Interview: Chicago’s Own Backslash Games Gets Ready to ‘Cat’apult Kakatte Koi Yo Into Full Release

Screenshot: Kakatte Koi Yo Cats rule the internet. Cats and fish go together like peanut butter and jelly. And fighting games are the bread and butter of a lot of great co-op experiences with friends. Put all these classic combinations together and you get Kakatte Koi Yo, a game destined to be an instant classic, in which you’ll slap other kitties with fish, blow stuff up and cause a whole lot of mayhem in your team’s quest to cats. We first ran into the team from Backslash Games when they were sitting on a big comfy couch in the back room of the Logan Theatre at the Logan Playtest Party, and immediately found that their amazing, Japanese inspired kittycat fighting game was drawing a crowd and a lot of laughs.  Kakatte Koi Yo at Logan Playtest Party 2018. Photo: Marielle Bokor It’s been a long while since then and though we won’t have the good fortune of another chance to grab a controller and crowd around at the Logan this year, there’s good news to be had. Kakatte Koi Yo, long a favorite of ours, is headed for an imminent full release. This means all the kitty chaos will have a chance to be discovered by plenty more people, and we’re pumped. We recently got a chance to sit down with Will Rossi, one of Kakatte’s designers, to talk about the upcoming release, the origins of this adorable, silly but complex game and the indie games scene here and beyond, and had a great time. Kakatte Koi Yo is Chicago based dev team Backslash Games’ first title, and was borne out of a friendship and partnership four friends developed doing their capstone projects at Columbia College. Will Rossi of Backslash Games. THIRD COAST REVIEW: So typically, I ask developers what’s new and exciting for their games, but with you guys I already know. You guys are so close to launch I want to know what that’s like. It’s got to be a little bit crazy. WILL ROSSI: It’s frustrating, because we’re very close, but we’re also encountering some pretty bad bugs with what we’re trying to develop right now, so it’s the kind of thing where we’re right there, but we just can’t--we don’t know when we’re gonna get there. Hopefully we’ll be able to work through it in the next month or two, but it’s just one of those things where as soon as we figure out why this is working, we’ll basically be done. That sounds stressful but still exciting--congrats on being so close to the finish line! How do you cope with all the stress that comes with being so close to launch? Well, luckily we have a very lax studio, because it’s primarily us four, and we’re all working other jobs and living our lives and stuff--we don’t have a strict work schedule right now. I think if we release the game and it takes off and we decide to work on another we might, but because right now none of us are getting salaries, all the money we’re making is going back into the studio, so we really can’t dedicate committed time to it, if that makes sense. So we do have a bit of a crunch, but it’s more--we’re getting stuff done at our own pace. We do push ourselves here and there, but there’s no one like “Hey, where’s this thing? You said it would be done Thursday at this time!”  How do you avoid getting in that mindset, like “we have to get everything done. NOW.” Well, we haven’t really set deadlines for ourselves. We set loose ones, like, we want to get the game out by here, but we’re also very careful about what dates we release on our Twitter and things like that, because we don’t want to say we’re coming out on this date and then have to push that back. We want to know that the game is ready to go and we’re polishing it before we release the release date so that we don’t tie ourselves down to something and force that huge rush at the last second.  Screenshot: Backslash Games Twitter. We’re totally willing to tease stuff without putting a date out though. Like, we just teased the Halloween update with some pumpkin targets and stuff like that, but we haven’t put a release date on it because it’s not ready yet, and when it gets close enough we’ll probably drop it around Halloween. Screenshot: Kakatte Koi Yo So I know from talking to you before that Kakatte started out as your capstone project but tell me a little bit more about the origins of the game. Where did the idea come from? So the original idea actually came from an episode of Ed, Ed n Eddy where they’re fencing over a pit in the backyard of Ralph’s house on a beam of wood. They’re fencing with fish, and we wanted to recreate it. It was this tiny game we were gonna make in three weeks and then see if we wanted to throw it away or not, and very quickly we went from just two people fencing--because that felt like Nidhogg a bit and as much as we like Nidhogg we didn’t really want to make that--so we ended up evolving to cats. Originally it was just going to be fighting over a bomb in the middle and trying to push it to one side, maybe knocking each other out, but after a little bit of iterating for three weeks, we decided we really wanted to jump on it full force. So it started as a fighting game. I know from the website and talking with you that you’re a mechanics guy, and that you didn’t want it to just be combat, so when was the shift and when did you add other mechanics like collecting and that sort of thing? Pretty early on we knew we wanted there to be multiple win objectives. There was originally going to be 4, but we ended up dropping one of them, which was going to be a time objective, where if you can hold on to something without getting hit for long enough you could win. We might add that in later, but we ended up dropping that so we could focus on the main 3--bombs, scoring and knocking each other out. I love the multiple win condition setup. It makes it more fun and more chaotic to watch on the screen. It’s also great because you might be better at one of the objectives than another. Exactly. We didn’t really want the person who was really skilled at combat games to have a huge advantage. We wanted it so that if one person was good at fighting they could fend off people while the other one just runs fish to the basket. And in our own playtesting we’ve even gotten it where one person is simply just running and upgrading fish, then tossing it to another person who then uses it. There’s a lot of different strategies we’ve seen develop around the way we built it, and it’s really cool, because we get to design around that as well and it becomes a loop of creativity. I like when there’s synergy. And I know you’re a Deep Rock Galactic fan as well, so you’ll understand this but having different specialized roles can be fun, especially when they work well together.  Absolutely but unlike in Deep Rock where if the driller goes down you’re not going to be able to bust through 30 meters of rock to go revive him, in Kakatte anyone can really fill any role as long as they’re capable. That’s a nice touch, especially for a fighting game. If everybody was specialized the way they are in other games, if something does happen like that you don’t have as much time to recover in a quick action game like Kakatte. Yeah--especially like in Smash, for example. They have a lot of issues with character balance and making sure that all of the characters are somewhat viable and others aren’t too viable, whereas any of the fish we alter--everyone has access to that. And it’s not going to be our only way of balancing, but the concept ‘if everyone is broken, no one is broken’ applies a lot.  We wanted to make something that was playable, fun, and we didn’t have to spend three years balancing. We also went with that because it is easier, and sometimes easier is more fun. Yeah, you definitely don’t have to overcomplicate everything to make it fun, and I think that sometimes a developer’s mistake is to add stuff just to add stuff. And not just developers--writers and creative people in general. In all of my work I try to cut out anything that is unnecessary. If I’m video editing, can I take these three seconds out...if I’m making a game, why do we have this and does it need to be there? Screenshot: Kakatte Koi Yo I think that’s a key philosophy. It sucks to have to kill your darlings but it’s better to edit yourself. That’s something they really drilled into us at school, was that anything you’re tied to, you immediately need to distance yourself from, because if it’s close to heart and  you love it, you’re going to be really jaded to it and you’re not going to be able to make the changes that you need to to make it fun and entertaining. Some of the things you hold really close to your heart may make it really unfun for everyone else. So, I know that sometimes people talk about how it’s difficult to make co-op games, and you guys did local co-op at that. What are the special challenges of making a game co-op? So Kakatte Koi Yo was originally built with local co-op.  Just in the past six months we added a single player mode. Making it local co-op wasn’t hard--I mean, coding was, that was definitely difficult, but because that’s where we were starting we were working towards it the whole time. Our biggest struggle right now is doing networking. We want to try to get clientside lobby hosting going so you don’t have to use Steam Play to play the game. That’d be great, yeah. We’re still going to keep Steam Play in because it allows people to only have one copy and still play with their friends, which we think is important. We are not fans of predatory buying models. If you buy our game, you should have all the content that we intended to be in the game. We don’t want to do microtransactions and stuff like that. We might put out a DLC if we create a bunch of new content we’re adding to the game, but we also plan to update it for free.  But yeah, the networking--getting it online to be peer to peer would be really helpful, so that multiple people don’t have to buy the game. If you want to buy it, you want to support us and you want to play on your own version and do clientside hosted lobbies, great, but if your friends can’t afford the game and you still want to play it with them, we want you to be able to do that. I think that’s a great decision, and it’s something I think bigger game companies tend to overlook with co-op games for the dollar signs. The reality of it is that if it’s a $60 game and you want to play with 4 friends, people aren’t likely to want to put out $240 for that, and so then you have to convince your friends to buy the game. It’s a better model to get the game out there to do it in a way everyone can play with one copy. Exactly. With Steam Play there is a bit of latency--it’s pretty good, but depending on who’s hosting it can be a little slow, and getting the game and going through networking would speed that up a bunch, so you still get to play, but there’s an incentive to buy the game, too. That’s a good model, I think. I don’t mind DLC and personally I don’t even mind microtransactions if it’s just something that’s cosmetic like a paint job, but at the same time, I don’t want to constantly be buying that stuff.  I find buying cosmetics a difficult subject, because it is one of the more ‘harmless’ ways of doing it, but at the same time, if you’re gonna add content to the game like that, I’d rather save it for one big aesthetic DLC pack or patch it in for free. I feel like the microtransactions… It gets grabby fast, honestly.  Yeah, honestly, any time I see a microtransaction I just think ‘but they did this before for free.’ I understand it for living games like WoW and stuff like that. It’s hard to have a one time buy and let the players play forever. I get that they need that subscription model, but when it comes to buying cosmetics and stuff like that….pay to win is definitely the worst, but even buying cosmetics I feel is a little iffy. I hear you. And there is that question--like, I get all these other hats for free, why do I have to pay for this one. So that’s a valid viewpoint on that for sure. Kakatte Koi Yo. Backslash Games Back to Kakatte--what were some of your inspirations as you were developing Kakatte Koi Yo? So, we definitely looked at Smash Bros.--or we looked at games like Smash for movesets and interactions and stuff, but one of our larger inspirations was actually Duck Game. We used their model for the ready up screen. They have this tiny little tutorial as the ready up. You have to grab a gun and then shoot out a glass panel and run into the ready area, so that teaches you real quickly how to pick up, move and shoot. We really loved the idea of a tiny quick tutorial to make sure you know how to play before you get in the game and then go. So in Kakatte Koi Yo, you have to go to the pond, get a fish, break a wall and put the fish in the basket. So...Duck Game and then Killer Queen and then pretty much any other 2D fighter you can think of, we probably looked at. We’re not ashamed to say that we went through and got a lot of inspiration from a lot of different titles, as does everyone, I think. Yeah, I think it’s part of being a developer. Obviously if you’re a developer you probably have a passion for games, so you’re already looking at a lot of great games in general--and as you develop games, you’re going to look at great games like the one you’re going to release. Exactly, and with any art you need reference.  Definitely. And even if you are taking something that someone else did, there’s a way to do it where it’s just copying, like you mention, and a way to do it where you’re elevating it or finding a way to make it your own---adding unique elements or changing up how it works. Absolutely, and we didn’t want to copy in any way--we wanted to take inspiration that we saw and make it our own. I think the closest thing we got to copying was the Duck Game ready screen, but even that we made very much our own and really just implemented the core concept--making sure the player knows how to do the basic things before playing. And really, that’s a classic element in a lot of games. It’s already there, and there are already other examples of it, so that even Duck Game can’t really point to it and say it’s yours. Yeah, there’s a lot of amazing things out there that we were able to see and draw upon, but I think our biggest three influences were Duck Game, Killer Queen and then maybe Smash Bros.  Kakatte Koi Yo at the Logan Playtest Party 2018. Photo: Marielle Bokor So, we met you at the Logan Playtest Party, and we’ve talked to other devs from those events about how important things like that are. You guys met the Killer Queen Black team at E3 and they checked out your game, right? Yes, we were at E3 and they were at one of the megabooths demoing their game. They had a huge crowd around their table as usual so it was hard to get in a word but once I was able to pull one of the devs aside I told them ‘Hey, we’re Chicago devs, we really love Killer Queen, and we made a game that was inspired partially by it, do you want to come check it out?’ and one of their devs was able to step away from the table and give us a lot of great feedback and encouragement--and they really liked the game, which was fun. That is really fun. I hear a lot of stories like that around the Chicago scene.  Killer Queen Black’s devs tell a similar story, that someone came along when they were first working on the game and said they liked their game and helped them out, and that collaboration is such a nice change of pace from what seems to be going on outside of the dev world right now. Yeah, i do feel like we harbor that sense of community in the game dev world--specifically in the indie dev world. It carries to Chicago in such a way that I thought it was unique to us here but I’m hearing from indie devs that it’s all over in the scene. I was proud of Chicago for its inclusivity and collaboration but now I can be proud of the industry at large. Yeah, and there’s this Swedish game called Double Kick Heroes, and it’s made by Headbang Club. It’s a rhythm game where you’re going through the zombie apocalypse and you’re a rock band set up in the back of some dude’s convertible, and every rhythm hit is you firing a bullet out of the back of your car at the zombies. It’s a really good game, I love playing it--but I met them at PAX like, 3 or 4 years in a row and I’ve played their game and given them a ton of feedback and they know I’m a dev, and we follow each other on Twitter.  So I’m friends with these people that are thousands of miles away but are still very close to me and encouraging me and help me out, and I help them out. It’s awesome, and as someone who played a lot of indie games before I was in the scene it’s very cool to meet people whose games I’ve played for a while.  For example, One Strike. I love One Strike, very fun game. So a couple of months ago we were showing off Kakatte and the One Strike guys were there with their new game Two Strikes and I got to just chat with the devs for like, 5 or 10 minutes and hear about the game, tell them about mine, gush a little bit about how much I love their games and it was a little surreal to not only meet these people but for them to take me seriously and give me critical feedback, and have a conversation outside of “Oh I love your game, thank you so much!” Yeah, it’s nice to break a way from a corporate world feeling where things are stratified and you feel like people are at a level above you.  So when we were at E3 there was quite a bit of that--and I don’t want to say it’s unwarranted. A lot of the people that were getting that status thrown around and had people lined up shaking to meet them definitely have worked their way to where they are, but I also feel like it causes a little bit of a close-off, like, we can’t have a critical conversation here. It’s then very much a superficial meeting. Screenshot: Kakatte Koi Yo So on another subject entirely, I wanted to talk a little about the aesthetic with Kakatte Koi Yo. Can you tell me more about the Japanese aesthetic you chose for the game? I feel like it hits a really cute kawaii feel. Where did that come from? It feels really charming and even serene for a fighting game.  So, right off the bat we knew we wanted to be cute. The second we knew it was going to be cats and fish, we knew it was going to be cute, and our artist Ja’ire Vaughn drew a quick little sketch on the whiteboard day one. As soon as we saw it we were like “That’s adorable, we need our entire game to be that.” And it kind of went from there. To get the Japanese aesthetic, we wanted to be very respectful, obviously. We’re going into a culture and a history that none of us are a part of and while two of our devs took Japanese in college and we all loved the aesthetic and culture, it’s definitely something that none of us had direct experience and knowledge in, so we wanted to be very careful approaching it.  At the same time, there’s some imagery you can pull on...and the Japanese title, obviously, but I feel like we went for more feel than visual imagery if that makes sense. We tried to emulate what a cat in anime looks like, we tried to emulate the wooded feelings without it being bamboo and cherry blossoms. I think that really helps create the good vibe Kakatte has, without being such a direct take. It doesn’t come off as either cliche or cartoony. It’s a pretty Zen background, actually, and I really appreciate that about the art style. Yeah, and while there’s some levels we wanted to make that have this cool big thing in the background, we also want you to be focused on what’s happening in the game. We don’t want you to get lost in the scene too easily.  That’s a great point--especially in a fighting game where everything is happening so quickly--you’re going fast and you need to concentrate. Even a quick eye diversion can cost you. Back to the aesthetic though--tell me more about the name, Kakatte Koi Yo. What does it mean, where’d you get it, and why is it that? So, it’s a phrase in Japanese that essentially means “Let’s fight! Come at me!” and then the ‘yo’ is an emphasis. It’s somewhat familiar to people who watch anime. It’s very much ‘fightin’ words’ and that was what we were trying to capture in the game. The title is very important to the game, but we also didn’t want it to be “Cat Brawl” or “Clawtastic” or something. That felt a little too on the nose, so we tried to find a phrase in Japanese that would capture the game really well and that both worked really well, looked good as a title, and sounded good. The only issue we have is some people with pronunciation (Note: Kakatte is pronounced ‘kuh-kaht-ay’) but y’know, they’ll learn. In the trailers, I scream it a bunch, so they’ll figure it out. We’re hoping there’ll be plenty of people checking out Kakatte Koi Yo very soon when it reaches full release, and are excited for the team at Backslash Games as they approach the finish line. Stay tuned to Third Coast for more on Kakatte Koi Yo and follow the dev team on Twitter, Facebook or by joining their Discord to get regular updates on the game’s progress (and to join in on the conversations). 
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Marielle Bokor