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5 tips for making video games your cat wants to play
5 tips for making video games your cat wants to play Exclusive
July 20, 2012 | By Frank Cifaldi

The two-man team of artist TJ Fuller and programmer Nate Murray at developer Hiccup had something of a flop with their video game debut: Jacob's Shapes, a simple iPad puzzle game aimed at children. Perhaps children weren't their forte. Perhaps they needed a new audience.

Noticing several videos on YouTube of cats pawing at iPad games (the human-focused kind), Fuller decided to try and make a game aimed just at them, something that could be done quickly just to get something out on the App Store so they could go back to making "real" games. The game has one simple mechanic: an object on the screen (either a laser light or a mouse or, in the latest update, a butterfly) moves around the screen in lifelike patterns, enticing the cat to touch it. Cats are scored on their performance, and the game even incorporates Game Center, to make sure kitty's best scores are saved for all to see.

Just three weeks and one playtest at a local animal shelter later (neither Fuller nor Murray are cat owners), Game for Cats debuted, drawing major media attention and enough sales to justify both a sequel and several copycats. Pun intended.

Though it isn't huge (yet), there is now a legitimate market for video games aimed at felines, and it would be a disservice to Gamasutra's readership of game developers to not focus on what makes these games work so well. So we sat down for a quick phone chat with Fuller for something of a postmortem of what makes Game for Cats tick.

1. Subtle, natural movements

Cats can detect subtle movements better than we can. If a cat doesn't sense that its target is "alive," it's going to ignore it. The first attempt at movement in Game for Cats was done purely through code, but everything "felt way too mechanical," Fuller tells us.

The solution was to throw out that code and record finger movements on the iPad. When the laser (or mouse) moves around in the game, creeping around slowly one moment and darting off screen the next, that's programmer Nate Murray's finger emulating life.

2. High contrast visuals

There is still some debate as to exactly what cats can and can not see, in terms of color, hue and saturation, but there is no argument against them being able to tell the difference between light and dark.

To take advantage of this, Game for Cats ensures a high level of contrast between the target and the background, no matter which game mode a cat is playing. The laser level offers a bright laser on top of a dark background, for example, while in another mode, a darkly-colored mouse scurries atop an almost offensively bright wedge of cheese.

3. Cats love DLC

Like many mobile games, Game for Cats is a free download that monetizes itself with in-App transactions: specifically, the download includes the laser level for free, and offers the mouse level for an optional $0.99 transaction.

Unfortunately, the initial release of the game made that purchase path a little too easy…in the days immediately following its release, cats everywhere were accidentally purchasing the level without their owners' permission.

"We got in a lot of trouble," Fuller laughs. "People were accusing us of tricking cats into making purchases. We got a ton of comments on our iTunes page, people accusing us of trying to rip of them off."

The solution was to implement a test to make sure the purchaser is human before the charge is allowed to go through: specifically, the purchaser is asked to place their hand the screen and hold it there while the app "scans" to see if you're human. Or, in reality, it makes sure your four fingertip touch points don't move for a few seconds, a test even the craftiest of cats would have a hard time circumventing.

4. No pause for paws

Hiccup wanted to implement a way for humans to pause the game (allowing them to switch levels or, perhaps, tweet kitty's high score), but doing so in a way that prevented cats from pausing the game themselves was a design challenge.

The solution, which "still isn't perfect," is that humans have to tap a specific section of the screen five times in rapid succession to pause the game. It works, mostly, but Fuller says that cats still set it off on accident occasionally.

5. Reward with a sound

Whenever a cat successfully scores in the game (in other words, touches the moving target), its score increases and a sound is played, to reward the cat and keep it engaged: the laser chimes, the mouse squeaks in terror.

Fuller warns that while there is temptation to have music in the game, he thinks it would have ruined this effect.

"If there's music playing, they wouldn't hear it," he says. "The sound has to be meaningful, and with purpose."

Photo model: Tony Cifaldi of Oakland

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Frank Cifaldi
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My cat's on Gamasutra's home page. I don't know where my career can possibly go from here.

Darius Kazemi
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Wait, the cat isn't Frank Cifaldi? Crap. Um, this is awkward... sorry about all those times I pet you at GDC.

Zachary Hoefler
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@Darius: RLWP

Carlo Delallana
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Blue Ocean Strategy!

According to the 2011-2012 APPA National Pet Owners Survey, 62% of U.S. households own a pet, which equates to 72.9 millions homes

In 1988, the first year the survey was conducted, 56% of U.S. households owned a pet as compared to 62% in 2008


The following spending statistics are gathered by APPA from various market reseach sources and are not included in the organization's bi-annual National Pet Owners Survey.

Total U.S. Pet Industry Expenditures

Year Billion
2012 $52.87 Estimate
2011 $50.96 Actual
2010 $48.35
2009 $45.5
2008 $43.2
2007 $41.2
2006 $38.5
2005 $36.3
2004 $34.4
2003 $32.4
2002 $29.5
2001 $28.5
1998 $23
1996 $21
1994 $17

Frank Cifaldi
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Well we are "The Art AND Business of Making Games," so I suppose we should have a follow-up about the biz side of cat games.

Kris Graft
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Clearly, this falls under The Art of Cat Games.

Shay Pierce
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Love it!

In-App Purchase authorization should be to solve a simple math problem.

For pausing, just make it so that if the iPad is locked, when you return to it the pause menu is up and you have to hit "resume" to unpause. In other words, locking and unlocking your iPad becomes the idiom for "pause."

Gary LaRochelle
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Maybe that should be a "paws" button? ; )

Michael Derry
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It sounds like multi-touch is already used for some functions. So, 'paws' and 'unpaws' could be to touch all 4 corners at the same time. Maybe double-tap all 4 corners at once, just to make sure the cat isn't just standing on it. It seems like cats would generally only use 2 paws at a time, no matter how crazy they go after it, and only in a focused region. Attempting 4-cat multiplayer might be a problem for this method, though.

Mike Weldon
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When I was a kid, cats would play outside, climb trees, chase actual mice. Nowadays they just want to play video games all the time. This is why we have a feline obesity problem. Pet owners need to be more responsible. Teach your cats to run and play and get exercise instead of playing games all day.

Maria Jayne
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"cats everywhere were accidentally purchasing the level without their owners' permission."

I love this line, now I want to see a photo of a guilty looking cat sitting next to it's sullen penniless owner holding a credit card statement on the front page of the newspapers with the headline "CATastrophically guilty!"

Giro Maioriello
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No doubt the owner would have some catty remarks and blame Apple, works for humans.

Philip Bemis
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Bought the full version of this after reading this article and my cats love it! They're all older cats so they're not as physical but they'll still watch it forever. I had some company over today and we all had a great time taking turns controlling it through the iPhone. Such a great feature!

Michael O'Hair
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With the human video game market faltering, desperate publishers attempt to market video games for cats.

Your customers are not cats.

Robert Schmidt
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Sure they are. In the same way toy manufacturers customers are kids. Obviously the parent is buying the toy, but if the child doesn't like it the parent won't buy it. So the product is created with both the parent and child in mind. Same here with the cat game.