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Interview with Pocketwatch Games

The CMP Game Group (producer of Game Developer magazine, Gamasutra.com, and the Game Developers Conference) established the Independent Games Festival in 1998 to encourage innovation in game development and to recognize the best independent game developers. They saw how the Sundance Film Festival benefited the independent film community, and wanted to create a similar event for independent game developers as well as the student population of game developers.

I spoke with Andy Schatz of Pocketwatch Games, over instant messenger, a bit about his game, Wildlife Tycoon: Venture Africa, which is a finalist in this year's Seumas McNally Grand Prize at the IGF. We find out who Pocketwatch is, what they do, and what their goals are for the future.

Hi Andy, first of all, why don't you tell us a little bit about yourself and Pocketwatch Games?

Andy: OK. Well, I worked in the game industry for about 5 years as a programmer, and eventually as a development director and lead programmer. I worked at Presto and TKO Software. At Presto I was an AI programmer and also did some work on the Xbox Live code for the first ever Xbox Live game, Whacked! At TKO I mostly did work on EA contracts like Medal of Honor: Breakthrough and Goldeneye: Rogue Agent.

Even as a contractor I experienced burnout, so I started applying to business schools. I quit my job in December after having applied, with the intention of going to school in September. While I was waiting, I decided to make a game since that has been my great passion all my life.

I had 9 months to do the game, and I figured I could use whatever I had created as a launching pad for a 'real' company after I graduated. In April, the rejection notices started rolling in. I didn't get in anywhere and, to be honest, I was relieved because I thought the game was really great. My heart was so tied up in it I actually grew to think that it is, in some ways, an 'important' game.

Can you tell us about the development of Wildlife Tycoon: Venture Africa?

Andy: I did all of the programming and game design. All of the others that worked on the project were old colleagues or people I met through online communities working part time on the game. They all had full time jobs, but they were from all over the place: Oregon, California, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Missouri, and even France. I'm in San Diego myself. We used the Torque engine to develop the game. I still had to make the models and animations, and do code for the AI and UI. I still had to write plenty of code. There's no question that it was a great platform to stand upon, but obviously there was plenty of work to go on top of that.

I'm going to jump in here for a minute if you don't mind since you brought it up. How was it managing all of the people and resources coming in from all over the place?

Andy: Well, I tried to only be actively working with at most 3 people at a time. When I had more than that on my plate, I didn't have enough time to manage the process and do my work too, so sometimes I had to hole myself up. Mostly I managed everyone with AIM, email, and FTP. We only lost one person off the project and they all want to come back for a second project (even though sales are tepid). Everyone was, for the most part, working for a percentage of the royalties. I only offered up-front contracting fees to the people I hadn't worked with before to protect them and me. I got really lucky with those people... the typical contractor that you meet randomly online tends to be pretty flaky, at least that's the reputation.

Since Pocketwatch has been together for only a year now, making a title and getting into the IGF is quite an achievement. How does it feel to be this successful so quickly?

Andy: We had a period of about 3 months where I got engaged, had an article in BusinessWeek Online written about Pocketwatch, got nominated for the IGF, and got nominated for Slamdance. It was pretty crazy and a bit exhausting. I'm really excited to see the game get so much attention, though. I think that it's a really unique game. Kids enjoy it, as well as adults. It reminds me of the games of my youth. You can learn things from playing the game that are truly incorporated into the game itself. For instance, you don't have a fact bubble popping up about the animals, but you have to learn the behaviors of the animals in order to understand the winning strategies. The attention has certainly increased sales, by a little at least.

Is there anything in particular that you would attribute the rapid turn around to? Going from nothing to a complete game with this much attention in less than a year?

#1 is the game design
#2 is the Torque Game Engine
#3 is an enforced deadline and a work ethic forged from the hellfire of EA
#4 is having a group of very professional teammates

As for #1, the game is clearly different but at the same time, it has the look of something that might become popular. People want to root for the little guy, but they also want to root for the winning little guy. So I think that people paid attention because the game is unique and very interesting at first glance, but also has all the characteristics of a wide-market game. The game actually is a lot more interesting once you dig into it deeply, but it has a very good marketing angle.

As for #2, building an indie game in 3D is not a good idea for the most part, but Torque is pretty much the only thing that makes it economically feasible.

#3 and #4 are pretty self-explanatory, I think.

I played the demo for Wildlife Tycoon: Venture Africa and was, to be honest, surprised at how fun it was. I was anticipating a more "kiddy" game, but I really enjoyed it. Did you design it specifically for kids, or did you just design it to be fun?

Andy: I designed it for:

People that like and play Tycoon games but don't go shopping for games, and
People that play downloadable games, meaning a somewhat casual audience.

I didn't mean to get the "kiddy" stigma lodged in there, but I did. I took the Tycoon formula and distilled it down to something that a more casual player would enjoy. Then, because Tycoon games are typically very content heavy and I wanted something that was both A) achievable and B) downloadable, I had to squeeze it into fewer than 20 MB, so the content came in the AI behaviors of the animals rather than a massive amount of content.

This approach is something Will Wright has been talking about. There's merit in building a game that is, literally, as small (file size) as possible. And then, of course, I couldn't help but throw a twist or two in to make it more unique than a typical Tycoon game.

With your background in commercial games, why the jump to independent? Did you want more control over the process? And also, how has this transition been for you?

Andy: Well, I was going to business school because I hated the direction of the industry and my career, and I was jealous of Justin Chin. Justin was the lead designer on Jedi Knight 2. I worked with him at TKO Software, he and I are great buddies. Anyway, he was once featured in PC Gamer Magazine in an article entitled Game Gods. They rounded up about 30 of the greatest game designers out there and did a photo shoot (it wasn't pretty, I'll tell you that). Anyway, I had that article tacked to my door by a buddy of mine in college so eventually, when I worked with Justin, I'd tease him about it all the time. He said they only asked him because they couldn't get Miyamoto.

I wanted to be the guy who had free reign to design games but also got to dig into code too. I love working on many different things, it's my love and my strength, but with commercial team sizes growing to 150+ people, my skills were being further and further pigeonholed. I was working on User Interface code (the most boring thing possible) again and again and again so I said, pardon my French, fuck this. That's why I applied to business school, to give me an out from the pigeon hole.

When I didn't get into school, I had already burnt the boats and the game was starting to get positive coverage and I was starting to see examples of companies that were surviving in the indie world and it looked exactly like what I wanted to do so here I am, in my bathrobe, talking to you.

What does the future hold for you and Pocketwatch Games?

Andy: Well, the plan is to become the "Discovery Channel" of games, eventually. Meaning that the games we make are for a broad audience, there might be some learning involved, but in reality every week is Shark Week. Next up is Venture Arctic (I'm dropping the Wildlife Tycoon part). It will focus on the ecosystems of the arctic and an emphasis on sea life such as orcas, blue whales, seals, polar bears, and reindeer. After that, I have another game up my sleeve that will blow you away, but I can't talk about it yet.

Do you see yourself developing your own technology in the future or sticking with Torque for the time being?

Andy: I hate developing technology. I'm a scavenger and I'm really bad at developing technology. I'm just not a techie, and right now, Torque is really the only viable choice for 3D. If I start working on a 2D-only game, I'll reevaluate things, but of course Torque 2D will also be an option. I really like the GarageGames contributing community, though I get pretty tired of the deluge of no-product kiddies that they get posting all the time.

Are there any final words you'd like to say?

Andy: Well, I'm just thankful that our little industry is back in an upswing. Team sizes and barriers of entry got so big in the corporate gaming world that they created a vacuum for little guys like us. All of the middle-size teams died out and so it's up to the indies to be the innovators. I am just thankful for the pioneers who inspired me and others to go into this indie scene.

Thanks for taking the time out for this interview, and best of luck to you at the IGF!

Andy: Thanks a lot.

Interview conducted by Casey "caffeineaddict" Wireman

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