Just before Laser Dog Games released Catchee on iOS and Android, it shared a wonderful video of the game design process. Sadly - and we'll get to this - the gist of the video was that the studio might be about to go bankrupt. But yes, we'll get to that.
What stood out at the time, aside from the looming financial threat, was the way the team worked. Laser Dog is two people, Simon Renshaw and Rob Allison. Since 2013 they've been making astonishingly brisk and playable arcade games, generally for smartphones. Two people made all these games? How? Watch the video and you sense a partnership where the individuals are starting to blend a bit. Who does what? It's hard to tell.
"Well that’s nice, and great that it comes across, cause it’s true." Who said that? Simon or Rob? Fittingly I can't tell you that either. Due to everyone being busy - we'll get to this - I had to interview Laser Dog over a Google Doc. And very quickly it became impossible to tell the duo apart. So for most of the time I was talking to the Laser Dog hivemind. I suspect it would have felt like this over Skype anyway, tbh. These games are clearly made by people who finish each others' sentences.
"We can make very quick decisions," says Laser Dog when asked about the way they work. "Often completely overhauling significant parts of games in what feels like an instant! We know our games inside and out, top to bottom.W e have too because we’re both involved at every step and that of course means we know each other the same."
Exhausting? It sounds like it. "We do everything, not just 'make a fun game', but manage a business (kinda!), promotion, manage translations, seek out new contracts/investment, respond to reviews, fix bugs, maintain back catalogue (kinda!), take out the rubbish (sometimes) and make coffee, Vodka & Lemonades, particularly when we’re crunching and strictly no earlier than 2pm." Simon emerges briefly from the hivemind here. "I wouldn’t swap a single part of it and I’m sure Rob feels the same (*Hears Rob shout 'Nope,' over the top of my screen).
"We’ve not really evolved if I’m honest," he continues, the original question lost behind us somewhere now. "We still prioritise 'make fun games' above all, we’ve no idea what we’re doing when it comes to monetisation and ad strats, we generally ignore statistics, A/B testing, all that stuff bores us to death! Possibly why we’re not in the best spot right now!"
So let's deal with that. I first played a Laser Dog game almost ten years ago when someone told me about an iOS game with surprising and delightful controls. It was an endless runner set in space, called Alone. You rushed along and dodged rocks. Brilliantly, the controls were inverted: pull down to move up, push up to move down. It instantly felt like nothing else out there, the work of a team that put controls, the physical feel of a game, above everything else. Alone managed to make the iPhone screen feel elastic.
More games followed, always on smartphones, always memorable. And then for me it went quiet. In truth, the team was making something much bigger.
"Deathrun TV came out of our love for roguelikes," the hivemind tells me. It's a twin-stick PC game that's out this summer and I love it. "We adore Spelunky HD and Nuclear Throne and played them every day in the office for a year or two," Laser Dog explains. "We’re also big fans of the original Doom and how that feels to play. The 'ray-cast' weapons (rather than projectile bullets) seems so fast and satisfying, the Doom Dance you perform whilst attacking and dodging; *chefs kiss*. "
But for a team used to making smartphone games, Deathrun TV seemed like a daunting project. "Making our own roguelike was out of the question really when we were first starting out," they tell me. "We had no idea how we’d go about making a console game, and the controls would be too complicated to work on a touch screen."
So what happened? "We had just finished a two year contract with a mobile publisher and the timing felt just right. We pitched a prototype (called Zombocalypse, then Greed) to Merge Games, and got started."
At first it was brilliant. "The first half of the development for Deathrun TV was incredibly exciting and fun. We just loved working on it. As the finish line seemed so far away, we just kept experimenting with ideas and time kinda ran away from us."
Soon an opportunity came up - to announce the game at E3 and offer a demo. But... "That demo made us realise how big a roguelike can be," the hivemind says. "That first demo contained every single bit of content we had made at that point, and we didn’t have that much time to complete the rest of the game. The latter half of development was us racing to finish features, whilst constantly adding more. We were our own worst enemy!"
When Deathrun TV was completed, the team was in a very tricky spot financially. "I say [all this] in past-tense," someone, I think Simon, says. "Whilst actually, it is unfortunately very much present tense! We’d been working so hard to complete the game, we’d abandoned our back catalogue, meaning our income from those games dropped off to near zero."
When the contract with Merge ended, Laser Dog found themselves with no income and only about two months' worth of salaries left in their accounts. A return from Deathrun TV seemed a long way off, so what should they do?
"We quickly repaired the bugs that were preventing people playing our older games," Laser Dog explains. "And started on our next game."
Enter Catchee. And it is impossible to talk about Catchee without telling you about my life for the last few days. Catchee entered my house on Thursday. It's a musical game and it has a theme tune - sung by Simon and Rob - called All About You.
The first time I heard All About You, I thought, "Oh, that's nice." It's all about you/and the happy things you do... What a nice song!
Then, an hour later, I was taking the bins out. And there's something looping in my head. I'm happy/oh I'm so happy... Wait, I'm not happy, I'm taking the bins out! What is that?
The next day, I wake up humming it. The day after that, my wife wakes up humming it. Over the weekend, my daughter has a sleepover with her school friends. Late at night, passing the door to my daughter's room, I can hear that they're all singing something. And the happy things you do/and I'm catching that feeling from you.
Oh how my feelings grow. My heart may explode. This isn't me talking. These are still lyrics. They're a part of me now.
Here's the point. Catchee is a lovely, beautifully judged music-action game. Stuff falls from the top of the screen and you move back and forth at the bottom to catch it all. It's inverted Space Invaders, I guess. But there's more: as you catch each bit of stuff it triggers part of a song. So you play the song by catching stuff. And when you miss you die. But when you don't miss? You get to hear one of the most insistent earworms ever created. And, like the rest of Catchee, it was all knocked out in the space of two months.
"In all honesty," says Rob, "I wasn’t doing so well when I started that song. It was a great distraction. Just to be silly and overly positive felt like a huge weight off!" Rob worked on the song on his piano, making notes and recordings on his phone, and then they both recorded the lyrics together. "Recording the vocals in our office is always really embarrassing," Rob says. "We’re not singers and the walls are paper thin. Thank goodness for autotune!"
The game itself was a combination of things, the biggest one being pressure. "We’re good with pressure," says Simon, "In fact we seem to make our best games when we’re in a tight spot. Sunday afternoon, sat on my sofa, I was thinking - while worrying like hell! - about where we are most efficient as game developers, assuming we had a month to make something! For me that’s smashing out some cute artwork and characters that I’m confident people will like, and for Rob, making great, fun music. I know we’re both happy doing these things. So this kinda defined them rules: make something Fun - for us! - and make it quick.
"We’d need to make something simple," he continues, "so that Rob could have a prototype ready in like 20 minutes - no shit, he does this - and focus on the music."
The idea came from scrolling through Instagram and spotting a cute kawaii graphic of a bowl full of grapes. "It hit me!" says Simon. "We make a bowl-catching game, perfectly mobile, perfect little time-waster and perfect match for what we needed to make. We’ve also both wanted to make a rhythm game for a while so it all seemed to stack up perfectly."
Writing and singing the music was hilarious, yet the three week development time was a slog, particularly when juggling childcare and finishing off Deathrun TV. "But we both needed to blow off some steam and it turns out this is the way we do it," the hivemind tells me. "We even managed a night out and a game of pool. This might sound a bit portentous, but I believe that the energy and feel of a game relies a lot on the energy and feel of the people actually making it, it seems to 'bake' itself into the build."
It's astonishing to hear all this because Catchee is as gloriously polished as anything else Laser Dog has turned out. Polish, in fact, feels like the studio's thing. It comes back to that idea of controls - of getting them just right.
"I think my strongest skill is in animation and the crossover between us there is perfect," says Simon, when I mention this. "Animation being all about weight, means that I can guide Rob to refine movement so that it feels just right. The tiny little Alone ship for example, has very subtle movement all over the place! It never flies straight, always rising and falling slightly, it drops back slightly with any significant up or down movement, and pushes forward again when it straightens out. It’s all so subtle but our eyes are so good at spotting that kind of thing, which makes all the difference from an immersion perspective. The weight of the background objects (battered spaceships and boulders and the like) is slow and heavy and perfectly offset against the frantic foreground which only adds to it."
This attention to detail is all present in Catchee. "The obvious stuff," they tell me, "like the little drop in the Catcher when a catch is made, alongside a random “Happy Face” sprite swap, the lean with each movement so the player feels like they have significant input, the little - in time! - dance the Catcher does when idling. Plus loads of layers of nice particles to confirm 'that was a good thing, do it again'.
"We also added very subtle haptics too, which really help you feel the 'contact' of a catch. I would say out of the three weeks it took us to make Catchee, we spent more than half of that time polishing and building on what we had."
At least some of it comes down to the platform. "On a higher level, mobile devices feel inherently dull as controllers, there are no buttons - that we can use at least - just a big flat smooth expanse, without looking you’re kinda guessing where your fingers are, one reason why we don’t like on-screen controls! So we think it’s important to compensate massively for this with everything we can do to give the player feedback and most importantly make sure they’re in control, even if the game is considerably more difficult than the last one they may have played."
And in the end?
"People are being really positive about Catchee," they tell me. "It’s really heartwarming for us. It was a joy to make, and we’re hoping people can feel that when playing. The positive feedback has been great.
"It’ll be some time before we can work out how well it will perform financially, so that’s still up in the air really [and] we have literally no idea what to do when it comes to monetising free games. It’s always guess-work. So we’ll have to see! What we’re really hoping for is Catchee helps us get back into working independently."
(If you're playing Catchee, incidentally, there's apparently an update coming which adds an in-app purchase to remove ads. I can't wait.)
One last thing: "Bit random and perhaps not related, but our favourite reviews are a mix of five stars 'this is awesome' and one star 'this is shit'." they say. "We know we can’t convince everyone with the types of games we make, 'cause not everyone wants a challenge.
"If we made a three-star 'this is ok' game, I think that would kill us!! We’d feel like we haven’t convinced anyone there."