"I love StarCraft," said Andy Schatz, game designer and coder at Pocketwatch Games, "but I hate playing it." That’s why his studio, the maker of the indie hit Monaco, is trying to distill the real time strategy genre down to its essence.
The team's next title, Lead to Fire, is an arcade-style RTS that you can play with a controller, and your army will be controlled by the press of a single button.
The idea sounds sounds mad. How to you take StarCraft, the most commercially successful RTS game in history — a game so nuanced it essentially gave birth to eSports — and boil it down to fit onto a console controller? Schatz and the rest of the team at Pocketwatch aren’t quite sure yet, but they think they’re onto something big.
How do you boil StarCraft down to fit onto a console controller?
"I tend to struggle with the controls in StarCraft," Schatz said. "I feel like I get beat by people who control the game better than I do. What I really want to do is I want to get deep into the strategy of it. I want to play real-time chess. And I think there’s a lot of people out there like me."
So far, Pocketwatch’s hunch is panning out. Its Twitch channel has over 350 dedicated followers. Every Thursday at 5 p.m. ET they hunker down on their office sofa and invite their testers to play with them. They’ve racked up nearly 80,000 views.
But they’re not trying to make money off of Twitch streaming. They’re invested in the service as a tool for player feedback.
"We treat it almost like a weekly, miniature PAX," Schatz said. "We like to hang out with our fans. We like to show what we’re doing. We’re not sitting here just like coding in front of the web cam. What we do is we invite members of the Twitch channel, and people that come to IRC, to play with us."
Every single week they’re bringing new, raw builds of the game to their community. Players who’ve never seen it before go against veterans with more than 200 hours in the game already. It’s been a meat grinder, especially for the team making the game.
"When you actually put your shit out there the truth bubbles to the surface," Schatz said. "When you shine a light on it, different parts of your subconscious will reflect the truth. For us, doing this on a weekly basis keeps us focused on what the actual fans care about. It’s been really really valuable to us."
The fictional world behind Lead to Fire posits an alternate future where the animal world is undergoing their version of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution simultaneously.
"Our world is set in, at least in human technology, between 1850 and 1920. That means things like the American Civil War, the Russian Revolution and up into the World War I era. In that era there were flag bearers. And the flag bearer was the most important person on the battlefield, but they didn’t give them a gun."
Players will take the role of that flag bearer, and be a rally point for their forces on the battlefield. Therein lie the multiple entendres of the game’s title; you will lead your forces to fire on the enemy, but your flag held aloft will also lead them to fire on you. You will simultaneously play the most dangerous unit in the game, and the most fragile.
And in Lead to Fire’s fiction, the stakes are high. Eating meat has suddenly become fashionable. The people — er, animals — have risen up to overthrow the religious oligarchy. Now they are at war to determine which side will eat the other.
"I liked the idea that what happens when these animals modernize," Schatz said. "What does that actually mean to animals when the state of nature is interrupted, and how does the predator and prey power structure change when you start having social dynamics that are no long compatible with the state of nature? When you have to start erecting laws about who gets to be the predator and who gets to be the prey, and then how do those laws start to break down over time?"
The game in motion is using mostly placeholder art right now, but Pocketwatch has contracted with an artist, Jerome Jacinto. So far his work evokes images of the English slums and the French Revolution, all twinged with the dark tones and deep shadows common to the cover art from the Redwall series of young adult novels.
The Hearthstone effect
As Pocketwatch refines the game mechanics, Schatz says the team is taking inspiration from another successful multiplayer game called Hearthstone. That game has received critical praise as well as legions of devoted fans. It’s hook is boiling down another successful genre, collectible card games, into addictive, bite-sized chunks.
"Lead to Fire is a deck-building game," Schatz said. "We don’t have pre-built races the way that StarCraft does. We don’t have Terran and Zerg and Protoss. You build your own race, essentially, by choosing amongst 30 different unit and structure choices.
"We haven’t settled on the final number yet, but you get to choose between six and eight of those for each individual match. So, just like in Hearthstone you want to have some cheap ones, you want to have some middle ones, you want to have some big ones. You also want to make sure that they play well together, and you also want to make sure that they’re going to counter a wide variety of enemy choices.
StarCraft, Schatz says, has devolved into a wrote series of moves and countermoves. By borrowing the mechanics of CCGs, and their most successful digital interpretation in Hearthstone, he thinks he can inject a variety into Lead to Fire that other RTS games simply aren’t capable of. And every week, the players in his Twitch stream are showing him the way.
If players can hold a controller, if they can outthink their opponent then they can succeed.
The goal is to make Lead to Fire a game that anyone can play. They don't have to be hardcore RTS players, or veterans of the hardest CCGs. If they can hold a controller, if they can outthink their opponent then they can succeed at Lead to Fire.
"Improvisation, to me, is the best reflection of an understanding of strategy," Schatz said. "That you can be able to improvise against your opponent, that’s what we’re going for here. We are asking the players, rather than to practice a single thing, to improvise. And that’s the core of the strategy in the game, and so far it has turned out to be super interesting because everyone gets to experiment with their own styles."
Pocketwatch can’t make any promises right now, but their self-funded game should be available on Linux, Mac and Windows sometime in 2015.