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How jazz and learning Japanese influenced Little Kitty, Big City

We chat with Little Kitty, Big City's studio lead Matt Wood to discuss the game's inspirations, challenges, and how my own cat was the mastermind behind it all.

Little Kitty, Big City review - a picture of Little Kitty looking very happy in front of his apartment

I will begin this Little Kitty, Big City interview the same way I began my review – I love cats. Probably a little bit too much, to be honest, to the point where I’m at risk of prematurely becoming Eleanor Abernathy from the Simpsons. So, naturally, I have fallen head over paws for this fantastically fuzzy little kitty and all of their adventures – and, judging by the amount of love the game has been getting online, many of you have, too.

After finally gathering all of the hats and shinies I could, I set the controller down and pounced on the opportunity to have a chat with Little Kitty, Big City’s studio lead and lead dev, Matt Wood (with additional input from character and gameplay animator, Micah Breitweiser) to discuss Kitty’s origins and inspirations, the game’s bum-wiggle-fuelled launch, and… How my very own cat may have been the mastermind behind the whole operation? I knew he was hiding something between those beans!

So grab your feathers, straighten your whiskers, and count your ducklings, as we go zoomies through the magical manhole portal of Little Kitty, Big City and Matt Wood’s mind.

Pocket Tactics: why cats? I mean, as a cat mom, I know why, but what made you choose a kitty as your central protagonist?

Matt Wood: In this case, it was my kids who decided on a cat. I was teaching them about programming and making games, and when we were brainstorming ideas, one of them simply suggested, “Hey. What if you got to play as a cat??” So we explored that idea a bit. At that time there weren’t any other 3D cat games on the market, so I prototyped the idea and posted it on social media. The overwhelming response surprised me and made me realize that my kids were really on to something compelling.

A photo of Matt Wood's two cats laying down together, taken from his X (formerly Twitter) account, @matttwood

What would you cite as your main inspirations for Little Kitty, Big City?

MW: So many cat videos. So many. And, of course, our cats Mario and Roxy (pictured above).

But seriously, there are too many to list. In addition to cats, Tokyo as a city inspired me greatly. I’m in love with its density and vibe and the visual richness of it.

I remember seeing you tweet about wanting to make the game friendly for all audiences, avoiding threat and fail states to ensure that children and adults alike can feel comfortable exploring the game. What drove this decision, and how did you go about ensuring that LKBC is a safe space for players while still maintaining player attention?

MW: The decision was driven by my desire to see more people want to play side-by-side games with their young kids. There aren’t enough games I can play with my kids that keep us both engaged where we can pass the controller back and forth. So I guess you could say my kids drove the decision. This game is about comfort and exploration and curiosity and discovery and joy. I want more games to exist like this in the world. I wanted a game that people could use to de-stress and just enjoy.

The game feels almost like a playground, with a focus on exploration driven by cute objectives like helping certain characters or collecting items. I also love the Metroidvania-like platformer style of introducing abilities that allow you to go back and explore the same areas in more depth as you progress. What inspired this direction, and how do you think it makes LKBC stand out from other games in the cozy and wholesome genres?

MW: Very early on in the design process, it became obvious that the game would be about verticality. That combined with us being an extremely small team, I knew I couldn’t build a large dense city and also build the rest of the game in a reasonable amount of time. So the solution was to go for depth, details, and density rather than breadth. This opened up lots of fun opportunities like introducing “Metroidvania”-style designs.

Little Kitty, Big City interview - concept art of Kitty from 3D creature artist and game dev, @xValociraptor

The animations in the game are absolutely delightful, and do a great job of capturing the spirit of the animals. How did you go about nailing those kitty-isms so perfectly?

Micah Breitweiser (character & gameplay animator): Observation! People tend to assume that animals are limited in their expression compared to humans, but that’s not true. They express themselves primarily in how they move their bodies. If you watch closely you’ll see how unique and diverse their personalities are. We talked often about making Kitty a cat character, rather than just a cat avatar.

Our Kitty is a goofball, but young and naive, and oblivious to their own naughtiness. Cats especially are so dynamic in what they can express, because they’re capable of amazing poses. We wanted to make sure we took full advantage of that with a cat protagonist. So we copied the iconic movements that delight people the most in real life with a little cartoon twist to make sure they stand out.

I saw a tweet suggesting that the game was originally intended to be top-down and quite simplistic. How did you decide on this new style, and did you face any challenges bringing it into the 3D realm?

MB: The game was always 3D, but in the beginning, the camera was locked to certain angles and perspectives. As we filled things out and the scope got bigger, and custom animations were added, we realized the camera would need to accommodate those changes. More player freedom also suits Kitty’s personality of curiosity and mischief better. And we realized people would enjoy seeing Kitty up close.

Leading on from the last question, I saw that LKBC features live music recorded especially for the game, and I heard that you used recordings of your own cats as vocals. What inspired the jazzy tone of the soundtrack?

MW: I did use recordings of our cats. My voice actress is Roxy and you can hear her distinctive chirrups in the game when Kitty jumps and lands.

Cats have been associated with jazz (and vice versa) for as long as I can remember. I remember watching cartoons as a kid where the cool jazz players were always represented as cats. I mean, it totally makes sense. Jazz is sleek, chill, mysterious – but also explosive and expressive… just like cats.

I listened to quite a bit of 90s jazz from the underground clubs of Tokyo in the early days of working on the game, just to set the mood and stuff when I was building environments. This evolved over time and then when I started working with Riley Koenig, he put his own spin on it and it evolved into the amazing thing we have today!

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Prior to release, you announced that Little Kitty, Big City has “gone gold,” passing all certification on all platforms, and has now landed on Xbox, Game Pass, Nintendo Switch, and PC via Steam – and, of course, is Steam Deck verified, too. This is a pretty impressive feat for what was originally such a small project. How did you go about ensuring that the game runs smoothly across all of these platforms, and did you face any challenges along the way?

MW: So, so much play testing! My kids tested quite a bit and we also had some team members that were absolutely invaluable to making sure the game wasn’t a complete disaster on release. Some of the devs (like Steve Sperrin) spent so many hours at the end testing and reporting… I am so thankful for that work.

Also 22nd Century Toys did some co-development and handled the console versions. That was tough. Especially once we realized how much optimization we needed to do to get it to run well enough on all systems! That set us back many months, but it was well worth it.

Another challenge was ensuring the UI scaled well for handheld platforms. These small details can make a big difference for Switch and Steam Deck players.

LKBC was featured in the Indie World showcase, the Nintendo newsletter, and on many websites, and has drummed up quite a bit of excitement online, with plenty of huge streamers playing following release. Did you expect the game to gain so much traction and attention? How does it feel to see your hard work paying off?

MW: I’m thrilled, of course. I have to pinch myself sometimes. I’m so thankful for all of the attention it has gotten and the opportunities it’s given me to work with so many talented people. Honestly, it’s hard to process right now since I’m also in the middle of the post-shipping work. Maybe in 6 months, I’ll really spend some time reflecting on the experience.

To be completely honest, the thing that has affected me the most post-ship is getting emails from people telling me how much they enjoyed the game or how they are playing with their kids, etc. It’s so incredibly nice to get emails that just say nice things. That’s never happened to me before in my career!

In the lead-up to release, you set up a form and open call to content creators to gain access to and play Little Kitty, Big City early. How important of a role do you think content creators play in promoting a game?

MW: Since we work so much with word of mouth, it’s always a bonus to have more people sharing their experiences with the game. Creating a community around a game is part of what keeps people excited about it. We are social creatures and like to relate to others based on our cats! I mean interests.

Little Kitty, Big City interview - a 'Lost Kitty' poster showing four pictures of Kitty in different hats over a screenshot of the fast travel screen

I also spotted the missing kitty poster with a QR code – that’s quite a unique and fun idea in terms of game promotion. What’s the story behind it?

MW: The missing kitty poster was just a fun social media post! It was inspired by a game called “Shashingo: Learn Japanese with Photography” that included our kitty in their game’s lost cat posters as a fun easter egg. We talked about putting them up locally, but the weather didn’t cooperate. So we’re glad people liked the poster on social media.

I absolutely love the hat designs in LKBC. How did you come up with this fun feature, and do you intend to add more in the future?

MW: I was not successful in convincing my own cats to allow themselves to be hatted, so I had to do it virtually. Hat development is of course a highly confidential, well-guarded secret of the trade that we keep under many NDAs, but what I can say is that the addition of new hats is fairly likely.

Our editor Ruby saw you at GDC and brought back some adorable merch for me, and I’ve also seen your awesome LKBC printed clothing and other bits and bobs online – how was your experience at the convention, and do you plan on releasing more merch in the future?

MW: GDC was just a rejuvenating experience this year. I’ve really been a hermit working on the game and being able to go out and meet and see friends and other devs was so energizing and encouraging. I’m normally not a very social person, but I had a blast meeting and hanging out with people this year.

Merch can be tricky, but there is certainly a lot of potential to have fun with the game’s characters. Any official merch will be announced on socials so stay tuned!

Do you intend to bring new content and updates to the game in the future? What’s next for LKBC and Double Dagger Studios?

MW: Do people want more content? I dunno. Hey, if you want more content, send me an email 🙂

Little Kitty, Big City interview - a photo of my cat, Xiao, looking up while wearing a bat harness

Final question, myself and the rest of Pocket Tactics are very suspicious that the titular kitty bears an uncanny resemblance to my own little kitty Xiao. How on earth did he manage to catch a flight over to you to pose for your game? Whenever I ask him, he only replies by saying ‘mrrp!’ (see picture above for reference)

MW: Our great secret has been unearthed. Xiao is actually the mastermind behind the entire game. He and his cat disciples have been pulling the puppet strings behind our human team and meowing their own ideas into reality. He gives us treats, though. So it’s all good.

…And there we have it, the story of how my little Xiao Meow became a mastermind behind one of the most paw-some cozy games of 2024. Well, I hope you enjoyed this Little Kitty, Big City interview and that you continue to embark on many fish-fuelled adventures in the future.

I’d like to extend a massive thank you to Matt Wood, Micah Breitweiser, and the rest of Double Dagger Studio for not only the brilliant chat, but also all the smiles that their sweet Kitty creation has brought to players of all ages around the world.

If you’ve yet to be whisk(er)ed away to the big ol’ city, be sure to check out our glowing Little Kitty, Big City review. Or, for more cat-ventures, head on over to our list of the best cat games on Switch and mobile.