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GDC 2011

How to Win the IGF in 15 Weeks or Less

Posted by , in Summits, Indie Games, Design, Production 01 March 2011 - - - - - - · 1,070 views

Andy Schatz, the developer of Monaco, took the stage to preface his session by saying he isn't going to talk about how to make an IGF winner but, rather, just to tell his story.

"What's [important] is your inspiration and motivation when making games," Schatz says as he recalls September 29, 2009, adding "I was depressed." He talked about being in a rut and making indie games for five years and having it go nowhere. He was working on the third title in his Venture sim series and "it sucked" (as Schatz recalls). He had reached the end of the time he was giving his independent break from AAA game development and was depressed. So, next, Schatz took on board games because they're "all about mechanics" and says it's a very good way to get your brain flowing.

Andy Schatz talked about wanting desperately to make a game about "stealing shit," but was concerned that the fanbase he earned from the Venture sim series (who were largely kids) would conflict with the goal of a game about stealing things. Despite that, though, Schatz made a Monaco board game. He did this on a break from his full-time project and then, when he took his next break from his full-time project, he took a break and he said he's going to make Monaco as an XNA game in a week and that would be his last break from the third entry in his Venture series. Schatz said he wanted to make this heist game like a roguelike.

After tackling some of the technical details of prototyping Monaco, Schatz moved on to talking about what type of tools to use when making a game. Schatz talked about using Torque for the Venture series and citing it as a mistake, then using Unity which (he feels) would have enforced a certain look on the game, and then customizing the look of Monaco by using the "just enough of a framework" XNA toolset.

An interesting side-note about Andy Schatz's presentation is his use of old Facebook status updates, which he uses to bind the session to a narrative spine and function as an ad hoc "digital archeology" (taking the term from GDC cohort Ben Abraham).

Schatz then talked about Ventura Dinosauria (the third entry in his Venture series) and that DINOSAURS ARE AWESOME. And he is correct. Unfortunately, Schatz couldn't make the game fun. "If you want to have a takeaway from this, this is it: I made sure I worked on one cool thing every day. [...] And I never worked on something that took me longer than one day." I'm editorializing here, but: this is awesome and a completely true and valid approach to independent development. "When you think of game development as a holistic thing," Schatz continued, "you get much farther when you're enjoying yourself."

"The number two thing that you can take away from this," Schatz says, "is that you should have people playing your game from day two." He cited his experience from the recent PAX expo. Schatz also makes a crucial difference between "advisors" and people who are just playing ("people who don't know shit about games"). "You can't have too many advisors," just people who align with your general goal and can give you good, pointed advice. The people who don't know about games, regardless of how bad their opinions are, their impressions are crucial. "There are three questions I ask every one of these people: 'What did you like?,' 'What did you not like?,' and 'What confused you?," and when they tell me what I should change, I ignore them."

In talking about how he financed his independent operation, Schatz cited contract work as the best way to make a lot of money, but "it's not fun." "If you're working on a project that just makes money you're going to make money or you go out of business. And if you're working on a project to make recognition you're going to make recognition or you're going to just make money," Schatz said of his independent development philosophy.

When talking about moving Monaco from tile-based visibility to movement to his new lighting and visibility algorithm (that went from being a pretty but distracting mosaic look to a more vector-based approach) took Schatz two months. This was his first and, by far, his longest feature to work on and broke his one-cool-thing-a-day work goal. "Even though it did take me two months, it was something I felt that was cool and interesting."

Schatz then turned to a discussion about game mechanics vs. "experience" and the difficulty in marrying these two things. "As an indie, you're never going to get over that uncanny valley hump, [...] but there are areas" in which independent developers can bridge the realism gap such as, as Schatz points out, sound. He creates a very complex soundscape in Monaco to help the game's overall "experience."

Andy Schatz ends the talk with a near-final Facebook status update that shows how much his mood has increased and how much more productive he was when he did something that he enjoyed. "And fifteen weeks later, I had won the IGF."