: I’m a big fan of the cult-indie-hit Deadly Rooms of Death: The Journey to Rooted Hold. The off-beat humor is reminiscent of Zork and the puzzles are the cleverest I’ve seen since the original Lemmings.

I can’t get enough of the Dance Dance Revolution series, and I enjoyed Shadow of the Colossus tremendously.

GS: Do you have any messages for your fellow contestants or fans of the IGF?

For my fellow contestants:

This may be an old, tired argument, but it will always be worth repeating: In the last few years, the whooshing of dollars bills has largely drowned out the discussion of games-as-art. Let us not forget that we should strive to create art within our commercial enterprises, promote games which honor the artistic spirit, and respect those around us that put art first.

_____________________________________________________


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