Super Cat Tales: PAWS stands out as a labour of love among a litter of freemium mobile titles. Creator Gionathan Pesaresi explains how his fan community helped with development.
Indie developer Neutronized – essentially Gionathan Pesaresi – released the original Super Cat Tales in 2016. A marriage of precision platforming, retro-infused pixel art, a smartly conceived two-thumb control system and cartoon cats, it caught the imagination of Android and iPhone gamers alike. An expansive sequel arrived two years later, with a deeper story, more secrets, and lashings of extra content. Now, Super Cat Tales: PAWS is set to turn the series into a trilogy.
The format remains familiar: a platformer with a smattering of RPG, ranging from exciting arcade sequences to relaxed chats with NPCs. Additional cats with unique powers are unlocked as you progress, providing new ways to tackle previously completed levels and access hidden areas. Pesaresi notes he’s always been careful to balance these diverse elements, without breaking the game’s overall feel: “I keep things simple, avoiding having players keep track of too many menus and stats. The games mostly play like platformers, but convey some of the mechanics, emotion and exploration that’s more typical of RPGs”.
Occasionally, this is why you’ll enter a village level, which looks like any other, but is populated with NPCs rather than enemies. “These places have secrets to find and mini-games to play, and help better narrate the story,” explains Pesaresi, noting that stories are often weak in platformers.
Pesaresi’s innate sense of balancing depth and immediacy also led to the minimal control system. Reasoning that slippy touchscreens and virtual buttons aren’t ideal for precision platform games, he stripped everything back to left and right inputs, which were carefully extended to enable actions like running, jumping and climbing walls. Running requires a double tap. Jumping automatically occurs when you run off of a platform edge. Level design is based around this control system, leading to unique choreography. “I had to create levels that didn’t make the player feel like they were missing a jump button,” says Pesaresi. “Not a single Super Mario or Kirby level would work in a Super Cat Tales title – it would feel unnatural to play.”
With two Super Cat Tales games in the wild, though, what drove a third entry in the series? For Pesaresi, it was all about the community: “My aim was to create something familiar and fresh, that built on the success of the previous games, and that incorporated community feedback to make the game even more enjoyable for players.”
Super Cat Tales fans will know Pesaresi has been nurturing this community for some time now. There’s a dedicated Discord channel, and the Neutronized YouTube channel has published a regular devlog, showcasing the game’s progress and explicitly asking for feedback. “Having complete creative control and freedom to design what I want gives me motivation to work on my games every day, but it can sometimes be hard to find inspiration for new ideas or solve design challenges that would benefit from brainstorming with peers,” says Pesaresi. “That’s why I started sharing more of the creative process online, and encouraging players and fans to engage with me and share their feedback, suggestions and ideas. This has been invaluable in keeping me motivated.”
While Pesaresi makes the final decision on everything PAWS, feature ideas were often sparked externally. He therefore reasons that “in a way, the game is not just mine”, and the level of back-and-forth that occurred means he considers PAWS a “community-driven indie game”. It’s also a route he recommends other developers consider – but notes they need to have a certain approach to make it work: “You have to be open-minded and receptive to feedback. It’s important to remember the game development process is always a learning experience, and there’s always room for improvement. You also need to stay active on social media and within your community, to better engage with players and promote your game.”
The main change that the community has championed in PAWS is to deepen engagement with the game beyond just completing levels. “One complaint I received about previous Super Cat Tales games was that once all the levels were completed, there wasn’t much left to do,” says Pesaresi. “In response, I added new features, such as daily quests, mini-games and cat customisation, along with expanding the RPG elements by creating new opportunities for players to interact with NPCs and discover additional quests.”
Some elements are more ‘surface’ than others. The potential to kit out your cat in rare clobber gives people a reason to continue playing, but doesn’t fundamentally alter the game. Other fan-requested features do have the potential to shake up key elements of Super Cat Tales. “I’ve introduced new mini-games, such as fishing and an arcade room with leaderboards, to provide a break from the main platforming gameplay,” explains Pesaresi. The first of those allows players to “catch and sell different fish species at a market, which gives them an alternative way to earn in-game currency, rather than buying it or grinding levels”.
Furthering Pesaresi’s keen awareness of the fine balancing act in a world of freemium mobile titles, he also added a daily quest, which offers a coin reward on completion – another suggestion from the community. “As a solo indie, I do sometimes feel decisions are shots in the dark, and I understand some of these new features will need to be tweaked and improved,” he admits. “But I’m proud to have listened to and prioritised player requests during the development process.”
Even with a community fully behind him, Pesaresi says working on PAWS has been challenging: “It was hard to find the right balance between the platforming and RPG elements. It took a lot of time and effort to design the levels, with some taking over a month to complete. I had to iterate on them repeatedly to ensure they were challenging and enjoyable, including with new cats you could unlock later in the game”. Fortunately, as development progressed, Pesaresi says he finally felt comfortable with the main features and mechanics that had been implemented, raising his confidence on the game’s quality, which in turn sped up the level design process.
So now Super Cat Tales fans will have a third entry in the series – the most ambitious yet, and one they themselves had a hand in designing. “My hope is that players will play it, enjoy it, and suggest the game to their friends,” says Pesaresi. “Some people remain cold towards mobile games and label them as cash grabs without ever giving them a chance. I hope that won’t be the case for Super Cat Tales: PAWS.” Given the effort, care and love that’s gone into the game, we can only but agree with that sentiment.