In the gaming world, it’s rare when the clever world of crossword puzzles overlaps with competitive combat — but Matt Inman wants to change that.
Inman, a Seattle-based cartoonist known for creating the card game Exploding Kittens and running the comedic comics website The Oatmeal, has developed a new app to do just that.
It’s called Kitty Letter.
“It’s like Scrabble meets Clash Royale,” Inman said. “I wanted a deathmatch competitive word game and this was what I came up with. It was basically filling a void that I needed in my gaming world.”
The game was born partly from social-distancing-induced boredom and partly from the desire to create something unique.
Inman has stayed busy over the past decade, working on books like “My Dog: The Paradox,” serving as a creative consultant for Illumination studio on “The Secret Life of Pets 2” and working with Elan Lee, co-creator and CEO of Exploding Kittens, to create more games. He said quarantining in his Bainbridge Island home was making him a little stir-crazy, so he eagerly dived into this new project.
Until now, Inman worked on tabletop and card games, online comics, books and merchandise, making this his first leap into the digital gaming world.
The app-based game also gave him a chance to dust off his programming skills and create a game that can bring people together during the pandemic — without having to leave their homes. Players can battle their friends in multiplayer mode, similar to Words with Friends, or fly solo in the “playable comic” version of the app.
In multiplayer, users have to unscramble letter tiles to form words. For each word created, an army of exploding cats is hurled at your opponent. The bigger the word, the bigger the cat army and, therefore, the bigger the explosion. The last player standing wins.
“It has that bubble-wrap-popping feeling of creating something and watching it ruin your opponent’s day,” Inman said. “I’ve seen a lot of people play the game and laugh out loud.”
Inman said he’s also really proud of the single-player option in the game. It operates like a playable Oatmeal comic equipped with a thoughtful story line, sound effects and, of course, exploding cats.
In single-player mode, you live in a quiet neighborhood when a “crazy cat man” moves to town. His cats keep wandering over to your house and exploding. Your character has to navigate that world and do seemingly mundane things, like thawing out a trout for cooking by literally slapping the screen — a task that Inman said takes an unnecessarily long amount of time, but he thinks that makes it funnier.
“I would rather them laugh at this game than they [get] locked into some free-to-play [game that devolves into a] money-printing cycle that a lot of crappy games are,” Inman said, referring to the business model adopted by many app-based games that start free but require the player to pay for things to advance through higher levels. “I want them to think that was hilarious. I think I achieved it.”
The Kitty Letter app launched on Feb. 10, and was downloaded 85,000 times on its first day.
Inman said he wanted the app to feel like you had fallen into his sketchbook and have to navigate out of the Oatmeal universe.
Inman started The Oatmeal, which has gathered 5.6 million followers over the past 10 years, before he partnered with Lee in 2015 to create the Exploding Kittens card game, funded through Kickstarter. They ended up raising nearly $9 million, making it the most-backed Kickstarter fundraiser ever.
“To get to jump inside of an Oatmeal comic and interact with the characters and have a competitive battle game with them is a dream come true,” Lee said. “We as Oatmeal fans have never had access to that before, and it’s so rad to see.”
Inman said he found his knack for creating witty, relatable comics after creating quizzes and comics to advertise a dating website he created back in 2009. These included quizzes like How Much of a Nerd are You? and The Cadaver Calculator, which determined how much your body would be worth to science after you died.
The comics were much more popular than the website ever was, and after he sold the site, he decided to double down on making insightful comics through The Oatmeal.
“Matt is by far the most creative person I’ve ever met. He has this superpower which is that he knows intuitively what people will like and when people will be confused,” Lee said. “I’ve learned that when I have an idea, if I bring it to Matt and he says it’s good, it’s good. If he says it’s not going to work, don’t even bother trying”
Inman said he’s most successful when he creates things he wants to consume. He brought that same mindset to Kitty Letter.
“I think deep down I’m still stuck as a kid in the ’90s playing Doom,” he said. “And pair that with the fact that I now work as a grown-up and I play grown-up games, like The New York Times crossword or Words with Friends.”
Kitty Letter was his take on combining those two personalities, he said: “grown-up Matt” and “teenage Matt.”
“I draw comics in the way I want them to be drawn for me. I make card games that I would want to play. I never try to imagine a demographic to appeal to,” Inman said. “When COVID hit, I wanted to do something new.”
Inman said the philosophy behind all Exploding Kittens-related games is getting players to form lasting memories with each other.
Lee said he and Inman were both raised playing games like Monopoly or Uno and realized over time that those games are more about the people playing them.
So when they teamed up to create Exploding Kittens, they said they had one central mantra: “Games should not be entertaining. Games should make the people you’re playing with entertaining.”
“It’s not about how much money you had in Monopoly or how much property you owned. It’s about the interaction you had playing against your brothers and sisters during those games, and who betrayed who and who had an alliance with who,” Lee said. “We, the players, are the entertainment value. The game is just the tool that allowed us to be that way.”
Inman said that when he was growing up in Southern California, he and his family went to Disneyland often, and while he remembers riding the rides and seeing the characters, he doesn’t remember his sister sitting next to him. The interaction is between the characters and the individual, while games sort of force you to engage with your loved ones.
“We create interactivity between your friends and family,” Inman said. “That’s way more memorable, fun and meaningful than over a screen or watching a movie or riding the Matterhorn [Bobsleds at Disneyland].”
The Kitty Letter app is available for free in the Apple App Store and Google Play app store.