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When Andy Schatz decided to become an indie developer, he didn’t want to think about what would happen if he failed.

“I never really thought about that. I probably avoided the idea of thinking about the binary concept of being able to live my dream or not being able to live my dream. That’s the stuff of nightmares,” Schatz said, laughing.

It’s a strategy that’s been working well for him so far. Almost 13 years later, the longtime game designer — and his studio, Pocketwatch Games — are still here. It’s a remarkable achievement for the San Diego-based company, which, outside of a few freelancers, has two full-time employees: Schatz and programmer Dexter Friedman. Schatz credits the team’s longevity with their creative problem solving.

“I think that’s partly why we succeed, because we tackle problems that haven’t really been solved before,” he said. “And so, assuming we succeed at those things, we’ll have made a game that’s pretty unique. That’s really what I attribute our success to. We’re making games that really haven’t been made before.”

Tooth and Tail (available now on PlayStation 4 and PC) is the latest example of Pocketwatch’s ingenuity. Schatz never liked playing real-time strategy games — a genre long associated with mouse and keyboards — on a controller. So the origins of Tooth and Tail began as a personal challenge: He wanted to see if he could make a fun RTS designed specifically for a gamepad.

That wound up being the hardest part of development, as the team kept fine-tuning the controls up until a few months before release.

Above: Tooth and Tail also supports split-screen multiplayer.

Another factor that sets Toot and Tail apart is its pseudo-Industrial Revolution setting. In this world, starving animal factions are fighting over who gets to survive and who’s, well, dinner. Pocketwatch chose animals because a lot of people already know what a mouse, skunk, or lizard is capable of, which helps address another RTS challenge — understanding what individual army units can do at a glance.

The initial idea came from community manager Brian Franco, who suggested backyard animals as a possible theme for the next project. Schatz ran with it. His love of history (particularly the American Civil War) inspired Tooth and Tail’s grimy aesthetic, lending the story some moral weight.

“If you treat the world of animals that live in your backyard as a human society, it’s dark and brutal,” Schatz said. “You have squirrels being run over by cars. You have cats that are killing baby birds. Everything is constantly on the lookout for a hawk or an owl. It’s not nice.”

Tooth and Tail is quite different in tone and mechanics compared to Pocketwatch’s previous release, the award-winning multiplayer heist game Monaco. So far, players have been enjoying its unique take on an RTS, especially the competitive multiplayer mode.

But the future wasn’t always this bright for Schatz and his collaborators. At one point in his life, Schatz wasn’t even sure he wanted to make games anymore.

Above: Heed the warning.

A twist of fate

Prior to founding Pocketwatch, Schatz worked at various studios in the early 2000s. One of them was TKO Software, which did contract work for Electronic Arts. In addition to helping out with the Medal of Honor franchise, TKO also worked on the poorly received James Bond shooter GoldenEye: Rogue Agent, which Schatz described as a “travesty”. The working conditions for Rogue Agent were so terrible that it made him want to leave the triple-A space entirely.

“In fact, the burnout on that project is what made me decide to go indie in the first place,” Schatz said.

This was in 2004, years before widespread digital distribution methods made indie development a sustainable option. At the time, Schatz wasn’t fully committed to going indie yet, so after leaving TKO, he also applied to a bunch of business schools. His plan upon graduation (which he laughs at now) was to use his newfound knowledge to help “fix” the games industry. While he waited for an answer, he and a few others started working on what would become Pocketwatch’s first game, the animal sim Wildlife Tycoon: Venture Africa.

Schatz didn’t receive a single acceptance letter. But he didn’t mind because Venture Africa was already receiving positive press coverage. It eventually sold more than 100,000 copies, mostly at big-box retailers.

“Being rejected from business school was probably the biggest blessing of my entire career,” said Schatz.

That initial success didn’t last long — the follow-up, Venture Arctic, didn’t sell nearly as well — but through the years, Schatz managed to keep Pocketwatch afloat. Its next hit came in 2013 with Monaco, which also did well critically and commercially (it sold around two million copies). Some of the team members behind that game, like designer Andy Nguyen and artist Adam DeGrandis, also ended up working with Schatz on Tooth and Tail.

In terms of scope, team size, and man-hours, Tooth and Tail is Pocketwatch’s biggest project yet. And Schatz would prefer to keep it that way.

“This is as big as I want to get. … The only thing I want to do in the future is try and make our games in a little less time. Try to take things from three-and-a-half years down to two or two-and-a-half instead,” said Schatz.

Above: Foxes make the best snipers.

Breaking the cycle

Since Pocketwatch’s inception, Schatz has had a front row seat to the indie boom. As a five-time host of the Independent Games Festival awards (which takes place at the annual Game Developers Conference), he’s seen the best of the best when it comes to small dev teams and their games.

“Watching the scene evolve into something that can, I think, more appropriately be described as an industry has been incredible. These days it’s almost a misnomer to call anything—to use the term ‘indie,’ because so many different things can be indie at this point. It’s almost a useless term. I’ve been really proud to be a part of that movement, because I do think that in many ways we won the battle that we were fighting,” said Schatz.

“I’m sure people were fighting it before me, but I joined the fight in 2005, to give legitimacy to smaller games and to solo devs, to try and break the traditional publisher-developer cycle and bring a lot more personal input into game development. In many ways I think we won that battle. There are still companies doing things the old way, but there’s so much more diversity to the structure of game development these days. I think it’s incredibly healthy.”

Schatz has firsthand knowledge of how unpredictable the industry can be, so he doesn’t dare try to guess where it’s headed next. He just wants to continue making great games with his Pocketwatch team.

“Hopefully a couple of years from now we’ll be closing in on the launch of our next game,” he said.

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