January 31, 2012 3:00 PM | John Polson
Most of the indie world knows of IGF host and PlayNerd model Andy Schatz, creator of Monaco. Much less known is Monaco's producer and level designer, Andy Nguyen. Nguyen introduces himself here very candidly as he shares the details of how he quickly proved himself as a rookie to become involved in such a highly anticipated title. The interview also reveals how flexible Schatz is, opening himself up to constructive criticism and help on the IGF winning project that he alone started over two years ago.
The story goes that Schatz was primarily looking for testers for Monaco, and Nguyen more than stepped up to the challenge. Nguyen actually asked for an internship opportunity to learn and provide help wherever possible.
With no skills to speak, with a finance degree instead of a computer science degree, one may wonder how he got Schatz's attention. Nguyen shares, "I spent 3 months writing a cover letter, and a 'game analysis' of Zuma Blitz, a Facebook game that had recently come out at the time. It had a lot of opportunities for me to talk about: scoring, mechanics, aesthetic, and Facebook as a platform."
Nguyen describes the callback from Schatz as very surreal. "Remember, at this time I had no idea who Andy Schatz was nor that Monaco was the IGF 2010 winner (although I knew of the IGF results from 2009 and prior)." Nguyen says he was nervous, but very excited, that he finally had the chance at the life he had always wanted.
"So when my chance began, Schatz simply had intentions of having me play the game once, and answer a few questions. It was a simple playtest and nothing more." For this, Nguyen used FRAPS to record his playtest, and then he went over the video and added his own commentary about what he observed. "It was VERY critical. I was definitely scared. I had no experience, no proof of any sort of credibility to my name, and yet I was making very harsh criticisms on his design choices."
Schatz decided to let Nguyen play Monaco and take notes on his experience. Upon sharing those notes, Nguyen found Schatz to be a great listener. "He listened to it all and then asked me to write any more opinions of the game, as I continued to play it. So I wrote him a document, an extensive document that grew with opinions faster than he probably suspected. I spent the entire day playing and reporting."
After several exchanges, realizing they worked well asynchronously, the two met. "He appreciated the effort I was putting into the very small task he gave me. We met at a cafe, and everything went well. He said he wanted my help to find bugs, so I said ok."
That night, Nguyen completely slammed Schatz with bugs. "I was opening them faster than Schatz could close them. We made a game out of it, kept score, and saw who could beat who. I kicked his ass. Obviously closing bugs is WAY harder than finding them, but I really appreciate the fun we got out of it."
After working at Schatz's home office for a while, the two eventually came to a point where their conversations moved beyond QA and instead were about design philosophy for Monaco. "He liked many of the suggestions I had, and many of them made it into the game. We brainstorm all the time now and that seems to be the bulk of what we do when we work together."
Schatz eventually asked Nguyen to take a stab at level designing. "I'm no expert at level design, but I had at that point watched Valve dev commentary which regularly talks about level design. I knew some fundamentals, and I wanted to make sure I exercised them well: things like using light to guide the player, creating a story with the environment, and how to teach new mechanics."
Schatz told Nguyen he was a fast learner and quickly became impressed with his work. "The first several levels never made it into the game. But after every level, I picked up something new. Iteration became my best friend, and as much as it sucked to scrap work I spent days on, I knew it was for the best."
Schatz eventually entrusted Nguyen to become the level designer for Monaco.
As far as becoming the producer, "during this entire transition of going from QA to LD, I was frequently trying to offer value to him in an administrative way. I would contact people, make arrangements for marketing, etc. I also helped him take on tasks he simply had no time for, like merchandise." Nguyen's ability to execute on tasks outside of development made him a good fit for the role.
In retrospect, Nguyen felt the only related skill he had to offer was loving video games in a way that would seem unhealthy to people who don't play. "When I was not playing games, I was reading about them on the internet. When I was socializing, I would talk to people about video games. There's nothing wrong with living and breathing video games, and I wanted to prove it. Reading articles about design, or watching developer commentary really helped shift my perspective from consumer to designer. It was a major change for me when I began to analyze games instead of just playing them."