Indie developer Keane Ng’s slice-of-life game Year of the Dog shows off how adorable and frustrating it is to own a shiba inu. It’s a video game memoir that’s loosely based off of his life and the adventures he’s had with his dog, Kiba. It will be out later this year for PC.
It’s a happy coincidence that the game is coming out during the lunar calendar’s Year of the Dog — or an inconvenience, perhaps. In a phone call with GamesBeat, Ng joked that he was considering renaming the game out of “SEO concerns.”
“When I first started posting pictures of super early prototypes — this is two years ago, I think, or a year and a half ago — some Chinese journalist wrote to me and said, ‘Hey, can you tell me more about your game, is it going to come out in the year of the dog?'” said Ng. “I said, ‘No, it’s not going to take that long! It’s going to be pretty soon.’ But here we are.”
Ng is a nose-to-tail developer who’s working solo on the project under the studio name Foxdog Farms. He’s a writer who taught himself how to make 3D art and program. He first started development two years ago and he began working on it full-time about half a year ago. It’s his biggest game, though he’s done smaller projects in the past.
Most of what happens in Year of the Dog comes from real life. It’s a cheeky little experience that features things like a stamina bar for reining in your pet when it veers off course and a “pee cam” that pops up when your pup does its business on a walk. Despite the shiba’s quirky behavior, though, the game aims to be a peaceful experience that’s a break from players’ hectic lives.
Here is an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: I don’t recall seeing Year of the Dog on Kickstarter or anything like that. Did you seek funding for it in any way?
Ng: No, it’s all me, just bootstrapping it. This is my first biggish game. The things I’ve done before are like jam projects, really small things. I thought about the type of things that I back, or that I used to back when I had money to toss around and back things, when I had a full-time job—I thought, “Would I back this?” I might be reasonably skeptical of this person who has not a huge CV or anything, but has a cool idea.
I didn’t want to ask people for money without feeling like I could deliver on my promises. I didn’t want to feel accountable to “investors.” That would have added a lot of pressure. I would have felt responsible for delivering something when—I think my mindset going into this was to just make the type of thing that I want to see in the world and follow my own intuition.
If I had crowdfunded it, way back when I had the idea, and then I ended up at this point into it, I’d probably feel really stressed out and racked by guilt. Oh, I haven’t delivered when I said I would, like every other Kickstarter that takes forever to do. I didn’t want to put that psychological overhead on myself. Instead I put financial overhead on myself. [Laughs]
GamesBeat: Who are you? What’s your background?
Ng: I studied English in college. I wanted to be a writer, write books, write fiction. That didn’t totally pan out, so I ended up—I’d always loved video games, and I’d always looked up to games journalists. Those guys and girls are so cool. They play games for a living. They write about them and talk about them. I’m from San Francisco, my family is based here, so I thought, I’ll just go back home and try to get into that industry.
I was a game journalist for a year or so. I wrote for a couple of outlets. And then after a while I got the itch to create something again, so I wanted to join a game company, a studio, in whatever capacity. I ended up working on social games, like back when Myspace was a thing. Myspace games and Facebook games in their early inception, around the time that the FarmVille boom was taking place. I did community management and marketing and a bit of game design for those companies.
Eventually that spun off into its own thing and I ended up just working in the tech industry as it exploded out here. I worked at Google and YouTube for a little while. And then eventually I just felt the itch to do something on my own again. I had the idea for this game about my dog. Before I had that idea, I was thinking, how can I work my way back to games?
This was around the time that Unity was starting to take off. I kept in touch with my friends in the games business, started talking to them – if I wanted to do this, what should I do? They said, well, just learn and just try. I read a few books and watched tons of YouTube tutorials. A lot of reading message boards. Eventually I worked myself to a point where I felt I could make something. Some time after that I had the idea for this game about my dog, I worked up enough faith in myself to take the leap for it. That’s the story.
GamesBeat: What’s the inspiration for Year of the Dog? Was it mainly about your dog, or the kind of game you like?
Ng: It’s a bit of both. Mostly it’s an autobiographical game. When I started I felt like I was writing a memoir about my life with this—I don’t want to say “insane,” but this very colorful character of a dog. He has a lot of personality. Initially it was just, what if I were to write a book about my dog, but it’s a video game? I have all these stories of weird things he’s done, or episodes we’ve been on together, and I wanted to make a game about just the mundane details of everyday life.
There’s this quiet peace about walking your dog around on a nice day in a nice neighborhood, and I wanted to capture that. That’s the content inspiration, in terms of the game itself. There are definitely a few things that fed into the design more recently. Nintendogs is obviously one of the bigger ones. It’s a pretty direct descendent. There are some very Nintendogs parts of the game. You feed the dog, brush him, all that type of thing.
But there’s also—The Last Guardian was a big inspiration. Which is—you play as a person with this dog creature and you build this connection with a non-player character that feels really deep and meaningful. And then there’s this series of games in Japan that haven’t really been released here. It translates to My Summer Vacation. You play as a boy and you hang out in the countryside on your summer break and just walk around this bucolic environment. You hang out with your friends. You catch bugs. You fish. That sort of informed the idea of an everyday life game to me. That’s another inspiration.
As the development of the game has progressed, usually I find that things I play end up feeding into the features I’m developing. I’ve been playing Breath of the Wild, and all of a sudden I find myself thinking, how can I add a stamina wheel to this game? [Laughs] You have to reel that back. But everything feeds in.
GamesBeat: What do you think is the appeal of slice-of-life games?
Ng: Partially I think there’s an element of it being different from the typical video game experience – action, power fantasy, that form of escapism. It’s a different form of escapism, right? Our lives are more hectic and more unpredictable than these idyllic, laid-back, super-chill experiences that games like my game or Animal Crossing are delivering. Nobody lives this relaxed. This is like you’re on vacation all the time.
There’s probably some element of de-stressing and self-care that these types of games deliver. With the way that we live today, things are going a mile a minute. It seems like something terrible happens every other day. I think the desire to have that sort of slow-paced experience that feels–not like you are enacting the fantasy of destroying things, but living a peaceful life, has some appeal. I find that a lot of my peers and people my age or younger live in a state of instability, right? The predictability of the life that slice-of-life games can offer is a sort of antidote to that.
GamesBeat: You mentioned that everything that you’re playing sort of informs or inspires you to add stuff to the game. How do you narrow down the feature set?
Ng: That’s a hard instinct to curb. When I’m working well, it’s a case of, you have an idea. You gut check it against—how much does this add to the core identity of the game? And then you think, do you really need this? Is this just adding more stuff? Does this address a lack in the design? Is it something you’re throwing in just because you think it would be cool?
You sort of weigh the ratio of, is this cool for the sake of being cool versus, does this address something that you feel is missing. I’m just throwing out an imaginary number, but if it’s like 60 percent “this is cool” versus 40 percent “you need this,” you probably don’t want to do it.
But sometimes to keep yourself going, you need to come up with things that excite you, give yourself motivation and positive feedback, especially when you’re working by yourself. Sometimes I’ll just—I don’t want to say I waste time, but I’ll add things I don’t feel like necessarily need to be there, just to give myself a little creative spark. Sometimes that leads to something that feels more well-rounded that could go in.
For example, initially the dog didn’t move around that much when you walked. It was a super laid-back experience. You’d just walk through these really nice environments, talk to people, experience the story, all this stuff. I was walking my dog and I thought, “This dog is a fucking asshole, he’s pulling me everywhere.” He’s been like that at various points in his life.
So I thought, it would be kind of funny to make him move around and be disagreeable on walks. I started to play with how that would work. Eventually that became a core mechanic, right? When you’re walking, the dog will sometimes stop and you’ll have to pull him. That’s where the stamina wheel comes in, or the “stamina wheel.” It’s a bar. You have to pull him. You can feed him to goad him to come to you. As the game goes on and you level up your bond with the dog, he’ll pull less and respond to you more. Walking him won’t be as much of a tug of war.
That was an example where, I thought, hey, this would be cool, and I threw it in, and at that point I thought I was done adding features. But adding that changed the entire complexion of the design. That was a good thing to follow.
GamesBeat: Was it challenging to give the dog its own personality and make players feel like, oh, this is a living animal that I’m with? Was it hard to make people feel like they could bond with the dog in the game?
Ng: That’s sort of the biggest design and technical challenge at the heart of the project, I think. Making the dog seem like a living thing. But not making him so realistic that the game becomes, one, impossible to develop, and two, too complicated to understand. That’s something I still struggle to find a balance with as I’m developing.
How uncooperative should the dog be? How much of his own personality should he have? I had someone playtest a couple of weeks ago and they said, this is frustrating. The dog keeps flopping. Well, that’s what he does in real life.
I have to find a balance between making a game that feels autobiographical, true to my experience, and true to the spirit of having a shiba. I want shiba owners to play this and say, yeah, my dog is just like that, he is also a jerk. But it becomes unfriendly for players if you take that too far.
If you played The Last Guardian, you know that sometimes you try to call that giant dog-bird thing and he just doesn’t come. That happens in my game. But I have to make sure it only happens in a context where it doesn’t impede the player’s progress too much. It’s also difficult because, I have a lot of dog owners who write to me and say, you should add this, my dog totally does this, that would be hilarious. And I think, yeah, that would make it seem more like a dog, but that would also make it feel not fun. It would feel too much like real life. That’s the challenge there.
But at the same time I want the dog character to feel alive, to feel real. I look for ways to do that that aren’t necessarily in the way he behaves, or what he does, but the ways that the player can interact with the dog, or the situations that you find yourself in with the dog that lead to you feeling a sense of bonding with him.
GamesBeat: Speaking of backseat game developers, what’s it like developing a game that has generated a lot of interest on Twitter? Folks are seeing your in-progress GIFs and screen captures. Is that a lot of pressure, to know that so many people are interested? Do you have to manage expectations and brush off these sorts of well-intentioned suggestions?
Ng: I wouldn’t say it’s a lot of pressure. I just look at people who have more anticipated projects than I do, which in my mind is everyone. I just tell myself nobody is going to play this thing, so you should just do what you think is right. That’s probably a healthier instinct to have than, oh my God, let’s see what’s getting the most likes and add that to the game. I think that works for some people.
But–for a while I was sort of making design decisions based on social media. I would put out a GIF of one way of solving the problem, and then another way, and I would see which one had more favorability or whatever. And I was sort of crowdsourcing A/B testing through social media. It was just not a good way of making decisions for me. So I try not to think about that stuff too much.
Social media is great because it helped with the art style a lot, where I could see what jibed with people, what moments really connected with people, but I try not to take too much direct input in terms of, person asks for X, therefore I should add X. It’s more like, person asks for this thing and I think, what’s at the root of that ask? What are they looking to experience? How can I translate that into what I’m working on already or configure things so that the desire at the core of what they’re asking for is met?
You know how people are always saying, hey, you should have this type of shiba, or you should add bandannas, which I did. Or you should make the dog do this or that thing. To me, all that says is, “I want this to feel like my dog.” The way I translate that is, I’m not going to make an exact replica of your dog, but I’m going to have enough avenues in the game for you to connect with the dog. Even the simple act of naming it will sort of—it’s very powerful initially. In the initial design, the dog was named after my dog, and the game was basically about me and my dog. I changed the eventually to where you could name the dog, pick the color, all that stuff, so it feels more like yours.
IndieBeat is GamesBeat reporter Stephanie Chan’s weekly column on in-progress indie projects. If you’d like to pitch a project or just say hi, you can reach her at email@example.com.