Cannon Cat, released for iOS today, is the first game from Loqheart, a two man indie from America. One half of the duo, David Ngo has an interesting origin story: he used to be a rocket scientist. No really. We double-checked and everything.
Turns out making iPhone games isn’t rocket science, etc.
The game has you firing a helmeted cat from the titular cannon to collect fish hovering in the sky. Presumably rocket fumes have similar mind-bending properties to LSD.
As fervent fans of SPACE and SCIENCE and EXPLOSIONS, we caught up with Ngo on the day of the game’s launch to find out more about Loqheart’s costly mission to game-making success.
Hookshot Inc.: Which is better: cats or rockets?
David Ngo: That’s tough. Watching cats on youtube is one of my favorite past-times, but watching rockets launch into space makes my soul cry and appreciate human achievement more than almost anything. So human achievement vs. cute cats… Hmm. I’ll go with cats. I can’t hug rockets or tempt them with cheezeburgers.
Were you really a rocket scientist before all of this or is this just a trick to get Hookshot Inc. interested in your game?
I actually wish it was just a trick. Then I wouldn’t have all the student loans I need to pay off. Do you know how crazy it is to spend all that time getting 2 Masters degrees from MIT/Stanford and be making mobile games instead? There are 13-year-olds doing exactly what I’m doing right now. They don’t even have high school degrees. I don’t know how my parents deal with it. They must be constantly shaking their heads. But yes, I was a rocket scientist that worked on laser systems, formation-flying satellites, lunar bases, and lots of other crazy stuff.
Why did you decide to make a game and give up your SPACE career?
I know lunar bases and rockets sound way more interesting. And for a lot of other aerospace engineers, being able to say you work on space stuff is enough to make up for the 15 year design cycles, the bureaucracy of working with the government, and the terrible shirts during “Casual Hawaiian Fridays”. But it wasn’t for me. I found the work itself too boring and not artistic enough for me. So I decided to get some chops in Design and try my hand at creating fun games. Making games is so much more fun and requires so many different skills and modes of thinking. (Psychology, Economics, Math, Physics, Art, Design, Typography, Music, etc.) It really appeals to my tendencies to be pretty good at a lot of different things, rather than a master of none. Making games is a great excuse to learn new subjects and gain new skills. I love it.
How much SCIENCE has gone into the cannon that fires the cat in your game? Is it realistic?
If you’re asking if we’ve built a real cannon that fires cats into the sky, I will officially say no. No cats were harmed in the making of Cannon Cat. However, Don and I have put a lot of thought into how those cannons would actually work. If you listen to the sound effect and look at the animation of the cannons firing, it sounds/looks like an air-cannon that uses hydraulic pressure valves, rather than some sort of explosive-powered cannon. This would obviously be safer for Cannon Cat and more realistic. But we don’t condone trying this out at home with your house cat Meo has a futuristic sparks-suit for protection, which you can’t really buy at any Petco.
Did you ever rocket propel a cat while you were studying at MIT?
MIT students have a long history of doing pranks with animals. Like walking a cow up a tall skyscraper, knowing that cows will never go down stairs and the cops will have to get a huge crane to get it off the roof. But I don’t specifically remember launching cats out of cannons. I do remember however, putting a bunch of golf balls on top of a water rocket, and yelling “FORE” at the people playing Ultimate Frisbee. That wasn’t a good idea. But luckily nobody got hurt (I never did find those golf balls though.)
Where did the idea for the game originate?
Don and I came up with Cannon Cat during a series of prototyping sprints. Don had the crazy idea of creating 8 games in 8 weeks. We wanted to create playable prototypes each week, so we’d have a bunch of games to choose from and test with players. We bit off a bit more than we could handle, and we only got through 4 weeks of it. But we had some good prototypes to show friends/family, and Cannon Cat was by far the favorite of the bunch. You can actually see the original prototype here: http://youtu.be/tlVxCnyToBk. Our hope was to keep the spirit and simplicity of the original prototype, but to create a polished and engaging experience around it. You can judge for yourself how well we did by watching the final trailer: http://youtu.be/61efCqSC88I
In terms of the story and the world of Cannon Cat, we organically just crafted the story around that original prototype. We wanted it to be nerdy, cute, and unexpected. That’s why fish can fly in our world. That’s why our hero, Meo, doesn’t eat the fish. He’s saving them. That’s why our villain is an Emu that is jealous of the flying sea creatures. And that’s why our world is full of robots and technology. We want to spark the imaginations of our players and get kids and adults alike to look at science fiction with wonder and joy. We secretly want to make everyone nerds like us. And what better way than through the form of a game.
What was the biggest challenge during development?
Our biggest challenge I think was deciding when Cannon Cat was good enough to share with the world. We had two conflicting principles in our head. One part of us wanted to get it out there as soon as possible and iterate on the feedback. We are big supporters and followers of the lean-startup or build-test-repeat mantra. But on the other hand, we were perfectionists. Like Apple, we wanted to put user experience over everything else. We wanted to give everyone a polished and complete experience. So we constantly battled with ourselves over that question. Do we spend a lot of time polishing this until it’s great? Or do we get it out there and iterate? We eventually decided to polish it and get it to a point where we thought we were giving people a great experience. I think the thought of having a bad launch or having to make excuses for the incomplete nature of it just made us cringe. But Cannon Cat still has room to grow and we have lots of plans to make it even better. So I definitely encourage people to stick with the game to see how the mechanics and story evolve.
I am confused about the cat’s motivation. Does he want to save the fish or eat them? It seems unclear in the dialogue.
As I mentioned earlier, it’s a common expectation that cats want to eat fish (despite the fact that 98% of cat species don’t eat fish in the wild), but we wanted to break that expectation. We also wanted our hero to be pure at heart. Meo (aka Cannon Cat) wants to save the fish from their bubble prisons. He’s the exact opposite of Evil Emu, who is full of jealousy. He doesn’t even want to hurt Evil Emu in fact. He just wants everyone to be free.
What are your hopes for the game?
Like everyone else, we hope we are wildly successful. But I think Don and I would be extremely happy to just get our game out there and have people play it. That’s why we are making it free. We want to reach as many people as we can. My dream is to randomly see someone on the bus or on a plane playing Cannon Cat (instead of Angry Birds). And I want to go up to them and say, “Hey, I made that.” That would be a very proud moment for me. If people fall in love with Cannon Cat and are willing to support us, all the better. We’d love to just get enough from this first endeavor to continue developing games. We aren’t in this for the fortunes, as much as we are in it for the chance to make great games.
How much did the game cost to develop? Did you self-fund?
The costs are a little fuzzy, because while we didn’t spend that much, we certainly sacrificed a lot of personal time and money developing this game. We quit our jobs and pursued this full-time. And the only expenses we had were for platform subscriptions fees, website fees, and for hiring sound and music designers. (a few thousand dollars in total) Other than that, we did everything else ourselves. So for 9 months we burned through our savings to the point where we don’t have much left. Just spending money when we absolutely needed to, and the rest to keep us alive and pay the rent.
I’m astounded by how many games are being funded through kickstarter nowadays. I kind of wish we thought of doing that. But at the same time, I’m not sure I would be as passionate and dedicated to the game if I knew I was spending someone else’s money and my entire livelihood wasn’t on the line. Don and I never do anything half-assed. We’re all-in or nothing at all.
What advice would you give to anyone out there embarking upon their first iPhone project.
I have 2 pieces of advice.
1) Share everything you have, as often as you can.
This not only means sharing and testing your game with as many people as you can, but sharing your skills with others as well. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve been helped by others, because we’ve shared our time/expertise with them. I don’t mean just commenting on forums. We’ve debugged code, designed entire interfaces, and met people in person to help with their projects. And they returned the favor. There’s sort of a ceiling that you hit when you only work within your skill set. Getting assistance and advice from others helps you break out of that and reach a level you’d never get to on your own.
2) Immediate reactions matter. Good, is not good enough.
When you’re getting feedback from people on your game. Say nothing. Just observe them play. Their emotional reactions are the best indicator as to whether you’re doing well or not. If it’s a lukewarm reception, do it again. Do it again and again and again, until the first reaction you get is an astounding “AWESOME” on every aspect of your game. Surrounding yourself with people who aren’t afraid of being honest is really important. And even if they are trying hard to be nice to you, you’ll get a tepid “It’s good.” Good is not good enough.
Judge whether Cannon Cat is good enough by downloading it for free here. Hookshot Inc. definitely thinks it is.