A short while ago, Aussie developer Ken Wong was working on the largest triple-A title made in China for the West, at American McGee's studio, Spicy Horse. Now he's back down under, working as an all-rounder making indie games. And in the last 12 months he's come up with Hackycat, the hackysack game where you juggle cats. It looks hilarious — but Wong says there's more to it than a gimmicky internet joke. We spoke to him about his development past, present, and future.
First thing's first: Why do you hate cats?
I don’t hate cats, cats are pretty cool. They’re very cute, so I put a lot of cute cats in the game and they’re an integral part of the gameplay. Obviously, if you fail to play the game properly, the cats die. So you’re helping prolong their life.
I'm interested in how deep it is — do you get extra points for keeping them higher in the air?
Yeah, it’s a score attack game, do the goal is to get the highest score possible. There are bonuses you can get, so basically you’re kicking them in special ways. There’s a combo system for tapping them without stopping, you get bonuses for doing two or three cats at once, and you get extra points if they’re low to the ground.
At first glance, people think it’s this silly, trite, shallow game. But there’s actually a lot of system underlying it which encourage you to strategise.
I guess the bonus for getting cats while they’re low adds some risk/reward...
Yeah, I think people feel like they should be rewarded for getting a cat just in time.
There’s actually two ways to aim the cats. You’re not targeting them yourself, you’re sort of directing them. Part of the game is to collect cheeseburgers, they appear in the air like you’d expect coins to. You knock the cat into the cheeseburgers to collect them. That charges up the super meter in the top of the screen.
When your super meter is full, that allows you to perform a super kick. It’s the most powerful move in the game and it kicks cats so hard they go into space, and don’t come back. That’s how you manage the number of cats in the game, they keep parachuting in, but once it gets to about four or five cats, it gets very hard.
You can only charge your super kick up when it’s full of cheeseburgers, so you want to only use your super kick on multiple cats at once. However, the more cats you have at once, the more points you get. It’s easier to increase your combo and easier to get triple and quad hits when you have more cats.
So a good player will not super kick too often. They’ll try and keep a high number of cats if they can.
Some of the cats have bonuses on them. Every cheeseburger they pick up, or every two, they’ll give extra XP, or there’s a cat called Tub, he’s a little heavier, a little harder work, but if you super kick him you get 300 additional points.
I could have picked any animal, but cats are kind of the mascot animal of the internet. But once people check it out, there’s a lot more depth in there. I hope people realise that.
What have you been up to since Alice: Madness Returns?
If you’ve been following Spicy Horse, the studio I was at before that did Alice, they released a free-to-play game called big head bash. I prototyped that just after Alice, it was sort of my return to programming. I left Spicy when it was in the prototype stage. Since then I’ve been working on my digital art, and traveling.
I have an exercise — I draw one Street Fighter character a day. Actually, I think you guys have featured some of the art. It’s on a poster with around 57 characters. But the last 12 months for me has been Hackycat.
The last time we spoke, you were handling the art for Alice: Madness Returns. Did you code Hackycat yourself, or outsource that? How easy was the whole production for you?
I used to code on the Commodore 64, and did a bit of computer science at uni, and that makes it easy for someone like me to get enough programming knowledge to make a game.
Having no one else to turn to is challenging, I’m responsible for design, testing, keeping a schedule... I wanted to understand what it was like to do a solo project. I didn’t expect it would take 12 months, but it did. I thought it would be not too complex. I picked the simplest thing I can think of: Moving objects on a screen. How hard could it be to turn those into cats?
But it became a lot more complex because there are not a lot of games out there with this kind of input mechanic. I guess the closest would be Fruit Ninja. So most people don’t understand what to do. I had to build the rules up from the start, it’s like the rules start at ground zero.
Is this a one-off thing, or are you going to keep supporting it?
I’ll keep supporting it if it’s successful. I can keep doing updates. If people want more cats, or more athletes, I’d love to do it. If they want more powerups to vary the gameplay, that’s something I’d love to do. I’d also love to do an Android port, that’s something my friends have been asking about.
I really like to bounce around and do different things... In fact I’m going to move to London soon to join a design company, a small team I’ll be joining. But at some point I’d like to come back here and work on indie games.
Hackycat will be released on February 14th for iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch. Our thanks to Ken Wong for his time!