Interview

The Big Indie Interviews: Willem Delventhal on making award winning games for cats

The Big Indie Interviews: Willem Delventhal on making award winning games for cats

The Big Indie Pitch is a regular event run by the makers of PocketGamer.biz. It sees indie developers engage in a speed-dating-style pitching competition for fame and those sweet, sweet promotional packages.

The event gives indies four minutes to pitch their games to a panel of press, publishers, and industry pundits. The judges then pick three winners and everybody gets valuable feedback.

The indie view

The Big Indie Pitch is getting bigger and bigger as we bring it to events all across the world. To give you an idea of what the event is like, who attends the events and the games on show, we've sat down with a number of past BIP contestants to offer their views.

The Pitch goes digital

Today, we're speaking to Willem Delventhal from Mew and Me, who submitted Paper Game to The Big Indie Pitch (Mobile Edition) at Pocket Gamer Connects Digital #1 and walked away as runner-up in our first-ever digital pitch.

PocketGamer.biz: Tell us a little about yourself and your indie studio. Who is in the team and what are their inspirations?

Willem Delventhal: My little cat-themed company is called Mew and Me. We are a California Public Benefits Corporation dedicated to furthering animal behavioral understanding worldwide. Or, in English, we create Understanding Through Play.

The team has two founders. I am joined by Olivia Dudo. She was a startup headhunter at Mars Veterinary Care, one of the highest positions she could have hoped to reach. But she left that massive conglomerate to move to our little studio. We also have two main board members, both in the conscious business space, and a squad of dorky goofy cat people.

Our whole purpose is empathy. Cats are this misunderstood market of untouched gamers, and we just want people to get to know them better. We all believe the world can be a more awesome place if our relationship with our pets is moved to the next level!

Tell us about Mew and Me that you pitched at the competition.

Mew and Me is a collection of tablet based games for cats to play with their people. The games are meant to be a goofy, unique bonding experience, but also more. We track everything that your pet is doing, and in partnership with scientific organizations, actually, study cat behavior. We are already one of the largest cat behavioral data centers in the world, and have dreams of using that data to uplift our country and our planet. There is this beautiful quote by Denny Scott that we all believe in:

"The measure of a civilization is how it treats its weakest members."

We think the weakest members of our society are our animals. They are voiceless and have fewer rights. So we use our silly little games to open a new world of human-animal bonding. By convincing cat owners to think of their cats as more than just pets, we are helping to make our country more empathetic. And so far the signs for that are pretty positive. We were invited to speak at GDC about our games and were even recently featured in the LA Times.

What do you think are the most unique and interesting aspects of Mew and Me that gamers may never have seen before?

Well, the obvious one is the fact that we are building games for cats. The concept isn't totally novel, as examples exist of other cat games. But we highly doubt anyone has ever gotten quite as intense about it as we have.

But besides the games for cats, we also approach game design in a much more emotional way than many game developers do. Basically, we are hippies. We subscribe to Empathic Design and the principles of feeling out what you build, rather than thinking about it too much. We certainly use success metrics and all that good stuff, but we always start design conversations with, "How do we want the user to feel when they use this?"

Developing games for animals is an especially unconventional idea and something that has rarely, if ever, been seen before. What made you choose to make this type of game, and what do you think you bring to it that may not have been seen before?

I started Mew and Me as a quirky side project. I had just adopted my first animal: Fez, a little tuxedo cat. He was my first solo cat and my first indoor cat, and it became very obvious very quickly that he was bored and lonely when I was out of the house. I'd find him pressed up against my door when I came home each day, and he'd carry his favorite toy right up to my lap and drop it there, asking to play. The pain of leaving him alone every day drove me to get creative for him. Another one of my favorite quotes, this one by John Grogan:

"Such short little lives our pets have to spend with us, and they spend most of it waiting for us to come home each day."

We approach our games with vastly more altruism than just about anyone else. We don't just want to entertain, we want to teach and to grow. Cats are misconstrued as this aloof, uninterested animal, and cat owners know that thats a total sham. Cats are loving and affectionate. Cats like to be taken on walks. Cats enjoy learning tricks. Cats like to spend time with their owners. We are proving all of these things in the public eye because cats deserve it.

How did you come to choose the platforms that you would develop Mew and Me for?

We started by building for web. We had seen YouTube videos of birds etc that were designed for cats, and figured we could create the same thing for our animals, but with a higher level of variability. However, we discovered that cats need feedback in their games just like humans do, and so we moved to touch devices to allow the app to react to them. Tablets were a natural fit, as the larger the screen the better, and so iOS and Android only made sense.

Looking at the studio a little more now. How hard is it to survive as an Indie developer?

Hard. Apple and Google take a whopping 30% of every dime that you make and they have their own fees for you to even start developing. In addition, the money you have to dish out for databases, AWS, Firebase, and other services means you lose an incredible about off the top. Plus, games marketplaces, especially on mobile, are horrendous at exposure. You can't even find our games by searching, "Games for Cats,"

We have gotten to a place where Indie Development is nearly impossible, and without having significant money to get a year of runway or more, the possibility of success is horrendously low. It's super sad, and frustrating, as simple things like an optimized search engine in the App Store would help alleviate these problems. That, and reducing the 30% standard take because mobile game markets are basically a monopoly and are pretty borking stupid.

Are there any tips and advice you would give to independent developers out there who are just starting out?

Absolutely. The biggest thing I always recommend is to just build games. Enter Game Jams to force yourself to complete projects and get exposure to the gaming world. Set yourself challenges. Finish a game a week for a month. Or finish a game a month for a year.

Also, collaborate. Collaboration is HUGE. We game developers tend to like to do things on our own, but creating a team is the most valuable thing you can do to increase your likelihood of success. Theres the old business saying that 1 plus 1 does not equal 2, but instead it equals 10. Having a partner, or better yet an entire team makes you exponentially more powerful. In my first year of Mew and Me, I was largely on my own. In this past year, I've had help. I would estimate I've achieved at least ten times as much in this past year as a result.

How did you find your experience pitching as a part of the Big Indie Pitch?

Oh my gosh, the Big Indie Pitch was such a blast! I personally love doing pitches. They always make me a little weak in the knees, but that is pretty much why they are fun. Getting up in front of people and talking shop on what you are building and what are your dreams are like having half a dozen ice cream sandwiches. SO good.

And the way the Big Indie Pitch was structured was unlike anything else I've ever done. It was 7 pitches in under an hour. It was crazy! And I must have slept 12 hours afterward. But it was also such a blast.

What do you feel you have gained from the experience, and what do you still hope to gain?

I primarily gained greater confidence in my product. To have people from all across the gaming industry all give such positive feedback was incredible. Because we are only partly games, I am always a little nervous to show off to gaming crowds. But at the Big Indie Pitch, the top minds in the field loved it.

I hope to continue to gain familiarity in pitching. I tend to practice a lot for my pitches, but I am realizing a more conversational, down to earth method works best.

What are your hopes for this game in the future, and do you have any plans for any future projects?

We are now going through a product redesign where we will be a companion app for the cat. The whole dream is to get more cats adopted, fewer cats returned to shelters, and a higher level of cat-human bonding. We have already started a seed funding round, which will continue post redesign. No future projects planned because it's all about Mew and Me, baby!


Want to show off your exciting new game? We host Big Indie Pitch events throughout the year, so be sure to keep an eye out on our events page for an event near you.

Upcoming Big Indie Pitch Event Pages & Registration

June 9 - The Big Indie Pitch (PC+Console Edition) at Pocket Gamer Connects Digital #2
June 10 - The Big Indie Pitch (Mobile Edition) at Pocket Gamer Connects Digital #2
July 15 - The Big Indie Pitch Digital #2 (Mobile Edition)

More coming soon so make sure to regularly check our upcoming events page here and over on BigIndiePitch.com.

Developer Evangelist & Big Indie Pitch Manager / Special Features Writer

Queen of all things Indie. Sophia is Steel Media’s Big Indie Pitch Manager and Developer Evangelist. She’s also a global speaker and lifelong gamer with a fanatical love of all things Nintendo and Japan. So much so that she’s written a thesis on one and lived in the other.

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