The Long Con: High in the Wild with Monaco

How four months turned into more than three years of indie development prison.

Jump to

Andy Schatz's apartment in San Diego looks like the wild.

Or, at least, like its game-designing owner knows the wild through and through. A hand-crafted ram's head hangs above the living room television. A small, embroidered rug above the kitchen entrance is adorned with alpacas. Elephants can be found scattered everywhere else. Schatz's wife, Tierney Kurani, proudly points out each item's origin. Thailand. Ecuador. A vase from her family in Egypt. A relic from a ghost town in Mexico. Most of the animal-tinged decorations come from the couple's travels since they met six years ago. Same with the bookshelves, which are mostly full of travel volumes and foreign gallery collections. The exception is a single shelf, bookended by two indie game design awards. Tierney has taken on tour guide duties because Schatz is currently pulling his hair out in the office down the hall. Conveniently, the 35-year-old San Diego native's latest headache has to do with animals.

This is mid-February, and he thought he'd have put the final touches on his latest indie game, Monaco: What's Yours Is Mine, by now. However, a glitch involving a murder of crows has reared its head. Some game makers might consider removing such troublesome birds at this point; they're just background fluff.

Not Schatz. His game-designing career once revolved around the veritable Noah's Ark of inspirations around his home. His one-man design shop, Pocketwatch Games, turned out two well-received "wildlife tycoon" sim games in the '00s: Venture Africa, an Independent Games Festival Awards finalist in 2006, and Venture Arctic. The games' zeal about ecosystems borders on religious — and made him enough of an indie favorite to host the IGF Awards a staggering five times, including last month's ceremony — but that didn't translate into sales success.

In 2009, low on cash and high on frustration, Schatz played around with a lark of a game idea — at first, little more than a Pac-Man clone — as a last-ditch attempt before giving up his indie status and getting "a corporate job."

That single-week lark turned into 15 weeks. At the end of it, he had a playable prototype of Monaco, a stealthy, four-player heist adventure that turns Pac-Man into Ocean's Eleven.

At the end of it, he had a playable prototype of Monaco, a stealthy, four-player heist adventure that turns Pac-Man into Ocean's Eleven.

It came out of nowhere to win two IGF awards — including the IGF's Seamus McNally Grand Prize — beating the likes of Super Meat Boy and Joe Danger. The game was unfinished, but its potential was clear: Monaco was a magnificent return to the four-player couch madness of '90s console games, and the formula still works.

It just needs to come out. And, well ... these crows.

Schatz is soft-spoken when he curses at his computer, but the "fuck"s and "shit"s take aim at the code in the crows. These birds serve as another reminder that it's been a long time — 3 1/2 years, Tierney is quick to confirm — since Schatz has gone on the kind of international trip where he might find new, beast-inspired crafts for his floors and walls. Not while he's busy making the game.

But after years of blown deals, business missteps, medical scares and control freakdom, Schatz has finally finished Monaco — three years after it blew the IGF away — by ignoring the wisdom of the game's heist plot and trusting his unlikely accomplices.

Ultimate Frisbee

"High Times ranked this as one of the ten best places in the nation to smoke weed," Schatz says with a laugh.

He gestures toward a local stoner at Balboa Park in San Diego, the city's biggest frisbee golf course. We're here because I asked Schatz to show me something local that he loves while I'm in town. Rest assured, it's not weed; Andy Schatz absolutely loves frisbee golf.

From a distance, Schatz might look like a local stoner himself. His thick head of short, curly brown hair sticks out of a nondescript hoodie sweater, and on this sunny, brisk day in February, he elects to wear shorts. Once he steps to the tee-off line at a Balboa Park hole, however, he doesn't much resemble a pothead.

His expressive face never squints as he sizes up his next throw, and he primes his shots by holding a frisbee with two hands toward his target, like a bowler approaching a lane. His spins and releases are controlled and tight — not surprising, considering how fit he looks, but the way he sends a frisbee sailing smoothly through the air, you'd think he used an automated turret.

Some game makers might consider removing such troublesome birds at this point; they're just background fluff.

It's a peculiar first impression for a game designer, a fact that Schatz cops to. He grew up playing a lot of sports — soccer, varsity swimming, even water polo — while maintaining a group of friends who were into video games and Dungeons & Dragons all the way through high school. "I was the popular kid amongst the super-nerdy people," he says. "I wasn't a bully, but I was definitely the alpha dog of that group."

Schatz grew up pretty well-to-do as the son of a geophysicist dad and a philosophy professor mom. That meant a lot of travel and interest in all things international, but it also meant access to a Commodore 64 at the age of four, and the very early discovery that he wanted to make his own video games.

At only seven years old, Schatz began drawing and designing his own maze games on graph paper, and his mother brought him coding magazines, which had sample scripts in BASIC that he could copy onto a computer to make simple, working games. By seventh grade, he had coded a C64 game from scratch, with the help of his code-loving father. His "Warlords-esque" game, named Servants of Darkness, had "randomized worlds and a bunch of different units," and it supported four players, so his mother, father and sister often helped him test it.

A bunch of his own games — and a winning entry in the California State Science Fair in 1995 — were enough to get him into Amherst College, where he split his time between computer science studies and a growing obsession with Ultimate Frisbee (he captained a team for 2 1/2 years). Though he considers himself "too old" to play it anymore, Schatz still talks about the game obsessively: "It's the perfect game designer sport. It's a sport where people haven't figured out all of the strategies yet."

Frisbee golf has been his compromise ever since, though thanks to Monaco, he hasn't played for about six months until this outing. You can tell a lot about a game designer from doing something like this — a fact Schatz may have known all along, in spite of his shoulder-shrug explanation of why he chose to share frisbee golf ("it's fun, and you can talk while you play"). His descriptions of the game were very clear, always anticipating first-timer challenges — in this case, things like throwing angle, use of the wrist and an emphasis of spin over power.

Unlike a stereotypical, aggressive coach, Schatz knew when to shut up and let me find my own way. That's not to say he sat back and watched me flounder. Rather, he strategically employed nonchalance. Here's an example: Schatz grabbed the scorecard at the outset of our 14-hole game. At first, we compared scores at the end of holes, and I saw him jot down our numbers, but by the end of the game, he admitted he'd "lost track."

I might've believed that lie if he hadn't begun crunching a few specific numbers about his performance on the way home. Schatz knew exactly how the game went, cataloguing everyone's performance in his head the whole time. However, just like in a good video game, he shared just enough information with the players. He kept the clutter out of my real-life UI, so that I could focus on learning, fun and discovery.

What's yours is mine

Translating that kind of game design wisdom to the final version of Monaco hasn't been so simple. In fact, that problem took years to solve.

In Monaco: What's Yours Is Mine, up to four ex-cons break out of a prison in a top-down, 2D perspective, and their missions usually revolve around breaking into and out of a treasure-loaded den of excess — a nightclub, a mansion, a yacht. Players immediately learn the game's basic truth: if you want to use it, push against it. Press the joystick towards a door, a computer or an alarm, and your hoodlum will unlock, hack or deactivate, respectively.

ThirdSchatz grew up pretty well-to-do as the son of a geophysicist dad and a philosophy professor mom.

It's a charmingly simple mechanic — and one rarely used in top-down games — yet a lot of depth has been built around it. For one, players eventually have a choice of eight playable criminals as they move on to bigger heists and crazier capers. The starting crew of four has simpler strengths: one picks locks faster; one can see guards through walls; one, er, has a helper monkey who gathers coins. Later characters can dig through walls, disguise themselves and even charm enemies into doing your bidding. The game has been designed to be playable — and fun — by solo crooks and four-strong bands of thieves, and each combination of characters has been scrutinized so deeply, Schatz feels like he has his own Team Fortress 2-caliber roster.

Guns, smoke bombs and other pickups get a little complicated, because they tie into the game's loot system. The optional coins, scattered around each classy location, aren't just meant for Pac-Man compulsives; every 10 coins adds one bullet or item to your ammo. In multiplayer matches, the coins (which reappear randomly when a level is replayed), don't increase in number. Expect to argue over the cash.

That's just one trick Monaco uses to make its stealthy action work as a couch game; once the shouts kick in between heisting friends, there's no point in comparing it to more serious fare like Thief or Splinter Cell. But Schatz obsesses over making sure players never stumble. He adds as much depth and strategy as possible without turning nuance into a hurdle, a fact that led to seemingly endless tuning of on-screen information like coin and health counts. And he flat-out admits that he still doesn't like the loot-for-ammo mechanic, because it "asks players to perform calculations."

But he has to ship the game, which means locking down the core gameplay. Bugs and crows await.

150 people doing nothing

It makes sense that an element as simple as gizmos would trip Schatz up. After all, that hearkens back to his first game design job after college, coding on behalf of secret agent 007. Schatz returned to the west coast after Amherst, and after a few game design gigs, he landed at TKO Software in Santa Cruz, Calif., a company best known for its contract work with EA, and he took on programming duties for Medal of Honor: Allied Assault: Breakthrough and GoldenEye: Rogue Agent.

He doesn't mince words about that output: "terrible games"; GoldenEye: RA's single player portion was "so bad, we all knew it was gonna flop." The working conditions didn't help. Schatz recalls that these games were made around the time of the EA Spouse controversy, and his own experience in 2004 matched up; EA required his entire contract team to relocate to Los Angeles for GoldenEye: RA's final four months, during which time at least one staffer had to "fight management to be able to go to Santa Cruz to visit his kids on [the] weekend."

Players would build their own home, set it up with traps, then log online to break into other players' homes.

Schatz is careful to note that he believes EA has made great strides in the years since, but at the time, he had mentally checked out: "I wanted out of AAA game development." But before leaving, Schatz had to grab a hard drive and folder full of the original concepts for Monaco.

"Before GoldenEye came in, we were between contracts. [TKO] had built a team of 150 people who were doing nothing," he says. So he asked permission to design and prototype a game idea, and he wound up completing a design document and playable 3D slice of a house-robbing game. Players would build their own home, set it up with traps, then log online to break into other players' homes.

TKO sent the prototype to Microsoft. The furthest it got was that Microsoft executives mentioned the game concept in interviews as an example of Xbox 360 online gaming, but nothing more. Fine by Schatz; when TKO folded years later, he retained the rights to his designs.

By then, he'd already returned to his hometown of San Diego to found Pocketwatch Games: really, a glorified name for his solo creations, like Trent Reznor's Nine Inch Nails. His first instinct was to build a game based on his life experience, drawn largely from his mother's love of traveling and his father's love of coding real-life simulations in software (which he did for an oil company in the '80s and '90s).

Pocketwatch's first game, Venture Africa, had players oversee an African savannah and take care of 11 species of wild animals. Its box originally came with a label reading "Wildlife Tycoon," an obvious overture to casual gamers who were gobbling up Zoo Tycoon at the time. But the "Tycoon" label missed the mark. Schatz's 2005 game ignored cash economies in favor of things like inter-species relationships, weather cycles and ecosystem impact. The result may have looked like a one-man production, but its fierce independence paid off, selling in the tens of thousands and enjoying many high-ranking indie game award nominations. Not bad for a debut solo venture, especially before Steam proved a viable indie option (Schatz partnered with casual game publisher MumboJumbo).

With a modest influx of cash, Schatz set out to make a bigger, better sequel, aiming his ecosystem sights at Antarctica. But in spite of more species and more in-game activities, Venture Arctic added complications that gamers were less willing to swallow with penguins than with lions and elephants. The game launched — and tanked — in 2007.

Before Schatz had to move back in with his parents, a windfall of cash appeared from an unlikely place: Jim Safka, the founder of Safka was a fan of Venture Africa and its eco-friendly message, and he wanted to develop a web-browser game for kids that would reside at Grudgingly, Schatz took on the gig — mostly because of the giant payday, he admits. He led a team that had "never made games like this before," and eventually presented the game to media magnate and online entrepreneur Barry Diller. Schatz says that Diller liked the idea, only to neuter its central gameplay conceit: "'You've gotta get rid of the eco thing!'"

"It's fun to sit and use the damn joystick, because it's fast and, like, wokka wokka wokka."

The contract at dwindled, and Schatz's dream of building another Venture sequel — this time, Venture Dinosauria, a kind of Jurassic Park where "the dinosaurs wouldn't be monsters for once" — kept hitting a brick wall. Schatz's usual method of starting with a high-level inspiration, then working out game mechanics later, didn't shake out as anything fun this time; he likens his unrealized hopes to how Spore turned out. A year of work wound up filed away in a desk drawer.

Dejected, Schatz started from scratch in late 2009 to whip up a quick, simple game before giving up his independence and looking for studio work again. He taught himself how to use XNA, a coding language that could easily translate from PC to Xbox 360, and while the old Monaco idea was in the back of his mind, XNA proved to be a clean-slate way to ignore his old, high-level concepts and start with pure gameplay for once.

In one day, he coded a version of Pac-Man — with one key difference.

"Take the ghosts out of Pac-Man," Schatz says. "Don't expect this to be a full game, but take them out, and ask yourself, as you steer around this world, what's the fastest route to pick up all these pellets? It's at least fun for half an hour to play that game! It's fun to sit and use the damn joystick, because it's fast and, like, wokka wokka wokka."

Schatz had his foundation. Within a week, he added enemies, abilities and a lighting system. Then he grabbed his old Monaco notes.

The quieter Andy

As Schatz recalls these stories, whether while gauging his next frisbee throw, gobbling a homemade taco or cursing at his computer monitor, he's not alone. At his side at nearly all times is a man also named Andy: Andy Nguyen, a 27-year-old San Diego native. Nguyen is eerily silent most of the time. He's a bit taller than Schatz, but definitely skinnier, and they dress almost exactly the same; they both wear hooded sweatshirts one day, and blue T-shirts and jeans the next.

We know that Nguyen has helped make the game —at least enough that he enjoys top billing in the game's credits — but that's all. He has no other game design credits listed anywhere. And with Schatz needing little to no prompting to talk about anything — game design, animals, the San Diego Padres — it's hard to get the quieter Andy to pipe up.

Eventually, Schatz steps aside to hunt for a board game he designed a few years ago (based, not surprisingly, on Venture Africa), so attention turns to Nguyen. Dude, who are you?

Nguyen identifies himself as a management science guy who has worked odd financial sector jobs. His last one was at Citibank. "I assumed that I was going to be doing a job in the financial industry because it’s sort of, it’s reputable," Nguyen says. "The way my family raised me is, they wanted me to get a job that was reputable. Doctors, lawyers."

But Nguyen was bitten by the video game bug as a kid. He played Super Nintendo a lot with his older sister, and he dabbled plenty with Starcraft's map editors. With little more than "the passion for the products" as inspiration, Nguyen started poking around indie game maker directories around San Diego in 2011, hitting up online forums and asking questions. He found Schatz on the map and, intrigued by the accolades Monaco had racked up thus far, sent a cold-call e-mail: Need a beta tester within walking distance? From that foothold, Nguyen eventually climbed up to level designer and producer.

At perhaps any other time, Nguyen's cold-call might have gone unheeded, but in the middle of 2011, Schatz was starting to get desperate.

Monaco busted out of the gate in a big way in early 2010. The game's first prototype, which took only 15 weeks to make, had won the IGF's grand prize (and $30,000), along with its Excellence in Design award. Schatz's original notion, to launch the game on Xbox Live's Indie Game channel, got swept away by the excitement: "XBLIG is a roll of the dice," Schatz says. "If I have gold in my back pocket, I don't want to roll the dice."

Valve approached him with a handshake and an offer — let's get this game on Steam! — while Microsoft and Sony requested meetings. Since the game was at its best with four players in the same room, and it had already been coded in XNA, Schatz set his sights on Microsoft. A series of meetings in 2010 started with one manager asking to "fast-track" the game, but a higher-up at Microsoft Studios nixed the game on account of marketability.

Schatz persisted, saying he could clean the game up if they'd consider a re-pitch. Microsoft agreed, and Schatz got to work, adding enhancements like a vector-based lighting system and four more character classes. That process lasted a year, and Schatz survived thanks to a "no-risk loan" from indiefund, the group that funded recent indie smashes Antichamber and Qube.

Unfortunately, Schatz's 2011 meeting with Microsoft turned out the same. Worse, plans to port the game to PlayStation 3 had just spun into motion, but within a month, hackers broke into PSN's unencrypted databases. Schatz, fearful of a bombing platform and lost sales, halted the port. "I got scared," Schatz admits. "I started waffling."

Really, if this story revolves around a crime video game, it's hard not to see the quiet kid as the Keyser Söze of the room.

Schatz's stubbornness about launching on a console — and his long-held fears of allying with a third-party publisher — froze him out. Good coincidence, then, that game-design novice Nguyen sent an email, wanting nothing more than a chance to make video games.

With a foot in Pocketwatch's door, Nguyen quit his job at Citibank. "I was reluctant to tell my parents, because I knew they would respond to it poorly," Nguyen says. Indeed, they did, upset that their son gave up consistent income and benefits. Perhaps they'd be proud of his enterprising nature, though: "I could just be complacent and do what Andy tells me, or I can go and do what he doesn't know that he needs." In that way, Nguyen inserted himself as a festival booth coordinator, then a merchandise guy and on up to a level designer and producer. And all of this without knowing how to code, program, animate or design.

His presence has been felt in the home stretch of the game's design, whether by pushing back about level design concerns or helping Schatz balance the final four characters. With that progress, Schatz regained the confidence to find a new route for Monaco, one he found by partnering with publisher Majesco, who agreed to launch the game on Xbox Live while Pocketwatch will self-release the game the same day — April 24 — on Steam. ("Most publishers wouldn't agree to [us publishing on Steam]," Schatz notes, "and we told them to go to hell.")

Ultimately, Nguyen's general silence makes sense, and when he speaks, it's with purpose. When Schatz veers off-topic, Nguyen will chip in reminders about a game design crisis to steer him back. And he'll ask pointed questions about myriad design decisions, as if he, too, is cataloguing every important detail to use in his career someday. Really, if this story revolves around a crime video game, it's hard not to see the quiet kid as the Keyser Söze of the room.

A terrible finisher

Nguyen seems pretty excited to have a guest at Schatz's home office, evident in the pointed questions he asks about my line of work. But that excitement is nothing compared to Tierney Kurani's.

After sleeping over at the couple's house, I woke to a poem tucked beneath the door, "written" by their cat in incredibly neat handwriting. "What is this, a red hair? Did you get a tabby, did you dare?!" It's but one of the playful or kind ways Tierney asserts herself during my visit. She has time to write poems and goof off while I'm visiting because she has recently quit her job as a professional shopper for a large retail chain. It's kinda-sorta Monaco's fault.

"I'm surrounded by people who are so inspired to be doing what they're doing," Tierney says, both about the Andys always at her house and the long-distance contributors to the game's music, art and more. "I feel like that's a necessary component in wanting to work hard at something."

But another factor may have played an even bigger part in her career transition. In the past few years, all during Monaco's development, Tierney succumbed to a cancer scare (now in remission) and a nasty bout with pneumonia. It's been long enough that she no longer appears sick in the least; the short and fit Tierney has a bounce to her step and is quick to laugh. Neither she nor Schatz talk much about the illness, acting as if it didn't factor into 3 1/2 years of the game's development.

Tierney laughs a little too long when she remembers that Monaco was "only supposed to take a few weeks."

Indeed, Schatz's obsessive design nature has been a constant ever since they started dating. Or, as Tierney clarifies, "I was hanging out in his office and testing [Venture Arctic], because he was doing nothing but working on it."

Ever since, some game project has hung over the house: Tierney laughs a little too long when she remembers that Monaco was "only supposed to take a few weeks." But she believes in the game, praising its accessibility (and appreciating that the Lookout character is based on her proclivity to rock climb and scale buildings). She likens Pocketwatch to a child, and she is hopeful that Monaco's launch will be the company's veritable college graduation: "Maybe then it'll have the potential for its own earnings and won't need to be nurtured quite as much," she says.

First, the game has to recoup, as Schatz seems to be paying a lot of royalties. Indiefund will want its $100,000 loan paid back, plus 10 percent of sales for the first two years. Andy Nguyen has worked for nearly two years with only a bit of cash up front and the promise of royalties to come. When asked whether the original schemer of this heist will wind up broke at the end, Schatz shrugs.

He'll also be the first to admit that the game could've turned out cheaper and quicker by targeting Steam from day one. "But I really wanted people to play on a couch!" he again asserts. It's easy to see why.

Schatz tends towards comedy, making off-the-cuff comments about the game industry that are intentionally unprintable, or blurting bad-sounding lines, as if trying to write his own headline. Upon missing a frisbee golf putt, he smiles and says, "I'm a great starter but a terrible finisher. Maybe that's why I'm still not done with Monaco!" (Cue a Fozzie Bear "Wocka wocka.")

The way Schatz tells it, Monaco has its roots not so much in heist movies, but in his love for the dark comedy of real-life heist stories: of one bank robber getting hit by a car running a red light, or another bumbling thief dying in a fire that he set himself. He's obsessed with translating these fantastically awful events into party-gaming stories, into moments of "emergent gameplay," his favorite phrase, where players walk away from a game remembering how a heist devolved into a mess, and who went through which part of the mansion to save the dead guy, and so on. He wants players to remember their stories from within his game and retell them.

"You need to make a game that is going to be someone's favorite game forever," he says to Nguyen. "If it's one person's favorite game ever, it's gonna be a lot of people's favorite game ever."


His own game design roots, on graph paper, or behind a Dungeon Master's board, or with family gathered around a Commodore 64, revolved around finding stories between the white spaces of game design that can also be retold. But Monaco also delivers a special appeal to a person like Andy Nguyen, a fact that is absolutely not lost on Schatz. Nguyen isn't just a business partner — or a guy who's already working on Pocketwatch's next game design concepts. Nguyen is a reminder of the days of game design that Schatz has sought for years.

"I just told Andy [Nguyen] this the other day: it's exciting that the nerdy kids today are growing up with Minecraft," Schatz says. "There's a 15-year segment where the gamer kids were growing up in love with games that they could never hope to make on their own. I was always sad to tell them, when they said what kind of games they really loved, they said they love Halo. Part of me wants to say, 'You won't love making Halo. Making Halo is not the experience you think you're having.' But those kids could make Minecraft. My junior high self could make my own version of Minecraft and show it to my parents and be super proud of it. That would be the coolest thing ever."

What about Monaco? "Yes, my junior high self could have made Monaco." Then he smiles huge, his cockiness showing through for one more laugh. "Well, maybe not what Monaco has eventually become, but similar. Absolutely." Babykayak

Polygon has been nominated for a Webby Award in the category "Best Games-Related Website." If you enjoy long-form articles like this one, and want to show your support for the work we are doing, please take a moment to vote. Voting closes April 25th. Thank you. — Editor

Illustration: Saul Gray-Hildenbrand

Design / Layout: Warren Schultheis
Editing: Russ Pitts, Matt Leone