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How Little Kitty, Big City was designed to steal hearts (and fish)

We spoke with Valve veteran turned studio founder Matt T. Wood about the design parameters behind this charming puzzle platformer.

John Harris, Contributor

June 20, 2024

12 Min Read
Images via Double Dagger Studio.

You’re a small black cat who’s fallen from their apartment window onto the streets, and it’s a long way back up. But fortunately, it’s a pretty chill neighborhood, there’s no traffic, the animals are friendly, and there’s lots of interesting places to explore. Getting back home can wait for a while, can’t it? It’s the setting of Double Dagger’s wonderful exploratory 3D platformer Little Kitty, Big City. We spoke with the founder of its studio about how the game was successfully promoted, the uniquely inauthentic body language of the titular kitty, and how to create a high-engagement environment with low stakes and a chill vibe.

Game Developer: Who are you, and what is Little Kitty, Big City?

Matt T. Wood: Hi, I’m Matt T. Wood. I’ve been in the games industry since 1998. Before Little Kitty, Big City, I was at Valve for sixteen years where I wore a plethora of hats and worked on games like Half-Life 2, Left 4 Dead, Portal 2, and Counter-Strike. In 2019, I decided to strike it out on my own and founded Double Dagger Studio. A handful of years later, we launched our first game, Little Kitty, Big City!

Little Kitty, Big City hasn’t been out very long but already has quite a bit of buzz around it! Your promotional game is top-notch. Would you care to pass along some tips?

Wood: I am a big believer in creating things with the intention to sell them. That means thinking about the marketability and brand early on in the development process. Asking yourself things like, “what is interesting about this game that people will be attracted to?” and “how can I visually present the brand in a way that will catch people's eyes and stand out in a group of others?” That way, it makes it a lot easier when the time comes to put eyeballs in front of it.

There are a lot of very simple tricks to get people to look at your game (that honestly, I think people should be using more). One is just always having a full frame face somewhere on your branding. People are naturally attracted to faces and eyes. In my case, I guess it doesn't hurt that it's a cute little kitty, haha. But I remember reading articles where a group tracked peoples eyes as they scanned a website or a magazine, and they were always attracted to the faces first. And if I can use that trick to get their attention, well then the hard part comes and I have to keep it!

For promoting the game, I mostly stuck to one platform, Twitter. It fit my style and my schedule to just throw things up there on a whim as I was working on them without thinking about it too much. The other social media sites require a lot more time, effort, and planning, and since I’m also making the game, this wasn’t really a good use of my time, in my opinion!

But later in the project, I was able to work with the wonderful folks at popagenda who helped me get so many more media opportunities. And then I was able to hire a great social media person, Shan Moran. I really wanted a social media person who could not only make the posts, but make cartoons and art for them as well. Shan was perfect for this.

Little Kitty Big City Duckling Laundromat Screenshot

It’s tempting to compare Little Kitty, Big City with the other big cat game, Stray, but really other than featuring a cat the two have little in common. The gameplay is particularly refreshing: there is no health meter, no dangers, no lives and in fact no fail state. Do you think you have trouble engaging the player when there’s no “stakes?”

Wood: Keeping the player engaged was certainly a concern of mine. My experience in engaging the player in the past was partly through conflict and partly through puzzle design. While Little Kitty, Big City does have a few light puzzles, there is no heavy conflict so this was brand new territory for me as a designer.

This also brings up a point that I stumbled on about halfway through development. I find that when I play RPGs, I never do the main quests and just meander around letting myself get distracted by all the side quests and activities. Exploring and doing everything but the thing I'm supposed to be doing is what makes me happy. I guess it's no wonder then that I got diagnosed with Inattentive Type ADHD last year at the age of 47.

So anyway….this is how I ended up iteratively designing the structure of the game, and once I realized what was forming, it became obvious. The game was a game about distractions. I made the main quest fairly easy to achieve, but we encourage the player to feel free to just go explore over there or get distracted by that thing without worrying about time or pressure or nagging. Just go meander and have fun.

To follow up from that, there not being any way you can harm the cat helps make the game feel much more like a playground. That, and the light jazz soundtrack, give the experience a joyful and playful feeling, which is essential in allowing the player the freedom to try things out without risking danger. Did the lack of overt danger limit the design, was it always planned that way?

Wood: So actually, I knew I wanted to make a “chill” game, but my first instinct and the first prototype was a survival-like game. The idea being that you actually needed to survive on the street, you needed food and water, and there was a day cycle. I played with that for a bit before I realized I had strayed too far from my original goals, and it wasn’t something I could make interesting without forcing the kitty to struggle and eventually fail. The more I thought about it and the more I explained it to my family and friends, the more I realized that seeing a little kitty struggle, fail, or get hurt was not something people would want to experience. So I pivoted. Then it was just a matter of figuring out what you did in the game if there was no fail state or conflicts.

I knew from the start that I wanted to make a game that I could play with my kids. I had my goals, which were to encourage exploration, don't hurt Kitty, and encourage curiosity and discovery. And I had some ideas, but since this was mostly new territory for me, I looked towards some other great games that had no-conflict fun. Games like Animal Crossing, aspects of Mario Odyssey, parts of Breath of the Wild, and a slew of PC indie games like A Short Hike, Pikuniku, Alba: A Wildlife Adventure, Slime Rancher, all the Sokpop games, Donut County….I could go on, but all of these ended up being great inspirations for me.

The jazz soundtrack felt like an obvious choice. Cats have always had an association with jazz, and the composer, Riley Koenig, took all my crazy, disconnected inspirations and created the perfect, playful soundtrack for the game.

Little Kitty Big City Grocer Screenshot

Another game that seems an inspiration is Untitled Goose Game: not only is playful mischief possible, prevalent and prominent, but the faceless human characters seems like they might even be Japanese counterparts to the English/Australian villagers of Untitled Goose Game, just another town in the same world. Is this intentional, and how does not depicting human faces help in characterizing them?

Wood: I think most cat owners can relate to sometimes feeling like the cat is the one really in charge, and we’re just here to provide food, shelter, and attention. I wanted to bring that perspective, which is why the human characters are fairly simple and don’t have faces. To cats, humans are just moving objects in the background. And when you give something a face, people tend to empathize with that thing more and I didn't want players to associate more with the humans than the animals.

From an artistic perspective, the more detailed an object is, the more attention a player is going to give it. Since the humans are just “moving objects”, it made sense to keep their models simple and similar to the environment as opposed to the animal characters which are much more detailed.

Open world games seem difficult to make with small teams. To make a Breath of the Wild or Tears of the Kingdom, Nintendo has hundreds of people to create terrain for them. Even though the scope of Little Kitty, Big City is much smaller, it seems challenging. How’d you do it?

Wood: I made a lot of mistakes along the way, haha. But in the end, we focused on adding a lot of density and verticality to the map. Even if the player has explored everything at street level, there’s still more to find when they look behind fences or climb a terrace. We also took inspiration from metroidvanias and created areas that were clearly exploreable but players wouldn’t be able to reach until they had progressed further in the game.

I found the cat’s animation to be very well-observed, and it abounds in little details, like how their ears fold back when running, or how they squeeze through low passages. I’ve also noticed that they control kind of like a train: they have a front and back half that are connected, and the caboose follows the engine, so to speak. I don’t know how accurate this observation is, but I thought it was interesting that they seemed to control this way. Are there any insights you can offer for kitty animation?

Wood: We watched a LOT of cat videos. Truly so much credit goes to Micah Breitweiser, who added a lot of those small details to our characters! She has an amazing understanding of both how cats communicate through body language and how to translate those movements into animation.

But the movement and a few other things are a combination of hand made animation and dynamic real time bone movement in the game. Cats move in smooth curves, and it was difficult to get that and have it work dynamically in all situations, so I decided the procedural combo was the best solution.

Little Kitty Leap Screenshot

World navigation was for the most part simple and intuitive: you hold the jump button down, and the game displays its arc and destination, which can then be adjusted. I don’t know if other games have done this before, but I think it’s a key aspect of the play: controlling the kitty could have been so much more difficult without it. Did you plan to have the cat control that way from the start?

Wood: The arc jump or what I call “the precision jump” was implemented very early on, but it was much simpler than what we shipped with. I wanted the game to feel relaxed, so taking the time to line up every jump seemed like a good idea. But once I implemented the first version and had people play it, it was painfully slow, and players begged for a faster way to jump around. So I implemented the quick version of that, which under the hood is almost exactly the same jump, it just does all of the targeting invisibly for you.

I don't know if any other games that do this either. It was just a thing that seemed to make sense to me, imagining a cat ready to pounce and then springing to their destination.

Progress is gated by finding fish, which can be thought of as a tasty version of the Shrine Orbs in Tears of the Kingdom that increase stamina. In the Breath of the Wild games they’re much more helpful than necessary, but Little Kitty, Big City seems like it was designed so that all the fish are needed. Do you think a speedrunner will find a way to bust the design wide open?

Wood: Oh absolutely. The speedrunners have already beat the game sub 30 seconds with no fish. It's crazy! Technically, without using advanced strats or glitching, you can make it home with just three fish. Originally I was going to let you get home with just one and have the other fish more for doing side quests, but we really wanted most people to experience the joy of stealing a fish from someone.

Little Kitty With A Fish Screenshot

 Finally, I support the decision completely, but why is the game set in a Japanese city in particular? Does it just seem like a good place for a kitty to explore?

Wood: The first time I visited Japan, I kind of fell in love with the cities and towns. I also have this problem where I can't convince myself to deep dive into a topic unless I can also convince myself it's “useful” in some way (it's a curse). So since I really wanted to research and explore Japanese-style urban design, it became the perfect excuse to set the game in Japan, haha. That's only partly the reason of course. I also have a strong association in my mind between cats and Tokyo streets. That and being fans of Japanese cat media like Chi’s Sweet Home, Cat Beginner and a manga from the '80s called What’s Michael, it just made sense.

About the Author(s)

John Harris


John Harris writes the column @Play for GameSetWatch, and the series Game Design Essentials for Gamasutra. He has written computer games since the days of the Commodore 64. He also maintains the comics blog Roasted Peanuts.

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