Last week, Andy Schatz, founder of Pocketwatch games, found a bug in the Xbox 360 build of his game Monaco that caused players to consistently get dropped from multiplayer matches. As a result, he decided to delay its release mere hours before it was slated to come out. We talked to him about the aftermath and how player reaction shapes his development process.
Do you think that the fans would have been more upset if you had released Monaco with a game-breaking bug than they were just because of the delayed release?
Of course. I think that the rational ones would be. [laughs] I think that you’re going to have people who react poorly to bad news no matter what. There’s no question it’s bad news to have the game be delayed. That sucks for everyone. Fans are really excited about the game, and I told them when it was coming out, and now it’s not coming out.
I’ll give you an example. I ended up launching Monaco on Steam a couple of hours before it was getting ready to come out because the reviews were coming out early in the morning. That was my fault because I embargoed people until 9 on the East Coast, rather than the West, and Steam stuff typically goes live at 10 [PST]. I wanted to embargo people until about an hour before release.
But then the reviews started coming out, and they were all great. So I wanted the game to be on sale, and pushed the release up by two hours. But there was a guy who had been making just enough money selling TF2 items in order to buy the game, but he only made enough to buy it at a discount, and he was going to buy it just before the game came out. And then it went on sale early and the discount went away. He was bummed because he couldn’t buy it. So he had something riding on when the game would actually come out. I felt bad for him, so I gave him a free key to go play.
I think there’s a difference between being upset and being disappointed. That comes down to the key point where if we had released the game in a state where a bug really broke it for 4-player matches, people wouldn’t be disappointed, they’d be upset. And rightfully so, because they paid money for a game that doesn’t work. I’d rather have disappointed fans than upset fans. [laughs]
This is my bug, and I’m fixing it. The reason I went with the Xbox is because I want people to get the opportunity to get as much couch co-op as possible.
Fan interaction seems to be a focus of yours. You go to PAX and other fan-focused conventions. Is that something you feel more free to do because you’re an indie developer?
I think that the bigger companies think about their production people purely as production people, rather than the people that can best sell the games to fans. They have different people that are attempting to sell it, and there is something about that that feels a little disingenuous. In my case, I get to build it and then sell it.
And certainly when I was working for bigger companies, i didn’t have the opportunity to reach out to fans, and I would have loved to. I think that, at the end of the day, even if I wanted to take my company much bigger, I’d love to have the development team still reaching out to fans.
We might have just gotten lucky with Monaco, but I think that our fans have really had our backs, and are dealing with things in a very mature, individual way, rather than any sort of mob mentality. I really like that. I don’t know how we got so lucky to have such good fans. I want to cultivate a community of people that act like adults.
Do you think that maturity came as a result of you talking face-to-face with fans?
Probably. That’s a big part of it. A big part of it is also our beta testers. We really cultivated the ones and really tried to promote the beta testers that really dealt like things like a human rather than a screaming child. [laughs] That attitude filters out through them. It definitely all starts with fan outreach, and then promoting your best fans and empowering them to help create community.
Even within the game, there’s a level editor. It seems that you’re giving fans more responsibility over the game.
You kind of have to. Once the game is out there, it’s not yours anymore. There’s people who are going to hack Monaco and start posting fake scores on the leaderboards. And to be honest, there’s really not much I can do about that. It’s kind of a bummer that people will do that, and there’s no one that I know of that has done it yet, but it’ll happen.
It’s a bummer that people are going to degrade the experience for others. But at the same time, you kind of just have to accept that it’s going to happen. The game isn’t mine anymore. All I can do is add to the game and support it. But it’s no longer something I can control.
I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but on Penny Arcade, Mike has drawn a couple of the characters. If I were the art director and telling him exactly what to draw, the characters would probably appear a little differently. But the reason he’s even drawing them in the first place is that the game itself only gives you a hint of what these characters look like. That is a springboard for his imagination. It would stupid of me to try and stunt his imagination of who these characters were when I intentionally created a game that uses just visual symbology for various character traits. I wanted to spark people’s imagination.
That seems like almost the Dwarf Fortress model. Everything is so simple and stylized, players can make whatever they want of it.
That was one of the original intentions of the silent movie, ragtime-style piano. We wanted the very first audio experience of the game to trigger this subconscious idea that “I need to fill in blanks here.” In a silent movie, you have to fill in the blanks of what the actual audio of the world is. That same concept is something I wanted. From a top-down perspective, there’s a lot of iconography and things like that. We wanted to trigger the players’ imagination to fill in the blanks of what you can’t see or hear.
You showed the game at a lot of fan events like PAX. Did the fan reaction there affect development? Is there anything specific you can point to?
We’ve certainly taken a lot of feedback from fans. We always walk away from PAX with, like, 20 pages of notes, just from watching people play. PAX is a really good environment for watching people play the game, even if they aren’t aware that you’re watching them. People tend to lose themselves a little better at PAX.
If you show it to your friend for the first time, sitting at your office desk, they’re way too aware of the person standing over their shoulder. There’s this subconscious thing that happens. You see this in classrooms too. When you know that someone knows the answers right next to you, it actually makes you stop trying quite so hard to figure out the answer for yourself. It’s distracting and frustrating.
I actually find that my worst demos, when they went most poorly, is when I actually played the game with people. I far prefer to let people play on their own or play with other friends. They tend to put in a lot more effort and take on a lot more of the ownace on learning the game themselves. And Monaco does require a lot of learning. A lot of the reviews definitely say that it’s a bit opaque when you start playing it, but once you learn it, once you can see what’s going on, it becomes a pretty incredible game. There’s definitely a barrier to entry here.
Do you think that Monaco succeeds in giving that information to the player?
I think that Monaco does succeed in that regard. But there’s so much visual noise going on, particularly in a 4-player game, that adds to the confusion. If someone is watching a 1-player game, it does become a lot easier to connect what’s going on screen to the mechanics, but those are generally slower to watch. With a 4-player game, there’s so much visual noise that players don’t really understand it until they sit down with a controller themselves.
It seems that indie developers are leaning more and more away from tutorials in favor of letting players just learn.
I think, because we have very little interface, we can get away with having very little tutorial. We only added little text tutorials for mechanics that we didn’t think players could figure out on their own. In Monaco, there’s one button that you occasionally press to use your gear. Other than that, everything in the environment you interact with just by pushing against it. So the very first thing we do is ask you to open your jail cell just by pushing against it. And then we ask you to do it three or four more times, just to reinforce it. Then we show you different items that you still have to push against in order to use it. By the time they’ve done that, they know all the controls they have to know.