"I started developing Monaco in October , and in 15 plus weeks, it won IGF," began Andy Schatz of Pocketwatch Games during an Independent Games Summit talk at GDC 2011. Though the game is not yet released, working on Monaco got him out of a depressive rut, and wound up being his saving grace - and it only took him 15 weeks to make the build that won the grand prize at the IGF in 2010.
"I was depressed," he admitted. "Not clinically depressed ... but I was in a huge rut." He'd been independent for a few years, he had an employee, and he was making a game called Venture: Dinosauria, "and it sucked," he said. He had to fire the employee, and he ran out of money.
"If I'm not there now, I may as well give up," he thought, after 5 years being an indie. So he took a break to do other fun things. "I started working on board games. I think board game design is a really fantastic way to get up your designer juices," he said.
The first board game he made was with African animals. "Finally I got to the point where I'd been working for 5 years on animal games," he said, with kids as main audience. "But there was this one game I'd had in the back of my mind for years and years, but it was about stealing shit. So I'd lose my entire audience immediately." But he went for it, and made a Monaco board game.
"I'm gonna make that heist game in XNA," he thought, and started working on it for fun. He started out by trying to use Torque, "which I think was a mistake," he admitted "If you prototype in an engine which enforces a certain type of look, you'll wind up making that game." He made it just in XNA which kept him out of that rut.
"A couple days later, I'm having a great time working on it," he said. "Another problem with Dinosauria was that the scale was too big. I was trying to make the game, the game of my life. ... I think that was invariably a mistake. It's very good to have ambitions, but it's bad to set too many expectations for yourself at the beginning of a project."
Monaco, which was initially his diversion, became a much better presence in his life. "I made sure to work on one cool thing every day," he said. "One thing that made it happy, one thing that was awesome, and made the game better. I made sure I worked on one cool thing per day, and I made sure the game was better every day after I was done."
"I got much further because I was enjoying myself," he says. In terms of making the game better, one of the best things you can do is to "have people playing your game from like day two," says Schatz.
"There's two types of people you should have play your games, first is your advisors, and you can't have too many of those because you'll get conflicting information. For me very early on Dan Paladin from The Behemoth helped out," he said. "He kept the game from being more cerebral, which is what I tend to do, and made it more arcade and snappier."
"The other kind you want is people who don't know shit about games," he joked. "You don't want their advice necessarily, but what you do want is their impressions. Their experience with the game, and their impressions are always right." Schatz asks them three questions: "What did you like, what did you not like, and what confused you." Those things are always right every time, he says.
Schatz had $150k in the bank when he went indie, and through the next five years, he had gotten down to $40k. "At 31 years old when you're about to get married, and you're thinking you might have kids in a few years, having $40k in the bank starts to look pretty scary," he said. He had to do some contract work to build up his finances again, which he says "makes you rich, but is not fun. "
"If you work on a game that's really cool, you'll either get recognition or you'll make money," says Schatz. But if you make a game to just make money, you'll either fail, or you'll make money. "So the way I see it is that if you make a game just to make money, that's actually riskier."
At the end, Monaco made him less depressed, "The big reason is that I focused on enjoying my job every day. Every day I built something I thought was cool. Then 15 weeks later I won the IGF."
When he got into a rut even with Monaco, he told himself, "You should not be not enjoying your job right now! Fuck it! Do something awesome. I made my first game when I was 7, and I'll make my last game when I die."