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Road To The IGF:  Venture Arctic 's Andy Schatz

Road To The IGF: Venture Arctic's Andy Schatz

December 4, 2006 | By Alistair Wallis

December 4, 2006 | By Alistair Wallis
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More: Console/PC, Indie

Continuing Gamasutra’s ‘Road to the IGF’ feature, which profiles and interviews Independent Games Festival 2007 entrants, today’s interview is with Andy Schatz of Pocketwatch Games, developers of “interactive nature documentary” Venture Arctic.

The company’s previous title, Wildlife Tycoon: Venture Africa was a finalist in the 2005 IGF. Schatz comments that he was surprised at the level of success that the title has achieved, but adds that he feels Venture Arctic, which is currently slated for retail in March of 2007, is an improvement over its predecessor.

Schatz describes Venture Arctic as a “cross between a real-time strategy game and a paint program”, which allows the player to embark on “an open-ended adventure in icy lands where wolves roam the tundra and orcas patrol the seas”.

We spoke to Schatz about the game, its entry into the IGF, and the message contained in the Wildlife Tycoon series.

What is your background in the games industry?

I was seven and nerdy when I started making games on my Commodore 64, but I didn't start working commercially on games until 1995, when I worked on one of the first online gaming portals, NetPlay. I migrated to PC/Console games at Presto Studios where I worked on AI and the world's first Xbox Live implementation for Whacked. I also spent some time riding the dot com boom creating viral marketing campaigns – you may have seen the flash-based Christmas snow-globe that you can shake up, sending the people within screaming and flying about.

Eventually I went to TKO Software, where I worked on several contracts for EA. TKO imploded and I was left but a husk of a man after the harrowing experience of EA, so I went independent.

When was Pocketwatch formed, and what previous titles have you released?

Pocketwatch was formed in December, 2004, and we released our first title, Venture Africa in October, 2005. Venture Arctic is schedule to ship in March, 2007.

Did you anticipate the success you had with Venture Africa?

My blind sales guesses for Venture Africa were between 1,000 and 10,000 units sold. I did not expect the success we've had in retail. All told, I believe we will sell in the realm of 40-50K units.

What inspired the game, and why did you decide to make it?

With Venture Arctic, I wanted to make a game with epic feeling ecosystems and with striking visuals. With only 22 land species in the Arctic winter, I knew that I could create a pretty complete picture of animal interaction. Also, I feel like the Arctic still contains a fair amount of mystery since the conditions are too harsh for tourists and even for many researchers.

The Arctic contains mystery, beauty, and visceral predatory behavior -- making it the perfect setting for a game about the harsh realities of nature and the beauty of the balancing act of life.

What were your expectations from your game, and do you feel the end product lives up to those expectations?

I am very proud of Venture Africa conceptually, but I always felt the execution was lacking. Venture Arctic feels incredible from a conceptual standpoint and an execution standpoint. I'm really excited to have a title nearing the end of development that I feel competes favorably with titles like Zoo Tycoon 2.

What do you think the most interesting thing about your game is?

Our currency model is really interesting, I think. Instead of spending money to buy things, the player collects the "spirits" of dead animals, which they can spend on "forces of nature", such as sun, wind, and fertility. Arctic ecosystems typically go through large population fluctuations; in our game, the player is rewarded for emulating this because as their animals die off, they are rewarded with more power to shape the landscape and rebuild their populations.

Would you say there's a message in Venture Arctic?

Absolutely -- fans of Venture Africa know that our games are like ciphers: they help to inspire insight into animals, ecosystems, and our relationship to the natural world without force-feeding a single obvious moral. I've had many people tell me that playing our games made them think about animals in a new way.

Venture Arctic continues this "hands-off" approach while introducing elements of climate change and the respectful attitudes towards death. The gameplay and the story are largely inspired by traditional Inuit legends, and this foreign-ness may cause some of our fans to examine their attitudes towards animals and state-of-nature.

What attracted you to the Torque engine?

Torque Game Engine is by far the most versatile low-cost 3D game engine in existence. Development continues on the engine constantly, and GarageGames makes an excellent business partner as well. I see no reason why anyone on a budget would choose another engine for a 3D game.

How long did development take?

Venture Arctic is not yet complete. We plan to release the game online in March, 2007.

What has the development process been like?

Pocketwatch hired its first full-time employee, Donnie Bugden, for Venture Arctic. Donnie is an extremely versatile technical artist with a web development and games-as-art background. Hiring an employee is a big step -- from a legal and logistical standpoint, managing the bureaucracy of being an employer is expensive and confusing. But Donnie adds an incredible amount of energy and talent to our team and I hope to see the company continue to grow with people of his caliber.

Because I've been managing much more than just development this time around -- we have fairly active community forums and occasional support cases for Venture Africa, plus I've been running Qatfish, a blog aggregator -- our schedule has been a little harder to stick to. I should have budgeted an additional 4 months of development time beyond the release of our first game for product support, community management, and vacation.

What do you think of the state of independent development, and how do you think independent games fit into the industry?

Independent developers define and spotlight underserved genres. The rise of the "casual" game as a genre can be largely attributed to independent development. The genre is still open for indie developers but is getting a bit crowded. Other genres, such as sandbox games and classic RPGs may be re-energized by independent developers. Indies pursue small-niche opportunity, regardless of risk. Sometimes they discover that the niches aren't quite so small!

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

My personal favorites are Eets, for its polished presentation and fun characters and Perplex City because RIDDLES ARE FUN. I also have a soft spot in my heart for Virtual Villagers; it gives me the same feeling as watching that little puppy in the pet store that keeps running into the window -- it's so dumb but it's so damn cute. Please can I take it home mom?

Which recent indie games do you admire, and which recent mainstream titles do you admire, and why?

Perhaps this is a bit off-topic, but I've recently gotten obsessed with playing Frisbee golf at our local course. I've always been into off-beat sports and games with great game mechanics. I probably also enjoy it because it's cheap as compared to ball golf.

As for video games, it's probably been a year since I played a video game that I really felt inspired by. I'm excited about the Xbox 360 hitting its stride and the Wii coming out of the gate with some cool, interesting games.

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

For our fans: Thanks for supporting innovative entertainment! The more you buy interesting games -- and the more you tell your friends and family about fresh, independent entertainment, the more creative and polished our work will become.

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