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Unknown Pleasures 2009: Venture Dinosauria

Pocketwatch have been cultivating their seeds in their increasingly distinct stretch of soil for a while now. Wildlife Tycoon was a IGF finalist. Venture Arctic, its semi-sequel, while winning Gametunnel's Sim of the year was somewhat overlooked, becoming most noticeable when it went free for a week around Christmas. But the third game of ecology strikes us as something which has a chance of finding an even wider audience. It's called Venture Dinosauria and is an ecological management game set during the very last days of dinosaurs' rule...

RPS: Venture Dinosauria - what are your aims with it?

Andy Schatz: I want this game to blow people away. Venture Africa was my first try, Venture Arctic was an evolution of that idea, and Dinosauria is the fulfillment. I'm all-in on this one.

Dinosauria portrays the giant lizards in their last days -- how they lived, ate, slept, hunted, played. I don't want to get too Peter Molyneux on you here, but I want Dinosauria to be the definitive artistic representation of Dinosaurs as they actually lived in the wild.

RPS: On your site you talked about the success of the free giveaway. Care to talk some more
about its effects? How surprised were you?

Andy Schatz: To be honest, I kind of did it as a whim. Venture Arctic has a fairly narrow but passionate fanbase. It never got enough attention to start any sort of viral motion, and so it just kind of sat there. I wanted to do something to let it find its way to the 5% of people who might actually ADORE it.

I certainly found it surprising that my company revenue actually increased as more people were buying my other game, Venture Africa. It turns out that Venture Arctic acted as a sort of loss-leader for the other more popular game.

RPS: The problem with Arctic was, you felt, people hadn't just played it. There's an old piece of folk wisdom in Kids Magazines. If you've got nothing else you can stick on the cover, you stick a Dinosaur on it. Kids love Dinosaurs. What's magic about them for you?

Andy Schatz: Ha, well two things to note. While I've always had an easier time reaching kids because the games are about animals, I'm making them for a much broader audience. These are not "kids" games. They are not "educational" games. If you think [the documentary series] Planet Earth is freakin cool, you will think Dinosauria is amazing.

Most representations of dinosaurs treat them like monsters. But they were animals, living lives of violence and scarcity. They lived in packs, they slept. When was the last time you saw a pack of sleeping dinosaurs in a movie or game? I want to show dinosaurs and the earth as it truly existed millions of years ago.

I'd love to make a game about coral reefs, or one about the Amazon. I'd love to revisit Africa and revamp the gameplay from my first indie title. I've been holding off on dinosaurs until now because the technology to do dense forests wasn't within my reach until now.

RPS: What's your actual take on Dinosaurs? In terms of an ecology game, how are you looking at the conflicting research of how Dinosaurs lived. I seem to recall the old Calvin and Hobbes comic where deciding whether T-Rex's were fearsome predators or cowardly scavengers, Calvin went with the former because it was much cooler.

Andy Schatz: I love that comic. We're actually dealing with this in a really geeky way. The behavioral elements that we KNOW are hardcoded into the game. Things that we can only speculate about are variable in the game: the player can decide whether a TRex was a hunter or scavenger. For instance, players will be able to decide whether Stegosaurus used its plates as a reproductive display, for defense, or for heat regulation.

RPS: The apocalyptic setting is a fascinating one too. Care to talk about the decision behind setting it there?

Andy Schatz: I always design games by starting with a protagonist. Then I design the antagonist. In my previous two games, the antagonist was represented by scarcity in the environment. In Dinosauria, the antagonist is much more active and dramatic: meteors, disease, infestation, draught can change the broad strategies of what make some species powerful and other species fail. In our prehistory, lifeforms evolved to deal with massive changes to the environment; the player will have to intelligently upgrade (and sometime downgrade) their dinosaurs to survive extinction.

What's your view of gaming in 2009? What's the big trends to watch out for?

Andy Schatz: Expect to see a lot more short-form games. Edmund McMillan, Tale of Tales, and a number of other developers are popularizing games that last under an hour but have a focused artistic or narrative purpose. The Innovation category in the 2009 IGF is dominated by these types of games (see Coil, The Graveyard, You Have to Burn the Rope).

Also look for more interesting in-browser content, such as what Flashbang is doing with Blurst. The industry has been talking about community-based revenue (microtransations and such) for a while, but it's the indies who will prove the stateside business model first.

RPS: And what's your favourite dinosaur? Mine is Ankylosaurus.

Andy Schatz: Deinonychus! Evil feathered geniuses.

For more on Venture Dinosauria, cast your eyes at their webpage.

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