In Real Life

Lock Up Your Games -- The Cats Are On The Prowl

It has finally happened. Developers have had enough of human gamers. The blue ocean of gaming is now tainted with human filth and it is time to cross over into a new ocean. A cat ocean. Now is the time for cats and their video games to shine.

A cat the size of an adolescent snow leopard perches itself on top of a fence, staring into my room. It’s a neighbourhood cat with an attitude problem, known for wailing what can only be described as a demented mating call in the middle of the night. I’ve nicknamed it Margaret Thatcher, for a cat of that size with such ferocity must be destined for great, if somewhat terrifying, things.

Margaret Thatcher’s piercing eyes narrow in on the dogs napping in my room. She has the focus of a fighter pilot about to pull the trigger of a feline bomb. If it weren’t for the glass window separating her and us, we’d all likely be dead.

Despite my fears of the Iron Cat Lady, I fetch my iPad and fire up Fun And Games For Cats — an iPad game designed specifically for friendly felines. It is time for an experiment.

I place the iPad right up against the window in Margaret Thatcher’s line of sight. A little mouse begins running around on the screen, its tiny tail trailing behind. For a moment, the cat contemplates the feasibility of choking me by the jugulars, before moving its eyes to the iPad. Its big, honey-coloured eyes lock onto the mouse. It is ready to kill.

They Are The Video Games For The Cats

“I wish I could say that I was the first to come up with the idea of an iPad game for cats, but I can’t,” says Danish app developer, Martine Carlsen.

Carlsen is one of many cat game developers gracing the iPad App Store with her games for cats. She is in fine company, with her games appearing alongside those of the international cat food company, Friskies. She’s also a fine example of there being no typical cat game developer — they’re not all Silicon Valley-types cashing in on a quirky idea, nor are they all from major cat food corporations looking to spread their brand of kibble.

Carlsen herself is a 52-year-old self-described “geeky cat lady” who works as a graphic designer in Denmark. She has no formal programming training. When she began her design career, she didn’t even work with computers.

She has since embraced technology, advancing her career as a web and graphic designer while launching a site that sells animated e-cards, running a Cafepress store called Cats On T-Shirts (where pictures of cats are printed onto t-shirts), and creating two dedicated cat websites: For Cats Only and Talking Cats. Carlsen likes cats.

“I think the first inspiration for cat games on the iPad was a YouTube video of a cat playing with a game for humans called Noby Noby Boy – it was cute!

“I, of course, bought the app for my own two Abyssinian cats, Sonny and Cher, but they were not impressed.”

Not long after Carlsen’s musical cat duo turned their noses at Noby Noby Boy, the first wave of cat games hit the App Store and Carlsen decided to make her own.

In her experience as a cat owner, cats were obsessed with catching moving objects, so she decided that the game would have a “catch the thing” mechanism.

“The obvious choice for the moving object was a mouse, so I designed a little mouse, made it run around on the screen and tested it on my cats,” she says.

And did Sonny and Cher approve?

“They instantly approved it!” she says.

“And so my first cat game app, Catch The Mouse Cat Game, was submitted to the Apple App Store.”

Cross-Species Game Development

Steven Rose developed one of the first cat games sold for the iPad. He is a software engineer whose career has spanned making simulation software for the aerospace industry to working on automotive dealer service software. After the initial launch of the iPad he saw YouTube videos of cats playing with iPad games that were designed for humans so, naturally, he thought it was a niche he could fill.

“I wanted to make a game that would entertain the cats — it had to be visually simple and keep the cats’ attention,” Rose says.

“I think most cat games are designed around things that cats like to play with in real life (like mice), because we know we can keep their attention with those things.”

Rose admits that it doesn’t always work, but he tries anyway. His game, Cat Toys, features a variety of virtual cat toys that behave in different ways: there’s a frog that hops around on the screen and wriggles under the cat’s paw when it’s trapped, as well as a spider, a rat, and a ping pong ball.

“It’s hard to say what a cat enjoys,” Rose says.

“I went by what would keep a cat’s attention. In general, the cat gamer likes fast moving things that make sounds. That’s not very complex, I know.

“I play-tested the game with my family’s and friends’ cats — I’d let them play and tweak the parameters.”

So what kind of parameters does one tweak on a cat game?

“Early on the toys were moving too slow and the cats would lose interest,” says Rose.

“I’ve never seen a cat rage quit, though.”

But as Rose learned, designing a game for cats isn’t just about providing a fun experience — there are also logistical considerations. For example, how do you stop the cat from accidentally pausing the game or exiting the app?

For this, Rose tried to implement a slide button system but this was rejected by Apple — they already had a patent on that style slider. So Rose opted for a button that would have to be tapped multiple times to access the menu.

A similar system was adopted by US-based cat game developers, Hiccup Games.

“Our solution to the problem of cats accidentally exiting the game was to get the owner to tap the bottom left corner five times in a row to pause — we wanted to make it something that a cat wouldn’t do accidentally but a person could do easily,” says TJ Fuller, who created Game For Cats with fellow Hiccup Games developer, Nate Murray.

“The really tricky thing is designing the game so that the cat can use it by themselves without human interaction as much as possible.

“That’s why we made the game split-screen [where a different game plays on each half of the iPad] so that the cat can just paw at one rather than have a button the owner of the iPad has to press.

“We want them to be able to play the whole game from start to finish.”

When You Talk, All I Hear Is Meow Meow Meow

Humans tend to have a rough idea of what other humans like, and if they don’t they can always ask. Humans can talk — we communicate with language — opinions can be explicitly stated. A spanner is thus thrown into the works when it comes to cross-species game development. Pet owners have a general idea of what cats like, but how do you play-test a game?

“I did a bit of research on what cats react to visually, and we tested the first version of the game at an animal shelter,” says Fuller.

“They reacted right away so we knew we had something that worked.

“What was really great was the cats at animal shelters don’t get much stimulation — people don’t play with them a lot, so we realised this could be a really great way for cats to get exercise when owners don’t want to play with them.”

Fuller’s and Murray’s cat game was later picked up by Animal Planet where the it was featured on a television program called Must Love Cats. The game was demoed at an animal shelter where a veterinarian said that games like the one Fuller and Murray had made were healthy for cats because it keeps their minds stimulated and it keeps them physically active.

“So it’s not just some stupid gimmicky game,” says Fuller.

“It actually improves cats lives… I think.”

Back in Denmark, Martine Carlsen is play-testing her games on Sonny and Cher. Despite having always owned cats, Carlsen admits there isn’t a miracle game that can please every cat.

“Cats are like humans in the sense that they have different preferences and taste in toys,” she says.

“Some cats will gladly attack anything that moves on the iPad screen and others don’t even care about the most life-like mouse.”

To appeal to a broader audience of cats, Carlsen created a range of games and apps. First, there are four different “Catch Games” to choose from where cats can choose between catching a mouse, a spider, a butterfly, and a goldfish. She has also created a paw painting app where little helpers on the screen encourage the cat to place its paw on the iPad and “paint”, and finally there is a music game that features flying kittens. When a cat catches an on-screen kitten, the kitten plays an instrument for a short amount of time. The idea is that the cat will keep catching kittens, in effect conducting its own feline orchestra.

“I tested the game throughout the whole development process on all the cats I could ‘get my hands on’ [so to speak]. Family and friends would gladly let me test my app on their cats, so my test group was quite large.

“Some cats loved it and others totally ignored everything I showed them.”

Over in California, Fuller says that whether or not a cat responds to a game depends entirely on their personality. Older cats tended to be less interested. Kittens are usually very interested.

Human Camp Vs. Cat Camp

So who is more difficult to make games for: humans or cats?

Steven Rose is in the human camp — he believes that cats are a much easier audience to appeal to.

“Humans have expectations and specific tastes,” Rose says.

“If you make a game for humans it is (nearly) always aimed at a narrow market. E.g. the people who play MMOs aren’t necessarily the people who would play Angry Birds, whereas I can make a cat game that will entertain most cats who play with it.

“People enjoy very specific things about games. For example in MMOs some people enjoy Player Versus Player, so if you make a MMO that doesn’t for this you’ve lost a lot of potential players.”

It appears that cats are not fussed by PVP.

TJ Fuller is in the cat camp.

“It’s really difficult making games for cats,” he says.

“We had to keep it simple enough that a cat couldn’t mess up the menus. They get disinterested really fast unless there’s constant stimulation.

“Sometimes even if the mouse goes off the screen for two seconds they’ll stop playing and walk away. You obviously can’t have a lot of menus where you have to read a bunch of stuff because cats can’t read. We’ve been trying to think of other games that would be a little more complex but you just can’t do it. There’s really only one kind of cat game you can make that we can think of.”

Fuller says they tried to make a more complex painting game, but the cat players still needed to have something on the screen to chase around.

“It’s not like cats are actually interested in making a painting — they’re just chasing a mouse around and making a painting by accident.”

So does this mean there are no plans for a cat FPS or RPG?

“I would love to do that!” Fuller says.

“If we could figure out a way to make a cat FPS that would be great… but I don’t know how anyone is going to do that.”

As for Martine Carlsen, cat games are as much about cat owners as they are about the cats themselves.

“When you design a cat game, you have to appeal to both cat and cat owner,” she says.

“The mouse (or whatever object they have to catch) has to appeal to cats, but the rest of the game — the graphic style, the interface — must be appealing to the humans who are buying it.”

Moving Forward, One Paw At A Time

Steven Rose is now moving into game development for humans. After months communicating in meows, he is ready to hear feedback from players spoken in the form of words.

Fuller and Murray have latched onto something good with cat games and plan on thinking up more ways to entertain cats.

“People have said ‘Why don’t you make a game for dogs?’ But dogs don’t really care about iPads — they don’t react to it,” Fuller says.

“And then they’re like ‘How about a game for monkeys?’ But then how many people actually have a monkey? That wouldn’t sell very well.”

Fuller and Murray have made a game for children in the past and say that cats and children are similar when it comes to gaming: things need to be kept as simple as possible. Their cat game has received more downloads than their children’s game.

Carlsen, who already has a vast array of cat games under her belt, says that she’ll make another cat game if her cats ask her to, but only for cats — dogs might scratch the iPad screen. She says her iPad doesn’t have a single scratch on it despite having more than 20 cats rub their paws all over it.

“When I buy the new iPad 3, I’ll give my iPad 2 to my cats,” she says.

Back at my home, the killer cat eyes Carlsen’s game on my iPad. The moving mouse, the colourful background, the little rodent squeak are all giving her reason to charge through my window and see that I never taunt a cat with an iPad game ever again.

Before the Iron Cat Lady has a chance to launch herself at me, my dogs notice her and begin to bark like a bunch of yapping psychopaths. They’re tiny — small enough to be mistaken for rats themselves. Margaret Thatcher stares them down one more time before turning and walking away.

Next time, Maggie. Next time.

You can purchase the cat games mentioned in this article by following the links below:

Martine Carlsen’s Apps For Cats
Hiccup Games’ “Best game In The World (For Cats)”
Steven Rose’s Cat Toys