Virtual worlds have become more ubiquitous during our current stay-at-home life. It’s not just video games such as “Fortnite” redefining music gatherings and talk shows springing up in“Animal Crossing.” Virtual worlds are so appealing that it turns out that cats are gamers, too.
Well, sort of. There are difficult customers. And then there are cats.
Every cat owner knows that a cat will ignore an new expensive toy so that it can play with, say, a pen cap that seems to bring the feline total joy. But that hasn’t stopped game developer Willem Delventhal from trying to get cats to more thoughtfully engage with digital screens.
That’s why he developed “Mew and Me,” a collection of cat-focused video games that are designed to not just get cats swatting at things but to better understand our four-legged, eager-to-nap friends. “Mew and Me” contains games where cats slap at bugs, stalk mice or even try to collaborate with their human companions to steer a spaceship. In the process of designing these games, cats ended up teaching Delventhal a bit about approachable game design.
Key rules: Don’t be afraid to simplify. Design for all. And emphasize emotional appeal over intellectualism or strategy.
Early on, Delventhal , knowing that cats play in part to hunt, thought a key differentiator for “Mew and Me,” especially when compared to other apps for pets, would be to make it as realistic as possible. Think of it as sort of an interactive YouTube for birds. Only instead of a cat watching the screen like a window, a cat could interact.
One problem: Of the cats that did interact — sometimes as much as 20% of those tested — a few would completely miss the screen; that is, they pounced at the floor next to the mobile phone or table. Delventhal’s first thought was that those cats were “broken.” No, his game was.
Rather than write off a portion of his market — an impossibility when only a fraction of all cats will play with the app to begin with — Delventhal knew he had to broaden the game, which is free to download for iOS and Android devices.
“What I eventually concluded after running into four or five of these cats,” says Delventhal, “is that the way that their vision works — about a foot from their face — is they see very poorly. You’ll see if you bring something close to your cat’s face their whiskers will come forward. So it compensates for poor close vision. The art style at the time was way too realistic. We had to make it hyper-simplified so they could even see what was happening on the device. We thought it was an advantage that we had a hyper-realistic art style, but we simplified to cutesy out of necessity because a certain portion of cats couldn’t see what we were doing.”
There are a few simple lessons here. Don’t expect your audience to learn the rules. Tweak them, so figuring out the game’s language becomes intuitive. And, more important, design for accessibility. Embrace all cats — or humans — and their quirks, not just those with perfect eyesight.
Another lesson: Tug at their hearts.
The initial market that Delventhal saw for “Mew and Me” was cat owners who feel guilty about going into work and leaving their kittens to lie around all day. While today he works on “Mew and Me” close to full time, and hopes to expand the product into a larger lifestyle brand centered on cats, play and feline happiness, the product was sprung from his time working as an engineer at Lumos Labs, and wanting to be able to watch his cat interact while he was at the office.
But getting humans to fully appreciate the app also took a bit of work. Delventhal thinks about 30% of young cats will play “Mew and Me” with no human prodding, and about 50% will play if their pet owner also plays with the app. But even then some cat people weren’t themselves connecting with “Mew and Me.”
This inspired Delventhal to think up ways to use the game to inspire a deeper emotional connection between cat and cat partner. One solution was to create options that allow people to take sort of inverse screenshots — that is, images of where and when a cat’s paw hit the screen after the game is completed.
So now your cat isn’t just playing a game; your cat is making art.
The feature is also based on an understanding that humans and cats need relative constant feedback when playing. And thus, still in the works is an auto-emailing feature, which will send pictures to owners of cats playing or the patterns cats inadvertently create. Of course, all this is also a trick to inspire people to engage with their cats more.
“Cats have a level of nuance they aren’t given credit for,” Delventhal says. “If all your cat seems like it does is sleep and eat, that’s because you don’t give it any stimulation. if you were stuck in an apartment your whole life, and someone only came by to occasionally give you a pat on the head and put down some food, you’d be boring, too.”
I first discovered the app at the Game Developers Conference in 2019, but I downloaded it recently due to my new work-from-home lifestyle. My cat, Sleater, is close to turning 8, and our primary game is a version of hide-and-seek, which we play at least twice a day when I’m going into the office. In need of some distractions, however, to stop having to gently nudge her away from walking on my keyboard throughout the afternoon, I thought I would give “Mew and Me” a go.
She wasn’t into it, but that’s no real surprise, says Delventhal.
“She’d be the 30- to 40-year-old woman who says, ‘I don’t really like games,'” says Delventhal, who admits that cats who interact with the app tend to drop off as they get older. But, like humans, cats who start young can become video gamers for life, with tastes naturally adapting as they age.
One of the games in the “Mew and Me” stable, “Prey Stalker,” says Delventhal, “has much more complicated artificial intelligence,” where an abstracted mouse occasionally comes out to feast but mostly hides.
“That game has traditionally low engagement for kittens because there’s long moments before they get to interact. Kittens just want to engage a lot. ‘Prey Stalker’ is for older cats — a year or 2 years old — because they’re getting into some real-life hunting. So they expect the prey to hide and they expect to sit and watch.”
This is also why your cat ignores you when you are wildly swinging a toy — cat owners are taught to use toys as if they’re prey.
In time, Delventhal hopes to build out “Mew and Me” so there are more ways for humans to interact and play remotely. And no, he has no interest in expanding to dogs, even though the market for dog games is much larger — more than double, Delventhal estimates. He likes a challenge, but he also has a mission: to change the image, one popularized by memes, of the cat.
“To the outsider, cat mannerisms are difficult to read,” Delventhal says. “I make the joke sometimes that cats are misunderstood because they have resting bitch face. The way a cat expresses affection is closing and opening their eyes slowly. I’m doing some pseudo-science here, but closing your eyes, and making yourself vulnerable, is a sign of trust. But to humans, squinty eyes means I’m pissed at you.
“So what I think that all boils down to there’s a misconception that cats are a low-energy animal,” he continues. “That is not the case. People don’t like to hear that’s not the case because that means they’re bad pet owners.”