Trying to play Monaco at PAX, let alone talk to the developer at length, was a practical impossibility if you didn't have a lot of time on your hands. The small booth housing Andy Schatz's IGF-winning title and Chris Hecker's Spy Party was overrun for the entire show. Gamers flooded the area in droves to get in on some of the four-player crime caper gameplay.
Thankfully, at the smaller and more intimate Fantastic Arcade event in Austin, TX, I was able to spend plenty of quality hands-on time with the game that had so many people buzzing. After getting a stronger sense of what Monaco was all about, I set out to track Andy down in a more relaxed setting and talk to him at length. And boy, did he oblige.
What follows is excerpts from our hour-long conversation where we touch on the fecal implications of mispronunciation, Monaco, game design, the secret fraternal order of indie developers, the way to build a great console RTS, and how my #1 favorite dinosaur never actually existed.
Sean: Welcome, this is Sean Carey with Destructoid, and today we’re fortunate enough to have Andy Schatz, the developer of Monaco, with us. Thank you so much for spending some time to talk about the game -- greatly appreciated.
Andy: Of course.
Sean: So, on your Twitter feed recently, you put out a call for voice actors. If you’re at that stage in production, does that mean Monaco’s close?
Andy: No, it’s not that close. The gameplay is fairly close to done, but the online play isn’t implemented yet -- there’s a whole second game mode with the online play. And, I still don’t know exactly what platform the game’s going to be on. And if I may make a slight correction?
Sean: Please do.
Andy: Everyone pronounces it wrong. I don’t mind, but, it’s pronounced “shots”. When it gets pronounced “shats”, it sounds like I’m shitting myself. And, you know, I didn’t get teased when I was little because HBO wasn’t the swearing machine like it is today. Everyone’s so used to swearing in everyday life now that people hear “shats” and instantly think of shitting, which they didn’t when I was a kid - it was just a name. But I like my name, it means “treasure” or “sweetie” in German. It’s a term of endearment.
Sean: See, now you’ve given me the subtitle for this interview -- Hey Man, Nice Schatz.
Andy: I should have been a doctor. Dr. Shots. Anyways, back to your question, I put out an open call for voice actors up on the Facebook page, or Twitter, or you can just go to monacoismine.com and that will link you to those two things. So yeah, I put out an open call for auditions for the voice acting parts, and I’ve gotten such a response that I’m thinking I might actually increase the number of voiced characters in the game. Rather than just having one character who tells most of the story along with a foil, I’m going to put in all four of the main characters.
Sean: As you start to implement dialogue, is this mostly going to be a storytelling vehicle between levels, or will there be dialogue during gameplay?
Andy: The way that it’s going to work -- I should say that my development process has been really organic -- if I have an idea of the way I want to implement something, and I put it in and it’s like “ehhhhhh, ok”, I’ll just do it differently. But, I did prototype it, and I think it works really well in that the story is essentially is told by a character who’s being interrogated by the police, relating the stories of how they went in and did all these heists and sort of going back over it all. So, as you select the level, it starts the voice over as all the players are selecting their characters. Even as you continue into the game, the voice over continues. I think each clip is like 45 seconds, a minute, minute-fifteen, of audio where he’s telling the story of the heist. So, it’s sort of in-game, but it’s not like a dynamic in-game thing.
Sean: So, we’re here at the Fantastic Arcade, but you recently did PAX, which was just a few weeks ago -- what has been your experience at such a small show compared to your experience at PAX?
Andy: This is a vacation for me, because PAX -- I was crunching up to PAX like I used to in my console days. Just working night and day like, getting fed through a tube, that kind of thing. So, given that I crunched really hard going into PAX, I kind of took it easy leading up to this and honestly -- I just came to hang out with other developers and to explore Austin. I’ve never been here before, and Austin’s been a lot of fun. I’ve been swimming in the watering hole, and seeing the millions of bats, and eating barbeque.
But, other than that, I’m really here to hang out with other game developers and show the game off. They built an arcade cabinet for Monaco, for like 10 of the spotlight indie games, and put a PC inside and threaded four Xbox controllers through the front, so it’s really cool to see it in that. It’s really fun to watch people play, but being the first year of the Arcade, their attendance has been really low. So, I don’t have the crowds of people like I did at PAX. At PAX, there was rarely a time when it wasn’t a four-player game and there weren’t people waiting. Here, one person will occasionally wander up and try out the game, and then, a few minutes later, someone else might wander up and try out the game.
Sean: That leads me into my next question. With the exception of the other developers in the indie community that you get to bounce your game ideas off of, you’re a one man band -- that’s coding, that’s art, and so on. So, in a larger environment like PAX, what were the lessons that you learned, or what were the changes you’ve made to gameplay based on seeing the game played by a larger number of people?
Andy: Yeah, I was making changes to the game every night at PAX and uploading a new build. And luckily none of those builds was broken. Although, I think the second day of PAX, the first people that came in to play the game -- it, er, bluescreened. I was like “Aw, fuck. What did I do?!” It turns out it was that the computer had been running all night and it overheated or something. It never happened before then, and never seen since, so that’s good. But yeah, that’s something you couldn’t do at a big company -- upload a new build, in the morning, 15 minutes before PAX opens. I also made a lot of changes on the way home, too. I’ve made changes this time too, although I haven’t been uploading new builds.
But, here at Fantastic Arcade, maybe you have two people come up and play, and then they leave, and then next person is just a one person, and he can't figure out how to start the game because there's two characters active on the screen, and he can't figure out which of these controllers you have to back out, so now I'm just zeroing out all the characters between each play session. So, now when you go to start a new level, it starts with zero characters and you have to choose one. It's an obvious little change, but it's the sort of thing that you wouldn't realize until you see people playing your game.
For me, play testing is usually not about asking people what they'd like to see different, but what they like and they don't like. The things that people like and they don't like -- that's always right. Those people are, they can be as dumb as a doornail, but those people are always right when they express to you a basic emotional reaction of like or don't like. Or don't understand. Don't understand is the biggest one, actually. Those are the things that I always try and fix. I don't always try and fix them in the way that the players think I should, but if there's some thing that confuses them you have to solve it. If there's something that I have to explain over and over again, I know that I'm doing something wrong with the game. So, going to PAX is a great experience for that sort of thing.
Sean: I know that our Jordan Devore did a short Q&A with you and talked to you a little bit about having to join forces with the developer of Spy Party to get that booth and make the monetary investment to put that all in place. Having done that and seeing what you got from it, was it worth what you put in it?
Andy: Oh, yeah. It was, all in all, I think it cost each of us around $1,500, which in the scale of making a game is really nothing. Not that Monaco's cost me a lot so far. I haven't spent a dime directly on the game, on game development. I've gotten my sounds free from freesound.org, the music is from a guy who's got a free portfolio online, and I made all the art myself, so I haven't spent a dime on actual development. Then I use open source tools for all my stuff; it's built in XNA also, so I didn't even spend money on a game engine. But yeah, the show was incredibly worth it, partly because I don't have a distributor yet and one of the things I really wanted to do was, when I went into talks with people, I wanted there to already be an existing fanbase and say "Hey, you idiots -- people want this game." Right?
Sean: I think the support from almost all the coverage I read from PAX was overwhelmingly positive there, so in terms of the juice that you got from that, it seems like it was a good investment.
Andy: Yeah, it's really funny that the one Destructoid preview -- the very first time they came by, when Jordan came by, they had probably the worst play session of probably all of PAX, they really did.
Sean: And that's all Jordan's fault, right?
Andy: It might have been. I don't remember specifically, but, Jordan - you might be the jackass. It's possible. No, that was the one play session where they just weren't going after the things that they needed to do to succeed in the game. It's a heist game, right? And I was bummed, because I was like "Aw, Destructoid is gonna give me bad coverage from now on!" I thought I had ruined my first impression, so my wife actually caught them and said "I heard you had a bad session, you should come back and play it again." I actually sent them a build afterwards, and I think he he got a second shot at it, and actually got into it that time around.
Sean: You're obviously getting the word out there. Talk to me about the support you get from other developers. For people that are on the outside looking in, the indie community can look a bit like a weird Masonic society. So, is there an secret indie handshake that I can learn to get in on more of this?
Andy: Yeah, some of that secret society stuff exists, and I will not talk about it. But no, there's definitely a behind-the-scenes cabal of indie game developers. We don't collude in some sort of negative business fashion, but we definitely support each other and give a lot of advice to each other -- on game design, on art, business decisions, things like that. We all know that we're navigating difficult waters, and the more power that each individual indie discovers, the more successful we all will be. Because it opens up markets for us and just bringing this stuff to light is a good thing for all of us. It's a good thing for the game industry in general. It's a good thing for the distributors, for the publishers, it's just -- what's good for the game industry is going to be good for everyone, right?
One thing that has been probably the best thing that has happened to the game industry in the last five years is the rise of the indie game developers. That's because the types of games that we're creating are -- I'm not saying every indie game developer is doing this, I'm not even saying that I'm doing this, but the types of games that are coming out now are so much more interesting and innovative than they were five years ago. The business models are changing too, very much for the better. It's a great time to be an indie developer.
Sean: So, you've got some folks that you can reach out to for help. But, for the most part, there's not a formalized support network for you. You're basically Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now, deep in the jungle fending for yourself. What is it that keeps you motivated internally? Do you have a more traditional approach? Do you set milestones for yourself and stick to those - how do you break that down?
Andy: I've been indie for 6 years now, and it's changed. I used to be in the console/PC space and I would try to set up milestones and all that. I've learned some things that work and some things that don't work. Regular old milestones don't work. Certainly, having hard deadlines, like going to PAX, helps. So I look at, these are the things that I must have done, these are the things that I'd like to have done -- those are more the guidelines that I give myself.
I know a lot of indies work sporadically, and I don't think that's actually the best way to work. I think a lot of the indies that are struggling are working that way. There's a chicken or egg thing there, they might be struggling because of that, or they might be working sporadically because they're struggling. But I try to keep healthy work hours -- even though I work from home, I try to start working by 9 every day, and I work until dinner. I take a lunch break and I don't play games during the day, and then if I am particularly inspired I work after dinner. I'm generally still answering email and dealing with support and things like that after dinner.
Having a schedule, and knowing when you're typically going to start and stop -- unless you're particularly inspired and you want to keep going, which does happen quite often -- I think it's a healthy thing. You want to try and get as much work done as you can; I think the most successful indie games today are the product of obssesive workers. Basically, what I try to do is allow myself to be obssesive, but try to retain the sanity of a normal work week. That's a very long answer to a very short question.
Sean: No worries! So what I'm hearing is that there's no hacky-sacking your way to success?
Andy: Right. If you talk to Ron Carmel from World of Goo, he'll tell you that he basically destroyed his life in the second year of working. The first year was pretty normal, and then when they were closing in on releasing the game in the second year he basically destroyed his own life to get the damn game done. When he talks about it, despite the fact that he's had great success with World of Goo, you still hear a little twinge of regret in there. You talk to the Super Meat Boy guys, and they, they don't eat, they destroy themselves too. You know, they work their butts off, so that's coming out in a few weeks, and hopefully that just kills.
Sean: So, you're hungry, you're starving, you're all alone in the desert. A mysterious person appears and offers you one million dollars, with the only constraint being that you have to spend all of it on the development of Monaco. How would that change your process?
Andy: Interesting. <long pause for contemplation> I think I would put it in a bank account and I would just make Monaco exactly the way that I'm making it now. The only thing that I'm unsatisfied with about the way that I'm making Monaco is the anxiety of whether or not it will do well. I love making this game. There is nothing I'd rather being doing right now. It's fun to make. It's the type of game that's so modular, that I'm making a new feature every hour, and I've never had more fun making a game in my entire life. So, yeah, I would put it in a bank account and I would make the game exactly the way I'm making it now, and stop being anxious about whether or not I can support myself. I got married recently -- maybe I'd have a kid.
Sean: There you go! So, out of all the skill sets that go into game development -- coding, art, animation, level design, sound, etc. -- what are your strongest areas, and being a one man band, where do you wish you were stronger?
Andy: Well, I'm definitely strongest with this intersection of programming and game design. I'm definitely the type of designer that just likes to implement stuff. I really like thinking about games from a mechanical perspective. I've always described game design as a combination of two things: mechanics and experience. The mechanics are all of the bits and pieces that work together to make a far more interesting experience. It's all about pacing the fun, how elegantly do all the pieces work together? How simple is the system on the surface, and how complex is it underneath? How much does the player have to strategize or be flexible while they're playing in order to succeed? Those are the mechanics.
The experience, on the other hand, is all about how you're feeling while you play the game. It's all about the story or the individual emotions you're having. The story, or the music, or the art, those are all part of the experience. They're generally the right-brain part of games. I'm definitely more of a mechanics designer, although I've come to realize more recently how important the experience of playing the game is. In fact, the experience generally is one of the most important things.
If I think about some of the most memorable games to me, of all time, there's a few of them that are really mechanics based games, like Civ or Starcraft II. But, for the most part, you're remembering the individual experience, the little one-off moments in games that you had. Or that particular game that made you laugh, or that particular game that had fantastic music, or that made you think about life in a new way.
Sean: What were a couple of those experiences for you?
Andy: Well, going way back -- Ultima IV. When I was a kid, in second grade I remember I would go home from school every day and rate myself on how well I had performed in each of the eight virtues. Which is awesome. I was such a nerd. But, that's a little piece of experience that he designed. It's not so much a mechanic because the mechanics of how you increase those stats really didn't matter. What matters is that you were making choices in the game, story related choices, that gave you an experience of playing the game. That's something I'll rememeber all my life.
Or, I'll remember the ending to X-Com, not for how brilliantly I strategized getting to the alien brain to destroy it, but the story that I remember in my head of my main character, who stumbled in to that last room, the only one left of his team, ran out of ammo just before destroying the brain. Then aliens bust in the door behind him with their guns on auto-fire. The first bullet hits my main guy, he goes down dead. The second two bullets go over his head and hit the brain -- destroy it. And then I saw the ending cut scene, and my main character's supposedly escaping while eveything blows up! That experience has nothing to do with the mechanics -- and the mechanics in X-Com were brilliant -- but that individual experience is something that I really rememeber. It's something that stuck with me all my life.
So, I've come to value that side of game design a lot more, and it's something that I'm trying to bring in more of with Monaco as well. The little bits of experience that you rememeber and tell your friends about. Even though it's got beautifully elegant mechanics that keep you coming back and playing it over and over and over again, like you would with Team Fortress, at the same time it should have a beautiful experience.
Sean: So let's jump back into mechanics for a second. You mentioned Team Fortress, specifically. What challenges have you encountered with balancing the different classes in Monaco?
Andy: That's actually a really good question -- it's not something I've talked a lot about so far. It's something I'm still a little bit in the middle of. When the game won the IGF, it had four characters, and I decided to up it to 8 playable characters for the bigger version of the game that I decided to make after the IGF. Originally, the characters were designed around a single passive ability. With the original four, one of them had their passive ability centered around taking out guards. He could chloroform guards. The other three each could interact with a particular item type in the game environment faster than everybody else. So there was a hacker, who could crack a computer faster than everyone else, there was a locksmith who could open locked doors faster than everyone else, and there was a prowler who could do physical actions like climbing through windows faster than everyone else. So that was the basic game design of it, that each one had something that they did faster, even though everyone could pretty much do all the actions.
But, as I expanded upon the game, I found that certain ones of those passive abilities were more useful than others and more interesting than others. I wanted to add a little more depth and difference to the characters, and with eight characters, I didn't want to have eight different item types in the world. I felt that if I did that, the different item types would end up being too sparce within the world. If only one-eighth of the items in the world were a computer, then the hacker wouldn't be useful often enough. So, each of the characters now has some passive ability, and one active ability that you can charge up and use with the X button, or space bar, or whatever. The two abilities are related thematically from the character's standpoint, but also from a mechanical standpoint.
So, for instance, the locksmith can still unlock doors faster than everyone else, but he can also weld doors shut. So, the locksmith is all about controlling the flow of speed through a level. The prowler has thermal vision, when means she can see through walls and see a guard before they come through the door, or before going around a corner, she can see if there's a guard right there so she doesn't stumble into them. But she's also got a smoke bomb, the when you use it will block the vision of the area, so she's all about vision. So that's like her thematic idea. Then, the cleaner is sort of a little less tight thematically. The muscle is like the Demoman, he can blow up walls. He's also got double hit points. Now, that doesn't seem like it relates that much, but what it actually creates is that, as a character, he can move through the level differently than everyone else. He can walk right through, like a guard outpost, and yeah, he'll get damaged, but he's got twice the hit points, so he can essentially make his own path through the level either by blowing up walls or by disregarding guards. Those are the basics.
Sean: Let me shift gears one more time. We're getting close to the end of our time here, and for those of you reading it is probably about 4 degrees Centigrade in this room right now.
Andy: We're snuggling.
Sean: Yeeeaaaahh! So, speaking of how game developers and the gaming press snuggle up to one another, what would you like to see the gaming press at all levels -- from the IGN/Gamespots, to G4, to the independents like us -- what would you like to see the gaming press do differently in regards to indie coverage?
Andy: Huh! That's interesting. I think it's easy to criticize the press, but the press has actually gotten pretty good about covering indie stuff, especially the Destructoids and Joystiqs and Kotakus and Rock Paper Shotguns and the other sort of mid-level blogging sites. I'd like to see more mainstream coverage of indie games, because typically the biggest outlets always talk about the same one or two things. It's not so much how I'd like to see them cover indie games differently, but when the press moves into indie game mode, they start thinking about games in interesting ways.
I think that press that's interested in indie games thinks about games in general in interesting ways. The change that I would like to see is in how they cover mainstream games, because I don't think that they're critical enough of mainstream games. I think that generally the gaming press doesn't look at games abstractly or independently. They tend to look at games relative too much to what they're comparing them to. Rather than looking really critically at Red Dead Redemption, about whether or not it really is a good game, they're discussing whether or not it's good compared to Grand Theft Auto IV. Most mainstream games are given a pass because they're only looked at in relation to one another, partly because 99% of mainstream games are exactly like another mainstream game, so it's hard not to compare.
That would be the big thing, because it pisses me off when, you know, the press is really intellectually interesting when they start covering indie games, but then they just throw all that shit out the window when they go and cover Dante's Inferno, or whatever it is. They just talk about how big this game's dick is, that's all they're interested in at that point. It's like the girl who claims she wants someone intellectual, but then ends up going home with the guy with the big dick. She seems really smart when she talks to the nerd!
Sean: So, we talked a little bit before we started recording about something I'd like to bring back up. You mentioned a couple of ideas you'd like to pursue once Monaco comes to fruition. Is there anything you'd like to talk about there that you're throwing around for the future?
Andy: Yeah, well there's really sort of two ideas I've been kicking around for things I'd like to make. One is, I'd really like to make a stab at the first great console RTS. No-one's even come close in my opinion. There are some people who are experimenting honorably -- like Pikmin -- I think that's a great example of someone who tried and did a pretty good job, but there were some significant failures to the design. I definitely respect that design, and I think it's a really fun game.
Then there's some people who are just lazy. To me, Halo Wars is just a lazy game design. It's just a shoehorning of the old Dune 2, Command and Conquer, or Warcraft game design into a console controller. Sorry if you worked on Halo Wars, I apologize, I'll buy you a beer.
I think that to make the first great console RTS you need to break down the idea of a real-time strategy game. You need to ask yourself, what is a real-time strategy game? Not in terms of what's the tradition of real-time strategy games within the computer game or console world, but what is it at a physical game mechanics level? Like if you were to make a real-time board game. Basically RTS games are like real-time chess. So it's 2D spacial control, it's a mixture of units, and an opponent, and that's essentially what it is. You might throw in some sort of base-building into it...
Sean: Resource management?
Andy: I think that the resource managament is an underlying system but that the game doesn't necessarily have to be built around it. Although, how you choose to use resources can be really interesting, so I guess I agree. But, to look at the genre from that level and then try to make a game -- take that, and then take a theme. The one I've been thinking about is dinosaurs. Take those basics, and then take dinosaurs--
Sean: Aw, yeeeaaah.
Andy: --and try to build something that fits on the console, having nothing to do with the tradition of real-time strategy games in terms of their control sets, or in terms of things like large armies with massive numbers of units, lots of micro, things like that. The reason that I say I think Pikmin is a good attempt at that is that I think that that's what they were trying to do, but the idea of having a main character in the world is just sort of an explanation for the sluggishness of the control, rather than designing for the controller, if that makes sense. I think that to make a really stellar console RTS you need to have a control scheme that's really fun to use, and not just something that you're working around or making explanations for in the game.
Sean: That sounds like an interesting design approach, and I love-love-love Triceratops, so that sounds facinating to me. So--
Andy: You know Triceratops doesn't actually exist? They just discovered--
Sean: GOD, I HATE YOU!
Andy: --Look it up! They just discovered this year that the Triceratops is actually a juvenile Torosaurus, and that's why they've never found a juvenile Torosaurus around before. Over time, their horns got shorter, and their fringe got flatter as they got older. You should look it up, it's really cool.
Sean: Now I've got more work to do, thanks a lot.
Andy: Link to it.
Sean: I will! Well, after all the dino-talk, I think we're going to go thaw out, find a fireplace and sip some hot cocoa together. Andy Shots, thank you so much for spending some time with us today.
Andy: Thank you. Thank you.